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Article: Church-Islam dialogue: the path starts from Regensburg’s Pope

January 19, 2007

Samir Khalil Samir, SJ writing in Asia News:

On the question of violence, all Muslims know that its seeds are in the holy Book, but everyone also tries to hide this by saying that “No, it is not true, Islam means peace, salām, respect, non-violence,” thus denying the facts (2).

Benedict XVI’s speech did not deny the facts, but proposed that they be understood within a human context. That is, he suggested that Islam begin to undertake an interpretation of texts.

When the Pope quoted verse 2,256 of the Koran, “there is no violence in matters of faith”, he added a phrase that scandalized many: “this is probably one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammad was still powerless and under threat.”

These comments seem to me fundamental: he is stressing the need for exegetic work to be done on sacred texts. In this specific case, he gave an example of hermeneutic of the Koran, proposing that that verse be read within the human experience of Mohammad. He was criticized by many, both Muslims and Catholic scholars: “He is ignorant,” they said, “that verse is not from the initial period (Mecca), but from the Medina period.”

In effect, according to the official edition of the Koran, it was the Medina period. But reading the comments in the bilingual Arabic-English and Arabic-French editions of the Koran, edited by Saudi Arabia, we can read “This is the first surah revealed in Medina.” In sociological terms, this means that is was revealed immediately after the Hijra — the flight from Mecca — when Mohammad left his tribe to unite with the opposing tribes of Aws and Khazraj. In that moment and for the next two years (until 624), he had no real power and was constantly under threat. He sought support in fact from the Jews, the richest and most powerful in Medina. When this failed, he began making raids, as was usual on the part of those who could not get by. If this surah — as Muslim commentators say — is the first of Medina, that means that it is before the raiding period. It is true therefore that it was “from the second period”, but it is also true, as the Pope says, that it comes at a moment in which Mohammad himself was “powerless and under threat.”

With his small comment, Benedict XVI seems to suggest to Muslims: we must read the text in its context; and this is fundamental for beginning an Islamo-Christian dialogue. We must reread the sacred texts to see “the circumstances of revelation” (asbāb al-tanzīl, as is said in the Muslim tradition). In this, the Pope is resuming the healthy tradition of interpretation which was alive in the 9th century. Unfortunately, this no longer occurs in contemporary Islam.

Instead, if we come across violent verses — and they do exist — in the Koran, we must seek to understand them in the context in which they appeared. It is clear that Mohammad waged wars; it is also clear that he did not fight for the love of violence: in line with Old Testament tradition, he fought wars “for God”, “in the zeal of God.” All this, put in the perspective of the cultural and religious tradition of the Middle East, is natural and not surprising.

But it should also be said that, today, the mentality has changed: does God truly need to be defended by man? It thus follows that the Koran needs to be reread and interpreted for today. For a century, all Muslim reformists have been saying that the solution for modernizing Islam lies in the interpretation of the Koran. For at least 30 or 40 years, we have been in a phase in which there is no longer any innovation in interpretation, but repetition ad nauseam of the same things and clichés. The same memorized things are repeated.

A young Iranian Muslim, with a degree in Islamic studies, told me the other day: “We can no longer think of the Koran as directly dictated by God to Mohammad through the angel Gabriel. It must be interpreted. Unfortunately, in today’s Islam there is not much freedom: a few decades ago, one of our intellectuals, Abdolkarim Soroush (3) was removed from university teaching for having taught such things. In the end, to be able to live and express himself, he had to emigrate to Europe.” In today’s Islam, ideas are available, especially among reformists and young intellectuals, but they are keeping quiet because freedom in the Islamic world is highly limited.

The Pope had the courage to identify the key points: reason, violence, hermeneutics… And he touched on a sore point with the question of the interpretation of the Koran, without which there can be no dialogue.

This urging of Islam toward interpretation is done out of love for Islam. Certain Christian and Muslim theologians criticized the Pope for having been too hard at Regensburg and they instead applauded him in Turkey. Actually, though, it is the same Pope who, out of love for Islam, did not fail to criticize it at Regensberg, and did not lack spiritual brotherhood in Istanbul.


If a Church or a bishop is not interested in mission, it means that they are asleep or closed in upon themselves. So far, I have seen churches which are very well organized vis-à-vis Muslims from the point of view of charity: help to immigrant, hospitality, schools, etc. It is, however, a generosity without proclamation. It is said that this happens to save dialogue. But proclamation is necessary so that dialogue is a dialogue in truth.

It is necessary that the Church realize that its existence – not only numerical – depends on the proclamation of the Gospel to Muslims also. If this drive is lacking, then it means that she has lost that sense of the beauty of faith encountered in Christ. It means slipping into the void of relativism.

Full article here.

Other writings by Samir Khalil Samir, SJ:
Asia News: Benedict XVI & Islam
Asia News: The Pope’s speech: lending Islam a helping hand to avoid a downward spiral
Asia News: Islam and Christianity: encounter/confrontation, but also conversion

Related Posts:
Theme: The Pope, Islam and secularism
Debate: The Question of Dialogue
Theme: Confronting the Past
Article: The Pope and the Prophet


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One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink

    Very well said.

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