An authoritative ad hoc group of Islam’s most senior clerics and scholars has issued a detailed public response to Pope Benedict XVI’s September 12 Regensburg remarks. This remarkable document, dated October 12, has largely escaped notice, at least in the English-speaking world, apart from references this past week by Sandro Magister, the veteran Vatican-watcher, and David Warren, the estimable Canadian columnist.
It is a pity that this document, published in English on the website of Islamica Magazine, a small American quarterly, has received so little attention so far. For it marks a welcome and promising step toward properly focused inter-religious dialogue, as well as an authoritative refutation of some regrettably common views in the Muslim world on such pressing issues as religiously motivated violence and the denial of religious freedom.
The Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI runs some 2,700 words, roughly half the length of Benedict’s remarks on faith and reason, of which only a few passages are concerned with Islam. It is precisely these passages, however, that attracted such widespread attention; and it is these with which the authors of the open letter are concerned. Their response takes the form of a refutation of perceived errors of fact and interpretation under eight headings, ranging from compulsion in religion to Christianity and Islam more generally. Its overall tone is brisk, forthright, and properly respectful, “in a spirit of open exchange,” with a minimum of pedantry.
Rather than engage in a point-by-point commentary on the open letter, it’s more useful to consider its meaning and import under the general headings of scripture, tradition, and authority.
In support of their arguments, the authors rely principally on scripture, citing some twenty separate Koranic suras or verses. This is entirely proper; and non-Muslims rightly look to Muslims for authoritative interpretation of their own scriptures. The single most-cited verse is that which holds that “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). It is on the basis of this verse and several similar verses that the authors maintain that “the notion that Muslims are commanded to spread their faith ‘by the sword’ or that Islam was in fact largely spread ‘by the sword’ does not hold up to scrutiny.”
Yet how does one reconcile this admirably irenic proposition with regrettably numerous Koranic passages claiming precisely the opposite? Consider, for instance, just the notorious Sword Verse
Fight those who do not believe in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and his Messenger have forbidden — such men as practice not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book [i.e., Christians and Jews] – until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled (9:29).
What’s needed is some interpretive principle for reconciling such inconsistencies and thus avoiding proof-texting — wrenching a bit of scripture from context in order to “prove” some general proposition of current application. Muslims and non-Muslims alike need authoritative guidance to determine why, as here, one scriptural passage takes precedence over others in case of conflict. In this case, why does the no-compulsion-in-religion verse prevail over the Sword Verse and other equally belligerent suras that are not mentioned? Does the former abrogate the latter (a Koranic interpretive principle called nask)? If so, on precisely what basis?
The fancy word for this line of inquiry is hermeneutics, but its practice can be a matter of life and death in the Muslim world. Consider only the celebrated case of Mahmud Muhammed Taha, a well-respected Sudanese scholar who sought to distinguish Koranic principles of enduring significance from those meant to apply only in the early days of the Muslim community. He was condemned for apostasy and hanged by the present Islamist Sudanese regime in 1985.
The same considerations apply to Christian scripture, which the authors cite several times in support of their arguments. In the context of jihad, the authors cite the episode of Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers in the temple (Mt 21:12; Mk 11:15; Lk 19: 45-6; Jn 2:13-22). However one interprets this exceptional episode, it is most assuredly not a general warrant for licit religious violence, as the authors seem to imply; and it needs to be considered in the light of all four gospels and of Jesus’ otherwise pacific conduct and teaching. Here it may be useful to compare Jesus’ last words with Muhammad’s farewell address, as recorded in this hadith: “I was ordered to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no God but Allah.’”
The open letter’s authors take Benedict to task for citing the views of an eleventh-century Muslim scholar whom they dismiss as “a worthy but very marginal figure.” Without elaborating, the authors express their preference for the twelfth-century Muslim scholar al-Ghazali as a “far more influential and representative” figure.
