The perpetually outraged motion machine that exists in the contemporary Arab-Muslim world, fuelled by toxic fumes of indiscriminate anger and hate, is once again in rage over references to Islam made by Pope Benedict XVI.
The Pope’s address at the University of Regensburg in his native Bavaria is a beautifully woven piece of meditation on the relationship between faith and reason, a subject of immense importance today as it has been in the common history of various cultures striving to reconcile what paradoxically seems irreconcilable.
The Pope mentioned a conversation between an “erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.”
He was reminded of this dialogue from the winter of 1391 as it touched upon the subject of violence employed in the pursuit of truth. In other words “truth”—whether belonging to the material world or in the realm of spirit—cannot be imposed by violence.
The Pope does not need reminding that violence, including violence perpetrated for the glory of a religion, is part of human history—the image of Jesus on the crucifix is a daily reminder to Christians and non-Christians alike of this reality.
The main thrust of the Pope’s remarks (the speech can be read in its entirety online by “Googling” it) was a meditation on what results in the severance of reason and faith—the dialogue between ancient Athens (reason) and Jerusalem (faith) out of which emerged a Europe gifted in science and religion that is in danger of being perhaps irretrievably lost.
How credible is the Pope’s fear of what he warns? In the demonic celebration of reason or science Nazism and Communism, the two totalitarian scourges of the twentieth century, just about succeeded in making of Europe a tomb of broken limbs and empty hearts. And in the dogmatism of faith over reason, the fanatics of the Arab-Muslim world are prepared to bring about the demise of Europe’s cultural heritage resulting from the intercourse of Athens and Jerusalem.
But it is futile to engage with drivers of the perpetual anger machine—the political leaders, intellectuals, religious heads and demagogues—as they rush head-long to go over the precipice of history into oblivion. Indeed, the sooner this occurs the safer the world will become.
Hence, instead of dignifying outrage by striving to find any merit in what has led to the burning of Pope effigies in the Arab-Muslim world, I am reminded of another conversation worth recalling that took place in Baghdad in 1258.
It occurred following the fall of Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire and the seat of the Islamic caliphate, to Mongol armies led by Hulaqu Khan. The conqueror demanded eminent Muslim scholars of the time present themselves to him in Baghdad, and then he posed to them the question: “Which is preferable (according to your Islamic laws) the disbelieving ruler who is just or the Muslim ruler who is unjust?”
The assembled scholars sat in stunned silence, aghast at the question posed. Then one among them—history records a man by the name of Riazuddin Ali ibn Tawas—arose and signed a reply which read: “The disbelieving ruler who is just.”
There is much here to pause and reflect upon in the exchange between a conqueror and a scholar that occurred in Baghdad over eight centuries ago.
One thing is certain from observing the contemporary Arab-Muslim world, it suffers from an excess of Muslim rulers who are unjust and religious leaders who never understood that faith without reason is as arid and life-denying as deserts of inner Arabia.