National Catholic Register


What the Pope Said — and What the Muslims Heard

The Register speaks with Father Samir Khalil Samir, founder and leader of the Center for Arab-Christian Documentation and Research.


October 1-7, 2006 Issue | Posted 9/27/06 at 10:00 AM


Father Samir Khalil Samir knows Islam.

He is a professor of Oriental theology at St. Joseph’s University in Lebanon. Born in Cairo, Father Samir also teaches at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, and is a founder and leader of the Center for Arab-Christian Documentation and Research. He spoke with Register correspondent Edward Pentin in the wake of the conflagration over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks that quoted a 14th-century emperor’s words about Mohammed.

Is the Pope’s apology for the offense he might have caused Muslims enough?

In a way, it’s not enough, and nothing will be enough because those who protest are not protesting against the lecture he gave. They are protesting because they (fundamentalist Islamic clerics) told them to protest, because they had seen a few sentences and they don’t see the context of these sentences.

Even if, as the Pope told them, this is not just a sentence, but has to be read in context, that he has distanced himself from this quotation, and prefaced the quotation saying it was strange and shocking, it won’t matter. People don’t read, and the journalists misled them unfortunately and intentionally. So I have the impression, from the Islamic point of view, that it would not be good to apologize any more than he has.

He said: “I am really sorry because people were offended, which wasn’t my intention,” not because “I wanted to offend them.” You could say that he made a political mistake. This is right. He did not realize that in the university he was not speaking as Professor Ratzinger. He did not realize that at that moment, being in his aula magna (great hall), he was Pope Benedict. And he didn’t realize that the journalists who were there were waiting to pick up on any remark.

But he cannot say, “I apologize for saying something that offended you.” He cannot say what is not true. The whole lecture is a lecture on dialogue, a dialogue of culture and religion, dialogue based on reason. He used this word 46 times.

He says we cannot dialogue on something based on irrationality or emotion or even something theological because you have your theology and I have mine. The only common basis is rationality. This was his argument and it is still true. Also, why, if we analyze the situation, do they protest? They protest because they say, “You argue that Islam is a religion of violence.”

This is their argument, but by doing what they did, they demonstrate to those who were not convinced that Islam is a religion of violence.

Do you think that this is what the Pope also believes, that Islam is a religion prone to violence?

No, he’s not saying that really, and not meaning that.

He used this quotation of the emperor: “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. … Not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature”.

In order to make this sentence intelligible, he quoted the preceding sentence where the emperor answers the Persian who was affirming the superiority of the Koran over the Old and the New Testament saying: “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.”

But the Pope clearly disassociated himself from what he was quoting.

The beautiful sentence, “Not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature,” is the main sentence, and is repeated five times in the lecture. His line of argument is to say that, first, dialogue must be one of culture and religion, and that we have to reason.

Dialogue must, as Christ says in John 4, be carried out “in spirit and in truth.” Now, the Pope is trying to do this spiritually, through prayer and reason, and in truth. He did not use the words of the emperor as though they were his own. Certainly it was unfortunate.

Some say he’s taking a harder line with Islam than Pope John Paul II. Is that true?

It’s not true. The media like to oppose people and say John Paul was open-minded, while Benedict was head of the Office of the Inquisition, as they call it. But look at what he is doing. Look at his face when he speaks.

I was with him for three days last year in September, and it was incredible. I gave a lecture: He was sitting beside me and he didn’t intervene and after it was over he asked others for their opinions. Then at the end, we all asked him: “Holy Father, what is your opinion?” — that was after two hours. He answered: “Okay, if you ask me I’ll tell you,” and he spoke for 10 minutes. He is modest and listens.

And what did he say?

The subject was Islam, but for theologians. He said that we have a problem with Islam, essentially because of the interpretation of the scriptures: For us, it’s a question of inspiration, which means that the author remains the human author with all his particularities, but God inspiring him in the contents. But they say that the Koran “descended,” as we say in Arabic, upon Mohammed, so that they feel every word and comma is from God. We have to apply it to the world without interpreting it. This is exactly what scholars call “fundamentalism,” that you can also find in certain Christian Protestant traditions.

There’s no exegesis, criticism of the Koran?

No, that’s absolutely right.

We know that in the very beginning, in the first two centuries of Islam, there was, but after the first century it stopped. So this was one point.

