In his lecture on Faith, Reason and the University Memories and Reflections Pope Benedict the XVI, stirred the already seething Muslim populace throughout the world by his remarks delivered at the University of Regensburg in Germany where he had been a professor of theology. Since then there has been outrage in the Muslim world while there was support from Christian quarters. We see a significant polarization in the world today which is increasingly insensitive to religious feelings. While the Christian world feels a no holds barred and a frank if not rude discussion is necessary, the Muslims have an intolerant attitude to any insult of what they hold sacred. There must be a line however grey which demarcates what civilized discussion can be like, and the Muslims should also understand that the more they react the more provocation can come even from inconsequential sources.
“Show me just what Mohammad 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
Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologus
However the utterings of a reigning Pope are of great consequence. Benedict XVI quoted the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologus in a 1391 dialogue with an unnamed educated Persian, where the Emperor said that “Show me just what Mohammad 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 Vatican has since tried to make amends and has stated that these lines should not be taken out of context, and that the Popes intention was not to hurt the feelings of the Muslims. On the other hand the Pope also insists that it is necessary to open a discussion on what Christianity interprets as forceful conversion in Islam and a tendency towards violence.
This must be a tongue-in-cheek accusation because history reveals, among other instances, a forceful conversion to Christianity of Jews and Muslims during the Spanish Inquisition following the re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula. However we interpret history, there is today a desperate need for understanding the Muslim reaction to atrocities being committed on them under the garb of different rationales in different eras. The Iraq war started with the scare of weapons of mass destruction, which when not found transformed into a necessity for a regime change of a brutal dictator, then into the rationality to bestow democracy as the ultimate route to salvation. We are supposed to ignore the fact that the messiahs of this salvation coincidentally belong to the oil hungry Christian world.
The reaction of people under suppression is universal whatever their faith or color. To demand servility and renunciation of armed resistance to brutal state suppression will not allow constructive resolution of root causes and continue this war of civilizations. No amount of killings and ghettoisation over centuries was able to exterminate the Jewish people or their faith. Neither would the wanton brutality and destruction in the Muslim world result in acceptance of the unfair or a rewriting of Islamic religious doctrine.
George Bush started a Crusade but apologised for using the word, and like so many other utterances by leaders over the last few years, it was not meant to hurt Muslim feelings. The Australian Prime Minister John Howard came out in support of the Pope and said that he does not see terrorist groups killing people and invoking the authority of the church. True, but he ignores an increasing cascade of revelations and evidence highlighting the neo-con religious movement whose radical ideas seem to be the real reason for many orchestrated wars in the Middle East including the most brutal one in Iraq. Hundreds of thousand have died in the recent past in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan to ensure the safety of a staunch and brutal US ally in Israel, a scenario which fits in well with the apocalyptical belief of the establishment of a Greater Israel as a necessary precursor to the arrival of the Great Messiah.
These digressions aside, the history of Christianity is similar to the allegations made by the West against Islam. Evil wars may have been fought by medieval kings which had nothing to do with the real spirit of both religions. In all those obscure brutalities the world does see glimpses of fairness, and forgiveness on both sides, in the form of Sultan Salahuddin Ayubi, one of the most humane and chivalrous monarchs and similar stories of Richard the Lionheart.
I believe a very important historical document exists today which can provide the foundation for an understanding in the dialogue taking place between Christianity and Islam. The treasure has been preserved in the obscure reaches of the Sinai peninsula where exists the Monastery of St. Catherine, located in a triangular area between the Desert of El-Tih, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba.
The history of this place goes as far back as Moses who according to the Bible and Quran was forced to flee Egypt and came to live in Sinai. The Book of Exodus describes that one day Moses while tending Jethro’s sheep discovered a burning bush and as he approached the bush, he discovered that the bush was on fire, but the flames did not consume it. God’s spirit speaking from the bush declared “I am your father’s God, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He then commanded Moses to remove his sandals, as the land was considered holy, and ordered Moses to speak to the Pharaoh, because God had “heard the people’s cries”.
Helena the mother of Constantine I in 330 had a chapel constructed on the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush. The bush and the chapel exist till today. Constantine during whose reign the chapel was constructed is best remembered in modern times for the Edict of Milan in 313 which fully legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, and for the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 from where came out the Nicene Creed which established the doctrine of Trinity as the basis of the Christian faith. Later Emperor Justinian around 540 constructed a monastery which came to be known as Monastery of St. Catherine, enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush.
The fathers of the Monastery visited Mohammed in Medina in 625 AD and requested for protection. Apparently, the request was favorably accepted and the so called Ahitname (which is a latinised version of the noun Ahed-nama), or immunity covenant was sent to them by the prophet Mohammed himself in 628 AD. The historic document states as under:
“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
“No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.
No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.
Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (of Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”
The English translation of this Charter of Privileges also called Al-Ohda al-Mohamadeyas has been taken from the book ‘Muslim History: 570 – 1950 C.E.’ written by Akram Zahoor.
