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Part of the series on the
Regensburg lecture
Pope Benedictus XVI january,20 2006 (17)
'Lecture by
Pope Benedict XVI'
Pope Benedict XVI's lecture
Initial reactions
Subsequent Vatican statements
Open letters from top Muslim clerics
Protests, attacks and threats
Controversial Statements about Qur'an Chapter 2
Assessment of the lecture's purpose
Article discussion

Part of a series on
Controversies related to Islam and Muslims

Criticism of Islam

Islam · Muhammad · Qur'an · Islamism


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Notable modern critics

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Robert Spencer · Theo van Gogh
Afshin Ellian · Salman Rushdie
Ahmad Kasravi · Taha Hussein
Turan Dursun · Wafa Sultan
Lord Pearson

Extremist related events since 2001

Pope Benedict XVI's lecture

The lecture on faith and reason, with references ranging from ancient Jewish and Greek thinking to Protestant theology and modern secularity, focused mainly on Christianity and what Pope Benedict called the tendency to "exclude the question of God" from reason. Islam features in a part of the lecture: the Pope quoted a strong criticism of Islam, which he described as being of a "startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded".

The author of this criticism was the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (or Paleologus) in a 1391 dialogue with an "educated Persian" (who remained unnamed in the Pope's lecture), as well as observations on this argument made by Theodore Khoury, the scholar whose edition of the dialog in question the pontiff was referencing. Pope Benedict used Manuel II's argument in order to draw a distinction between an allegedly Christian view, as expressed by Manuel II, that "not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature", and an allegedly Islamic view, as explained by Khoury, that God transcends concepts such as rationality, and his will, as Ibn Hazm stated, is not constrained by any principle, including rationality.

In part of his explication of this distinction, Pope Benedict referred to a specific aspect of Islam that Manuel II considered irrational, namely the practice of forced conversion. Specifically, the Pope (making clear that they were the Emperor's words, not his own) quoted Manuel II Palaiologos as saying: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only bad and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The pontiff was comparing apparently contradictory passages from the Qur'an, one being that "There is no compulsion in religion", the other being that it is acceptable to "spread the faith through violence". The pontiff argued the latter teaching to be unreasonable and advocated that religious conversion should take place through the use of reason. His larger point here was that, generally speaking, in Christianity, God is understood to act in accordance with reason, while in Islam, God's absolute transcendence means that "God is not bound even by his own word", and can act in ways contrary to reason, including self-contradiction. At the end of his lecture, the Pope said, "It is to the great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures."

Key paragraphs

Quoted below are the three paragraphs (of sixteen total) which discuss Islam in Pope Benedict's lecture:

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on — perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara — by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between — as they were called — three "Laws" or "rules of life": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point — itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole — which, in the context of the issue of "faith and reason", I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that sura 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "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". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: "For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality." Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Muslim R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.

Translation differences

The original German text of the Pope's lecture as published at the Vatican website differs slightly in several respects from the English translation, despite both versions being official (though "provisional") Vatican versions. It is unknown whether this had an impact on perceptions of the speech.

As for the emperor's quote employed by the Pope, the translation "evil and inhuman" is doubtful. What the Pope said in German, according to the audio recording of his address and the subsequent German text, was "nur Schlechtes und Inhumanes finden".[1] The German adjective schlecht means "bad"; the English word evil would usually correspond to böse. The German adjective inhuman normally translates as inhumane which in English is subtly different from inhuman. As for meaning, therefore, "find only things which are bad and inhumane" seems to be a more accurate English translation of the Pope's utterance. (As a grammatical advisory, the use of initial capital letters indicates the two words are nouns. In this case they are adjectives being used as nouns, hence the introduction of the word "things" into the English translation.)

Another difference between the German original and the Vatican's English translation is the place where the word "jihad" has been omitted from the English: the original statement "The emperor touches on the theme of jihad, holy war" (kommt der Kaiser auf das Thema des Djihad, des heiligen Krieges zu sprechen) became in the English rendition "The emperor touches on the theme of the [sic] holy war." (In this context, the use of the word "the" before "holy war" is a grammatical mistake.)

  1. "Lecture of the Holy Father - Faith, Reason and the University Memories and Reflections", Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 12 September 2006 (German)

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