The text of Pope Benedict's speech can be found here at the Vatican's official website--kinda fun to say. The Pope's words, unintentionally, has caused some controversy and anger among certain Muslims. He has publicly apologized for any hurt caused.
Pope Benedict gave the speech at the University of Regensburg on the topic of faith and reason. The strangest and saddest thing about this whole (non)affair is that the talk really has absolutely nothing to dowith Islam itself, as you will discover when reading it. The title is Faith, Reason, and the University.
The only reason Islam enters the fray is that Benedict took as his guiding remarks an otherwise obscure 14th century Byzantine theological tract by the Greek Emperor Manuel II--one of the last Byzantine monarchs. Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1491. Manuel II's work is a dialogue purported to have taken place between himself and a Persian--i.e. a Muslim. It covers questions of Christianity, Islam, God, humanity, etc. So the work Benedict quotes does have behind it a somewhat polemical tone (that is Manuel II's treatise).
But Benedict specifically states:
It is not my intention to discuss this question [who won the debate!!!] 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.
Now the next paragraph gets a little dicey and hear again I think no harm intended, but maybe not the best choice of words. In the Dialogue, Manuel II raises the issue of holy war---as controversial then as now. He cites seemingly opposing passages within the Islamic tradition on Holy War. Surah 2.256 famously states, "There is no compulsion in religion." A favorite text of the more moderate Islamic (and non-Islamic) elements everywhere.
Then Benedict states (emphasis mine):
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.
That quotation is a little bunched, I'll chop it up a bit.
The most critical element of Islam comes from the words of the Emperor (who was at war with Turkic Muslims recall) not Benedict. So perhaps Benedict should not have quoted the Emperor. What I think is the most ire-raising is that the statement that anything new the Prophet Muhammad brought is evil and religious violence. Behind that statement lies the traditional Christian argument that Christianity was the final revelation and therefore Muhammad was a heretic and hence Islam is not a real religion but rather a Christian heresy. Muhammad is found in Dante's Inferno not his Paradiso. That view paralleled by the normative Islamic tradition that Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, the last and final and greatest Prophet with the final (non-corrupted) form of Revelation from God. So anything Muhammad said/taught that was valid and holy was already contained within Judaism and Christianity, anything he brought new would have been heretical, false, and violent.
Historically and I would say religiously this is false. Islam brought an emphasis on the oneness of humanity, of identity beyond color through creed, prayer, and worship, that to me in a way represents a fulfillment, if you like, of the tendency towards God and human community in monotheism.
I've been over this point before in this blog, so I won't go into all, but Benedict's reference to the later development of holy war cconcepts within the Quran is correct, though not amplified and intrinsically dicey, as I've said, that it could have helped to contextualize that statement--though again he is just working up to the main point (which really isn't invovled with Islam per se at all). On the question of the evolution of the concepts of jihad/holy war within the first generation of Islam, see here and here.
The quick version is that while Islam created the first trans-tribal identity (or large tribe identity) in the Arab peninsula, which was a great blessing--care afforded to those outside clan circles--it is accurate, within bounds, to say that Islam brought the first concept of a holy war to the Arabia. Though the same could be said for Christianity vis a vis Roman lands, i.e. Crusades.
But all of that is actually fairly peripheral to the real thrust of the talk.
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature.
And again even here, the emphasis is not on violence but on the larger issue of God and rationality. Religious violence being just the positing of that prior thesis.
Here I guess the argument would be whether it was a good idea to use religious violence with allusion to the history of Christian/Islamic warfare as a good way to prove his point (God is not unreasonable).
The anti position would be that given how the occupation of Iraq is seen as a new form of imperialism and a new Crusade by a Christian nation--not helped by the fact that President Bush actually referred to it as such--on the Muslim people, this is not the time to be stoking that fire.
Although the Papacy has repeatedly (under both Benedict and his predecessor John Paul II) both condemned the invasion of Iraq. And the religious elements in the US that pushed for an overturning of ME policy as a bridgehead towards mass conversion were hardcore American Protestants (who in general think Catholicism an evil anyway).
The pro position would be, I think, something like this. Violence in religion is wrong and the Papacy was rightly standing up to it--whoever commits it. By calling us to re-embrace the compatibility of reason/faith Benedict was building a bridge with billions of the faithful, esp. Islam, around the world. Whatever one's opinion on the matter, I think if one actually reads the text, that there was no conscious intention to brutalize the faith of 1/6 of humanity.
The Pope's editors/speechwriters should have thought of the consequences of some of this ahead of time, although again it is never possible to totally imagine the reactions of others.
The whole thing could have been kept exactly the same, and after the comment about Muhammad adding nothing new but violence, Benedict could have just said something (as an aside), like: "Of course I don't actually believe this bit about Muhammad/Islam, but I would like to take up the general question of whether God is irrational."
In the long term, this missteps I find can actually be helpful: they teach us where each other's boundaries are. In the short term not so much. All of which is just the controversial piece of this paper, which itself is not the center of the work. The real question I still have is whether this was even, theologically and philosophically a good talk, whether the views expressed were deeply valid or not. I'll take up some provisional thoughts on that question in Part II.