Friday, October 13, 2006

What I might have written about the Pope’s Regensburg speech (if I were smart enough)

I recommend this column by Father Raymond J. De Souza in the September 29th edition of Maclean’s. Some excerpts:

The main point of the Regensburg address was that faith and reason need each other as paths to truth. Benedict defended this as an essential part of Christian belief because the God who reveals himself (faith) is also the author of the natural order and the human capacity to understand it (reason). The Pope highlighted that the prologue of John's Gospel begins, "In the beginning was the word (logos)," and logos is the Greek word for reason. God is reasonable, and so to act contrary to reason is to act contrary to God.

Faith without reason gives rises to fundamentalism. Reason without faith produces a secularism that cannot address the most fundamental of human questions about origin, destiny and meaning. The bulk of Benedict's address was directed against the latter phenomenon, criticizing a modern secularism that has nothing to say to people of faith, and nothing to say about the foundations of human culture. In criticizing the neglect of reason in favour of faith alone, Benedict criticized a major figure in the history of Christian philosophy (John Duns Scotus), who he considered to have made this mistake.

So why, if that was Benedict's main point, get into Islam at all? Why the incendiary quotation from Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus on the evil of Islam, spreading faith by the sword?

One of the potential consequences of a faith-only fundamentalism is violence. Violent force -- which by its nature does not seek to persuade -- can grow out of a zeal to convert without recourse to reason. It is simply a fact that Islamic violence is a growing problem around the world. Muslims themselves are the first victims of it, but Christians in Islamic countries regularly face harassment and persecution. Benedict wants to clarify that the roots of this violence lie in a perversion of Islam, not its authentic theology. That's a task only Muslims can accomplish, but the Pope has a pulpit sufficient to draw attention to the issue.

When the controversy first broke, I read the Pope’s speech several times. I was tampted to post about it but hesitated, given my lack of knowledge about the issues the Pope addressed. In the interim, I have come across several columnists who shared some of the same impressions I drew from the speech: that violence is incompatible with faith, that faith without reason is dangerous, and that it is not immediately apparent why the Pope mentions Islam at all in a speech that is largely about the reconciliation of faith and reason within Christianity.

As for the Pope quoting the 600-year-old observation of a Byzantine (i.e. Orthodox, not Catholic) emperor about Mohammad’s “command to spread by the sword the faith he preached,” at the time of the speech I happened to be reading John Keegan’s A History of Warfare, which includes the following:

Christians, indeed, have never found unanimity in the belief that the man of war may also be a man of religion; the ideal of martyrdom has always been as strong as that of the justified struggle and remains strong to this day. The Arabs of the conquest years were not caught on that crux. Their new religion, Islam, was a creed of conflict, that taught the necessity of submission to its revealed teachings and the right of its believers to take arms against those who opposed them. It was Islam that inspired the Arab conquests, the ideas of Islam that made the Arabs a military people and the example of its founder, Muhammad, that taught them to become warriors.

Muhammad was not only a warrior himself, who had been wounded in a battle at Medina against the men of Mecca in 625. He preached as well as practiced war. In his last visit to Mecca in 632 he laid down that, though all Muslims were brethren and should not fight each other, they should fight all other men until they said ‘There is no god but God.’ The Koran, which Muslims believe to have been taken down from his words by disciples, elaborates this command extensively. Even more specifically than Christ had done, Muhammad insisted that those who accepted the word of God thereby formed a community (umma) whose members owed each other responsibilities; thus it was not enough simply to avoid fratricide: Muslims were under an obligation to do positive good to less fortunate Muslims by assigning a certain portion of their income to charity; they also had a duty to care for each other’s consciences. Beyond the umma, however, the obligation was reversed: ‘O you who believe, fight the unbelievers who are near to you.’ This was not a call to forcible conversion. Non-believers who were prepared to live under Koranic authority were positively entitled to protection and, in strict theory, those outside the umma who kept the peace ought not to be attacked. In practice, however, the bounds of the umma came to coincide with the House of Submission (Dar al-Islam), while outside inevitably lay the House of War (Dar-el-Harb). Against the House of War, Islam fell into conflict from the moment of the prophet Muhammad’s death in 632.

Another factor greatly assisted the Arabs who, in the last years of Muhammad’s life, set out to extend the boundaries of Islam: the kingdoms on which their force fell were in decline. . . .

When, therefore, in 633 an Arab army invaded northern Mesopotamia, the Persian army was not what it had been; neither was the Byzantine. Audaciously, the Arabs chose to operate against both simultaneously and, though compelled to transfer forces between the two fronts, they succeeded in holding their own; in 637 at Qadisiyah, near modern Baghdad, they won a victory that ensured the triumph of Islam in Persia; the significance of that victory remains so great in the Arab world that in the 1980s it was constantly evoked by Saddam Hussein during his war of attrition with Iran. Meanwhile other Arab armies were conquering Syria (636), Egypt (642) and pressing westward along the Mediterranean coast toward the Byzantine provinces in North Africa. In 674 Mu’awiya, the fifth caliph or ‘successor’ to Muhammad, decided to lay siege directly to Constantinople, and though the Arabs gave up the effort in 677, they returned in 717. By that year, they had taken the whole of North Africa (705), crossed to Spain (711) and reached the Pyrenees, over which they shortly invaded France. In the east they conquered Afghanistan, raided into north-west India, annexed part of Anatolia (modern Turkey), pushed their northernmost boundary to the line of the Caucasus mountains and crossed the Oxus into Transoxiana where, at the Talas River in 751, they fought a decisive battle with the Chinese for dominance over the great cities of Bokhara and Samarkand, on the Silk Road which led to the Great Wall.
--from A History of Warfare, pp. 193-195

Footnote: The Associated Press reported yesterday today that jihadists have beheaded an Orthodox priest in Iraq.

1 comment:

nomdeblog said...

I’ve read B 16’s speech a couple of times and I’m not smart enough to comment on it. But I’m smart enough to know it is going to become increasingly important.