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Neither Islam nor Christianity is going away, so we’ll need to find ways of speaking to each other. Is the Open Letter recently addressed to the Pope a sign that a moderate and rational Muslim consensus is beginning to emerge?

The Alhambra, an ancient mosque, palace and fortress complex of the Moorish monarchs of Granada, just outside that city, in southern Spain

The Pope’s Regensburg lecture, which caused such a great stir around the world, is indeed controversial in what it says or implies about Islam. The violent reaction to it was no doubt manipulated or manufactured by the worst kinds of extremist. Nevertheless, we should hope that increasing numbers of moderate Muslims will enter the debate that the Pope has provoked concerning the nature of Islam, following the lead of the thirty-eight distinguished signatories of the Open Letter sent to Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 12, 2006 (online at www.IslamicaMagazine.com).

Religions of the Sword

The cause of fanaticism, whether in Christianity or Islam, does indeed lie in the separation of Will from Intellect…
One part of the debate concerns the claim that the spread of Islam was primarily by the sword. Against this stands Surah 2:256 of the Qur’an, to which the Pope refers: There must be no coercion in matters of faith. (The Open Letter points out that this Surah dates not from the early period but from the time of the Prophet’s ascendancy.) A contemporary Muslim scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, informs us in his book The Heart of Islam (2002) that the Surah was taken to prohibit forced religious conversion outside Arabia during the lifetime of the Prophet. This implies, of course, that there was compulsion within Arabia. But even so, in considering this fact, it is worth remembering that the violent conquest of the Holy Land under Joshua was similarly commanded by God, according to the Old Testament. (Admittedly, few Christian scholars today believe that this conquest actually happened in the way described, let alone that it was divinely ordained. Nevertheless, it forms a part of Jewish and Christian Scripture.) In the case of the Arabian conquest, violence was supposed to be directed only against aggressors and those who resisted the claims of the Prophet, for the Qur’an instructs the faithful in Surah 2:190: Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Verily God loveth not aggressors.

M.J. Akbar in his book The Shade of Swords has made the case that military jihad has deep roots in Islam, indeed that it is “the signature tune of Islamic history”. It would seem that this view is now generally accepted in the West. Nevertheless even Akbar admits that the Prophet always subordinated the use of arms to a more spiritual, interior struggle against imperfections in one’s own soul, which he called the “greater” compared to the “lesser” jihad. (The word, after all, means no more than “struggle in the way of religion”.) An alternative to Akbar’s perspective is provided by Reza Shah-Kazemi in his article “Recollecting the Spirit of Jihad”. Moderate Muslims will tell you that from the beginning of Islam the use of violence was moderated by a code of chivalry, exemplified by the Prophet himself and his son-in-law Ali. This code and example protected not only women, children and non-combatants, but even animals and trees. In the light of modernist distortions of Islam, it should also be mentioned that suicide was also expressly forbidden in the Qur’an and main Islamic traditions (e.g. Surahs 4:29, 30).

Contrary to popular opinion, it could be argued that there has historically been less use of the sword by Muslims to compel belief (as distinct, say, from its use to extend or maintain Muslim rule) than there has by Christians after the time of Constantine, through Charlemagne, and up to Cortez. Certainly the Christian record is far from blameless, except in the earliest centuries before Christians occupied positions of authority, and there is no record of Jewish pogroms and persecutions under Islamic rule comparable to those of Christendom. The common practice in Muslim territories was to tolerate “Peoples of the Book” (Jews and Christians) in return for the payment of special taxes. This second-class status also carried with it a considerable advantage: exemption from military service. Jews expelled from Spain after the Christian reconquest easily found refuge in Islamic lands. None of this should blind us to the real cases of injustice and even atrocity in Islamic history, but neither should it be completely ignored by Christians in the debate as though it did not matter.

Reason, Will and Beauty

Unfortunately Islam has no infallible center of authority, as Catholicism does, to preserve it against error...
Today, resentment of the West has fuelled the terrorist movement to the point where Islam is fast becoming precisely the caricature of itself which popular prejudice presents. But the Pope links this to a deeper and more philosophical point about Islam when he refers to the relationship between faith and reason. Here he seems to be subverting the conventional post-Enlightenment Western concept of reason (that is, reason as conceptual thought excluding intellectual intuition), by anchoring it in the Greek term Logos, meaning “order”, “word” or “ground”, one of the New Testament names for the Son of God. In this way he can claim that faith—or at least Christian faith—is inherently “rational” because it identifies God with Reason in this sense.

He contrasts with this Islam, which he claims worships a God who is pure Will, rather than Reason. By implication, the God of Islam must be arbitrary in his decrees, determining the nature even of good and evil by simple fiat. S.H. Nasr would agree that Muslim theologians did not develop a theory of natural law (see p. 116 of his book). Their view was closer to the Western voluntarists and nominalists to whom the Pope also refers (John Duns Scotus and Francisco Suarez) than to Thomas Aquinas. But while Nasr acknowledges that Islam traces the origin of law to the divine Will rather than to Reason, he also points out that this is comparable to the position of the Old Testament Talmud, and not only to the medieval voluntarists.

