Monday, 6 August 2007

Pope's Speech at Regensburg

This was a piece I co-wrote with the eminent Father John Bollan from the Education faculty at Glasgow University. This was published in the Catholic Herald in October 2006

After Regensburg: Rescuing the Dialogue


Only two weeks ago very few people would have heard of Constantinople. Now, however, thanks to a 600 year old conversation between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian theologian resurrected by a Bavarian Pontiff, the ancient city is now back on the ideological map. Once she was the sole remnant of Constantine’s empire, a rich tapestry of western and oriental thought. At first sight, Glasgow may seem far removed from Constantinople in its twilight years. Yet here, in the shadow of the city’s ancient University, students and academics from all round the world meet in a vibrant dialogue of cultures. It is here that two friends, John Bollan and Amanullah De Sondy, meet to discuss the reaction to Pope Benedict’s comments on reason, religion and violence.

JB Aman, I’m very conscious that we are, in a sense, carrying on that conversation which has caused so much controversy in various parts of the Muslim world. Theoretically, we have gone from being good friends to ideological opponents: is this the case? As a Muslim, what do you make of what the Pope actually said?

ADS John, true friendship will over ride the most harshest of ideological opponent. Lets explore the issues at hand, firstly, this was not a speech about ‘just war’ or about the concept of ‘Jihad’: it was a speech about faith and reason. It was a speech so embedded in theological discussion that one could quite rightfully be lost in the depth with which the Holy Father approached this complex issue.

Interestingly, the Holy Father begins the discussion by quoting a beautiful passage of the Qur’an which reads ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (Qur’an 2:256) and then adds the statement of the Emperor in which he questions if all that Muhammad had brought to the world was ‘evil and inhuman’. The point to note here is that the passage of the Qur’an quite clearly contradicts the question whether Muhammad’s gift to posterity was evil and inhuman. The Qur’an, as the direct word of God, has also been known to rebuke Muhammad for his human mistakes, leaving perfection with God.

JB I don’t think many people would be aware of that aspect of the Qur’an. One presumes that the Emperor (and his learned friend) would have been.

ADS We aren’t given any insight into a Muslim response to Manuel’s words. I am intrigued to know if the Persian would have reacted in the same way that Muslims today have. Would there have been a call to rally the Muslims and burn effigies of the Emperor? Would ambassadors be recalled from the Emperor’s court? In fact, forget the Emperor for a moment: it is well known that Muhammad received many a hostile declarations from leaders but he would always address them with their respected titles in a calm and collected manner. I think we must also place this dialogue between the Emperor and the Persian within a historical context. The Islamic empire was vastly expanding to the great annoyance of the Persian and Byzantine empires. Battles and raids were also a part of the social set up. It is a hard task to place our 21st century sentiments to issues such as war and peace in making sense of war and peace in medieval history.

JB That’s true. Some might even say that the Pope was a little naïve in making those references in the current climate. The points he was making were subtle and closely argued. Sadly, these are unsubtle times. I am concerned, though, about the way this whole episode has been used by some Muslim leaders to further another agenda. Look at the crusader rhetoric, for example. This is all worryingly reminiscent of the recent cartoon controversy, where righteous anger was stoked by those who seem to have much to gain by playing up the ‘clash of civilisations’. What is especially tragic about this latest confrontation is that the Pope was inviting everyone to a rational dialogue about the nature of faith in our world, especially those who argue that there is no place for it. The sight of effigy-burning crowds, churches under attack and, quite possibly, religiously motivated murder would seem to suggest that large sections of the Muslim world are incapable of having this rational dialogue with modernity. Am I wrong here?

ADS I would not go as far to say that the Holy Father was naïve at all. As you know yourself, a committed academic does not make loose statements. It was the practice of all theologians (Muslim, Christian and Jewish) during the medieval period to present some extremely controversial viewpoints but did they react in the same way that we are reacting today? Certainly not. They showed a sense of academic maturity as they were able to further the discussion rather than kill it, and killing it seems to be the easy and cowardly approach to take to such matters. I hope that the words of the Holy Father become a beacon of light to develop and enhance our theological enquiries into faith and reason. In the same vein in which Emperor Manuel II rejects bloodying the image of Muhammad by stating that ‘faith through violence is unreasonable’ we must continue this discussion by exploring how we have got to the stage where some faithful believe violence is a path to God.

JB But how can we continue the discussion without some acknowledgement in Muslim circles that Islam does seem to be wedded to violence? That’s the elephant in the living room as far as religious dialogue is concerned, isn’t it?

ADS We must remember that the Holy Father clearly stated that violence goes against the very nature of God the same God for every Muslim, Jew and Christian. ‘Faith is born of the soul, not the body’ – As a Muslim I take these wise words of the Emperor Manuel II as a wake up call reminding Muslims that faith must begin at an internal level, the external can easily be lead by human egos and endeavours. We must accept that the predominant face of Islam that we see today is one wedded with violence. The silent majority, who are peace loving Muslims, will not make a sensationalist headline to sell media. We need a strong network that will expel this bloody face of Islam and what better companions on this sacred struggle than Jews, Christians and Muslims whose central doctrine of belief is peace and love.

JB So that whole ‘Jihadist’ interpretation is a red-herring?

ADS Well, of course there is no getting around the fact that, in some circles, ‘Jihad’ is one of the first things people think of upon hearing the word ‘Islam’. In the particular context of the Crusades, ‘Jihad’ was given expression in terms of an armed struggle and the killing of one’s opponents. We are no longer living in those times, no matter how much it would please some sections of Islamic opinion to revive them. That said, this is not just a problem for those who subscribe to a benighted interpretation of Islam. There needs to be a shared recognition that recent events on the global scene have politicised Islam in such a way that it risks losing its essential character as a religion of peace.

JB But can we speak of Islam at all? Are there not too many divergent opinions about its true nature for there to be a meaningful conversation?

ADS I would prefer to say that there is only one Islam, but many Muslims. It is this diversity which gives a breathing space to those who wish to reflect. Extremists, by the very definition of the word, will always get themselves noticed and heard. They don’t speak for me, or the vast majority of Muslims. If anything, that is the task which faces our community: to enable a conversation which is honest and open, even when it invites us to exercise a little self-criticism.

JB It’s a pity that the word which has leapt out of this furore is ‘criticism’ when it should really be ‘invitation’. Manuel Paleologos was inviting his Persian interlocutor to step outside the confines of their mutual hurts and explore the possibility of faith free from the threat of bloodshed. They were tired of living in a world steeped in war and its ensuing misery. Surely that was what their dialogue was about and indeed what lies at the heart of what the Pope was saying as part of a wider discourse on the loss of Hellenized culture in the West: the world of Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato. We are all impoverished by the loss of this influence – one which was preserved and reintroduced into the European thought-stream by, among others, Muslim scholars. It was Pythagoras, I think, who defined friendship as the love which exists between those who see the same truth. The truth, the logos, call it what you will, must be sought through inquiry and reflection. Both of us, in spite of all that has transpired in recent days, see that same truth. And so, even if there is some theological and political retrenchment as a result of this misunderstanding, our friendship is intact and our conversation will continue.

ADS When we are led by God’s love, John, everything is possible.

Father John Bollan is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Education at the University of Glasgow; Amanullah De Sondy is Research Fellow in the University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies.

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