Muslim scholars write the pope – and everyone else

Sohail Nakhooda says Islam has a problem getting its message heard.

Thirty-eight Muslim scholars from 20 countries sent a letter to Pope Benedict XVI urging mutual tolerance and respect over the weekend, and 500 prominent Muslims signed a religious ruling rejecting violence against civilians on Tuesday. Neither got much publicity.

But when Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issues his latest bloodcurdling threat it dominates the airwaves. Mr. Nakhoodas doesn't deny that a problem exists inside Islam, but says that a violent fringe is coming to represent the whole of the religion in Western eyes.

And that, he says, lies at the root of Pope Benedict's critical comments about Islam in September.

"What you see in the media are people like [Osama] bin Laden, or Zarqawi, the sorts of people who don't represent Islam or the religion at large,'' says Nakhooda, the Jordan-based editor in chief of Islamica Magazine, which has been helping to publicize the "unprecedented" open letter by Muslim scholars.

"These individuals are a law unto themselves and, sadly, they get the most publicity.... The intent [of the letter] is to start a dialogue rolling so the public would see there's a positive initiative, an alternative to anger."

His magazine, a quarterly that describes its mission as providing a platform for mainstream Islamic ideas that are rarely heard in the West, has been working to get out the letter to the pope by Muslim scholars from eight different schools of thought and from more than 20 different countries, seeking to correct what they see as errors in his address and open up what they hope will be an ongoing dialogue. While it hasn't received much attention in the West, the letter has been widely covered in the Muslim world.

The pope stirred outrage in the Muslim world with a Sept. 12 address at the University of Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying the only new ideas Islam's prophet Muhammad had brought to the world were "evil and inhuman."

The writers take particular issue with his claim that the Koranic verse that says "there is no compulsion in religion" was issued at a time when Muhammad did not have political power, and that later verses urged that the faith be spread by violence.

Tradition holds that the verse was recorded when Muhammad had political control over his community, and the scholars say that the prohibition against forced conversions remains within their interpretation of Muslim orthodoxy.

They also quote approvingly Pope John Paul II as saying "we believe in the same God, the God, the living God." Pope John Paul was widely esteemed by Muslim leaders, though his successor has gotten off to a rocky start, says Nakhooda.

"The pope heads institutions that have studied Islam for centuries, so the comments that he gave in Germany were very at odds with the wealth of information that they have available and caused a great deal of hurt, perhaps the way it was expressed,'' he says, adding that many Catholic leaders have privately been supportive.

The Vatican has not responded to the letter yet. But last weekend the Vatican announced that the pope will travel to Turkey in November, his first visit to a majority Muslim nation. The Italian state news agency Ansa quoted Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as saying "the desire of the pope, the Holy See, and the Catholic church is to continue dialogue."

He said that the intent of the pope's speech was misunderstood and that it was "a call for cooperation between the Christian and Muslim faiths." The Grand Mufti of Istanbul is one of the signatories of the letter.

Tim Winter, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, England, and a practicing Muslim, says the letter is a simple attempt to redress what he describes as misunderstanding of the faith implied by the pope's comments. But more important it's a product of a growing awareness on the part of Muslim leaders that they don't communicate effectively with the West, particularly since the religion doesn't share a central bureaucracy like the Catholic church.

"Everyone can see that the advantage that the Christian churches have is that they have efficient hierarchies. If someone who belongs to the Catholic church misbehaves they can immediately issue a denunciation, which is what we saw for years in Northern Ireland,'' he says. "It's hard for outsiders to see what the consensus of Muslim orthodoxy is, particularly with the slide into violence of a fringe of the Sunni orthodox world in the past 15 years or so.

"Even though the [Muslim] religion is traditionally resistant to creating hierarchies, it has to come up with a mechanism of making the opinions of mainstream orthodoxy known," he says. "Finally the Muslim world is waking up to the fact that it needs to improve its public relations skills."

He points to a lack of reporting in the West of the widespread condemnation of 9/11 by Muslim scholars. He also recalls a letter calling for tolerance by largely the same group of scholars in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy earlier this year. That letter was released at a press conference but received little notice. "Journalists actually admitted it was very hard to understand,'' says Mr. Winter.

That was because, he says, it was overly scholastic. "The problem that the Muslim leadership has is that it's basically made up of medieval men that generally have the right views when it comes to terrorism or political violence, but they have no media skills. When asked a question, they look grave, invoke the name of God and then address it in a rather complicated and beautiful way the mass media can't cope with.... This statement seems to be much more on the ball."

Nakhooda says he hopes the letter to the pope is the latest in a series of initiatives, and points to a compilation of fatwas released in Jordan Tuesday that was signed by 500 scholars who seek to affirm "true Islam forbids wanton terrorism and aggression," as the document's forward, signed by Jordan's King Abdullah, puts it.

"The argument has been over the years that the churches and the governments can't find a single [Muslim] body to speak to. We don't have a papacy, one unified church, so it's hard to speak to a single voice that is a representation of the [Islamic] community," says Nakhooda.

"The document [Tuesday] has 500 signatures from across the Muslim world, condemning the killing of innocent lives and" the tactics of Al Qaeda, he says. "We're trying to reclaim the moral high ground for Islam; we hope that eventually this will be seen accurately as reflective of the majority tendency in Islam."

Your Holiness, let's talk

The following are excerpts from a letter written by 38 Muslim scholars to Pope Benedict XVI on his comments about Islam that sparked widespread condemnation. The full letter is online at Islamica Magazine.

"While we applaud your efforts to oppose the dominance of positivism and materialism in human life, we must point out some errors in the way you mentioned Islam....

"You mention that 'according to the experts' the verse which begins, There is no compulsion in religion (al-Baqarah 2:256) is from the early period when the Prophet 'was still powerless and under threat,' but this is incorrect. In fact this verse is acknowledged to belong to the period of Quranic revelation corresponding to the political and military ascendance of the young Muslim community. There is no compulsion in religion was not a command to Muslims to remain steadfast in the face of the desire of their oppressors to force them to renounce their faith, but was a reminder to Muslims themselves, once they had attained power, that they could not force another's heart to believe....

"We would like to point out that 'holy war' is a term that does not exist in Islamic languages. Jihad, it must be emphasized, means struggle, and specifically struggle in the way of God. This struggle may take many forms, including the use of force. Though a jihad may be sacred in the sense of being directed towards a sacred ideal, it is not necessarily a 'war'. .

"God says in the Holy Qur'an: Let not hatred of any people seduce you into being unjust. Be just, that is nearer to piety (al-Ma'idah 5:8). In this context we must state that the murder on September 17th of an innocent Catholic nun in Somalia – and any other similar acts of wanton individual violence... is completely un-Islamic, and we totally condemn such acts.

"The notion that Muslims are commanded to spread their faith 'by the sword' ... does not hold up to scrutiny.... Islamic teaching did not prescribe that the conquered populations be forced or coerced into converting....

"Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively....Upon this sincere and frank dialogue we hope to continue to build peaceful and friendly relationships based upon mutual respect, justice, and what is common in essence in our shared Abrahamic tradition, particularly 'the two greatest commandments' in Mark 12: 29-31."

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