A Muslim correspondent of mine writes: “The Islamic doctrine that all things are signs of God (ayat, the same word used to denote the verses of the Qur'an) is the proof that the Qur'an does not view God as purely transcendent, purely arbitrary, or definable only in terms of His sovereign will. His Nature is outwardly expressed both by the order of the natural world and the doings of men: We shall show them our signs on the horizons and within themselves until they are assured that this is the truth. Doth not thy Lord suffice thee, since he is over all things the Witness? (Q. 41:53).”

In any case, there is a further important point that runs directly counter to the accusation that the Islamic God mustbecause of the priority given to Willbe purely arbitrary in his decrees. For the Islamic God is the God described in the Qur’an itself under the “ninety-nine beautiful Names”, which include the Just, the All-Merciful, the Gentle, the Generous, the Beautiful, and indeed Love. God, according to a well-known hadith, “is beautiful and loves beauty”. The Names do not limit him (Islam is an apophatic tradition), but rather point to aspects of his transcendence. The decisions of such a God can never be arbitrary, but must express the nature revealed, however inadequately, by the Names. To act as though consciously in the presence of this God, as Muslims aspire to do, is to “do the beautiful” (ihsan) and not to act as a slave.

Moderate Muslims will tell you that from the beginning of Islam the use of violence was moderated by a code of chivalry.
Hans Urs von Balthasar writes: “Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”  Vengeance indeed. The cause of fanaticism, whether in Christianity or Islam, does indeed lie in the separation of Will from Intellect, for if no objective order of good and evil exists apart from that which is imposed by God, this assumed state of affairs is inevitably mirrored in the human realm, first by men who claim to act in God’s name, and later by men who make themselves into the very image of the tyrant God they have laid to rest.

As far as I can see, the Ihsani and Sufi traditions of Islam seem to have preserved the relationship between Will and Intellect, not by identifying the Logos with the second person of the Trinity, since this was not an option for them, but by recognizing the divine attributes, and identifying God as transcendent Beauty. That is worthy of investigation. For St Thomas Aquinas, too, while God is freefor example to create or not to create, to redeem or not to redeemhis decisions are neither determined nor arbitrary, but “fitting”. This, too, is an aesthetic criterion, and indicates a possible convergence between the Christian and Islamic God that at first seem so far apart.

Questioning Sufism

If the “moral/ spiritual/ aesthetic” dimension is vital to prevent the collapse of Islam into ideology and tyranny, it is precisely this dimension—most intensely present in the various Sufi traditionsthat has been suppressed in modernist and especially Wahhabi Islam, where Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi—the greatest shaykh and Qur’anic interpreter of the Sufi traditionis regarded as a heretic. Ibn Arabi is a fascinating figure, somewhat ignored by Catholic theologians because his writings were not among the Islamic texts St Thomas consulted during his great inter-religious dialogue, the Summa Contra Gentiles. Born in Andalusia in 1165, Ibn Arabi studied and taught throughout the Islamic world, believing himself to be instructed directly by the Prophet Jesus.

The question of whether Sufism belongs intrinsically to Islam or was “grafted on” shortly after its birth, perhaps through Christian influence, has been debated a long time. Personally, I am persuaded by arguments that trace Islamic mysticism back to the Prophet himself, but no doubt there has been considerable influence back and forth between the two traditions ever since. The greatest Catholic historian of culture, Christopher Dawson, wrote an essay on “Islamic Mysticism” in the first quarter of the twentieth century that is still worth reading. In it, he concluded that, whatever its origins, “the mystical tradition has entered so deeply into the mind of Islam that its disappearance would leave the religious life of the Muslim world disastrously impoverished. For with all its faults and weaknesses, the Sufi movement remains one of the great witnesses outside Christianity to the religious needs of humanity.”

We must encourage and assist moderate Muslims to raise their voices and speak on behalf of Islamic traditions that may be more ‘rational’ than we suppose.
Dawson, however, believed that the more authentic, devotional Sufism of the early period suffered a decline after the martyrdom of al-Hallaj in 922 into speculative mysticism, quietism and pantheism. He sees Ibn Arabi as one of the worst culprits in this decline, shifting Islam away from its earlier convergence with Christianity. In fact he thinks that Ibn Arabi’s “Unitarian Gnosis”, along with the emotional escapism of other, later Sufi brotherhoods, even helped to provoke the Wahhabi reaction against mysticism. Others would argue that Ibn Arabi has been greatly misunderstood here, and that a better appreciation of his doctrine within Islam would make possible the establishment of an “interpretive space” for critical thinkingnot to mention a much-needed toleration of diversity. The question is terribly important, yet I do not see it being addressed much in the context of the present debate.

