Translating Words, Interpreting Events

Warning: Quote History at Your Own Risk

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The Pope’s Remark Revisited

Private Papers

The Pope is under attack. Once again, riots, demonstrations, and “retaliations” have sparked throughout the Muslim world. Major Muslim figures — political and religious — have condemned the Pope. The “Muslim Street” is burning his effigy.

What great crime did the Pope commit, exactly? He quoted history. In a speech about faith and reason, he quoted a debate between 14th-century Byzantine emperor Paleologus II and a Muslim theologian, where the former asked, “Show me just what Mohammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman — such as the command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” In the context of the Pope’s speech, the point in evoking this anecdote was twofold: 1) to show how even centuries ago, there was inter-religious dialogue — a good thing to be preserved; and 2) to show that there is no room for violence where faith is concerned.

Twice the Pope clarified that he was quoting. He also described the Byzantine emperor’s remark as “brusque.” Moreover, the Pope made it a point to mention one of the Koran’s most tolerant verses — “There is no compulsion in religion” [Koran 2:256].

Had the Pope really wanted to defame Islam, he could have quoted from the much more numerous “sword-verses” of the Koran, which most Muslim theologians are agreed have abrogated the more tolerant ones: “Fight those of the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] who do not believe in Allah nor the Last Day, nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth [Islam], until they pay tribute with willing submission, and feel themselves utterly subdued” [Koran 9:29]. Or “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them — seize them, besiege them, and make ready to ambush them” [Koran 9:5]

Even more ironic, had the Pope not been quoting, had these been his own words, he, like Paleologus, would only have been declaring historic truth — as recorded by Muslim historians themselves. Indeed, almost everything we know about the early Islamic conquests is derived entirely from Muslim sources: the Koran, the Hadith, and the histories. And all of them unabashedly declare that Islam was established by the sword.

For Muslims to be enraged because the Pope evoked a fact recorded in their own texts, is no less ridiculous than if Christians became enraged because some Muslim authority evoked something out of Christian history and as recorded in the Gospels — for example, that Paul and the other apostles preached the Gospel around the Mediterranean, and as a result were persecuted and martyred (in the passive sense, that is). Of course, the method which Paul and others used to spread Christianity — preaching — differs significantly from the method that Muhammad used spread Islam — the sword — hence the touchiness of the topic.

More amazing still is that when radical Muslims portray Islam as a religion of the sword (remember the flag of Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam), far from being criticized by other Muslims, they usually receive only applause and recruits.

A cherished Hadith, quoted by virtually every militant Muslim, records the prophet saying — “Behold! Allah sent me [Muhammad] with a sword, just before the Hour [of Judgment], and placed my daily sustenance beneath the shadow of my spear, and humiliation and contempt on those who oppose me, and whoever imitates a group is [numbered] among them.”

Abdullah Azzam, deceased mentor of Osama bin Laden and Muslim icon, once wrote: “We are terrorists. Every Muslim must be a terrorist. Terrorism is an obligation as demonstrated in the Koran and Sunna. Allah Most High said: ‘Muster against them [infidels] all the men and cavalry at your command, so that you may strike terror into the heart of your enemy and Allah’s enemy’ [Koran 8:60]. Thus terrorism is a religious obligation. And the Messenger [Muhammad] of Allah is the first terrorist and the first menace” [al-Hijra wa al-I'dad].

Bin Laden himself, after discussing Islam’s relationship to the world, concludes that “The matter is summed up for every person alive: either submit [to Islam], or live under the suzerainty of Islam [as a second-class citizen, a "dhimmi"], or die.” And after murdering 3,000 civilians in the name of Islam, and repeatedly stating that his actions were in accordance to Sharia law, why didn’t Muslims protest in mass and burn his effigy for defaming their religion and prophet? Instead, a recent poll by al-Jazeera where 41,000 individuals participated revealed that 49.9% support the U.S.’s most wanted man.

In fact, when al-Qaeda, Hezballah, Hamas, the Taliban, Iranian mullahs, or the imam at any given Western mosque portray Islam as a religion of the sword, nary a word of criticism — indeed only affirmation — will be heard on the Muslim street.

But when the Pope quotes in passing someone else saying the same thing — then woe, all is woe. The reason for this is obvious. Muslim anger at the Pope’s remark is less due to the fact that he implied that Islam was spread by the sword — a historic fact that Muslims have traditionally been proud of — but because the main point of his talk was to show that violence is always contrary to God’s will. Clearly such a conviction implies that Islam, which Muslims know was spread by the sword, is not only ungodly, but false. In other words, if you evoke Islam and violence (i.e. jihad) in a positive manner — such as al-Qaeda et. al.do — saying Allah “wills it,” you are a hero, but when you evoke it in a negative context, which the Pope did, by saying that “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul,” you are a villain.

At any rate, has the international Muslim response — burning papal effigies, making death-threats, attacking Christian churches, shooting nuns in the back, and God knows what else — shown that Islam is not violent? That is, after all, what this is all about?