Respectfully, the Pope is Not a Muslim

A link on the Islamica Magazine website will take the curious religiously inclined websurfer to an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, written in response to the pontiff’s impolitic and regrettable remarks given during a lecture at the University of Regensburg, Germany last September. I was impressed enough by the letter to send my thoughts to Islamica Magazine, who, I’m told, will publish it as a letter to the editor. Said letter, somewhat expanded and extended is published below. Given the Pope’s visit to Turkey this week, now seemed like a good time to share my thoughts. This piece also can be found on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality page.

As I read over the list of Muslim leaders who have signed the “Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XIV,” I cannot help but be impressed. I’m not familiar with all of the names, but many of them are recognizable to me, and I am privileged to have made the acquaintance of at least one of the signers, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson of the Zaytuna Institute in California. It is a extraordinary list. The only name I wish could be added is my own.

Not, of course, that I possess the requisite credentials for inclusion among the dignitaries who signed the Open Letter to the Pope. I’m not a leader in the Muslim world, in fact, I’m not even a Muslim. I am a Christian, a Presbyterian minister, the pastor of a small church on the edge of California’s Silicon Valley, who moonlights as a writer of faith-based social and political commentary.

Nonetheless, I believe that Christians like me need to join with Muslims in speaking out against the kind of interfaith ignorance and religious intolerance made manifest in the Pope’s lecture at the University of Regensburg, Germany last September. The Pope, in his remarks, violated what I think should be among the cardinal rules for the maintenance of good will between religious traditions, and the Open Letter to Benedict XVI is a wonderful example of the kind of discourse that will promote inter-religious understanding.

As noted in the Open Letter, the Pope’s words were not entirely without merit. His remarks on faith and reason, philosophy and the human spirit were compelling, but were entirely overshadowed by his brief, ill-advised, and practically non sequitur reference to Islam as an irrational and bloodthirsty religion. Since giving the lecture the Pope has apologized to Muslims and has attempted to clarify himself, and this is good, but one hopes he also has learned this fundamental principle for building positive interfaith relationships: a member of one religion should never presume to tell the story of another faith tradition.

The pope is not a Muslim. He’s not even a Christian scholar of Islam. Smart as he is, the Pope is no more qualified publicly to represent Islam than the Dali Lama is credentialed to speak for Judaism, or Jerry Falwell for Jainism. Whenever possible, people of faith, especially high profile leaders like the Pope, must allow other religious traditions to be described and represented by members of that faith. Quoting a possibly non-existent medieval pen-pal of a polemical Byzantine monarch doesn’t count.

This doesn’t mean that religious leaders such as the Pope must never mention other faiths, but if there is a desire to strengthen interfaith relationships, religious leaders at all levels must speak of other religious paths only in the most positive and deferential way, leaving the frailties of other faiths to be addressed by adherents of those faiths. If the Pope has found fault with Islam, that’s fine. No one is suggesting that he convert. Meanwhile, the troubles in the Christian Church are more than sufficient to occupy the remaining years of his papacy.

The Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI strikes the right tone in response to the Pope’s rhetorical fumble. It is gentle without compromising honesty, it is informative and respectful. Most importantly, the letter is an invitation to dialogue, which can take place only in the context of a healthy and dynamic relationship.

The Open Letter is an example of the kind of communication that must exist at the interface of the world’s religious traditions. As technology shrinks the space between human communities the world is becoming an increasingly crowded place. If religious humans are not intentional about seeking understanding and living graciously in our interactions with one another, our proximity will make the world uncomfortable, if not dangerous.

The Muslim leaders who wrote and signed the Open Letter to Pope Benedict offer an excellent example of the kind of peaceable and informed conversation that will build a better world for all of God’s children, and should the letter circulate again, this time to be endorsed by Protestant Christian preachers, I want my name to be at the top of the list.

3 thoughts on “Respectfully, the Pope is Not a Muslim

  1. As a number of commentators have observed, the Pope’s second quotatation of Manuel II Paleologus seems to have been studiously ignored by the Muslim world: “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.”

    The Muslims, including the self-appointed divines (because Islam proudly claims no formal clergy) who signed the letter might well stop being aggrieved at everything not Islamic at least long enough pay attention to the second quote. Interfaith dialogue is fine, but if it’s always on one side’s set of terms — i.e., Islam may not be criticized — then it’s not much of a dialogue.

  2. Bill,

    One of the tragedies of the Pope’s choice to include the offending quote (“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.”) is that it ended up overshadowing the rest of the lecture, much of which was quite good. However, I’m not sure we reasonably can expect Muslims not to be offended by a statement like the one quoted.


  3. What did Our God of Torah say? — 25:23 And the LORD said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.

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