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Benedict and the Koran Print E-mail
By Peter Brown   
Monday, 10 January 2011

After reading the pope’s famous Regensburg lecture for the umpteenth time, I am ready to conclude that if one were to excise paragraphs 2-4, which concerned Islam, what we have is Benedict boilerplate. Here we find the repetition of themes that pervade Benedict’s writings in his long career. He reminds us of the early “decision” of Christianity to accept dialogue with and critique from philosophy and that Christianity never sought immunity from rational analysis. 

In the modern age, the relationship between faith and reason has been strained a bit. From the Reformation (Luther) to the final destruction of metaphysics (Kant) to the reduction of the scope of scientific Jesus study to the man Jesus apart from the accretions of “Greek” theology (Harnack), each succeeding wave in the de-Hellenization of Christianity was spearheaded by Germans. The pope did not mention Hegel, F. C. Baur, Strauss, Nietzsche, or Bultmann but these Germans all made outsized contributions to the Enlightenment’s dialogue with Christianity, for good or ill.   

It was not Benedict’s purpose to bemoan the indelible stamp of German idealism on Christian scholarship. The scholar-pope himself stands as much an exponent of the German intellectual tradition as a critic. In the final analysis, it was not Christianity or the Church really that was harmed by the edgy, skeptical, and even – at times – hostile German guild. Rather, it was reason itself that suffered when scholarship excluded from its purview the investigation of the highest order truth claims about God. 

Benedict did not echo the well-worn traditionalist critique by arguing that Christian scholarship had failed because the scholars slew too many sacred cows or had the wrong attitude when slaying them. On the contrary, the scholars stopped asking questions at all concerning the rationality of faith – relegating it to the realm of subjective opinion. This was paradoxically subversive of the central conceit of the Enlightenment itself, to say nothing of faith, which is intrinsically joined to reason. 

But what has all this to do with Islam? His point was this: Though Christian scholars might have taken a long sabbatical from fundamental questions of truth, Christianity has always opened its sources and truth claims to friendly criticism from within and even to hostile criticism from without. Unfriendly external criticism is one of Providence’s main tools to help the Church forge more precise understandings of revealed things. But there is no tradition of either kind of criticism in Islam, and indeed no basic recognition among Muslims that Islam and its sacred text are suitable objects for such rational analysis. Such recognition is the sine qua non of real dialogue with Islam. 


          Benedict XVI delivers his address at Regensburg

How has Islam mostly avoided German- style criticism up to now? One way is through simple intimidation. A friend of mine in New Testament studies wanted originally to learn Arabic and to embark on a historical/critical study of the Quran. “Don’t do this, Tim,” a Muslim friend advised, “You will be killed!” A joke perhaps, but with a kernel of truth. Christian Salman Rushdies are a dime a dozen, but in Islam, there still are few enough to attract notoriety. 

The main reason Islam has escaped much rough-edged Enlightenment scrutiny, however, was historical timing. Earlier generations of Western scholars who would have been inclined to do it were already consumed with the mammoth undertaking of applying new criticism to the Bible and the early Church. Mastering Hebrew and Koine Greek, poring over Bible manuscripts, and chasing sources proved an immense and formidable undertaking. Few scholars had the time or the inclination to learn Arabic and turn their attention to the Quran as well. Besides – since controversy is the lifeblood of the German theologian – why rile up Muslims when there were plenty of pious Christian noses to tweak in Europe and America? The Quran weathered the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth nearly unaffected by the influence of German-style techniques. 

And by the time the Quran appeared on the academic horizon in the late twentieth century as a yet largely unexplored frontier, the paradigm for religious study had shifted drastically.   The Muslim faith could be studied under the rubric of “Islamic studies,” “comparative religion,” or as a socio-political phenomenon. The purpose of these approaches was fostering understanding and the dispelling of Western misconceptions and stereotypes – desirable goals, of course. But Benedict’s real complaint is that Western academics have punted on the more fundamental question of whether Islamic beliefs are actually true – thinking it to be above their pay grade. He wants this question asked so that truth seeking remains the goal of inter-faith dialogue. 

The pope is going to get his wish. Right now in Germany (where else?) there is a massive project underway to publish a critical edition of the Quran. This involves careful analysis of all the available textual variants to produce to most ancient version – mirroring the process that has been underway in Bible scholarship from almost the beginning. Why is this noteworthy?  Because it is an article of Islamic faith that there are no textual variants of the Quran. It is an historic cavil of Islam against Christianity that its sacred text was free of any of the “corruption” that affected the Bible. 

The trouble is that the claim is not merely debatable, it is demonstrably untrue. The scholars have the variants culled from old Qurans that pious Muslims used to discard in mosques. More variants will surely surface in the years ahead. How will ordinary Muslims respond to this? Will Western-style reason win out or will Islam even more resolutely embrace a God who is immune from rational analysis? 

Implicit in Regensburg is Benedict’s big bet is that Western-style reason summed up in the Eternal Logos will prevail – even among non-Western religious traditions like Islam. By this time next century, if a lot of Muslims have embraced the Eternal Logos made flesh, we’ll know that he was right!


