The speech by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in Germany on September 12 has enraged the Muslim world on account of the allegedly negative remarks it contained on Islam and the concept of jihad. Official Pakistan was quick to jump into the fray and describe the Pope’s remarks as being ignorant of Islam and the concept of jihad. The parliament was equally vehement in condemning the Pope’s speech. Pakistan also issued a demarche to the Vatican by calling in its ambassador and recording Islamabad’s protest. The question is: Did the Pope really say something outrageous which can justify the hue and cry that has followed his speech? Closely related to this is the question of how many of those calling the Pope ignorant and misplaced have read the full text of his speech or are aware of his academic, theological and philosophical background.
A reading of the full text of the Pope’s speech (available on the Vatican’s website) suggests some interesting conclusions.
To begin with, the Pope’s main thrust is not Islam but the dialectic between reason and faith and the secularisation of Europe. To this main project, his remarks about Islam, jihad, and the concept of violence are ‘marginal’. Indeed, there is only one reference to Islam, a two-sentence quotation from a Byzantine Emperor of yore. The Pope, in trying to argue within the theological framework of Christianity, has posited that reason and faith are not mutually exclusive. His emphasis on the interaction between faith and reason has to be seen, not only in relation to the embrace of Christianity and Greek thought — to which he refers extensively — but also in terms of the historical evolution of Europe during and after Renaissance and Reformation. This is an evolution that has seen rationalism, empiricism, a rejection of religion and also a synthesis of the two, as in Kant’s works. But it was easier for Christianity to cope with this intellectual movement because, as the Pope points out, “the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which... unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language”. This, as he says, is different from what Ibn Hazm says about the “Islamic” concept that “God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions”.
But what has really offended the Muslim world are alleged remarks about jihad and its linkage with violence. Here, too, the Pope was not making any personal remarks. He was quoting from a Byzantine emperor of the 15th century who made them when he was under siege, with Muslim armies breathing down his neck. The idea behind the quotation, put in the entire context, was not to sully Islam but to try and distinguish between the structures of faith of one religion from the other. It is provocative only to the extent that it shows a greater desire on his part to talk about certain categories than his predecessor, John Paul II. But deep down, the reference to Islam was made to stress the point that Christianity synthesises faith and reason and that the secularisation of Europe has resulted in a divorce between the two. This has also led, as the Pope made clear, to a lack of understanding in Europe not only of Christianity but also — and this is crucial — to the inability of Europe to appreciate that for some peoples faith is fundamental to existence.
In this sense, the Pope, far from attacking Islam, appears to be making a case for a dialogue between faiths. As he put it: “The world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion from the divine, from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”
Within Pakistan, following the official response, the political parties are queuing up to hurl stones at the Pope. This serves no purpose — except dumbing down the discourse and exploiting a situation politically — because all of them are picking up the quote from the Roman emperor rather than putting that quote in the full context of the speech. “Show me just what Mohammed [peace be upon him] 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”. These are the words of a king who was facing defeat. But equally, as a king he was prepared to fight for territory despite his Christian roots. So his words cannot be accepted as a legitimate verdict on Islam or its nature.
However, we would be remiss if we did not make another point. The Islamists have made clear — as is also evident by treatises by eminent scholars like Maulana Maududi — that jihad, apart from its other connotations, has the element of qitaal (violence) in it and the Muslims need not be apologetic about it. The Byzantine emperor said what he said because he was facing a critical and real situation — a threat from a Muslim army. His position on violence was understandably borne of his immediate circumstances. Islam follows the trajectory of nature, and in human dealings as well as inter-state relations, war is an essential ingredient. Violence is not gratuitous but neither is it shied away from when it is required to safeguard the interests of the weak. The use of violence is an accepted fact not only in political theory but also in Islamic jurisprudence. So what’s the big deal if the Pope refers to it to make a larger point about the dialogue between cultures?
Instead of exploiting the Pope’s speech for political purposes, the Muslim ummah would be better served if it were to formulate an intellectual response to it in the spirit in which he made his speech. He has tried to show that reason and faith in Christianity are synthesised. How about showing that they are even more synthesised in Islam?
Addressing the Muslim reaction, the Pope has said he has been misinterpreted or misunderstood and the Vatican has said it is extremely sorry for it. That should be the end of the matter. The Pope, meanwhile, would be well advised to distance himself from the quote that sparked the controversy even as he used it for the purpose merely of argument. *