Church-Islam dialogue: the path starts from Regensburg's Pope
by Samir Khalil Samir, sj
Benedict XVI’s speech at Regensburg received a lot of criticism but it in fact launched an effective model for Islamo-Christian dialogue: refusal of violence, love of truth, interpretation, mission. The only way to go beyond the trivially tolerant appearance of dialogue promoted by many Muslims and by a good part of the Catholic Church.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Benedict's masterly lecture at Regensburg was seen by many Christians and Muslims as a false step by the Pope, a simple mistake, something to get over and forget, if we don't want to set off a war of religions. Instead, at Regensburg, this Pope traced, with his balanced, courageous and by no means trivial thinking, the basis for true dialogue between Christians and Muslims, giving voice to many reformist Muslims and suggesting to Islam and Christians the steps to be taken.
Still today in the West and in the Islamic world, reactions to that speech are strong. But many Muslim scholars are beginning to ask themselves: “After the tumult of initial misunderstandings, what did Benedict XVI say to us after all? He told us that we Muslims run the great risk of eliminating reason from our faith. In this case, the Islamic faith becomes simply an act of submission to God, which can conceivably degenerate into violence, perhaps even ‘in the name of God’, or ‘to defend God.’”
Violence, reason and crisis in Islam
The much-exploited and detested quotation of Manuel II Paleologus itself was important because it underlined that "God does not love blood and violence," and that violence is against the nature of God and of man. Unfortunately, being that this phrase was pronounced on September 12th, a day after the anniversary of the attack against the Twin Towers, people read it in a political key (helped by the manipulations of Al Jazeera and Western liberals).
Now Muslims themselves are wondering: "All in all, the Pope said that there is the risk of violence in Islam. And this is not true? It is not our history and our daily problem? Are we not running the risk of emptying faith by separating it from reason and from critical thought?" Even if not in public, various Islamic scholars are saying: "This separation between faith and reason is more than ever today’s danger in Islam!"
From the 9th to the 11th century Islam had integrated in its vision the Hellenistic dimension of Greek philosophy and, through this, the critical, logical and reasonable dimension. This happened thanks to the Christians that lived in the Muslim world. But, for almost a thousand years, Islam abandoned reason to continuously repropose a literal application of what was said in the past. The current crisis in the Muslim world is based on this very gap between faith and reason and, many Muslims, in various ways, are saying so.
Speaking in parliament about a month ago, the Egyptian Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosni, criticized the spread of the Islamic veil in Egypt saying that "such a thing had never before been seen in our country. This path has taken us backwards by at least 30 years." Another member of parliament took up his argument: "Not only have we gone back 30 years, but to the times of Mehmet Ali [i.e. to the early 19th century]."
Unfortunately, the minister was accused of having gone against the Egyptian Constitution, which foresees the Koran and Sharia as sources of law. Thus, Farouk Hosni, who has been minister for 20 years and is a noted artist, risked being removed by fundamentalists. Plus, being 62 years old and unmarried, he was also attacked with accusations of being a homosexual.
The crisis of Islam is there for everyone to see and is being pointed out by all the intellectuals. It is an attempt to take refuge in the past for fear of self-criticism, reason and modernity.
When the Pope stresses to Muslims the importance of integrating reason and faith, he is actually suggesting the way for making great strides forward, as he also does with the secular world when he stresses the importance of integrating the spiritual dimension into the concept of reason.
The courage to speak
Another important element that emerged at Regensburg is the courage to speak: the time has come to be frank about Islam. Even a pope has the full right to say things simply and directly to our Muslim brothers, as also to the Jews, to non-believers and to his own Catholics (1). This Pope has claimed freedom of speech.
Secondly, he said reasonable and unpleasant things, but he is convinced that such things must be said as this constitutes true dialogue. The aim of the Regensburg speech -- this is said in the conclusion -- is precisely humanistic dialogue, which rejects nothing positive in Islam or in the Enlightenment, but criticizes what is extremist or anti-spiritual in one and the other. In such a way, Benedict XVI has set the basis for a universal dialogue, in making a proposal to the two opposite tendencies today: on one hand, Islam with it fideism that excludes reason (and it is worth specifying that this does not mean that all of Islam has always rejected reason, as some would have us believe he said); on the other hand, he has made a proposal to laicist, rationalist, Enlightenment thinking that relegates religion to the insignificant.
