Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Relevancy of the Middle Ages; or how a Medieval Source Got the Pope in Trouble

Pope Benedict has elicited Muslim outrage because he cited and quoted a medieval emperor's musings on Islam, faith and reason. (See!!! The Middle Ages can be relevant to today!!!) Here is the quote, stripped of all context:
"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."
Juan Cole asserts that the Pope was in error both theologically and historically in his citation:
The pope was trying to make the point that coercion of conscience is incompatible with genuine, reasoned faith. He used Islam as a symbol of the coercive demand for unreasoned faith.

But he has been misled by the medieval polemic on which he depended.

In fact, the Quran also urges reasoned faith and also forbids coercion in religion. The only violence urged in the Quran is in self-defense of the Muslim community against the attempts of the pagan Meccans to wipe it out.
The "medieval polemic" to which Cole refers is the work done by Theodore Khoury, whose translation of Manuel II's writings the Pope depended on.

Thomas F. Madden, historian of the Crusades (and he wrote a good review article on recent Crusade books here), has written about some of the important missing context that has been stripped away.
This is a tough lecture to boil down to one sentence, but if forced I would characterize it as: Theology belongs in the university because only by studying faith with reason will we find solutions to the problems of our time. However, if instead of reading the lecture we simply cut out everything except the words of Manuel II Palaeologus written six centuries ago, then we have a good justification for Pakistan’s parliament to unanimously condemn the pope. If we further pretend that it was Benedict, rather than a long-dead emperor, who expressed these sentiments we have a sound basis for the [subsequent Muslim outrage].
Andrew Morse is helpful in explaining why there is outrage in the Muslim world against what the Pope was talking about:

Although the furor over Pope Benedict’s [address] has centered on a perceived insult to the prophet Mohammed, I believe that the remarks were directed at a more recent figure, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer active in the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-20th century whose writings are widely read in the Islamic world today....many of Sayyid Qutb’s writings concern the split between faith and reason embodied in Western philosophy. According to Luke Loboda’s invaluable essay on Qutb’s work, Qutb believed that Christianity, under the influence of Greek philosophy and Roman tradition, had created a separation between faith and reason that was unnatural, unspiritual, and ungodly. In the Christianized West, maintaining social order became a purely rational process separated from religious faith, forcing people to continually deny the truth that faith and reason were inextricably linked, leaving them in disharmony with God’s creation.

In Qutb’s view, God had provided man with a system for uniting faith and reason in his day-to-day life – the system of Islamic law. Reason was acceptable when used for interpreting or implementing Islamic law, but not useful for discovering truths outside of its structure. Social orders claiming a rational basis and without relation to Islamic law and were especially unacceptable; Qutb viewed them as restrictions on and distractions from the precise instructions provided by God on how to exist harmoniously within the universe.

This is a complicated topic and I've only begun to really get into it myself. (In fact, after doing this post, I discovered that Wikipedia has an excellent summary of the debate!) But regardless of my own relative naivete on the subject, I can see that there are genuine debates concerning faith and reason and how the relate internally and externally to Christianity and Islam. Unfortunately, these worthy intellectual pursuits are subsumed by the reactions of the "Arab Street" who are nothing more than tools of radical imams or totalitarian governments who seek to use them for their own gain.

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