Last year, on the day after the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Pope Benedict XVI spoke at Regensberg University, on the subject of Christian truth, and of Christian dialogue with other faiths, especially Islam. Although there has been plenty of media coverage of the Pope's remarks, and of the reaction by Rage Boy and other Islamists, one part of the story has been conspicuously absent: the text from which the Pope’s remarks were taken. So this article supplies the missing context.
In 1391 in the East, Islam was ascendant, and Christianity barely hanging on. Manuel II Paleologue ruled the Byzantine "Empire", a territory not much larger than an American state, consisting of Constantinople and some small parts of modern-day Greece and Bulgaria. Accordingly, Manuel was obliged in the early 1391 pay tribute at the court of the Ottoman Sultan Bajazet I.
There, Manuel met a very learned, older Persian gentleman, who asked Manuel to discuss with him the comparative merits of Islam and Christianity. The Persian, who perhaps was a professor, explained that he had already learned much about Christianity, but he wished to discuss the topic with a genuine advocate of Christianity, rather than with a Muslim giving an incomplete defense of the Christian faith.
So for 26 nights, the pair debated. The discussions were recorded by some members of Manuel’s court, probably to the benefit of their prince. The full dialogues have been recorded in Greek, and the dialogue of the seventh night has been translated into French, presumably because of its significance. It was from the 1966 French edition, translated and edited by Theodore Khoury, that Benedict XVI quoted, Entretiens Avec un Musluman: 7e Controverse (Interviews with a Muslim: 7th Controversy). No edition presently exists in English. (The French translation of the dialogue itself, without Khoury's extensive analysis, is here.)
The dialogues were complicated because Manuel and the Persian did not speak other’s language, nor did anyone in their retinues. So statements had to be translated from Greek to Turkish, and then from Turkish to Persian. (Or translated in other direction.)
One notable feature of the dialogue between Manuel and the Persian is that neither side relied on scriptural proof-texts. Although the 20th-century editor Khoury pronounces the interviews a failure because neither side could ultimately enter into the mental world of the other, the dialogues strike me as a heroic effort by both parties to overcome their linguistic and cultural differences, and to engage in a sincere discussion of the most fundamental issues of life, with neither side relying on proof-texts which the other side could not accept.
The broad topic of the 7th Controversy is the relative merits of the Christian and Islamic Laws. The dialogues took place during a crisis of confidence of Orthodox Christianity, for the Byzantines, like the ancient Israelites (and the Muslims), believed that God bestowed military success upon the righteous. At the time, the Islamic Ottomans were plainly ascendant over the Byzantines.
In small details, we see differences between medieval Persian-Turkish Islam, and the more austere contemporary Arab extremist versions. According to the Persian, paradise is replete not only with young women, but also with dogs (presumably hunting dogs). In contrast, modern Islamo-fascists abhor even guide dogs for the blind as unclean, and dogs are banned from "Saudi" Arabia.
Early in the dialogue, Manuel raises the issue of religious conversion by force. Under Islamic practice, conquered "people of the book", that is, Christians and Jews, were allowed to retain their religion, in exchange for submission as second-class citizens ("dhimmis")—required to pay punitive taxes, forbidden possess arms, and reduced to complete social inferiority to Muslims, including being prohibited from defending themselves against violent criminal attacks by Muslims.
Adherents of other religions, such as Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, or pagan sects, fared much worse; their choice was conversion to Islam, or slavery.
Near the beginning of the 7th Controversy, Manuel, as quoted by Benedict XVI asks, "Show me just what Muhammad 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." (The editor added a citation to Sura 9 of the Koran.)
The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…"
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: "For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality." Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Muslim R[oger] Arnaldez, who points out that [the famous Muslim philosopher] Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.
An October 2006 joint letter of 38 leading Muslim scholars and clerics, in response to the Regensberg speech, denied that conversion by the sword is a tenet is Islam. (The issue depends on whether Koran 2:256, "There is no compulsion in religion," is abrogated by later verses.) As for the charge that Mohammad had introduced nothing new that was good, the scholars responded that Mohammad never claimed to be declaring novel doctrines.
Likewise, the educated Persian of 1391 did not attempt to defend the irrational doctrine of conversion by the sword.