Since Regensburg, he has also "displayed" this dialogue, by making concrete gestures. It is worth recalling the Pope's prayer in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, during his visit to Turkey. The Pope concretely underlined that we Christians recognize and respect the spiritual dimension present in Islam: he removed his shoes upon entering the sacred place (a tradition that is biblical and that we find among the Copts and the Ethiopians); invited to pray, he turned toward the mihrab, the niche which indicates Mecca. He prayed because he does not reduce Islam to politics; he prayed without creating ambiguity or confusion. These gestures gave the true meaning of the Regensburg speech for Muslims.
The Pope, a master interpreter of the Koran
Still today, there are Muslims who write to me thanking the Pope for what he said in Germany. Right after the speech, Abdelwahhab Meddeb of Tunisia thanked Benedict XVI because "finally someone dared to speak and point a finger at violence in Islam." For Meddeb "the seed of violence in Islam is found in the Koran," as he entitled one of his articles.
Such a statement -- on the part of a Muslim -- shines a light on the real, great problem of dialogue today: the lack of truth, the reluctance to accept discussion on critical points.
On the question of violence, all Muslims know that its seeds are in the holy Book, but everyone also tries to hide this by saying that "No, it is not true, Islam means peace, salām, respect, non-violence,” thus denying the facts (2).
Benedict XVI's speech did not deny the facts, but proposed that they be understood within a human context. That is, he suggested that Islam begin to undertake an interpretation of texts.
When the Pope quoted verse 2,256 of the Koran, "there is no violence in matters of faith", he added a phrase that scandalized many: "this is probably one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammad was still powerless and under threat."
These comments seem to me fundamental: he is stressing the need for exegetic work to be done on sacred texts. In this specific case, he gave an example of hermeneutic of the Koran, proposing that that verse be read within the human experience of Mohammad. He was criticized by many, both Muslims and Catholic scholars: "He is ignorant," they said, "that verse is not from the initial period (Mecca), but from the Medina period."
In effect, according to the official edition of the Koran, it was the Medina period. But reading the comments in the bilingual Arabic-English and Arabic-French editions of the Koran, edited by Saudi Arabia, we can read "This is the first surah revealed in Medina." In sociological terms, this means that is was revealed immediately after the Hijra -- the flight from Mecca -- when Mohammad left his tribe to unite with the opposing tribes of Aws and Khazraj. In that moment and for the next two years (until 624), he had no real power and was constantly under threat. He sought support in fact from the Jews, the richest and most powerful in Medina. When this failed, he began making raids, as was usual on the part of those who could not get by. If this surah -- as Muslim commentators say -- is the first of Medina, that means that it is before the raiding period. It is true therefore that it was "from the second period", but it is also true, as the Pope says, that it comes at a moment in which Mohammad himself was "powerless and under threat."
With his small comment, Benedict XVI seems to suggest to Muslims: we must read the text in its context; and this is fundamental for beginning an Islamo-Christian dialogue. We must reread the sacred texts to see "the circumstances of revelation" (asbāb al-tanzīl, as is said in the Muslim tradition). In this, the Pope is resuming the healthy tradition of interpretation which was alive in the 9th century. Unfortunately, this no longer occurs in contemporary Islam.
Instead, if we come across violent verses -- and they do exist -- in the Koran, we must seek to understand them in the context in which they appeared. It is clear that Mohammad waged wars; it is also clear that he did not fight for the love of violence: in line with Old Testament tradition, he fought wars "for God", "in the zeal of God." All this, put in the perspective of the cultural and religious tradition of the Middle East, is natural and not surprising.
But it should also be said that, today, the mentality has changed: does God truly need to be defended by man? It thus follows that the Koran needs to be reread and interpreted for today. For a century, all Muslim reformists have been saying that the solution for modernizing Islam lies in the interpretation of the Koran. For at least 30 or 40 years, we have been in a phase in which there is no longer any innovation in interpretation, but repetition ad nauseam of the same things and clichés. The same memorized things are repeated.
A young Iranian Muslim, with a degree in Islamic studies, told me the other day: "We can no longer think of the Koran as directly dictated by God to Mohammad through the angel Gabriel. It must be interpreted. Unfortunately, in today's Islam there is not much freedom: a few decades ago, one of our intellectuals, Abdolkarim Soroush (3) was removed from university teaching for having taught such things. In the end, to be able to live and express himself, he had to emigrate to Europe." In today's Islam, ideas are available, especially among reformists and young intellectuals, but they are keeping quiet because freedom in the Islamic world is highly limited.
