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What Pope Benedict got wrong about Islam

Not understanding Islamic theology was only part of it.

FILE - Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges cheers from faithful and pilgrims during the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007. At right is the Pope's personal secretary, Georg Gänswein. Retired Pope Benedict XVI has corrected an assertion that he didn’t attend a 1980 meeting at which the transfer of a pedophile priest to his then-diocese was discussed. His secretary says an editorial error was responsible for the claim that the authors of a report on sexual abuse said lacked credibility. (AP Photo/Plinio Lepri,file)

(RNS) — In a barbed valedictory, my colleague Tom Reese portrays the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as the quintessential German professor, a brilliant theologian “who was not interested in listening to people who had other views.” I couldn’t agree more, and, as Reese points out, few episodes from his papacy show that better than the controversy Benedict stirred up by taking a swipe at Islam in the lecture he gave on faith and reason at the University of Regensburg in 2006.

What follows is an updated version of a look I took then at how Benedict stepped wrong.

It is hard to resist seeing the commotion stirred up by Pope Benedict XVI’s speech as an example of the perils of putting professors in positions of power. The temptation to value provocation over discretion, to wing it on subjects outside your proper ken, to show that you’re the smartest guy in the room — these would appear to have gotten the better of a pontiff returning to the academic podium where, 35 years earlier, he discoursed on theology to all comers.

What got Benedict into trouble was his quotation of a nasty put-down of Islam by the learned Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, delivered in a debate with a Persian professor on the relative merits of Christianity and Islam near the end of the 14th century. But even before trotting out the quote, the pope took aim at the principal proof text used today to claim Islam is committed to religious tolerance.

Manuel, Benedict mused, must have known the Koranic verse (Sura 2.256) that proclaims, “There must be no compulsion in religion.” Explained the pope, “According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Muhammad was still powerless and under threat.”


Actually, the pope’s own expert begged to disagree. “The consensus of scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, is that Sura 2 is from the Medinah period, when Muhammad had increasing political power,” said Kevin Madigan, S.J., president of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, in an interview with “Commonweal Magazine.” 

As for the emperor’s now world-famous put-down, it went like this: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

This has “a brusqueness that leaves us astounded,” Benedict said, yet he did not venture an opinion on its accuracy. One could be forgiven for concluding that he considered it really bad manners by our lights but not untrue.

(To be sure, after the firestorm broke, the pope explained that what he’d quoted from the emperor did not “in any way express my personal thought.” And on Oct. 9, the official text of his speech was altered to say Manuel II had spoken with “a brusqueness that we find unacceptable.”)

In the debate, Manuel goes on to criticize holy war as displeasing to God because it is contrary to reason (logos) — and “not to act with reason is alien to God.”

Now, Manuel’s devotion to the cause of reason may have been enhanced by the fact that he was writing up the debate several years after the fact during a lengthy siege of Constantinople by the Turks. Be that as it may, the text’s modern editor, Théodore Khoury, opines in a footnote that the sentiment came naturally to him because he had been raised on Greek philosophy. By contrast, the Persian professor would have held to the Muslim doctrine that God “is absolutely transcendent, his will is not bound by any of our categories, including that of reason.”

This was enough for Benedict to embark on an extended riff celebrating the Christian intellectual tradition for applying the rationalist categories of Greek philosophy to biblical faith. Epitomized in the writings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, this commitment to a reasoned approach to faith stems, according to the pontiff, from the first sentence of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the logos …” It is the absence of such commitment that, he implies, accounts for the Muslim doctrine of jihad.

Benedict did admit there were medieval Christian theologians who succumbed to the view that God transcends the categories of human reason. But moving quickly on to the post-medieval era, he launched into a critique of what he claimed was a progressive de-Hellenization of Western thought, beginning with the Protestant Reformation and ending with modern secularism. His polemical purpose was to show that only classical Christian thought can sail safely between the fideist Scylla of the Muslims and the atheist Charybdis of the secular rationalists.

Leaving aside the pope’s de-Hellenization thesis, let us focus on the critique of Islam that created all the commotion. For starters, a look at the text of Manuel’s dispute shows that, far from rejecting a reasoned approach to faith, the Persian professor is at pains to show it is Christianity, not Islam, that is unreasonable. For example, he argues that, by contradicting what God intends for men and women, Christianity’s preferential option for celibacy is “contrary to reason.”

More importantly, the flat claim that Islam is in thrall to an image of God as utterly beyond our rational categories profoundly misrepresents a diverse religious tradition. Precisely the opposite point of view came to characterize the Shiite theological tradition that established itself in medieval Iran — the very tradition of Manuel’s Persian interlocutor.

As Roy Mottahedeh emphasizes in his widely acclaimed book on Shiism in contemporary Iran, “The Mantle of the Prophet,” “The Shiah in general believed that human ways of reasoning were not essentially different from God’s ways of reasoning and that humans could therefore decode much of the reasoning behind the construction of the natural and moral world.”

Indeed, what led Mottahedeh, a scholar of medieval Islam, to write his book was the realization that the mullahs and ayatollahs of contemporary Iran are schooled in the very same Hellenism that once shaped the entire Abrahamic intellectual world. “Here,” he writes, “was a living version of the kind of education … that had produced in the West men such as the saintly and brilliant theologian Thomas Aquinas … and in the East thinkers such as Averroes among the Muslims and Maimonides among the Jews.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if Pope Benedict had wanted to see the kind of intellectual formation in action that he celebrated at Regensburg, he would have been well advised to pay a visit to Qom, the capital of Shiite education in Iran.

But the problem with the pontiff’s discourse is not so much that he failed to reckon with intellectual diversity within Islam as that, German theologian that he was, he granted religious abstractions far more efficacy in the world than they deserve. Can a proper theoretical balance between faith and reason really be proof against the use of violence to advance a religion’s cause?

By Benedict’s lights, Shiites should be just the sort of reasonable folk for whom violent jihad is a dead letter. But you couldn’t make the case by the behavior of the Shiite regime that has ruled Iran for the past four decades, a regime now happily provisioning Vladimir Putin, the would-be heir of the Orthodox Byzantine emperors, with thousands of drones to wreak death and destruction on the civilian population of Ukraine.

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