Pope's call for dialogue: One Muslim's response
Affirm commonalities – and set the record straight on Islam.
NOTRE DAME, IND. — In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI's address in Germany last month, it is useful to recapitulate the views of a 10th-century Muslim historian by the name of al-Masudi on the relationship between faith and reason.
In a famous historical work, Masudi wrote that the Byzantine Christians of his time were suffering civilizational decline because they had rejected the pagan Greek sciences as incompatible with Christianity. In contrast, he wrote that Muslim civilization was prospering because it had assimilated ancient learning and built on it.
Some of the best-known philosophers of the medieval period – Avicenna, Averroes, al-Farabi – were Muslims, and their thought was influential in medieval Europe, too. Without the diffusion of this intellectual and cultural legacy, there may well have been no European Renaissance!
In other words, it was the Muslims who had successfully blended faith with reason – and left the Christians behind.
As such, it is highly ironic that the pope would use the words of a 14th- century Byzantine emperor to redirect the same accusation at Muslims in the 21st century.
There is a danger when any person argues that his own religion and civilization have a monopoly on reason and have effected the best synthesis between faith and reason. Such triumphalism is a serious impediment to dialogue and any kind of sustained civil discourse. If dialogue is what the pope sought, implying the superiority of Western civilization and its supposedly unique values is a nonstarter.
Dialogue is better served through the humble acknowledgment of commonalities, of one's own sins, and of one's connectedness to the other.
It is also served by setting the record straight. Muslims have subscribed to a variety of views on the relationship between faith and reason.
Two main trends remain influential within Sunni Muslim theology today. One is represented by the Ashari school of thought, which maintains that faith or revelation always trumps reason. The other is represented by the Maturidi school, which holds that reason, independent of revelation, can arrive at the same truths. Both camps are considered orthodox within Sunni Islam, with Maturidi thought gaining ground.
In an earlier period, the Mutazilis (known as the Rationalists) claimed that there was no incompatibility between faith and reason. Shiites have also historically emphasized the rational basis of their school of thought.
One cannot, therefore, simplistically and reductively portray Islam as preferring faith over reason or vice versa. Nor can one portray Christianity, or perhaps any other faith tradition, in this manner, either.
The key to getting along is to learn the truth about one another and avoid trading in pernicious stereotypes. Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University has recently coined the term "Islamo-Christian civilization" to describe our shared heritage. This concept deserves to gain broader currency.
Religious groups can limit extremism by uniting on common social causes: eradicating global poverty, promoting human dignity, reinserting moral and ethi- cal values in the public sphere and in international diplomacy, and holding our leaders accountable to such values.
It is on such common ground, constructed on universal ethical principles, that diverse groups of people, faith-based and secular, can come together.
• Asma Afsaruddin is a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame and the author of the forthcoming book "The First Muslims: History and Memory." This article first appeared at Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).
Excerpts from the pope's talk at Regensburg, Germany last month:
...[14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II] addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
...For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.
...The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God," said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.