The second was: How can we have a dialogue with Muslims based on scripture and so on living in a secular society?

Islam has problems with secularity because they’re only used to living in a religious environment, a religious state, and we see how Muslims in India, Kosovo, the Philippines — when they are in a larger group, they immediately ask to become a state. They have a problem with living under another religion. They have a problem with the West because it’s not only about non-Muslims, but non-believers. So he wanted to be enlightened on these two points, to see how we can live together. He’s saying violence is the fruit of something irrational.

The West has a rationality that is separated from belief, from God, from ethics, so he criticized the West much more, and their conceptions of rationality and the Enlightenment. He said the Enlightenment was a good and necessary step because it produced a critique even within religion.

But it was so developed from the 19th century onwards that this Enlightenment means something against God. This makes dialogue with other cultures, Islam, Africa, Asia — and he mentioned these too — much more difficult. So his proposal, the aim of this lecture, which was very academic, was very much a global dialogue with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists, agnostics. He’s asking what the basis is to all these religions and groups. It’s not religion; it’s not Abraham. The only thing, as Aristotle says, is rationality. He’s criticizing the West because the West has abandoned this Hellenistic heritage that was saved by the Christian tradition and yet it could be integrated and assimilated.

I could add that the Muslim tradition, their Muslim “renaissance,” occurred in the 10th century. This was thanks to Greek thought that was introduced by Arab Christians in the 9th century. So we had a common basis.

I think his perception is right, that the only way is to find a common ground, and the common ground is humanism made up of reason with faith. The Pope is therefore lending a hand to Muslims, helping them to enter modernity, which is exactly what we want in the Islamic world.

Would you therefore agree that rather than a setback for dialogue between Christians and Muslims, it is actually a development in dialogue?

Yes, certainly. It’s a step forward, but it is also a hard step.

Was it perhaps inevitable?

Yes. Now, post factum, certainly the Pope would say he would have done it another way. He’s a theologian. He writes everything himself and gives few interviews. So it’s really unfortunate. I have proposed to send the Vatican a letter to say, “Please, before any speech, prepare a page for the journalists. They cannot grasp what you mean when it is so hard to understand.”

How is this a step forward in dialogue?

Because it is a step forward in truth. We are used to a diplomatic dialogue — we say, “We have this, and this and this in common,” which is true.

But we’ve said that for some time. Now we also have to say: “We have this and this and this where we disagree. Let us confront our disagreements.”

In the Middle East, we know we all believe in one God but we still have big problems, we Christians and Muslims. When we say, “We want to build a church,” they say No, even in Egypt.

In Algeria, it’s now forbidden to convert someone; the one who converted and the one who helped convert go to prison. The Islamic world is taking steps backward, so we have to say: “Here is a problem. What are you doing about liberty and freedom of thought? You pretend the Koran has no pressure in matters of faith. Okay, let’s do that, so can I go and preach the Gospel on television as you preach the Koran on television daily?”

In Cairo, there are three or four hours of Islamic programming on television every day. This is one of the reasons why so many Christians are becoming Muslims. So, give to everyone the same rights. Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI puts the accent on human rights, but he has also added more emphasis on rationality and culture. So he’s continuing the process of dialogue started by John Paul II, and because violence has become so widespread in Pope Benedict’s time, he had to mention it.

He can’t put his head in the sand. Islamic violence is happening daily — he didn’t say that, but we have to realize that violence today is part of the Muslim communities.

Is he also saying that Muslims are apt to act irrationally?

He wanted to say, and he says, in God and Islam the emphasis in Islam is on transcendence.

In philosophical terms, we speak of immanence and transcendence. Immanence is when God, or whatever you want to call it, is in the world, so all religions have to deal with this. Now in Christianity, the immanence became the Incarnation. God became a human being so he is within us. So the danger in Christianity is to forget the transcendence of God. So yes, he is one of us but totally different.

In Islam, because Mohammed preached in a society where you had all kinds of gods, the accent is only on one God, and he is totally different from all other representations. This is the transcendence of God that you find in the New and Old Testaments but it’s more underlined in Islam. The consequence of this could be that whatever God says, you have to apply it blindly.

And this can quickly lead to violence?

Certainly, because if you put instead of the Word of God the Koran, and the Koran says literally “go and kill them wherever you find them,” and you have a lot of verses in the Koran saying that, then it will happen.

