Tuesday, September 19, 2006


“I was reminded of all this [the question of the belief in God and the divorce between faith and reason] recently when I read the edition of Professor Theodore Khoury Munster) of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara – by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. It was probably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than the responses of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur’an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship of the three Laws: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an. In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point – itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself – which, in the context of the issue of faith and reason, I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue

In the seventh conversation (controversy) edited by Professor Koury, the emperor touches on the theme of the Jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: There is no compulsion in religion. It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threaten (sic). But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the ‘Book’ and the ‘Infidels’, he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely, with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: ‘Show me just what Mohammed 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’. The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonable is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats…To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death….

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories , even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry....A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act ‘with logos’ is contrary to God’s nature”.

12 September A. D. 2006

“The Crusades no longer just haunt the memory but stalk the streets of twenty-first century international politics, in particular in the Near East. In an irony often lost on protagonists, these public perceptions of the Crusades that underpin confrontational rhetoric derive from a common source. The Near Eastern radical or terrorist who rails against ‘western’ neo-crusaders is operating in exactly the same conceptual and academic tradition as those in the west who continue to insinuate the language of the crusade into their approach to the problems of the region. This is by no means a universal set of mentalities , as demonstrated from the literary and academic cliché of a civilized medieval Islamic world brutalized by western barbarians, to the almost studiously anti-crusading rhetoric and policies of NATO and others in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, to opposition to the crude caricaturing of Islam after September 2001. The re-entry of the Crusades into the politics of the Near East is baleful and intellectually bogus”.
Christopher Tyerman, Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades (Oxford, 2004)

As the wise words of Christopher Tyerman point out, re-introducing the fighting words of another era, are something that one should, if one can studious avoid. Which leads one to ask, why this most intellectual and scholarly of Pontiffs, Benedict XVI, chose to use the quotes that he did on the 12th of this month, in Barvaria. In part his text clearly points to the main purpose of his lecture: the unnecessary and divisive divorce between Christianity and reason (‘Logos’ to use the original Greek). Id est:
“This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe....The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come to together in a new way.”

However, as the online intelligence journal Stratfor.com, points out, the broadening of the discussion to include the dialogue between the Paleologus Basileus, and his (unnamed) Persian counterpart, cannot possibly have been by accident. Occupying approximately fifteen percent (15%) of the text of the speech, the inclusion must have been quite deliberate. And, while his Holiness, is first and foremost a theologian and a scholar, the twenty plus years that he has spent in Roma, at the summit of Vatican politics, means that he is well aware as anyone of the possible implications of his words. Indeed, as per the Vatican, his Holiness promises to: “supply a subsequent version of this text, complete with footnotes”. This was no accident, nor was meant to be. Indeed, according to the highly well connected, Catholic journalist and commentator, John Allen in today’s New York Times, his Holiness’s words are part and parcel of a new, tougher Vatican strategy vis-`a-vis the Muslim world. In Allen’s words:
“The new pope is tougher both on terrorism and on what the Vatican calls ‘reciprocity’ – the demand that Islamic states grant the same rights and freedoms to Christians and other religious minorities that Muslims receive in the West. When Benedict said in his apology on Sunday that he wants a ‘frank and sincere dialogue,’ the word ‘frank’ was not an accident. He wants dialogue with teeth”.

So, now that we have an inkling of what the Pontiff is trying to say, and why he said it, what is this diplomatic observer to make of it, and the violence of the Muslim reaction to his Holiness’s words? One particular reaction which is readily apparent, and is one which I have no intention of following, is the (for lack of a better way to describe it), is the ‘philistine’ reaction, of burying one’s head in the sand, and pretending that in some sort of Leibinezian fashion, all was well in the world, sans the Pontiff’s statement (for an example of which, see the editorial in today’s Financial Times on the subject). This particular mental reaction fully deserves the characterization ‘philistine’, because it is one, in which thought, is meant to be absent. Indeed, thinking, especially ‘critical thinking’, which does not follow the well traveled, bien pensant pathways, is by definition to be avoided at all costs. Well, for no doubt malentendu reasons, I am going to not play the philistine today. Tant pis.

