October 18, 2006


The Regensburg Effect: The Open Letter from 38 Muslims to the Pope: Instead of saying they are offended and demanding apologies, they express their respect for him and dialogue with him on faith and reason. They disagree on many points. But they also criticize those Muslims who want to impose, with violence, “utopian dreams in which the end justifies the means” (Sandro Magister, October 18, 2006, Chiesa)

[T]he letter signed by the 38 – together with the preceding essay by Aref Ali Nayed, previewed by www.chiesa on October 4 – goes towards what the pope meant to accomplish with his audacious lecture in Regensburg: to encourage, within the Muslim world as well, public reflection that would separate faith from violence and link it to reason instead. Because, in the pope’s view, it is precisely the “reasonableness” of the faith that is the natural terrain of encounter between Christianity and the various other religions and cultures.

A first point on which the letter from the 38 Muslims “reasons” with Benedict XVI concerns sura 2:256 of the Qur’an: “There is no compulsion in religion.” The authors of the letter assert that Mohammed formulated this commandment, not when he found himself “powerless and under threat” – which the pope maintains as “probable” in his lecture – but when he was in a position of strength, in Medina. And that he intended by this to appeal to Muslims, whenever they conquered a territory, “not to force another’s heart to believe.”

A second point on which the letter dwells concerns the transcendence of God. That Muslim doctrine holds that God is “absolutely transcendent,” as the pope asserts, is in the judgment of the 38 signatories “a simplification which can be misleading.” The eleventh-century Muslim author to whom the pope refers - Ibn Hazm - is in their view “a worthy but very marginal figure, who belonged to the Zahiri school of jurisprudence which is followed by no one in the Islamic world today.” It is not true – they write – that “the will of God is not bound to any of our categories,” that the God of Islam is a “capricious” God, and far less so that he could delight in bloodshed. God has many names in Islam, and his “clemency and mercy” have the greatest prominence: they are present in the sacred formula that the Muslims recite every day.

The third point is the use of reason. The authors of the letter write that Islamic thought has always wanted to avoid two extremes: the first is that of raising up analytic reason as the arbiter of truth, and the other is that of denying the capacity of the human intellect to address the ultimate questions. There is – they write – a harmony between the questions of human reason and the truths of Qur’anic revelation, “without sacrificing one for the other.”

The fourth point is holy war. The 38 signatories of the letter recall that the word “jihad” properly means “struggle in the way of God,” which is not necessarily war. Even Christ used violence when he chased the merchants from the temple. They sum up in this way Islam’s three “authoritative and traditional” rules on war:

– civilians are not approved targets;
– religious creed alone cannot make a person the object of an attack;
– Muslims can and must live peacefully beside their neighbors, although the legitimacy of self-defense and the maintenance of sovereignty remain valid principles.

So if some Muslims – they write – have ignored such well-established teaching on the limits of war, preferring to this “utopian dreams where the end justifies the means, they have done so of their own accord and without the sanction of God, His Prophet, or the learned tradition.”

The fourth point taken into consideration is forced conversion. As a political reality – write the authors of the letter – Islam certainly did spread in part by military conquest, “but the greater part of its expansion came as a result of preaching and missionary activity.” The commandment of the Qur’an, “no compulsion in religion,” must always hold true: the fact that some Muslims disobey this is “the exception that confirms the rule.” “We emphatically agree that forcing others to believe – if such a thing be truly possible at all – is not pleasing to God.”

The fourth point: the “new” – and moreover “evil and inhuman” – things that Mohammed is imagined to have brought, according to Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus as cited by Benedict XVI in the lecture in Regensburg. The 38 authors of the letter object that, according to Islamic doctrine, even before Mohammed “all the true prophets preached the same truth to different peoples at different times: the laws may be different, but the truth is unchanging.”

The two faiths are even more alike than the Pope understood.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 18, 2006 12:00 AM
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