Monday, October 23, 2006

Would That It Were So

On October 12, thirty-eight leading Muslim scholars sent an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI.

According to a press release in Islamica Magazine, the letter "was sent, in a spirit of goodwill, to respond to some of the remarks made by the Pope during his lecture at the University of Regensburg on Sept. 12, 2006.

"The letter tackles the main substantive issues raised in his treatment of a debate between the medieval Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an 'educated Persian', including reason and faith; forced conversion; 'jihad' vs. 'holy war'; and the relationship between Christianity and Islam. They engage the Pope on an intellectual level concerning these crucial topics—which go well beyond the controversial quotation of the emperor—pointing out what they see as mistakes and oversimplifications in the Pope’s own remarks about Islamic belief and practice.

"The Muslim signatories appreciate the Pope's personal expression of sorrow at the Muslim reaction and his assurance that the words of the Byzantine emperor he quoted did not reflect his personal opinion. By following the Quranic precept of 'debating in the fairest way', they hope to reach out so as to increase mutual understanding, reestablish trust, calm the situation for the sake of peace, and preserve Muslim dignity."

I have read the letter in its entirety, and strongly urge readers of The Continuum to do the same.

The tone of the letter is eirenic and the content is reasoned and reasonable (though there are certainly historical assertions that require some serious challenge, particularly with respect to Muslim conquests.)

And that is what troubles me. Why is it that such voices as these are not heard on a regular basis? Where are they every time some Islamic fundamentalist gets a bee in his bonnet over some perceived slight to Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, or to the Muslim prophet Muhammed, and starts demanding that heads roll, literally?

Why are these voices not crying out in condemnation of that, or of the kidnappings and forced conversions of Christians in Egypt? Or trumped-up criminal charges against Christians in Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere?

What have they got to say about the issue of apostacy, which they sadly overlooked in their letter, and which leads to persecution and even death?

I am also troubled by what, to my admittedly amateur knowledge of Islamic institutions, would seem to be the absence of some of the big guns. I do not see, for example, the signature of Muhammed Tantawi, sheikh of Al-Azhar University, which is considered to be the greatest center of Sunni theology and jurisprudence. Nor do I see any great lights from Saudi Arabia, which prides itself as the guardian of the holy sites and an opinion leader in the Islamic world.

Furthermore, unless I have missed something, I do not see any representation from the clergy of that most strident Shiite Muslim power, Iran. This, a country whose president speaks with glee about hastening the Apocalypse. Perhaps the signatories could speak to that.

I would like to take this letter on face value, as an effort by leading thinkers in the Muslim world to open a broad and reasoned dialogue with the Christian world, with a view to arriving at some sort of entente. If it can serve as an opening gambit in that dialogue, then God be praised.

But I would certainly hope that in any response to the letter he might write, or any future discussion he might engage in, His Holiness will raise the same questions that I have done.


Anonymous said...

From Iran, there is Ayatollah Muhammad Ali Taskhiri; from al-Azhar, Prof. Abla Mohammed Kahlawi.

Albion Land said...


Thanks, but the point I was making here was that we were missing prominent people.

I have never heard of Tashkiri in many years of following events in Iran. I just googled him, and found only 16 entries. And most of them were linked to the letter.

As for Al-Azhar, one would expect that for something this weighty, Sheikh Muhammed would have weighed in.

He didn't. My point.

Anonymous said...

Hello All,

Overall I view this as a promising and positive development. Once you can get Muslims to start thinking in a critical way you have already made a space for the Holy Spirit to enter into their minds and lives. I mean, the fact that these men have come together to engage in a fair and honest debate, notwithstanding any historical innacuracies that they propogate, instead of slipping into anger and violence, is good.

There is of course in general a discrepancy--a great discrepancy indeed--between what is said by Muslim leaders and what they do. I hope that these scholars are indeed preaching these ideas to their people.

The way of Islam is the sword. Islam was made to rule and conquer, and when it is not ruling and conquering and plundering, it declines. Islam has seldom been a generative civilization, but one that prospers through the work and generation of others.

The Pope, by getting Muslim scholars to engage him on his own turf--that of historical and logical discourse--has already scored a minor victory. May there be many more in the future.