The Pope and the Prophet: Muslims See Shades of a Centuries-Old Ploy

The real question remains: will the pope ensure that such Catholic-Muslim misunderstanding never recurs, putting an end to the centuries-long cycle of disparaging Muhammad to exhort Europeans to a more vigorous commitment to their own civilization

In a speech delivered on September 12- in which he called Europe to return to a richer understanding of human reason, one not at odds with belief in a divine being-Pope Benedictus XVI succeeded in enraging an unintended audience: Muslims. The cause of the outcry was his reference to a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor's claim that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, had brought nothing new, only things "evil and inhuman." As a result, diplomats have been recalled, parliaments have demanded an apology, and officials in Turkey are considering retracting the pope's invitation to visit.  Churches in Muslim regions have come under attack, Christian minorities are exposed to reprisal, and radical groups have called for jihad against Rome.

Europe was addressed and Muslims responded. The pope's words may not have been intended as anything more than an academic reference in a speech that had nothing to do with Islam, but they have been cast as the latest example of a long-standing pattern, stretching back centuries, in which Europeans speak disparagingly of Muhammad with the goal not of provoking Muslims, but of exhorting those in Europe to a more vigorous commitment to their own civilization. The question is whether we can afford even the perception of such a tactical ploy in a climate where Muslims and Christians no longer live in separate territorial domains, but exist in close contact, jumbled together in cities across the world, including the great ones of Europe.

If the papacy is trying to make a last effort to save Europe from foregoing its Christian identity, arguably a noble cause, it will need to be done in ways that espouse a new global ethic where Christians and Muslims are friends, not foes. Muslims are troubled by the presence of violence in their own history and are eager to have sincere and frank discussions with Christians about the phenomenon of violence in the name of religion. These are trying days for Muslims who feel the image of Islam has been grossly maligned and seek peaceful dialogue with non-Muslims as a way to correct distortions. They want to be treated as genuine partners, not simply objects of Western tutelage with no civilization of their own. The concern registered on Muslim websites is that once again Europe has signaled its unwillingness to take Muslims seriously, and the fact that the signal has been communicated through the papal figure-who in the minds of Muslims is not only Christian leader par excellence but also chief moral voice of the Western world-makes it all the more insulting.

One could certainly question Muslim responses. For many, the violence marking the response to the papal speech only proves the point. One could also ask about prejudiced images of the West that come from the mouths of Muslim religious leaders, not to mention disparaging remarks about Christian belief. But the point here is the image of Islam that prevails in the West. Is it useful anymore, not to mention fair, and does it make sense for papal figures to have any part, even unintended, in perpetuating it?

Let us turn to the pope's speech. Its goal is to rescue reason from the limits that the modern world has put on it, limits that in the pope's estimation have duped Europe into setting reason against faith and turning against faith as something outside the bounds of reason, thus irrational. Benedictus XVI was elected with the hope that his theological acumen would be able to speak to the heart of Europe and nurture within it the sparks of a faith that seems to be fading.

Why then refer to Islam at all? In addition to his citation of the Byzantine emperor, the pope also made note of a dilemma in the theology of Islam, the idea that God's omnipotence makes it impossible to consider Him in terms of human reason. This dilemma has been a favorite target of orientalists of the past who saw it as chief reason for what they claimed was Islam's failure to be rational. Muslims, they boasted, cannot come to terms with rationality and do not understand the finer points of causality, because for them God is not bound by reason and is whimsical in His actions and decisions.

This orientalists' rendition of Islam seems to have informed the pope's remarks.  Set alongside the Byzantine emperor's claim that the prophet brought "things only evil and inhuman," the implication is that Islam and its prophet are not simply violent but irrational. So, the pope's exhortation to Europe made use of Islam as a convenient foil against which to cast the rationality of Christian faith. Papal infallibility, thankfully, is limited to matters of Christian faith and morals and does not extend to Islam. His thinking on Islam, at least as presented in the speech in question, adopted the orientalists' viewpoint, one that is now grossly obsolete in scholarship on Islam, which in recent years has undergone a sea change in its perspective on the rationality of Muslim thought.