Pope Benedict XVI on Islam: a theologian, not a historian

Pope Benedict XVI and condoms, cartoon

Pope Benedict XVI, in a recent speech in his native Germany, made controversial remarks on Islam.

Uncritically, he quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who, while his capital was besieged by Turkish troops between 1394 and 1402, is supposed to have said:

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.

Benedict admits that in the Qurán, surah 2, 256 reads, to the contrary: “There is no compulsion in religion”.

However, he explains that away by saying that: “According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.”

There are questions on this explanation, like there are examples of individuals who, when feeling more powerful and less under threat, consider that now they can afford to be more magnanimous.

However, if the Pope relativizes a sentence from a holy book, supposed to be by its believers the pure word of God, by putting it in what he considers to be the proper historical context; then why doesn’t he do so with Emperor Manuel Palaeologus?

To give the Pope his due, at least he does not claim, differently from some big media reports of his speech, that Emperor Manuel was a contemporary expert on Muhammad (who lived three quarters of a millennium earlier).

Still: that emperor was not an abstract philosopher, but a head of state and commander in chief of his armed forces.

He was at war.

In times of war, it is well known that also religion is used to attack military opponents.

By Northern Irish Protestants wanting to take the land of Roman Catholics away from them with force; by medieval Christian Teutonic knights conquering estates for themselves in Eastern Europe; by Crusaders; etc. etc.

Emperor Manuel, if he indeed spoke the words attributed by posterity to him, should not have forgotten the violent persecution by his predecessors of fellow Christians: the Monofysite majority of Egyptian Chrstians; the Donatist majority of Christians in present day Tunisia; the Iconoclasts throughout the Byzantine empire …

Neither should the present pope forget this.

By the way, the Byzantine monarchy of Emperor Manuel was considered by the medieval predecessors of Pope Benedict XVI to be a gang of heretics and schismatics.

The Fourth Crusade of 1204 led to violent looting and conquest of the Byzantine empire by West European crusaders.

Should all Roman Catholic Christians, up to today, be blamed for that?

Defenders of the pope’s speech claim that it merely wanted to oppose violence based on religion.

A laudable aim indeed, in itself. However, then why just give an example from Islam, or rather: from Islam as seen by a medieval military opponent?

Why not give examples from various religions, including the pope’s own religion?

The speech seems to prove that Benedict XVI may be a theologian, with a ‘cut and paste’ approach to history, but not a historian.

This also shows in a less remarked part of the same speech, relevant to the relationship of Christians to Jews:

Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria – the Septuagint – is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity.

Here, the Pope admits that the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament, was not translated well from Hebrew into Greek.

However, in terms, not of human translators, but of revelation, of revelation supposedly by God Himself, it is supposedly an improvement …

A remark which should be of interest to religious Jews, and not only to them.

Regensburg, where the Pope spoke, has also an anti Jewish history.

Unfortunately, the speech by Benedict XVI seems to fit in a pattern of Right wing religious people exacerbating tensions between people of different religions; suddenly making “multiculturalism” supposedly a dirty word; mixing up “Islam” with “fascism”; etc.

Like Tony Blair’s minister Ruth Kelly.

Not a good road to take. Not for people of any, or no, religion.

Also on this subject: here.

And here.

And here.

And here.

And here.

12 thoughts on “Pope Benedict XVI on Islam: a theologian, not a historian

  1. Really liked this bit:

    “Unfortunately, the speech by Benedict XVI seems to fit in a pattern of Right wing religious people exacerbating tensions between people of different religions; suddenly making “multiculturalism” supposedly a dirty word; mixing up “Islam” with “fascism”; etc.”


  2. Pope Benedict XVI apologized yesterday for remarks that have caused anger and protest in the Muslim world. “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address,” the pope said. “These were in fact quotations from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.” His controversial remarks touched upon jihad and framed Islam in a violent light.

    Pope Benedict’s direct apology came after several attempts on the part of Vatican officials to make amends and calm widespread furor. Experts say such an open admission of error is uncommon in the Vatican’s history. “This is really, really abnormal,” said Alberto Melloni, professor of history at the University of Modena and author of several books on the Vatican. “It’s never happened as far as I know.”



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