Benedict’s Speech Misinterprets Islam

At a speech in Germany last week, Pope Benedict XVI quoted from a theological dialogue between a 14th-century Byzantine Emperor and a Persian Muslim scholar. Statements from the pope’s speech greatly offended and disappointed millions of Muslims worldwide, and rightly so.
First, several of the pope’s comments about Islam were completely erroneous. The pope referred to the beginning of verse 256 in the second chapter of the Quran (‘There is no compulsion in religion…’) as a verse that had been revealed in the earlier part of Prophet Muhammad’s life when he was powerless. He went on to suggest that this verse was followed by statements about ‘holy war’ that sanctioned the spread of Islam by the sword.
Based on authentic narrations, the above-mentioned verse of the Holy Quran was actually revealed toward the latter part of Prophet Muhammad’s mission after he had established the first Islamic state in Madinah. More importantly, this verse is as applicable today as it was 1400 years ago: conversion by force is absolutely forbidden in Islam.
Furthermore, the concept of ‘holy war’ to which the pope referred to is nonexistent in Islam. Muslims were given permission to bear arms only in self-defense or in their struggle for justice: ‘Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged and God indeed has the power to help them; for they are those who are driven from their homes unjustly due to their faith’ [22:39-40]. At no point in the life of Prophet Muhammad or his righteous followers was Islam spread or imposed on anyone by the sword.
After his comments on violent conversions, Pope Benedict XVI considered the relationship between faith and reason, especially with regard to the Islamic and Christian faiths. He suggested that the relationship in the Islamic faith is different than that in the Christian one because Muslims view God as ‘absolutely transcendent,’ God’s will being unbound by any human category, ‘even that of rationality.’ This statement is misleading.
It is true that Muslims believe that God is beyond all worldly standards and that ‘there is nothing like unto Him’ [42:11]. However, this only implies that God’s attributes, including God’s wisdom, are above and beyond our comprehension. Thus we as humans may be unable to see the reasons behind some of God’s judgments, but that does not make those judgments irrational. This is an important distinction that is absolutely necessary for a correct understanding of Islamic law and theology.
To truly understand the relationship between Islam and reason, one must start by examining the verses of Holy Quran. Over and over again, the Quran urges its readers to analyze, think, reflect and ponder with open minds and hearts.
The statement that angered most Muslims was the quote from Emperor Paleologos: ‘Show me just what Muhammed 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.’ It is true that this statement was not the pope’s own, and he did later clarify that he did not mean it as an expression of his personal opinion.
Nevertheless, I would expect any knowledgeable religious leader to refute this statement, based on its gross misrepresentation of Islam and the contempt and hatred it displays towards Muslims. Suffice it to quote Prophet Muhammad: ‘Do not kill the elderly, the women, the children, nor destroy any innocent life (whether plant or animal) and always try to improve things, reform matters, act kindly towards others; for God loves those who act with compassion.’

Huda Shaka’ is a graduate student in the department of chemistry. She can be reached at hshaka@gmail.com.