Sunday, September 17, 2006

Holier than me

Byline by M J Akbar: Holier than me

An intriguing part of the conversation between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and "an educated Persian" now made world-famous by Pope Benedict XVI, is that the Persian seems to have no name. There is no mention of it in the speech made by the Holy Father during his "Apostolic Journey" to the University of Regensburg on 9/12.

The Persian must have been an intellectual of some importance if he was good enough to merit an audience with an "erudite" emperor. Does his name exist in the original text, since it was "presumably the Emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402"? Was the name mentioned in the version produced by Professor Theodore Khoury, which the Pope has read, and which he used in a speech on a critical aspect of a sensitive theme at a time of conflict, on the Islamic doctrine of "holy war"? I ask because names lend greater credibility to text. Was the name omitted because Muslims of the educated kind preferred anonymity? Not at all. Imam Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun were household names at the time of this dialogue.

There are other uncertainties in the Pope’s speech, which purports to be about "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections" in which he quotes Manuel’s ignorant, but, given the history of the early and medieval Church’s continual diatribe against Islam and its Prophet, predictable view. This discussion on "holy war" appeared in the seventh conversation and was "rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole". It is interesting that Pope Benedict should select what was "rather marginal" for emphasis and ignore the apparently more substantive issues that were discussed. What is genuinely disconcerting is that the Holy Father should accept Manuel’s taunting, erroneous and provocative depiction of the Prophet’s message without any qualification. Pope Benedict is not at all disturbed by phrases as insulting as "evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". This is utterly wrong, as even a cursory understanding of Islam would have made apparent. Are the Pope’s speechwriters equally biased or ignorant? The Pope treated Manuel’s observation and commentary as self-evident truth.

I have a further question: Why didn’t the Pope quote the Persian scholar’s answer to Manuel? It was a conversation, after all. Are we to believe that the Persian gave no answer, that he did not challenge such a rant? He could not have been much of a scholar in that case. If he did not reply he justifies his anonymity.

I am not erudite enough to have read the dialogue in the original Greek, or Professor Khoury’s edited version of it. I can only go by the Pope’s speech in Germany.

Some uncertainties can be explained by the distance of six centuries, as for instance the sentence that the conversation took place "perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara". The fact that we are reading Manuel’s record, rather than the Persian’s, also explains why it lays more stress on the emperor’s view of theology.

What is aggravating is that the Pope has been free with assumptions, and liberal with its first cousin, innuendo. The peaceful piety of Manuel becomes an indictment of Islam, which is held to be violent in preference and doctrine. The innuendo is cleverly expressed, indicating that some effort has been taken to be clever. The famous verse of the Quran, that "There is no compulsion in religion", is juxtaposed with the proposition that "According to the experts, this is one of the Suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat". The implication is that when he was not under threat, he drew out his sword and went on a rampage. This is the kind of propaganda that the Church used to put out with abandon in the early days, adding gratuitously comments about believers and "infidels". This is the line that those who have made it their business to hate Muslims, use till today. But the Vatican had stopped such vilification, and it is unfortunate that Pope Benedict has revived it.

If he had consulted a few experts who understood Islam, he might have been better educated on "holy war".

It is absolutely correct that no war verse was sent down to the Prophet during his Mecca phase. Despite the severest persecution, to the point where he almost lost his life, he never advocated violence. There are innumerable verses in the Quran extolling the merits of peace, and a peaceful solution to life’s problems — including a preference for peace over war. The Quran treats Christians and Jews as people of the Book, despite the fact that they did not accept the Prophet’s message. It praises Jesus as "Ruh-Allah", or one touched by the spirit of Allah (this is the best translation I can think of). Mary, mother of Jesus, is accepted as virgin, although the Quran is equally clear that Jesus is a man, and not the son of God.

The war verses are sent to the Prophet only when he has been in Medina for some time, and has become not only a leader of the community but also head of a multi-faith state. War, in other words, is permitted as an exercise in statecraft, and not for personal reasons, including persecution. Further, it is circumscribed with important conditions. Surely no one, including Pope Benedict, believes that a state cannot ever take recourse to war? Indeed, the history of the Vatican is filled with war. The Quran’s view of war, as an answer to injustice, certainly merits more understanding than censure.

Manuel’s view is better understood in the context of his times. He was monarch of a once-glorious but now dying empire. The Ottomans had been slicing off territory for centuries; the first Crusade had been called by Pope Urban II three centuries before to save the Byzantines from Muslim Turks. The heart of the empire, Constantinople, was now under serious threat. If Tamerlane (another Muslim) had not suddenly appeared from the east and decimated the Ottomans, Constantinople might have fallen during that siege which so depressed Manuel. It was hardly a moment when the Byzantines could have the most charitable view of an Islamic holy war. What is less understandable is why Pope Benedict should endorse a fallacy.

The present Pope is not a successor to the great and wise John Paul II. He is heir to predecessors like Pope Nicholas V who issued "The Bull Romanus Pontifex" in January 1455. This Holy Father sought "to bestow favours and special graces on Catholic kings and princes, who ... not only restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens (that is, Muslims) and of other infidels, enemies of the Christian name, but also for the defence and increase of the faith vanquish them..." He then praises King Alfonso for going to remote places "to bring into the bosom of his faith the perfidious enemies of him and of the life-giving Cross by which we have been redeemed, namely the Saracens and other infidels..."

And so on. This was the philosophy that created the Inquisition in which Muslims and Jews were killed and driven out of Catholic kingdoms in Spain and Portugal after the Christian reconquests. Do note that Muslims did not have any exclusive copyright over the use of the term "infidel".

I have no particular desire to introduce 16th century dialectic into contemporary attempts to bridge inter-faith misunderstanding, but it is pertinent that Nicholas V became Pope some sixty years after Manuel’s conversations with the unnamed Persian. Equally, there is no point in quoting from, say, Dante’s rather bilious descriptions of the Prophet and Hazrat Ali for that language belongs to a different world.

A suggestion to those who believe in an "international outcry". Hyper-reactions tend to suggest nervousness. Islam is not a weak doctrine; it is built on rock, not sand. Reason is a more effective weapon than anger.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant, brilliant article written in a spirit of mindful quiet, with the seasoned reason, authority and confidence true knowledge brings.

Thank you. Truly.

It doesn't undo the disquiet caused by one unhappy sentence uttered by one very visible authority and floated on every airwave to every listener, watcher, reader.

Was it meant to further goad the already goaded? Was it meant to warn those already filled with forbidding? Is it part of the unfolding self-fulfilling prophesy of our powerful pied pipers?

Then... these same airwaves filled up with scenes of violence, almost as if to say "See ... how they react?!"

I hope you are heard on every street... so that reason overcomes rage and restores the balance we so need, to work, actually work as one - for justice... therefore peace!


Lajo Gupta