Peter Brown is completing a doctorate in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
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written by Mark, January 10, 2011
Islam, much like a great deal of modern Western thought, abandoned reason in favor of the will to power. When this happened to Islam, one of the results was Islamism just as reason's abandonment in Western thought helped produce communism and fascism.
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written by quaecumque vera, January 10, 2011
The hope that Islam can ever become something peaceful is scant indeed.In Pakistan yesterday fifty thousand people including hundreds of Islamic scholars demonstrated in support of the guard that assasinated the political figure trying to bring Islam into the modern world. It is ten years since 9/11 and Islamic barbarism has gotten worse. The whole of Hitler's reign was twelve years. The followers of Islam make the Nazis look like schoolyard bullies. What can be expected from an ideology that offers Heaven for slaughtering innocents and promises death to anyone converting?
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Bullies?
written by Brad Miner, January 10, 2011
To quaecumque vera: I speak just for myself (and not Peter Brown), but to say that the Islamists make the "Nazis look like schoolyard bullies" must be a rhetorical slip. Of course none of us knows what the future holds, and how it may unfold if Islamofascists take full control of Pakistan and other countries, but the Nazi record of 6-million murdered Jews and more than 70-million total dead in the war they started is hardly "schoolyard' by any measure.
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written by quaecumque vera, January 10, 2011
Actually I meant to say this in order to call attention to how deranged the Islamic worldview is. I don't have space to recount the 16,000 plus Islamic attacks over the past ten years but that number is right. Sixteen thousand instances of unimaginable cruelty. There is not a place on the earth where Islam is practiced where innocents are not slaughtered and not a single day goes by without Islamic atrocities being committed. AND we are just getting started on Mohammed's reign!
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written by The Moz, January 10, 2011
Unless Iran and Saudia Arabia open their borders to the sort of cultural exchange that has been happening in the West for over 2,000 years, Islam will remain a hostile and irrational system. This subject always brings to mind the saying "Thouest protesteth too much". There are mosques in every city in Europe and North America but not even one in Saudi Arabia. Why is that? Well we know why. It is because only a very tiny minority of people, if they could choose freely and securely, would choose Islam over Christianity and the authorities of both countries know it. So it'll just have to be a game of wait and see. But with most Christians in the West preferring fun over family, who knows who'll be on the defensive in 2050.
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written by Jacob Richard, January 10, 2011
Patton was right.

We should have made the German Army part of ours and conquered all China..then Russia couldn't have gotten any of their mischief started and Islamists wouldn't have been so powerful.
(I know idiot Americans walked right into the fight but if the USSR hadn't had China, Western style democracy and human rights would now be impossible to escape--like death sentences in modern China and the Middle East.)
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written by Louise, January 10, 2011
"Western academics have punted on the more fundamental question of whether Islamic beliefs are actually true"

I have asked contributers on TCT and on other sites, when discussing whether Islam is "good" or "bad", to ask, instead, "Is it true." However, this time I'm going to ask the first question: is it good or bad? Can we live on the same planet with an active Islam?

I did a search for "terror, Islamic, 2010". Figures had not been compiled for 2010, but here are the countries in which there were terror strikes under the banner of Islam in 2009. A few had only casualties, the vast majority had varying numbers of fatalities. Sometimes, only a single Christian was murdered.

Pakistan, Thailand, Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Iran, Algeria, Israel, Yemen, Ingushetia,
Palestine Authority, Philippines, USA (4 successful), Dagestan, Jordan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Chechnya, Sudan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Belgium, Germany, Indonesia, China, France, Canada, UK (1 nonfatal), Mauritania, Turkey, Mali, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, Bahrain.

It would have taken me the rest of the afternoon to count deaths and casualties. Maybe it doesn't make any difference any more whether it is true or not, or whether the Koranic texts agree or not. There seem to be more pressing concerns. Those are questions for peacetime. Those were questions to have asked when Islam was dormant. Isn't it a little late for those questions now?
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written by jason taylor, January 10, 2011
"Can we live on the same planet with an active Islam?"

We seem to have managed just that for about 1500 years.
Unless you mean "can we live PEACEFULLY on the same planet with an active Islam". The answer to which is that this is not a peaceful planet.
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written by Louise, January 10, 2011
You are right, Mr. Taylor. This is not a peaceful planet. I have just finished reading "Galileo's Daughter" and I was amazed to read there how many times Europe had to defend itself against Muslim incursions. In "Salvation Is from the Jews", I learned that Muslims were actively cooperating with and even advising Hitler in his plans for European domination. I lived through that war and I had never heard that.

In those earlier times, however, European nations were defending Christianity and, later, western civilization. Nobody seems to care about western civilization any more, least of all western Europeans. So, to quote the small print on TV commercials: Past performance is no guarantee of future success.
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written by Howard Kainz, January 10, 2011
To "The Moz": You say, "There are mosques in every city in Europe and North America but not even one in Saudi Arabia." You mean, "...not even one church in Saudi Arabia," don't you?
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written by Dan, January 10, 2011
The photo bears the caption: "Benedict XVI delivers his address at Regensburg." However, it is evident from the backdrop that the photo is of Pope Benedict delivering an address at Castel Gandolfo.
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written by Tom, January 11, 2011
You should definitely read this: A critical reading of Islam/The Quran. The Pope asked for it at Regensburg, but is there a fear among academics: "The Lost Archive" by Andrew Higgins from the Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2008.
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written by mark, January 11, 2011
actually, B16's address was irenic--perhaps naively so--in intent. one of his main points was that Islam's turn against reason was, in fact, paralleled in the West by the voluntarism of Duns Scotus. B16 appears to have seen this commonality as a basis for dialogue between Christianity and Islam--in effect, we have both sinned against reason, lets see if we can come together in reason at last.

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