Welcome to Islamdom, Your Holiness

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


In an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, Muslim writer Mustafa Akyol responds to the points the pontiff raised about Islam in his controversial Regensburg speech. Christians and Muslims have more in common than what people see nowadays, says Akyol, they just need to listen to each other more.

Mustafa AKYOL

ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News

Your Holiness,
Lord willing, you will be starting your visit to Turkey today. Welcome to Islamdom. I hope you will have a safe, sound and fruitful expedition.
There are some among us who will be protesting your presence, but please be assured that they do not represent all Turks and that many others do not share their unwelcoming attitude. But you know that in every culture radicals tend to be more vocal.
It is not a secret that this unreceptive attitude among Turks -- and among other predominantly Muslim nations -- started mainly with your Regensburg address last September. Actually it was a very sophisticated critique on the modern schism between reason and faith that has created two distinct but related problems: reason without morals and faith without reason.
Indeed, many Muslims would agree with this assessment of yours. But they were offended by the words of the medieval Byzantine emperor who you quoted. I believe you didn't cite those unfair words in order to offend Muslims, though, but rather to spark discussion among them about two crucial questions: Can a faith be spread by the sword, i.e., by forcing people to believe? And should humans use their reason to understand God's will?
From what you implied, I gather that you suspect Muslims say "yes" to the former and "no" to the latter, whereas in reality many would give quite the opposite answer. You probably might have seen this in the excellent "Open Letter from 38 Muslims to the Pope," signed by the major authorities of Islam from all around the world. But since you are a guest of my country at the present time, let me take the initiative to point out a few issues that you might find noteworthy.
As for the first question -- can a faith be spread by the sword -- I would reply with a resounding "no!" This is against the very core of Islam, i.e., the Koran. Actually, in your Regensburg address you also noted that the Koran guarantees that "there is no compulsion in religion," (2:256), but you also argued that this was in "one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]." Well, this is not the case. That verse is a late verse, from the Medinan period, and the mainstream Muslim view is that the "no compulsion" rule is everlasting and that people can't be forced to become Muslims. And the wars of Prophet Muhammad that you mentioned were political, not religious, in nature. His main aim was to save the community of believers from the onslaught of belligerent pagans.
However, this does not mean that Muslims in history did not use the sword to spread the rule of Islam. They obviously did. In an age of empires, where religion and polity were intertwined, they thought they should carry the divine message by extending their borders. But in the territories they conquered, they allowed non-Islamic faiths such as Christianity and Judaism to survive and even flourish. In fact, that's why the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which you are about to visit, has been secure in Istanbul since its conquest by Muslim Ottomans in 1453. (The current problems that the Patriarchate is facing, by the way, do not stem from the Muslimhood of Turkish society, but from the fiercely secular nationalism of its state.)
Of course, times have changed and in the modern world, where religious freedom is widely respected, one does not need to extend the borders of Islam to spread the message of Islam. In other words, the duty of the modern Muslim is merely to propose the faith, not to impose it. There are Muslims who don't get this -- and other modern realities -- and there is a hot debate within Islam about such matters. But please just note that the Muslims who stand for "no compulsion in religion" are doing this not despite the Koran, but thanks to it.
Your second question -- should humans use their reason to understand God's will -- is actually a much-debated one in the history of Islam. You quoted the medieval scholar Ibn Hazm, who said, "God is not bound even by his own word," and argued for a blind, literalist obedience to tradition. However, Ibn Hazm was a marginal figure. He was from the non-orthodox Zahiri school, which actually disappeared over time (but of which some traces can be found in the Wahhabi school of today's Saudi Arabia).
On the opposite side of anti-rationalists like Ibn Hazm, there were the scholars of the Mutazilite school who argued: "Justice is the essence of God, He can't wrong anybody, He can't enjoin anything contrary to reason." Today's mainstream Muslim opinion has diverged between this rationalist position and the "traditionalist" one that it disputed as early as the ninth century.
In other words, there is not a single and static Islam on this issue, either.
And I believe that must be the case with Christianity, too. I would in no way, for example, see any parallel with the Holy See of today and Tomás de Torquemada of the medieval Spanish Inquisition.
It is troublesome, of course, that we Muslims have our own Torquemadas around -- with names like bin Laden and Zarqawi -- who kill and threaten in the name of Islam. We are very much willing to save our religion from their nihilistic necrophilia, but we have a hard time doing that when some Westerners come out and insult Islam and spark a reaction on this side of the world that only plays into the hands of those warmongers.
Yet still I am optimistic, especially about relations between Christians and Muslims. We have our differences, but as the only faith communities on earth that believe Jesus Christ was born of a virgin (Koran, 3:47) and that he was "the word of God" (Koran, 4:171), Christians and Muslims actually have so much in common, they cannot be enemies. That would be contrary to the nature of God.


Yours in Christ,
Mustafa Akyol,
A fellow monotheist

 

         

 

 

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