Islam scholars publish letter on Pope’s Regensburg comments

By  John Thavis, Catholic News Service
  • October 24, 2006
Pope Benedict XVIVATICAN CITY - International Islamic scholars published an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, taking issue with what they described as mistakes and oversimplifications of Islam in a recent papal speech to German academics.

The cordial critique of the Pope’s speech was offered in a “spirit of open exchange,” said the 38 Muslim leaders who signed the text. It was published online Oct. 15 by Los Angeles-based Islamica Magazine.

The scholars took issue with several points made by the Pope in his Sept. 12 speech at the University of Regensburg, Germany, including remarks about “holy war” and the suggestion that Islam may be less inclined to reject violence as an unreasonable affront to God.

However, the scholars praised the Pope’s speech for its critical assessment of materialism in modern life. They also said they appreciated the Pope’s subsequent clarifications about his speech and his expressed regret over the offense taken by many Muslims.

“We share your desire for frank and sincere dialogue and recognize it’s important in an increasingly interconnected world,” the letter said.

It said Muslims want peaceful and friendly relations with Christians and told the Pope: “As the leader of over a billion Catholics and moral example for many others around the globe, yours is arguably the single most influential voice in continuing to move this relationship forward in the direction of mutual understanding.”

Signatories of the letter included grand muftis of Egypt and several other countries, as well as Islamic authorities and academics from the Middle East, Asia, North Africa, Europe and North America.

In his Regensburg speech, the Pope introduced remarks on the relationship between faith and reason by quoting the 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who said: “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.”

Addressing the issue of violent conversion, the Pope said some have argued that God is absolutely transcendent for Muslims and therefore not bound up with “any of our categories, even that of rationality.”

The Muslim scholars said the Pope was mistaken in some of the factual premises for his analysis of Islam — for example, in his equating of “jihad” and “holy war.”

“We would like to point out that ‛holy war’ is a term that does not exist in Islamic languages. ‛Jihad,’ it must be emphasized, means struggle, and specifically struggle in the way of God,” they said.

While “jihad” may include the use of force, it is not necessarily a war, they said. Moreover, Islam has clear rules that state noncombatants are not legitimate targets in a war, that religious belief alone does not make anyone the object of attack, and that Muslims can and should live peacefully with their neighbours, they said. If individual Muslims have strayed from these principles and decided that 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,” they said.

In that context, the scholars condemned the recent murder of a Catholic missionary nun in Somalia and said “any other similar acts of wanton individual violence” in reaction to the recent papal speech on Islam were “completely un-Islamic.”

Part of the text quoted by the Pope — which he later said did not fully reflect his own thoughts — concerned the accusation that Islam had spread its religion “by the sword.” In their letter, the Muslim scholars said that accusation does not hold up to scrutiny. As a political entity, Islam spread partly as the result of conquest, but the greater part of its expansion came as a result of preaching and missionary activity, they said.

The scholars faulted the Pope for suggesting in his speech that the Quranic precept against forced conversion was a teaching from an early period of Islam, when its founder, Mohammed, was powerless and threatened, and that this contrasted with later teachings about “holy war,” when Islam was stronger.

“’There is no compulsion in religion’ was not a command to Muslims to remain steadfast in the face of the desire of their oppressors to force them to renounce their faith, but was a reminder to Muslims themselves, once they had attained power, that they could not force another’s heart to believe,” they said.

The scholars said the relationship between reason and faith is rich and complex in Islam and not a simple dichotomy. Islamic tradition, they said, has managed to avoid two extreme forms of error: making the analytical mind the “ultimate arbiter of truth” and denying the power of human understanding to address ultimate questions.

The scholars said the Pope in his speech had cited “the experts” on Islam and two Catholic scholars by name. But Muslims do not recognize these people as representing their views, they said.

While agreeing with the Pope that dialogue is necessary, the Islamic scholars said, “It seems to us that a great part of the object of interreligious dialogue is to strive to listen to and consider the actual voices of those we are dialoguing with, and not merely those of our own persuasion.”

The letter ended by praising the Pope for his recent expression of deep respect for all Muslims.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.