The Pope had the courage to identify the key points: reason, violence, hermeneutics... And he touched on a sore point with the question of the interpretation of the Koran, without which there can be no dialogue.
This urging of Islam toward interpretation is done out of love for Islam. Certain Christian and Muslim theologians criticized the Pope for having been too hard at Regensburg and they instead applauded him in Turkey. Actually, though, it is the same Pope who, out of love for Islam, did not fail to criticize it at Regensberg, and did not lack spiritual brotherhood in Istanbul.
Christian mission tempted by relativism
At Regensburg, Benedict XVI dared to speak of violence, the lack of reason, the necessity of interpretation in Islam, and thus many Muslim intellectuals praised him and hoped that "the Pope does not apologize." In the West, the calls for an apology were numerous, even among Christians. In effect, what had happened, however, was that the Pope's behaviour at Regensburg upset the overly irenic conception of the Church's mission and the tolerant do-goodism of lay environs. Benedict XVI made it understood that speaking the truth, saying things that hurt, is not an insult, but a path for healing. Occasionally, a bitter pill must be given.
Often among Christians who are engaged in dialogue with Islam, there is a tendency to "hide" and not speak about differences. This is acceptable at the beginning: if I begin a relationship with you, I certainly don't begin by defining how much there is that separates me from you. But the relationship must deepen.
An outcrop of the "clarity" suggested by the Pope is the behaviour of the Bishop of Cordoba. This prelate received the umpteenth request from a group of Muslims (converted Spaniards) who wanted to use the cathedral to pray together and give an image of "true ecumenism." The bishop replied that he saw this possibility as ambiguous and did not allow it. Various European lay newspapers criticized the bishop because "he rejected an open and brotherly proposal," etc...
Without any violence, a sense of culture and identity and of real religious freedom is growing among Christians. Thus, that irenic and falsely multi-ethnic attitude of a mishmash of religions is beginning to fall by the wayside.
This is especially urgent in France, where fear of offending Islam does not even allow for the annual drafting of statistics on conversions from Islam: bishops and those responsible for dialogue with Muslims refuse to give news on the number of Muslims who are asking for baptism.
I personally am not against the fact that there are Christians who become Muslims, as long as they convert for reasons of faith and not for political or economic reasons. But I also want news on how many Muslims are becoming Christians and that such information can be freely given. It is in such frank openness that true spiritual emulation is created.
For Muslims and Christians alike, mission is an obligation. Muslims call it "da'wa" and it is an obligation; Christians call it evangelization, and it too is an obligation. Unfortunately, there are among Christians more and more people who refuse to announce and to speak of their faith, out of "respect" or as not to fall into proselitism.
Muslims have da'wa offices all over the world. They are tied to each Islamic state and build mosques, spread the Koran, send out preachers and other resources: a sort of Propaganda Fide for each Islamic state. The difference is that, among Muslims, it is the state that supports Islamic mission. In the case of Christians, it is the communities, the Church which supports mission.
If a Church or a bishop is not interested in mission, it means that they are asleep or closed in upon themselves. So far, I have seen churches which are very well organized vis-à-vis Muslims from the point of view of charity: help to immigrant, hospitality, schools, etc. It is, however, a generosity without proclamation. It is said that this happens to save dialogue. But proclamation is necessary so that dialogue is a dialogue in truth.
It is necessary that the Church realize that its existence – not only numerical – depends on the proclamation of the Gospel to Muslims also. If this drive is lacking, then it means that she has lost that sense of the beauty of faith encountered in Christ. It means slipping into the void of relativism.
(1) As he did - already as cardinal - at the Via Crucis held at Rome's Coliseum on Good Friday 2004, speaking of the "filth in the Church."
(2) It should be noted that the Koran also contains seeds of non-violence. And since both one and the other are found in it - as in the Hebrew Bible – a hermeneutic, an interpretation of sacred texts is needed to discern its true meaning for us today. And this is one of the Pope's important ideas, as I had the occasion to hear from him firsthand at the encounter held at Castel Gandolfo in September 2005
(3) See his site: