Pope Benedict, Islam and Violence

Pope Benedict, Islam and Violence
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi

When the Christians of Jerusalem decided to give in to the Muslim army that had been laying siege to the city under the command of Amr bin Al As (RA), they set a condition that Caliph Umar (RA) must come in person, to sign the peace treaty. Umar and his attendant had only one camel and they took turns to ride from Medina to Jerusalem. He approached the city peacefully and by foot, to be cordially received by its Christian guardian, Bishop Sephronious. Umar signed the peace treaty with the rulers of Jerusalem which read,

“This is the protection which the servant of God, Umar, the Ruler of Believers, has granted to the people of Jerusalem. The protection is for their lives and property, their churches and crosses, their sick and healthy and for all their coreligionists. Their churches shall not be used for habitation, nor shall they be demolished, nor shall any injury be done to them. There shall be no compulsion for these people in the matter of religion, nor shall any of them suffer any injury on account of religion. The people of Jerusalem must pay the poll tax like the people of other cities and they must expel the Byzantines and the robbers …”

The gates of the city were opened and Umar went to the Temple Mount and said his prayer. Afterwards the Bishop invited him to tour the biggest church of the city. Umar was in the church when the time for the afternoon prayer came. The Bishop offered to let him pray in the church. “No” replied Umar, “If I do so, the Muslims one day might take this as an excuse to take the church from you”. So Umar prayed on the steps of the church. He then gave the Bishop a pact that forbade Muslims from ever praying on the steps of the church. Until today, the keeper of the key to Jerusalem’s Church of Holy Sepulchre is in the same Muslim family for generations. The fire-bombing of a church in Gaza in the wake of Muslim protests over Pope Benedict’s speech represents an aberration in Christian – Muslim relations in Palestine, one that is spurred by the radicalization of society under a long and brutal military occupation than the teachings of Islam itself.

The portrayal of Islam as a religion that preaches violence and is primarily spread by it is nothing new in western discourse. It is the most potent argument for justifying all manner of prejudicial treatment on the religion and its followers, from soft discrimmatory policies to islamophobic writings in the media even to occupation of muslim lands killing their innocents, destroying their societies and plundering of their resources. This is something that Muslims have learned to accept to live with, especially in the last few years.

But why did the Muslim react in such a manner when Pope Benedict repeated something that we are already accustomed to hearing from not so friendly western public figures? After all flamboyant televangelists like Jerry Falwell have said worse things than the Pope – calling the Prophet of Islam a paedophile and terrorist – yet we never asked for an apology. In the modern era, not least because of the late Pope John Paul II, Muslims have a genuine respect for the head of the Catholic church. The Crusades, the Reconquista, the Inquisitions were far behind us. The Catholic Church with its long history and tradition, its large number of faithful and the authority of its leadership, its unambiguous moral precepts and its liturgies and rites represent what constitutes Christian orthodoxy to ordinary Muslim eyes, as the last bastion against the inexorable march of secularization of western society. The Pope and the church is seen as embodying the vestiges of sacredness and other worldliness of that society, whose historical trajectory and fortunes is a reminder to us of the dangers of unfettered hubris. This is also an era where few have the neither the desire nor the stomach for religious wars. Where the role of religion in society has been radically rolled back, both the Islamic and Christian orthodoxies should be sharing a common vision of restoring spirituality to moderate the rampant individualism, materialism as well as other less edifying aspects of modernity. This is at least the general view point of ordinary Muslims, given the position as the Christian faithful as “People of the Book” and the reverence with which Jesus (AS) is held by Muslims.

Therefore, to Muslim eyes, what the Pope said in his address at his old university about the Prophet and Islam is totally uncharacteristic for someone holding the office of Head of the Catholic Church. That Pope Benedict was the Vatican’s foremost theologian before his appointment, for His Holiness to have descended to the language and rhetorics of American televangelists pressed into the service of President Bush’s war on terror is a great disappointment and utterly shocking to Muslims.

One can’t help comparing him to his predecessor, whom Muslims regarded as someone who had served his faith with utmost sincerity, and at the same time a genuine builder of bridges. At his death Muslim religious leaders praised Pope John Paul as having contributed greatly to his religion and humanity, as a unique example in spreading peace and tolerance among peoples. When the Muslim world felt anguished and humiliated, he stood firmly against the US-led occupation of Iraq and the Israeli separation wall, pointing out that US Middle East policies were not helping the cause of peace.

Not only did Pope Benedict’s attack on Islam and the Prophet followed by a half-hearted apology grudgingly given evoked strong reaction in the Muslim world, a number of western commentators took him to task for his low-brow critique of Islam that appeared more like common-place prejudice and questioned his possible motives, juxtaposing his well known position on Turkey with regards to its EU membership bid for greater effect. One notable piece that has been in wide circulation among Muslims was written by the veteran Israeli journalist and peace activist Uri Avneri. Drawing many examples mainly from the Ottoman era and Andalusian golden age to debunk the Pope’s thesis, he gave an insightful account of Muslim society’s tolerance of Christians and Jews in their midst, some flourishing as scholars while some others rose to the ranks of ministers.

It has to be admitted that wars are part of Islamic history from very early on, but perhaps not more or not less than in the history of other religions that have built civilizations. Wars were simply an instrument of politics for much of the history of human civilization up to the recent era when the massive destruction and colossal loss of lives wrought by modern warfare in World War II made us shudder, and diplomacy and international law became established as the framework for settling the affairs of nations. The battles led by the Prophet at Badr and Uhud was a defence against the idolators of Mecca who mustered a superior force to annihilate the nascent Muslim community. In the classical Islamic period there were many wars fought between Muslim political entities vying from power within the larger body-politics of the Islamic Caliphate – wars that were motivated primarily by worldly ambitions. The biography of Ibn Khaldun tells of his fortunes and reversals as he switched political loyalties from one court to another in the mini kingdoms of North Africa of the 1300’s. It was during one of his low periods that he spent 3 years in isolation to write his “History of the Maghreb” whose introductory volume, “the Muqaddimah” became a celebrated text today a pioneering work in sociology/historiography. In the early Islamic period violent strife stirred up by extremist elements like the Kharijites had been the cause of costly internecine battles that took the lives of some eminent companions of the Prophet (SAW). The war that the first Caliph Abu Bakr (RA) waged on the rejecters of the zakat was perhaps the rare instance where religion rather than realpolitik had been the basis.

It is understandable that in the context of the politics times, the prophet and his companions took part in battles and wars. Even in the era of the primacy of international law, however undesirable and destructive wars are, they may be inevitable and legitimate. Just as “just war” is an accepted concept in international law and diplomacy, jihad in its specific military sense is part of the Islamic lexicon. What Islam laid down should war becomes inevitable is ethical limitations and chivalrous conduct, that the humanity of the adversary must be respected, that non combatants, women, children, the aged and religious leaders must not be harmed and that public buildings, dwellings, crops and water sources must not be destroyed. The books of fiqh of the classical Islamic period would customarily have a chapter on Jihad to remind Muslims of their religious duty to act within the limits.

Needless to say, how Muslim armies conducted themselves throughout Islamic history or what their motives were for going to war may not necessarily accord with what have been laid down in the books of Fiqh anymore than the conduct of crusader Reginald of Chatillon or the Serbian militia’s murder and rape of Bosnian Muslims in the name of defending Christendom represent Christian teachings.

Had Pope Benedict questioned why the Muslim armies crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and went on to conquer Spain for Islam or why the Moors pushed north as far as Poitiers and Tours in the French heartland to support his argument, we may have some difficulty in giving a convincing answer, never mind that conquest of Spain gave birth to civilization that became a conduit for Europe’s recovery of the Greek intellectual legacy though the works of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina and Al Faraby that was to pave the way for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But Pope Benedict chose to attribute to Prophet Muhammad (SAW) himself the violence and the sword to perpetuate the western prejudice on Islam. Thanks to early Muslim scholars for their scrupulousness who have recorded in meticulous detail the prophet’s life, his companions and Islam’s early history, it is not difficult to respond to misconceptions and deliberate distortions. One such example from Al Tabari is the “Covenant of Umar” the second Caliph of Islam, a document addressed to the people of Jerusalem after the conquest of the city in 638 CE, 5 years after the prophet’s death, narrated in the introductory passage above. Not only did Umar (RA) act in a just manner that is a reflection of his deep piety, being one of the Prophet’s closest companions, he also exhibited the austere simplicity (zuhd) that was exceptional for the age when conquering emperors would ride in triumphantly with pomp and splendor. The Caliph took turns to ride the one camel he shared with his attendant from Medina to Jerusalem. Al-Tabari also wrote in detail of similar treaties made by the Prophet’s companions with the inhabitants of other conquered cities in Syria-Palestine and Egypt. It is clear that the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem and other cities in the region was not to seek conversion of the Christians. It was an imperative of realpolitik of the age and the Muslims sought to put Islamic political order in place of the Byzantines who happened to be Christians.

In Baladhuri’s account of the early jihad (Futuh al Buldan – the openings of the nations), there is clear evidence of the importance Muslims attached to the idea of “no compulsion in religion”, as demonstrated by a text written by the Prophet to the Christian community of Najran in Southern Arabia guaranteeing them certain social and religious rights under Islamic rule,

“Najran and their followers are entitled to the protection of Allah and to the security of Muhammad the Prophet, the Messenger of Allah, which security shall involve their persons, religion, lands and possession, their camels, messages and images (a reference to crosses and icons) … No attempt shall be made to turn a bishop, a monk from his office as a monk, nor the sexton of a church from his office”

The other controversial point raised by Pope Benedict commented on the verse “There is no compulsion in religion (2:256)”, was the charge that the Prophet was the author of the verse which he later abrogated. He noted that the “experts” say that this was composed early on when “Muhammad was powerless and still under threat” but later he ordered the use of the sword in the service of the faith. Was the Pope implying that the Quran was authored by the Prophet? While this is perfectly understandable for a non muslim to hold as a personal opinion, to insist so publicly in such a manner while holding the highest office in the Catholic Church is insensitive and does great damage to good faith between Muslims and Christians.

The decline of religion and religious culture in the west, the catholic countries like Spain, France, Italy and Ireland included, is not about to let up. Known for his doctrinal conservativeness, this must be one of Pope Benedict’s major area of concern. In the attempt to conflate Christianity with post-modern, post-Christian west and doing its bidding by recycling the old European myths about Islam and its Prophet – is this a sign of desperation in a struggle against the relentless decline of religion? In the modern European context Islam is not in competition with Christianity. Muslim readily recognize Europe’s Christian heritage and its immense contribution to western civilization from art and architecture to the development of academic disciplines and the university, to providing the ethical foundations in liberal thought, even if many have decried religion as an obstacle to human progress. The idea of re-asserting Christian values, culture and identity in highly secular Europe is going to be tough and one can only view it with resigned pessimism. However it is something that many Muslims could identify with if the vision is to leaven secular modernity with a moral and ethical compass that is expansive and accommodative. However the Pope started on the wrong footing by reviving the old prejudices against Islam.

Today it is the Muslims who continue to fiercely hold on to the notion of the Sacred Transcendent, Divine Guidance and Grace through prophethood, of unambiguous immutable moral precepts and values, and of the Sacred Law without having to apologize to secular materialism. If the Catholic Church needs friends in these lean times, they can find them in the Muslims.