October 25, 2006


The Pope was wrong: Pope Benedict's recent comments on Islam were riddled with inaccuracies (Abdal Hakim Murad, November 2006, Prospect)

Another theme of Benedict’s speech that baffled Muslims was his distinction between a Catholic concept of a God who must act in accordance with reason, and the supposed Islamic view that God can only be fully free if he has the ability to act irrationally (see Edward Skidelsky, Prospect November 2006). The Pope acknowledges a spectrum of Catholic views but cites only one Islamic thinker, Ibn Hazm of Cordova, whose view of an essentially non-rational, capricious God was rejected by virtually every other Muslim. Far from teaching an irrational obedience to a non-rational deity, mainstream Islamic theology insists on the systematic use of reason, since the Koran itself asks its audience to deduce the existence of God from his orderly signs in nature. Of the two schools of Sunni orthodoxy, Ash’arism and Maturidism, the latter—the orthodoxy of perhaps 80 per cent of Muslims—is particularly insistent on the rationality of God’s actions.

Benedict’s speech saluted the Greek dimension of the New Testament, and proposed that it supply Europe with a special relationship with Christianity. Many Muslims are uncomfortable with the implications of this for current debates over citizenship and immigration. Some have recalled that the original St Benedict of Nursia, the "Patron of Europe," was famous for defending Catholicism from the semi-literate and warlike barbarians who had invaded from the east. The new Pope, it is claimed, chose his name because he feels that the growing Muslim presence in some ways recalls that threat.

Yet the average Turk in Hamburg or beur in Paris is not a follower of Attila the Hun. Muslims too are heirs to Greek rationality; indeed, one of the first great endeavours of Islamic civilisation was the systematic translation of Greek philosophical classics into Arabic. Advanced Islamic theology is shot through and through with Greek rationalism, so that three quarters of a classical Muslim theology text is usually taken up with logic and other intellectual methods of Greek ancestry.

One is almost inclined to think that the Pope should misrepresent Islam more often so that Muslims will speak out more.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 25, 2006 7:20 PM

It is debatable whether the Pope was right or wrong, but the Islamist reactions to his speech were definitely wrong and inexcusable.

Posted by: ic at October 26, 2006 1:22 AM


Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 26, 2006 3:31 AM

They may be wrong -- as Christians know the Pope obviously was -- but they're necessary. Muslim leaders explaining why the faith is moderate and compatible with the End of History is a very good thing.

Posted by: oj at October 26, 2006 8:01 AM

I am not an expert on Islam by any means, but the impression I got when I first studied it, back in the mid-nineties long before 9/11, was that while Islam initially explored reconciling Greek Philosophy with Islam, it ended up rejecting it.

I never heard of Ibn Hazma before, but I do know Al-Ghazali, a very important Muslim theologian and member of the Asharite school above, and he decisively rejected all Greek and non-Muslim philosophy. His views became dominant over those Muslims who sought a synthesis between reason and faith. I don't know much about the Maturidism mentioned above, but a quick glance of Wikipedia says it near identical in theololgy to the Asharites.

Overall, my impression is that Islam, in order to preserve the omnipotence of God, says that God does everything, wills everything. That means there is ultimately no cause and effect - things happen not because A causes B, but that God causes both A and B. This is one reason why Islam is so fatalistic. I've read various milblogs of soldiers in Iraq, and one thing that exasperates many of them is that Iraqis fail to commit to doing things because things can happen only if "Allah wills it."

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 26, 2006 12:31 PM