Educated though he was, the Persian perhaps did not think of the specific counter-arguments which the 38 scholars of 2006 deployed. So there followed a long pause. Manuel's translator, a Muslim with Christian parents, seemed to Manuel to be discretely pleased with the speech, and he quietly warned the educated Persian that if he could not reply, the Muslims would have to concede victory in the debate to the Christians.
Finally, the Persian replied. He did not directly respond to Manuel's points. Instead, he changed the topic by arguing that the Christian law, while admirable, was inhumane.
In particular, the Persian listed the seemingly extreme demands of the Sermon on the Mount (love your enemies, do not resist evil, and so on), along with a few other extreme statements of Jesus (e.g., to follow me, you must hate your parents). Perhaps a man made of diamonds could comply with these extreme precepts, but real human could not, said the Persian. At length he denounced the Christian preference for lifelong virginity. It was contrary to human nature, and contrary to the way that God had created the world in Genesis (with two sexes who were meant to couple). The ultimate result would be the extinction of human race. Islamic Law, in contrast, was moderate, in accordance with human nature, and an example of the virtuous Golden Mean. (The Persian was apparently well-acquainted with the principle from Greek and Latin philosophy.)
Manuel answered that, first of all, extraordinary things are possible for humans, with God’s help. God can provide every person with the will and the means to achieve everything necessary to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Moreover, the items listed by Manuel were not absolute rules; rather, they were exhortations and advice, or forms of spiritual combat, which were for people most perfected in the faith.
In response to a follow-up question from the Persian, Manuel delivered a beautiful, but overly long disquisition on the above point, explaining that Christianity had room for many sorts of people; one did not have to imitate the early Christians by practicing lifelong virginity and poverty. However, the greatest rewards in Heaven were for those who did, for they became the children of God.
As the dialogue continued through the night, the Persian brought the discussion back to a comparison of the Islamic and Christian laws, and challenged Manuel to prove the Islamic law inferior. Manuel resorted to a traditional Greek argument against Islam:
Islam claims that the Mosaic Law was good, the Christian Law better, and the Islamic Law the best of all, perfecting the Christian Law. Yet Mohammed revived parts of the Mosaic Law that Christianity had abolished, such as the prohibition on eating pork, and the requirement that if a husband dies without having given his wife a child, one of the husband’s brothers must marry the widow. Thus, Islam was illogical in proclaiming the superiority of Christian Law to Mosaic Law, while reversing Christian abrogations of Mosaic Law.
The Persian had no response except to affirm the superiority of Islamic Law, and request that Manuel continue his arguments. Manuel did so, adding circumcision to the list of Mosaic Laws which were eliminated by Christianity but revived by Islamic Law.
The Persians talked among themselves at great length. Then, the Persian politely said that the night’s discussions should conclude, because Manuel was supposed to go hunting in morning with Bajazet, and Manuel was already cold, so Manuel should have a chance to rest and get warm.
Was the Persian able to provide good counter-arguments when the interviews resumed the next evening? I do not know. I am not aware of any English or French translations of the 8th Controversy.
The 7th Controversy, as part of the 26 Interviews with a Muslim, is an admirable testament to the ability of the best minds of the 14th century to engage in serious interfaith dialogue. Both sides believed that religious truth is real, and not relative; both sides frankly presented their best arguments, based on reason and human experience. Neither side shied away from frank criticisms of the other, and neither side relied on its own scripture to trumpet its superiority over people who did not believe in that scripture.
Notwithstanding Rage Boy and similar hate-filled Islamist cretins, and notwithstanding hate-filled Christians and Jews, many millions of adherents of the Abrahamic faiths are ready to engage each other in sincere dialogue, as did the Emperor Manuel and the educated Persian. The dialogue cannot reasonably result in the conclusion that "all religions are equally true," for all of the three faiths contain statements of theological fact that are incompatible with the notion that any religion is as good as any other.
Today, the ascendancy of post-modernism and political correctness in much of the Judeo-Christian world (terrified of asserting that absolute theological truths exist, and terrified of reason itself) and of Islamofascism in much of the Muslim world (likewise terrified of reason itself) stifles meaningful interfaith dialogue. The best response to Manuel II Paleologue, the educated Persian, Pope Benedict XVI, and the 38 Muslim scholars, would be to follow their example by engaging in hard-headed and soft-hearted interfaith dialogues. For surely rational discussion about God is itself a type of homage to God.