I have suggested that the suppression of Sufism and the whole ihsani dimension of Islam (leaving only Creed and Law) in recent times represents the corruption of the religion as a whole by ideologies of resentment and violence. Unfortunately Islam has no infallible center of authority, as Catholicism does, to preserve it against error on this scale. The solution, if there is one, is therefore up to individual Muslims and Muslim leaders. What Christians can do is avoid making matters worse. We need to be realistic about the scale of persecution Christians are currently experiencing in Islamic countries, and the danger of growing Muslim fanaticism in our midst, but we must encourage and assist moderate Muslims to raise their voices and speak on behalf of Islamic traditions that may be more “rational” than we suppose. Neither Islam nor Christianity is going away, so we need to find ways of speaking together. The Open Letter recently addressed to the Pope may demonstrate that a moderate and rational consensus is beginning to emerge. At any rate, the Pope’s speech has created an opportunity to take the debate concerning religious and cultural diversity to a much deeper level.

October 24, 2006

Stratford Caldecott is a director of ResSource Ltd (www.ressource.co.uk), the editor of Second Spring (www.secondspring.co.uk) and a member of the editorial boards of the international review Communio (www.communio-icr.com) and The Chesterton Review (http://academic.shu.edu/chesterton/chestertonreview.htm).

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02.03.07   troubledgoodangel says:
When it comes to ecumenism, the primary issue is not which text is inspired and which is not. A larger issue and a more important one is who is holy and who is not! For holiness is the ground in which the Holy Spirit sows inspiration! It is through the Holy Spirit that Christians know their text to be inspired. And it is also through the Holy Spirit that they can tell which is not. But I repeat, judging texts is not helpful for ecumenism. Instead, let's focus on the holiness of the persons, not their written word! If a Moslem is holy, he will find a common ground with a holy Christian ... and with his Scripture. Furthermore, a holy Moslem will also know where there is holiness in a text and where there is not!Then, and only then, both will know whose texts are inspired and whose are not! And then, inspired by the Spirit of Holiness, they will both find the desperately needed common ground!

10.29.06   Corvus says:
At issue with Islamic mysticism is the fact that sufism is not a uniform body of thought and practice.The author mentions Muhammad Ibnul Arabi the Andalusian mystic whose thought intrigues many of the west today. However, the bulk of Muslims are unfamiliar with his work and it is largely relegated to the specialization of scholars for discussion of little import to issues which concern Muslims in ther daily lives and practice of faith. There is no intact school of his thought in transmission today which has a claim to any influence.Sufism and islamic philosophy took a hard turn away from hellenistic peripatetic and neoplatonic influences after the publication of the Ihya Ulum ad Din (Revival of Religious Sciences) and the Tahafut al Falasafiya (Incoherence of Philosophers) by the sufi mystic Muhmmad abu Hamid Al Ghazali in the 12th century. The gist of his teaching was to question the foundations of rationalism and to exhort Islamic scholars to focus on the sciences beneficial to the Ummah, those of Quran and Sunnah and to shum innovations brought in from the world of the kafirun (unbelievers). This was to have a devastating effect given witness that the production of Islamic science came to an abrupt stop shortly thereafter. While perhaps this can be blamed on the Mongol incursions as well, nevetheless the intellectual traditions which had sustained Islamic culture up untill the 12th and 13th centuries were undone and incapable of revival in the aftermath.This same shunning of innovations obtains in the current salafist thought which spurns any influence of outside textual methods and dialog. Given this, it is difficult to see how this much desired dialog between cultures will take place given a lack of common ground. Certainly dialog may take place with academicians and legists at the liberal margins of the Din al Islam, however, these are not representative of the majority. What will be necessary first is an opening within Islam itself to consider prior methods of textual interpretation which came to be discarded after the propagation of the Tahafut and the Ihya Ulum ad Din.

10.26.06   klossg says:
I am interested in the link "fascinating figure" that looks as if it should go to Lumbard1.htm. The link is broken. Can this link be fixed?Also, anything that gets Muslims and Christians speaking is a good thing. I would love to see some articles and information on today's best Catholic scholars on Islam. Thanks,George Kloss

10.25.06   BP says:
The elephant in the room that I have yet to see any Catholic writer (ordained or lay) explicitly acknowledge is that the Catholic Church does not recognize the divine inspiraration of the Qur’an. Maybe it's me, but I get the impression that this important point is being swept under the rug. I'm not trying to be rude or disrespectful to Muslims just honest. The fact that Christians do not recognize the divine inspiration of Qur’an (as opposed to the the Old Testament) puts us on a completely different ecumenical footing with Muslims as opposed to Jews. Because of this, I think there are severe limits to how far theological rapprochement with Islam can go. In my opinion, dialogue with Islam is limited to the practical matter of reciprocity. That is, how can both religions peacefully co-exist in spite of our differences.

10.25.06   M.F.Rahman says:
Stratford Caldecott has written eminently and wisely in the profoundest sense.Christian comment is sincerely invited.MFRahman.

10.25.06   Godspy says:
Neither Islam nor Christianity is going away, so we’ll need to find ways of speaking to each other. Is the Open Letter recently addressed to the Pope a sign that a moderate and rational Muslim consensus is beginning to emerge?

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