Photograph of Muhammads Ahitname or Covenant which is on display at St. Catherines Monastery
Interestingly the library of St Catherines Monastery preserves the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican. The collection consists of some 3,500 volumes in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Slavic, Syriac, Georgian and other languages. Besides the actual letter of the Prophet Mohammad the Monastery contains two very important documents which are of interest to the dialogue between Islam and Christianity.
The library of St. Catherines Monastery which houses 3500 old Christian manuscripts which is the second largest collection after the Vatican
One is the Codex Sinaiticus (or Code of Sinai) which is a 4th century manuscript of the Greek Bible, written between 330350 AD about 300 years before the advent of Islam. Originally containing the whole of both Testaments, only portions of the Greek Old Testament or Septuagint survive along with a complete New Testament, the Gospel of Barnabas and portions of The Shepherd of Hermas. It exists today as separate fragments because the original was taken out of the Monastery and bought by Emperor Alexander II of Russia for 9000 rubles in 1859 and then bought by the British Museum which has 347 leaves on display. Some fragments are still available at the Monastery, some in St. Petersburg and some in Leipzig. Along with Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus is one of the most valuable manuscripts of Christian biblical history. For it to have survived the Nicene Creed by itself is an argument on its authenticity, and that of the Gospel of Barnabas which contains references to the coming of prophet Muhammad.
The other interesting manuscript at the St. Catherine Monastery is the Ladder of Divine Ascent which is an ascetical treatise on avoiding vice and practicing virtue for ultimate salvation. Written by Saint John Climacus (meaning of the ladder) initially for monastics, it has become one of the most influential and important works used by the Church for guiding the faithful to a God-centered life, second only to the Holy Scripture. A 12th-century icon (painting) based on that book shows 30 rungs corresponding to 30 chapters covering avoidance of a particular vice or the practice of a particular virtue with Christ at the summit. The terminology used in the manuscript which dates to the 7th century closely reflects a hitherto ignored closeness to the basic tenets of Islam on prevention of vice and promotion of virtue almost in the same exact words.
The Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent
The painting shows angels and saints offering encouragement to those ascending the ladder, while demon are seen working actively to throw people off into the jaws of the beast of hell.
The phobia of Islam in the West unfortunately helps to mask the crimes perpetrated by a so called civilization under threat. The semantics of this struggle and terminology used to describe these fears serves to raise the level of reaction to that of a brutal war against terror where the foe is debased to the inhuman level not to be covered even by the Geneva Convention. Writers like the late Oriana Fallaci became fierce, even apocalyptic, critics of Islam. Fallaci feared that the unassimilated and inassimilable Muslim immigrants in the West whom she called invaders are turning Europe into a colony of Islam or Eurabia. In her book The Force of Reason published in 2004 she elaborates in great detail and attempts to cloak all such prejudices with a now familiar pseudo-rationality. For a people or a religion to be banished or ostracized a vilification is necessary. The media and writers throughout the Christian world are doing so with dangerous abandon, almost oblivious to the damage they are doing to the ideals of the very civilization they themselves have nurtured over the past centuries. It now seems that the Church too is not impervious to these prejudices.
Interestingly when Fallaci was asked by Tunku Varadarajan the editor of The Wall Street Journal whether there was any contemporary leader she admired, she replied there were two. She said that Pope Benedict XVI was a man in whom she reposed some trust. “I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a Pope think the same things, (in her assessment of a Muslim invasion which needs to be resisted) there must be something true. This was long before the Pope made his speech on Faith and Reason (a title similar to Fallacis book Force of Reason). The other person she admired was George Bush who has the vigor to do something. After her death Bush introduced the term Islamofascism which Fallaci uses frequently in her own book. But it was Ratzinger, as she insisted on calling the Pope, who she said was her ultimate soul mate.
Queer indeed. Too many coincidences in this nexus to call the Popes speech purely an innocent attempt for dialogue and as Tariq Ali very aptly says in Counterpunch the Bavarian is a razor-sharp reactionary cleric. I think he knew what he was saying and why. In a neo-liberal world suffering from environmental degradation, poverty, hunger, repression, and in a planet of slums, the Pope chooses to insult the founder of a rival faith is very strange. By disparaging Islam as evil and inhuman before 250,000 onlookers and the world press, and then to talk about a genuine dialogue between cultures is naive indeed.
The Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, which also contains a mosque within its walls, seems to have the key to bringing Islam and Christianity together. All these documents, especially the Covenant of Mohammad for followers of the Christian faith could be the healer so desperately needed. I wish Pope Benedict XVI had looked at history, particularly that recorded by the Church itself, through a fair light before he made his speech casting aspersions on the rationality and the spread of Islam. The revolutionary aspect of this document is that it is 1500 years old, when there were no laws, no democracy, and no human rights. It is an excellent charter for protection of Christians and minorities living under Islamic rule and would help the world understand this religion of peace.