Leading PostsSeptember October 2006

Religion, Reason and Violence: Pope Benedict XVI and Islam

Prof. Hans Koechler

In his lecture entitled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,”[1] Pope Benedict XVI intended to demonstrate the compatibility of the Christian faith with reason (λόγος) as defined in classical Greek philosophy. He did so, regrettably, at the expense of Islam and Prophet Mohammed, reviving anti-Islamic prejudices of the Middle Ages. In the present context of increasing tensions between Islam and the West, caused to a considerable extent by Western powers’ wars against Muslim countries, his remarks and references to false and one-sided perceptions of Islam and to hostile statements against Prophet Mohammed, made hundreds of years ago, can only be seen as inflammatory und, thus, undermining his predecessor’s efforts at dialogue between the two great monotheistic religions and civilizations.

As a scholar of theology, the Pope is wrong about Islam in several respects. For instance, in Par. 3 of his lecture, he refers to Sura 2:256 of the Qur’an – “There is no  compulsion in religion” – as one of the Suras of the early period, when, according to the Pope, “Mohammed was still powerless and under threat,” while in reality this Sura dates to the middle period (around 624/625) when the Prophet was already in a position of strength, controlling a state in Medina. His understanding of jihâd also appears to be rather narrow, ignoring the term’s original meaning, namely that of an effort to achieve human perfection, whereby armed struggle is only one of many aspects.

As head of the Roman-Catholic Church, Benedict XVI has unfortunately revived the spirit of the crusades and has alienated the entire Muslim ummah. In the same Par. 3 of his lecture he quoted – without any further comment – the following phrase from a text of the 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologus: “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.” It is hard to see how Benedict XVI – if this derogatory perception of Islam and Prophet Mohammed is left unchecked – can be a credible partner in the “dialogue of cultures” to which he invites other religions in the last paragraph of his lecture. I am afraid that his professed intention of “listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity” is not sincere and his arguments against violence and in favour of dialogue are not convincing as long as he develops them by restating the anti-Islamic sentiments of the period of the crusades.

In his lecture preaching the compatibility of reason and faith, Benedict XVI, the scholar,  deliberately overlooks the fact that the insights of Greek philosophy – its commitment to the λόγος – have been brought to medieval Christian Europe by the great Muslim thinkers of the Middle Ages. What he calls the “encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought” (Par. 5 of his lecture)  was, to a large extent, the result of the influence of Muslim philosophers – at a time when European Christians were totally ignorant of classical Greek philosophy.[2]

There is a tendency in the entire lecture of Benedict XVI towards associating Islam with an attitude that is hostile to reason. In philosophical terms, however, the Islamic conception of God, in the sense of monotheism (tawhid / wahdania), is more clearly and consistently defined than the roman-catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the latter being rather ambiguous in terms of its distinction from polytheism and elements of paganism. In this regard, Islamic theology may more easily meet Benedict XVI’s requirements of “rationality” than the doctrine of the Church he presides over. The rich interpretation and adaptation of Greek philosophical thought in Islamic philosophy is one more proof of this, something  which is totally overlooked by the Pope.

Apart from the problematic scholarly aspects and certain inconsistencies in his argument, the Pope appears to be rather hypocritical in his criticism of violence carried out in the name of god. While referring to the condemnation, by a Byzantine Emperor, of violence in the name of Islam, he totally fails to address the issue of violence used by the Roman-Catholic Church over hundreds of years against Muslims and others it considered as non-believers. By not even mentioning the crusades and the forced conversions in the course of colonization he has not only defeated his argument, but discredited the Roman-Catholic Church as an honest partner in inter-faith dialogue in the 21st century. Furthermore, the notion of “Holy War” which the Pope appears to detest so much is not an Islamic term; the translation of “jihad” by “holy war” is highly misleading. Literally, “holy war” is the translation of the Latin term bellum sanctum which was used to describe a crusade against the “Saracens” in the Middle Ages; thus, this notion was part of the doctrine of the Roman-Catholic Church over many centuries.

Regrettably, in his lecture preaching reason and the propagation of religious values by peaceful means, the Pope totally overlooks the fact that the Muslim world is again subjected to the imposition of a doctrinary understanding of human rights and Western values by means of armed force – as demonstrated by the project of the “Greater Middle East” which some Western leaders, claiming to be inspired by Christian values, have professed to implement.[3] The illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, having caused the death of thousands of innocent people, the ongoing intervention in Afghanistan, and the threat of war against Iran, are all testimony to this inhuman policy which, unlike his predecessor, Benedict XVI appears to ignore, something that puts in doubt his moral credibility as a religious leader.

In Par. 4 of his lecture, Benedict XVI, in his effort to demonstrate the different notion of God in Islamic teaching, supposedly incompatible with “rational” Christian thinking, briefly refers to the renowned French expert in Islamic studies, Roger Arnaldez. In order to avoid misunderstandings as to the approach of this scholar, the Pope should also have referred to Arnaldez’ lecture “Dieu comme Essence et comme Personne dans la théologie et la mystique chrétiennes et musulmanes” (God as Substance and Person in Christian and Islamic Theology and Mysticism) which he delivered at the International Progress Organization’s symposion on “The Concept of Monotheism in Islam and Christianity” in November 1981 in Rome.[4] In this international meeting more than a quarter century ago – in the era of Pope John Paul II – we had brought together Muslim and Christian scholars to explore the notion of “one god” in both religions and to identify structural similarities between both conceptions as basis for a better understanding. In the communiqué of the meeting, we had identified false stereotypes as main obstacle to genuine dialogue between Christians and Muslims and had expressed the hope “that Christians from a young age can learn from the true culture of Islam.”[5] To the dismay of all who are committed to inter-faith dialogue, with his lecture at the University of Regensburg the head of the Roman-Catholic Church has seriously undermined these efforts.


[1] Apostolic Journey of His Holiness Benedict XVI to München, Altötting and Regensburg (September 9-14, 2006) –  Meeting with Representatives of Science – Lecture of the Holy Father. Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, Tuesday, 12 September 2006: Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections. Online version released by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006,  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060912_university-regensburg_en.html. – Original German version: Glaube, Vernunft und Universität.
Erinnerungen und Reflexionen.

[2] Hans Köchler, “Muslim-Christian Ties in Europe: Past, Present and Future,” in: IKIM Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1 (January-June 1999), pp. 97-107.

[3] See Hans Köchler, “Civilization as Instrument of World Order? The Role of the Civilizational Paradigm in the Absence of a Balance of Power,” in: Future Islam, “Insights,” New Delhi, July/August 2006, www.futureislam.com (Online Journal).

[4] Roger Arnaldez, ““Dieu comme Essence et comme Personne dans la théologie et la mystique chrétiennes et musulmanes,” in : Hans Köchler (ed.), The Concept of Monotheism in Islam and Christianity. Vienna: Braumüller, 1982, pp. 97-106.
[5] Op. cit., p. 133.

Additional reading

o  Hans Köchler (ed.), The Concept of Monotheism in Islam and Christianity (International Symposion in Rome, 17-19 November 1981)

o        Hans Köchler, Muslim-Christian Ties in Europe: Past, Present and Future (Lecture delivered in Kuala Lumpur, 2 September 1996)

o        Hans Köchler, Civilization as Instrument of World Order? (Lecture delivered in Istanbul, 13 May 2006)

o      Roger Arnaldez, Dieu comme Essence et comm Personne dans la théologie et la mystique chrétiennes et musulmanes

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