It is helpful to know which figures in the life of Islam are considered authoritative interpreters of “the Islamic spiritual, theological, and philosophical tradition” (not unlike the nearly three dozen Doctors of the Church — such as SS. Augustine, Aquinas, and Catherine of Siena — whose work is deemed helpful for Christians “in every age of the Church”). There is some irony, however, in the choice of al-Ghazali as an exemplar, since he was perhaps the pivotal figure in the Islamic tradition’s decisive rejection of Greek philosophy as a complement to Koranic revelation.
The precise relation of reason and revelation in the life of Islam is an admittedly controverted subject, but there is nothing approaching the Thomistic synthesis which seeks to relate scripture to the natural law. This is a matter of considerable relevance, since one of the most pressing issues between Muslims and non-Muslims is religious freedom and other basic human rights for non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority states (“reciprocity” in Vatican parlance). For it was on the basis of both revelation and reason that the Roman Catholic Church belatedly accepted the principle of religious freedom for all in the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae or DH) at the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
It is precisely the absence of a natural-law element in Islam that makes dialogue with Roman Catholics more difficult and lessens the prospect that Islamic teaching itself can change (or “develop,” in Catholic parlance). It was precisely reasoned reflection on revelation and recent historical developments that resulted in DH:
This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom [and] that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as that dignity is known through the revealed Word of God and by reason itself [as] the requirements of this dignity have come to be more adequately known to human reason through centuries of experience (nos. 2 and 9).
To sum up, the proper relationship of scripture and tradition is by no means a new issue for Christians. It was one of the principal disputes of the Reformation under the heading of sola scriptura (scripture alone). And the controversy that ensued — and that has been largely resolved only recently with broad consensus among Christians — may be instructive for Muslims who wish to learn from the mistakes of others.
Any discussion of faith and reason or scripture and tradition leads inevitably to the question of authority. In matters of dispute, who decides? Who speaks for the Church — or for Islam?
In the case of Roman Catholicism, papal primacy goes a long ways toward clarifying matters, especially in comparison with Islam. But not all papal pronouncements — or other church documents — carry equal weight. Just as there is a “hierarchy of truths” (a Vatican II formulation) within the Catholic faith, there are also teachings of differing degrees of authority (commanding in turn differing degrees of assent by the faithful). Consider, for instance, the two documents that the open letter quotes at length. One is the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), one of the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council, approved by the pope and more than 2,000 bishops meeting in council; the other consists of papal remarks at a general audience quoting an earlier speech. These are decidedly not of equal weight, though that may not be clear to many Muslims — or to many Catholics, for that matter.
The situation within Islam is radically different. But the 38 signatories of the open letter are unquestionably among Islam’s most senior clerics and prominent scholars, including the topmost religious authorities in an impressive number of states. (Conspicuously absent are any Saudi religious authorities (apart from a Mauritanian professor now teaching in Saudi Arabia), as well as the two best-known Sunni clerics, Yusuf al-Qaradawi of al-Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammed Sayyed al-Tantawi, rector of Cairo’s al-Azhar seminary.)
David Warren, one of the most theologically literate public intellectuals around, rightly calls the open letter’s signatories “a ‘who’s who’ of the most learned leaders of a faith that has always aspired to be led by the most learned.” Would these same leaders be willing to carry on a continuing dialogue with Benedict and his principal advisers — preferably face-to-face — on the most pressing issues dividing Muslims and Christians, namely, religiously motivated violence and religious freedom? Would they also be willing to publicize their open letter and similar communications more widely among their own faithful? It is a pity that this document has received so little attention either in the West or, so far as one can tell, in the Muslim world, especially in comparison with Benedict’s Regensburg remarks — or with the Danish cartoon controversy, for that matter. (There is as yet no reference to the open letter on al-Jazeera’s English-language website.)
An earlier NRO piece called attention to the challenge that Benedict issued in his September 25 remarks to diplomats from Muslim-majority states. If this open letter leads to a deepening dialogue, with senior Muslim religious leaders accepting that challenge, that would be a most welcome and positive development indeed.
–John F. Cullinan formerly served as a senior foreign-policy advisor to the U.S. Catholic bishops.