So someone who is not well trained in analyzing a text may go and do it, thinking, “It is the eternal word of God,” simply because he heard an imam quoting some of these verses. And other people will go and follow them. That’s the danger of Islam. But if you are used to a critical reading of the Koran, you can say, “In this verse we find this order to kill, but in that verse we find the order to respect the faith and belief of others.” The lack of critical interpretation of the Koran is the problem, the lack of hermeneutics.

The Pope underlined the two dangers saying: On one side, some Muslims have put the emphasis so much on faith and believing, but they forget that even scripture is a human reality and that they have to use their reason for everything, even including religion. The other risk is for the West, that they put the accent so much on reason that they forget that reason is coming from God. Reason is connected with faith and ethics.

It’s a global speech for all people, and he is speaking as a spiritual father and philosopher.

I see all of humanity today being pulled in two directions: the secular West, which is forgetting God and faith and so on, and the religious East, including Islam and other religions and even Oriental Christianity, because they are putting aside reason. He’s proposing a third way, a middle way, a new concept of reason that includes God, faith and ethics, and that goes back to Greek tradition.

This is the whole speech, and the word logos, reason, is the basis of that, and that is why he has chosen this sentence that was unfortunate, taking into account the political situation.

Do we need another Assisi gathering to help communicate this?

We need first to read the text. I hope someone, in the Vatican or elsewhere, will produce something that shows exactly the main line of argument of his speech that speaks not as an academic to an academic audience but to everybody — to put this in simple words on one page. This would be a very positive thing.

And translate it into Arabic?

Certainly. We are doing it. A friend of mine in Paris is putting it on the Internet ( He has put the first part of it up. The other hope I have is that the media will help to make peace between people of different traditions and cultures. The feeling is that the media tend to simply report provocative news, to attract more people, rather than inform deeply. They are primarily responsible for war because they don’t see what they provoke.

They’re interested only in conflicting change.

Yes, they are primarily responsible for war because they don’t see what they provoke. Everyone has seen or heard these few sentences on television and then they go.

An expert on Islam, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who was president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, was transferred earlier this year by Pope Benedict to become apostolic nuncio to Egypt and the Arab League. Do you think that was now a mistake?

Certainly it was seen by the media and by Michael himself as a criticism of him.

We were colleagues together at the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, friends and so on. Michael tends to underline what is common and to hide what is different. This is also legitimate. I think we always have to say, as much as possible, both. But the diplomatic way is to speak about what we agree on and say nothing about the rest.

Coming from the Muslim world, I say if we take a diplomatic point of view, Muslims tend to take advantage.

For instance, if we say mea culpa, I am wrong, I ask for forgiveness for the Crusades and so on, how do Muslims respond? They don’t say, “Look how beautiful it is. We should do the same because we have also made wars.” They say, “Look, they recognize their mistakes,” and then go further as they are more combative.

So the Pope said what is needed, as he is often repeating, is dialogue in truth. For that, Archbishop Fitzgerald was not the best person. It’s not in his nature, though on the other hand, putting him in Cairo could be the greatest thing for him because he has good relations with Al-Ahzar: In Cairo there is the center of the Arab League, the Islamic League.

The fact that the Pope unified the two pontifical councils for culture and interreligious dialogue, this could be a very positive step because we can make a dialogue with culture. This is certainly a main point.

What was happening before was that the Secretary of Interreligious Dialogue organized a meeting but no one from Culture knew about it or followed it. At the Secretariat of State, the same thing happened.

I spoke with Archbishop (Giovanni) Lajolo (then the Vatican’s foreign minister) in May, and he said, “No we’re Secretariat of State; the other is Culture, the other Interreligious.” I think the Pope wanted to have a vision and to say we’ll work together on culture, theology, spirituality and, I hope, political questions. This is a good step, but it will take time.

On the other side, we must be honest: What is the Muslim world doing to make the smallest step or even any step at all? Rather, it is staying at the point where we were. I didn’t hear any voice saying, “People, first let us read the text and then after a week we’ll say something.” The only one to say that was former Iranian president (Mohammad) Khatami who said, “First, let us read the text and then we’ll discuss it.”

There are many great steps to be taken, and the Pope is certainly going in the right direction.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.