We're getting there, slowly ...QuoteFor the big monotheistic faiths, holding a debate looks hard but necessaryDO THE leaders of the Muslim and Roman Catholic faithsaccounting, at least on paper, for over one billion people eachhave any clear ideas about how to deal with one another? That's a question followers of both creeds have been asking as controversy about a speech by Pope Benedict continues to claim lives. A priest in Iraq was found beheaded last week, even though his parishioners had yielded to the captors' demand that they renounce the pope's words on Islam.On the Muslim side, there have been significant moves in recent days. Some 38 of Islam's most senior figuresincluding the grand muftis of Egypt, Oman, Bosnia, Syria and Russia and scholars from all the religion's main schoolshave addressed a careful, elaborate message to Benedict XVI, in the apparent hope of taking Catholic-Muslim encounter away from the streets and into the debating chamber.The letter challenges the pontiff to engage in the thing he says he wants most: a robust, courteous exchange about faith and reason. The signatories said they appreciated the pope's expressions of sorrow over the reaction to his address in Germany last monthin which he mentioned (without endorsing) a medieval claim that Islam brought nothing new but violence.But they also take the pontiff to task on lots of things. The pope had implied, for example, that Muslims believed in a deity so far beyond all categoriessuch as goodness or rationalitythat God could as easily be cruel and irrational as merciful or peaceloving. Not so, the greybeards shot back: there is only one obscure Muslim thinker (a certain Ibn Hazm) who ever said anything like that, and to dredge him up is to paint Islam in an unfair light.Another point: the pope appeared to downgrade one of the Koran's best-loved statementsthere is no compulsion in religionby saying it belonged to the earlier, emollient phase of the Prophet's life as opposed to the latter part, when there was more emphasis on politics and the rules of war. But on that, the scholars said, the pope is just wrong: the no compulsion verse is late, not early. How much hope do the scholars have of moving their encounters with the Catholics back to the safety of academia? In Egypt, the letter drew a cool response from leaders of the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood: how can we accept the pope's apology when he hasn't apologised, merely expressed regret? To which the signatories replied, Let's at least give him credit for going as far as he did.Vatican officials have cautiously welcomed the scholars' letter, saying they too see prospects for a tough, meaningful conversation. After all, they point out, the pope has often said that the two faiths have different, but related problems: for the Christian, today's adversary is reason without faith or cold secularism. For moderate Muslims, it is faith without reason or violent fundamentalism.The same officials also insist that the German lecture was not a deliberate provocation. But many Vatican-watchers feel that in his assessments of the Muslim scene, the current pope is more inclined than his predecessor, John Paul II, to be pessimistic. That is partly because of Benedict's personal history: in his previous job as chief enforcer of Catholic teaching, he voiced exasperation with doctrinal innovators whoin his viewtried to water down their Christianity with eastern religions, including Islam.Another factor is the increased profile in the papal entourage of Arab Christians whose view of Islam is influenced by their own experience of inter-religious tensions in their homelands. In 2005, a few months after his election, Benedict presided at a meeting of his former doctoral students at which the topic was Islam. One of the two outsiders invited to the discussions was an Arab Jesuit with uncompromising views. The meeting is understood to have ended with broad agreement that there is little scope for discussing the basics of theology with Muslims: as a religion that puts overwhelming stress on revelation, its tenets are fixed and not open to re-interpretation. So (on this controversial view) it would be more worthwhile for the two faiths to discuss practicalities, like curbing violence and ensuring religious freedom.If that view prevails, it will be a disappointment to some of the scholars who wrote to the pope. As many authorities on Islam would point out, Muslim thinkers were arguing hard over the boundary between faith and reason 1,000 years agoand there are Muslims today who want to revive the rationalist side of that argument. Without interfering, the pope could help by indicating he does not see all Muslims as unreasonable types.Thanks to The Economist.
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on October 22nd, 2006, 10:00 pm, edited 1 time in total.