the Blog Papers of Dr. Michael Sakbani; Economics, Finance and Politics

Dr. Michael Sakbani is a professor of economics and Finance at the Geneva campus of Webster-Europe. He is a senior international consultant to the UN system, European Union and Swiss banks. His career began at the State university of NY at Stoney Brook,then the Federal Reserve Bank of New York followed by UNCTAD where he was Director of the divisions of Economic Cooperation, Poverty Alleviation, and UNCTAD`s Special Programs. Published over 100 professional papers.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Reflections on the Remarks of Pope Benedict`s on Islam

The Pope's Speech Inbox

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,"Sep 18 (2 days ago)",
One cannot pass over the address of the Pope to his former University colleagues and students without being impressed by his theological brilliance and thorough grounding in Western history. However, all that stands in contrast to how unaware he is of non- European history and of the nature of the evolution of the common human civilization. He is, from what seems on hand, trying to establish a hierarchy of verities starting with the Hellenistic rationality and there from jumping directly to Post saint Thomas Aquinas Christianity. I have profound skepticism about the historical justice of the remarks and the implications of his views on the dialogue of cultures.
Since the storm arose from his remarks on Islam, I first address this and then I will give a more general comment.
The thing that strikes about the remarks on Islam is their peripheral and rather inappropriate relationship to the discourse of his holiness. The pope wants to discuss the harmony between the Christian faith as the inheritor of the Hellenistic traditions and reason, as based on scientific empiricism; a great topic in itself. Quite surprisingly, he goes in introducing this topic to quote a fourteenth-century debate between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian scholar. It escapes reason, what is the relevance of the quoted remarks to the topic on hand. But knowing what Cardinal Ratzinger said before becoming Pope, it would seem to me that he wanted to draw a distinction between the Christian heritage and Islam even though this was not what the topic would call for. The Pope’s real intention which leaped through his elliptic style is to establish a hierarchy of truths and therefore of religions. He wanted to begin by asserting that Christianity, not Islam, is the inheritor of Hellenistic traditions. The quote from the Emperor claims that Islam brought nothing new except violence in spreading the faith, i.e. a holly-war. This is so reductionist that it deserves no reply; it shows the ignorance of the Emperor more than anything else. If this old debate were of any substantive value, the Pope should have informed his audience of the response of the Emperor’s interlocutor, otherwise, he inserts himself on the side of the Emperor.
Islam brought reason into faith.
One of the very early Soras in the Kouran says “read and think in the name of God the creator”; almost as if Descartes wrote this Sora. Islam conjured the vision of God through four dimensions: the miracle of the creation of all living things and of nature, its infinite precession and complexity, surely a direct appeal to empiricism; the mercy of God in sending to man the prophetic faiths of his messengers (including the message of Jesus) so as to be worthy of his grace; the gift of reason and responsibility he bestowed upon man and lastly, the humanism of the collectivity of the community of the faithful, a brotherhood that is sustained by Koranic ethics, by charity, by sharing and solidarity. According to the Koran, that is what distinguishes in God’s realm man from animal and other creations. For his holiness to quote the emperor about Islam in the context of reason and faith is, to say the least, a non-sequitor. This point can be amplified by tracing the impact of the Hellenistic traditions of reason on Islam. The case of this connection is very strong in Islam, much more so than in pre enlightenment Christianity. The concept of the soul, the nature of life, the nature of faith through reason, all are in Islam very much neo-Plutonian, far more than they are in Christianity. Moreover, the development of Islam followed till the thirteenth century more or less the philosophic traditions of the Greeks, in particular, Aristotle who was called in the Islamic-Arab culture the “Grand Teacher”. From al Farabi to al Kindi to Avicenna through Averroes and al Shatibi, Islam’s Kalam, i.e. theology, was molded of the Greek Philosophical traditions as expanded by the Muslim, scholars, which permeated the Islamic-Arab culture. Averroes was his age’s Aristotelian par excellence. His influence on Christian theology was, to quote Bertrand Russell, great and decisive. Moreover, there were schools in Islam such as the Moutazila, which gave reason primacy over scripture. So for the Pope to imply that the Hellenistic rational traditions are unique to Christianity is something of a countre-history. There is no doubt that Islam has a prior claim to that.

The Islamic schools of theology
In the development of Islam, there were schools of thought like the Mutazila and the Ashaaria that were strictly rationalist in denying any possible contradiction between reason, rationality and religion. According to these schools, God addresses religion to man’s mind. More than twenty schools of thought in Islam proliferated in its first five hundred years each claiming to offer a more valid interpretation of the faith. A good half of these schools used reason and Cartesian logic in their argumentation. It was not until the Seljuk era in the thirteenth century that al Ghazali wrote the official Cannon and the textual interpretive traditions in Islam dominated. So, His Holiness seems to miss five hundred years of Islamic history where faith and reason were intertwined. I am astounded that the Pope chose to quote Ibin- Hazm, one of the Middle period scholars associated with textual strictness of faith and the concept of faith-based on a belief in an impersonal abstract God. This is like quoting Savoronola on Christianity.
Regarding violence and Islam, the topic bears far more complexity than what the Emperor said. Islam is about the only religion that makes war anti-God except when Muslims are attacked in-land and faith and their enemy refuses peace. This is what Jihad was sanctioned for and not for launching terrorist attacks. It is to be noted that the concept of a Holly-War is not an Islamic concept; it is a Western- Orientalist one.
I have no space here to elaborate the relationship between the concept of personal faith unsupervised by an institution, as it is in Sunni Islam in particular, and violence by an individual interpretation of the faith, a problem that has appeared in Islamic history with episodes of violent quests for justice. This is quite similar to the appearance of Anarchism in Western thought and the violent manner in which it manifested itself in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century. Averroes had a particular interest in the question of a religious-authority, because he rightly feared the individual and uninformed interpretation of religion. He advocated that the reinterpretation of religious terms, i.e., the development of theology, be left strictly in the hands of the select scholars. In this, he was in tune with the doctrine of Church authority as opposed to the personal relationship with God as can be derived from textual Islam.

The Other
 Beyond what the Pope said about Islam, there are troubling aspects to his thought. The Pope reverts to Cardinal Ratzinger in his exclusivist Europeanism. He seems at least to think that there are unique and distinct boundaries to civilizations; something that is difficult to sustain historically. For one, the Western traditions have just about become universal. Even historically, it would be unconvincing to say that the renaissance came about strictly from Greek traditions. These traditions were not merely translated from Arabic; rather they were considerably enriched by the Arabo-Islamic culture. Even Christian theology, as we said above, was greatly influenced by Muslim scholars, in particular Averroes.
I do not believe that the Pope has fallen to Samuel Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilizations; rather he seems to hold the view that I am what I am and you are the other. This was clearly manifested in his position as Cardinal Ratzinger on Turkey’s entry into the European Union.

We are living at this historical juncture in a global culture with a global economy and constant cross-cultural interaction. The concept of the different other is much less relevant than that of the simila-other. There is a quaint and rather musky odder to cultural separatism and exclusive verism. I wish his holiness would revisit his old thoughts.

Michael Sakbani"