Islamic Society of North America accuses Pope of poor scholarship

In a Sept. 18 statement on the Papal controversy, the Islamic Society of North America—which recently made headlines by electing a woman (and Canadian ex-Catholic), Ingrid Mattson, as president (LAT, Sept. 21)—calls out His Holiness on some shabby scholarship.

PLAINFIELD, IN – In a major speech delivered at the University of Regensburg, Germany last Tuesday, September 12 , Roman Catholic Pope Benedict deeply offended Muslims by citing demeaning remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and by asserting incorrect statements about Islam. However, ISNA welcomes the Pope’s recent remarks stating that he did not mean to offend Muslims by his September 12 speech. The Islamic Society of North America appreciates the Pope’s apology as an indication of a sincere desire for respective dialogue. In addition, ISNA believes it is important to correct the erroneous information that Pope Benedict cited regarding Muslims and Islam.

In his lecture, Benedict cites medieval Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus who wrote, “Show me just what Mohammad brought that was new, and there you will find only evil and inhuman [sic], such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” In his interpretation of Islam, Pope Benedict relied upon the work of German Catholic writer, Adel Theodore Khoury, to declare that Islam is a religion that encourages conversion by force and rejects the use of reason in understanding scripture. Citing Khoury’s work, Benedict declared that the Qur’anic statement, “There is no compulsion in religion” is an early verse revealed “when Mohammad was powerless and under threat.”

It is unfortunate that Benedict relied on Khoury’s error-ridden “scholarship” to form his understanding of Islam. In fact, the clear and emphatic Qur’anic statement, “There is no compulsion in religion” was revealed during the Medinan period, after the Muslims had established a secure city-state. Freedom of religion remained a bed-rock principle of Islamic jurisprudence. It is true that some Muslim rulers deviated from Qur’anic principles by using political or military power to oppress other religious communities. However, such actions were exceptional, which is why the oldest and most diverse Christian and Jewish communities were found in Muslim lands up to the modern period.

It is a historical fact, on the other hand, Catholic-ruled countries, like Spain, were forcibly “cleansed” of non-Catholics, and that for five centuries the Inquisition ensured that Muslims, Jews and non-Catholic Christians had no refuge in Catholic lands. To its credit, the Catholic Church has previously acknowledged and apologized for this unfortunate historical reality. Under Pope John Paul II, Catholics and Muslims together made great strides towards a new, more positive engagement between these two great world religions. Although both Muslims and Catholics need to acknowledge and reject historical and contemporary injustices done in the names of their great faiths, we simply cannot afford to return to medieval polemics. Our faith communities demand more wisdom from us. More importantly, God, under whose judgment we all fall, expects nothing less than that.

We reject and decry all violence committed by Muslims against Christian and Catholic individuals and institutions. Such violence is sinful and unlawful. We urge Muslim authorities to increase their protection of Christians and their houses of worship, and to prosecute anyone who commits such acts of violence.

Muslim Americans welcome the gestures of friendship and understanding that have been made by their Catholic friends and colleagues, and express our sincere interest in continuing our dialogue with the Catholic Church to build the bridges of understanding between us.

See our last posts on Islamophobia and the papal affair and the struggle within Islam.

  1. Khoury
    This isn’t quite fair on Khoury: Ratzinger cites Khoury’s translation of the dialogue, then mentions the Koranic verse and adds “According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period”. So Khoury isn’t actually given as the source for the historical context of the sura.

    The Ratzinger Fanclub forum features the translation of an interview with Khoury; one has to laugh:

    Did you ever expect that your book would cause such an uproar?
    An edition of Byzantine sources in French that appeared in 1966? Please.