Friday, September 15, 2006

Pope Gets it Wrong on Islam

By Professor Juan Cole
University of Michigan

"His allegation is incorrect. Surah 2 is a Medinan surah revealed when Muhammad was already established as the leader of the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina or "the city" of the Prophet). The pope imagines that a young Muhammad in Mecca before 622 (lacking power) permitted freedom of conscience, but later in life ordered that his religion be spread by the sword. But since Surah 2 is in fact from the Medina period when Muhammad was in power, that theory does not hold water.

In fact, the Qur'an at no point urges that religious faith be imposed on anyone by force. This is what it says about the religions:

' [2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians-- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. '

In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away. The tyrannical governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj, was notorious for this rejection of applicants, because he got higher taxes on non-Muslims. Arab Muslims had conquered Iraq, which was then largely pagan, Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish. But they weren't seeking converts and certainly weren't imposing their religion.

In fact, the Quran also urges reasoned faith and also forbids coercion in religion. The only violence urged in the Quran is in self-defense of the Muslim community against the attempts of the pagan Meccans to wipe it out.

As for the Quran, it constantly appeals to reason in knowing God, and in refuting idolatry and paganism, and asks, "do you not reason?" "do you not understand?" (a fala ta`qilun?)

Of course, Christianity itself has a long history of imposing coerced faith on people, including on pagans in the late Roman Empire, who were forcibly converted. And then there were the episodes of the Crusades.

Another irony is that reasoned, scholastic Christianity has an important heritage drom Islam itself. In the 10th century, there was little scholasticism in Christian theology. The influence of Muslim thinkers such as Averroes and Ibn Rushd reemphasized the use of Aristotle and Plato in Christian theology. Indeed, there was a point where Christian theologians in Paris had divided into partisans of Averroes or of Ibn Rushd, and they conducted vigorous polemics with one another."

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