The Pontiff’s words deserve not only respect, but close study, as well. They do so for the following reason: the malady that he describes: the divorce between faith and reason, has, for reasons which appear to be intrinsic to itself (but which I will refrain from exploring at this juncture) most clearly and acutely afflicted the Muslim world, with results that are readily apparent for all to see. Whether or not, Islam, has been afflicted from its very origins, with the need to dominate, to spread its message via the sword, is something for a scholar of the Near East, in the 6th and 7th century’s, to discuss rather than someone like myself, whose specialization is European and World politics of the last two hundred and fifty years. What is observable, to even the least very student of the Near East, in the period of late antiquity, is that Islam, did, emerge out of the Arabian Peninsula, by virtue of military conquest. Indeed, one of the most tremendous examples of military conquest that the known world has ever seen. Either praise it, as the working out, of God’s will, or berate it, for the work of the anti-Christ, what cannot be denied that it took place, within fifty years of Mohammed’s passing. And, that indeed, it was Mohammed himself who foresaw the expansion that subsequently took place and, one can, find enough quotes in his book, to justify what took place after his death. It is this foundational fact, that the origins of Islam or part and parcel bound up with military conquest, with the ‘sword’, as it were, which one may argue, has to an extent, encumbered Islam with a host of ‘unreasonable’, indeed, inhuman metaphors, quotes, processes of thought, which make the transition of many parts of the Muslim world to modernity, to rationality, in short to logos, so difficult. And, indeed, provides the radical current, of Islamic thought, with its current platform and legitimacy.

While it can be argued that Christianity, and indeed Judaism, also have had their bouts with violence, with conversion by the sword, as indeed, they have, with one important caveat: neither faith was so deeply imprinted with the imagery of conquest and of violence as part and parcel of the faith. In the case of Judaism, after the fall of the Second Temple, and especially the failure of the revolt in 133-135 A. D., with the banishment of population into the diaspora, Judaism, lost that implacable, xenophobic, military geist which can been seen in the time of the Maccabees, and of course earlier.

In the case of Christianity, there is the much criticized Crusades, and of course the fact that missionary work, went arm in arm, with European Imperialism of the Early Modern period (1500-1789). And, indeed this is quite true. However, in the case of Christianity, these episodes occurred much, later in its history, indeed almost a thousand years later in the case of the Crusades. And, unlike either Judaism at the time of the Kingdom’s (from what little that we really know of it, as a period of historical research), or Islam in the first one hundred years of its existence, Christianity’s growth, was not dependent upon either military power or its being allied to the dominant state apparatus. Id est, by the time that Constantinus Magnus, granted it legal recognition only) as a religion in the early 4th century A. D., Christianity was probably the majority religion in the Empire. By the time that Christianity became engrossed with things of this world, including its ties to state power, its structure and ideology were already fully formed. And, being fully formed, it was and is capable to divorcing itself from the being tied to secular state, without perishing (the USA being perhaps the best example of this). Again, the contrast with Islam is palpable.

What may one ask is the above ‘ancient history’, so important for us now? Well it is important, insofar as, the persecution of religious minorities in the Islamic world, which range from the merely tiresome (Turkey) to the murderous (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera), is based upon, justified and indeed legitimized by the need to adhere to the Qu’ran. As a close study of the State Department’s 2006, report on International Religious Freedom, worldwide shows, adherence to the Islamic holy text is used to justify throughout the Arab and Muslim world, de facto and de jure discrimination, against Christian and other minorities (www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf). And, unless and until such a necessary modernization of Islam is reached, a recognition that faith is not a matter for enforcement by the state apparatus, but something arrived at by reason, than there is little hope that this important section of the world will join it, in arriving at modernity. And of course, unless and until the Muslim world, understands that logos, is not compatible with the type of Islamic expansion as practiced in its early years, for which of course, the Islamic radicals, `a la Bin Laden, look upon as being part and parcel of the their faith, then the reconciliation of modernity, with Islam will be further out of reach, rather than nearer. Burying one’s head in the sand, and trying to pretend that this is not part and parcel of a longue duree [long-term] change in the psyche of the countries and people’s of the region, will only do more harm than good. A change which by definition cannot be brought about, by American bayonets, but, which needs to be helped along, by careful diplomacy, all the same. His Holiness, deserves all of our thanks for bringing this topic to the forefront.


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