Raising a tricky question: How to express the Historical relationship between Islam and "the Sword"?

I often have people tell me that Islam is a religion that is spread only by the sword. Well, I’m not to hot on that aspect of history, and many things are passed off as “fact” which may be capable of another interpretation (the Crusades too for instance). But the place of violent action within the religion of Islam is a subject that needs to be raised if the interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Islam is to be entirely honest. I’m not saying that there have not be many and horrific atrocities committed in the name of Christianity. What I am saying is that today, Christianity–at least Catholic Christianity–clearly and unambiguously abhors such violence.

The Pope, speaking recently at a Mass in Munich, said:

“The tolerance which we urgently need includes the fear of God respect for what others hold sacred. This respect for what others hold sacred demands that we ourselves learn once more the fear of God. This sense of respect can be reborn in the Western world only if faith in God is reborn, if God become once more present to us and in us.

“We impose this faith upon no one. Such proselytism is contrary to Christianity. Faith can develop only in freedom. But we do appeal to the freedom of men and women to be open to God, to seek him, to hear his voice. As we gather here, let us here ask the Lord with all our hearts to speak anew his Ephphatha, to heal our hardness of hearing for God’s presence, activity and word, and to give us sight and hearing. Let us ask his help in rediscovering prayer, to which he invites us in the liturgy and whose essential formula he has given us in the Our Father.

“The world needs God. We need God. But what God? In the first reading, the prophet tells a people suffering oppression that: He will come with vengeance (Is 35:4). We can easily suppose how the people imagined that vengeance. But the prophet himself goes on to reveal what it really is: the healing goodness of God. The definitive explanation of the prophet’s word is to be found in the one who died on the Cross: in Jesus, the Son of God incarnate. His Avengeance is the Cross: a No to violence and a love to the end. This is the God we need. We do not fail to show respect for other religions and cultures, profound respect for their faith, when we proclaim clearly and uncompromisingly the God who counters violence with his own suffering; who in the face of the power of evil exalts his mercy, in order that evil may be limited and overcome. To him we now lift up our prayer, that he may remain with us and help us to be credible witnesses to himself.”

These statements ought to form the background to the other statements that caused shockwaves throughout the Muslim world, with Lebanon, Indonesia and Pakistan all voicing protest and calling for an apology. In a lecture at his old University in Regensburg, the Pope addressed the matter of faith and reason. In this speech, he equally criticised Western Secularism (which is not true to the heritage of the West) and Muslim violence (which, ipso facto, is not true to the message of Islam).

But what has really gotten up the noses of some of our Islamic brethren and Sistern is this one sentence in the lecture: “Show me just what Mohammed 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.”

Now if that was indeed the opinion of the Holy Father, there would indeed be something to talk about. However, “context is everything”, as I am fond of saying, and no more so than in this instance. Here is the entire section:

“That even in the face of such radical skepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: This, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

“I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by professor Theodore Khoury (Muenster) of part of the dialogue carried on — perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara — by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.

“It was probably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than the responses of the learned Persian. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Koran, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship of the “three Laws”: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran.

“In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point — itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself — which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason,” I found interesting and which can serve as the starting point for my reflections on this issue.

“In the seventh conversation (“diálesis” — controversy) edited by professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 2:256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion.” It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war.

“Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels,” he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: “Show me just what Mohammed 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.”

“The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably (“syn logo”) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats…. To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death….”

“The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry. “

As you see, what he said at the University accords entirely with what was said at the Mass. However, for those who only want to listen to soundbites, it is too much to have to sit still long enough to listen to the fact that what the Holy Father was speaking against was a certain idea that the ends of God can be achieved by violence. On the contrary, violence negates God, and cannot be used to serve God’s purposes.

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