Papal Indiscretion

Dr. S. Zafar Mahmood
President, Interfaith Coalition for Peace

Speech delivered at Interfaith Meet, India International Centre,
New Delhi on 19 Sept 2006

For sharing with the world his understanding of Islam Pope Benedict XVI decided to quote an observation of a Byzantine Emperor of 14th -15th century. The Holy Father heads the Vatican which must have a battery of academic researchers on roll. So he could have analysed the actual verses of the holy Quran to support his thesis rather than depending upon the unverified words attributed to a six centuries old worldly Christian emperor.

It is important to recall that Manuel II Paleologus was the second-to-last emperor of the Byzantine Empire. During fourteenth century the Ottoman Turkish Empire had become the major rival of the Byzantine Empire which, now reduced to a minor state, had been almost expelled from Asia Minor. Emperor Manuel was now a vassal subject to the Sultan’s orders on campaign. During leisurely breaks reportedly Islam figured in his discussion with Sultan’s Kazi (Magistrate). The result of these conversations was what we know today as “Twenty-six Dialogues with a Persian”. However, apart from the Manuel’s writings there is no independent verification that the conversations at all occurred. There is every likelihood of a mixture of fact and fiction. Yet, Manuel gave to the world knowledge of Islam as perceived by him. For writing this he relied on the ‘Apology of Christianity against Islam’ by his maternal grandfather, John VI Cantacuzenus. Intellectually both remained within the framework of traditional Byzantine anti-Islamic polemics. Thus, it is clear that Manuel II was just a normal worldly Christian ruler whose empire was constrained by Turkish domination. For interpreting Quran and Traditions of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) Manuel did not try to undertsand the book objectively as he was prejudiced against Islam that was incidentally the religion professed by the Turks who besieged Manuel’s territories. His writings about Islam are hardly worth serious consideration for the purpose of getting a fair idea of Islamic precepts.

Benedict XVI just picked on one writing of German author Adel Theodore Khoury. But while dealing with interfaith matters he could have referred to another writing of the same author titled Abraham – Our Father in Faith. Here Khoury emphasizes that rather than being an object of dispute and wrangling between the three faiths that claim him, Abraham can become the initiator and the guarantor of a serious dialogue between them and of a fruitful co operation for the good of all humanity.

The Pope seems impressed by the exclamation of Christian Emperor, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new.” Briefly we can readily count a small part of what the Prophet brought that was new and by 21st century has been accepted by one fourth of world’s population. Faith in the unity and uniqueness of God being the Creator and Sustainer of the Worlds. This strengthens the unity of mankind. The cubical shaped Kaaba in the Grand Mosque at Makkah being the common point of reference for prayers by all the believers in the entire world. This puts into practice the basic principles of societal orderliness. Opening the prayers all the world over by recitation of the opening seven sentences of the holy Quran. This creates a sense of belonging across the continents. Daily five times prayers facilitating greater godliness. Weekly Friday prayers that cause regular healthy socializing. Obligatory charity out of annual savings establishes socialist pattern of society. Annual refresher course by way of month long fasting. That way people are reminded of their duties towards the less fortunate ones. Annual performance of pilgrimage at the holiest shrine by the believers living anywhere in the world if their resources permit – atleast once in lifetime. This promotes universal love. Complete equality of human beings irrespective of nationality, race, colour, caste or creed. Introduction of the idea of releasing slaves being the mode of repentance and expiation for sins. Banning of alcohol that is responsible for crimes and accidents and so on and so forth. There is nothing ‘evil’ or ‘inhuman’ in these injunctions using the words of Manuel II quoted by Benedict XVI. Its strange that neither the 14th Century Christian Byzantine Emperor nor the 21st century head of Vatican apparently knew of any of these new features introduced to the world by the 7th century Prophet (pbuh).

The Pope also gave his interpretation about ‘holy war’ as prescribed in Quran. He cursorily dismissed verse 2:256 (there is no compulsion in religion) as it was revealed to the Prophet before he migrated to Madinah and did not have political power. But, without specifically quoting any Quranic verse he said that Manuel must have read the verses regarding holy war that were revealed to the Prophet during the later period of his life at Madinah. Thus, Pope discounted the message given by Islam’s Prophet and tried to justify the Christian emperor’s interpretation of Quran.

It is vital to note that the expression ‘holy war’ is of English language and has Christian origin. There is no equivalent concept either in Arabic language that is the language of Quran or in Middle-Eastern or West Asian culture or history. Perhaps the Pope referred to the Quranic injunction regarding Jihad. This word has the Arabic three letter root J-H-D that means ‘to strive’. According to Quran Jihad is to help a poor or needy person at the expense of oneself. Yes, in some verses of Quran revealed later the rules and strategy of war that were fought at that time have been spelt out. All these wars were for self defense. In any case the strategy or rules of war must not be confused with the noble concept of Jihad even though in today’s world the word is much misunderstood, misinterpreted, misutilised and maligned.

In the papal clarifications issued on 16 and 17 September 2006 it has been conveyed to the world that the Pope is sorry that his speech has been misunderstood. That really means that the Benedict XVI stands by the words that he uttered on 12 September at the University of Regensburg. In fact courtesy demands that the Pope should put on hold his Regensburg interpretation of holy Quran and Prophet’s Traditions till a full fledged interfaith dialogue occurs between him and world’s top Muslims who are scholars of Shariat – Islamic Law. May be thereafter the Pope would like to confess that it is he who misunderstood and misinterpreted the holy Quran.

If, however, while speaking at Regensburg the Pope had in his mind the violence being unleashed in the world today in the name of Jihad his concern is welcome. Every such violence is rejected by holy Quran and Prophetic Traditions. Good Muslims of the world constitute more than 99 % of the community. They condemn all such violence and feel hurt and pained.