Wednesday, September 20, 2006


M.J. Akbar responds to the Pope's comments.
What is aggravating is that the Pope has been free with assumptions, and liberal with its first cousin, innuendo. The peaceful piety of Manuel becomes an indictment of Islam, which is held to be violent in preference and doctrine. The innuendo is cleverly expressed, indicating that some effort has been taken to be clever. The famous verse of the Quran, that "There is no compulsion in religion", is juxtaposed with the proposition that "According to the experts, this is one of the Suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat". The implication is that when he was not under threat, he drew out his sword and went on a rampage. This is the kind of propaganda that the Church used to put out with abandon in the early days, adding gratuitously comments about believers and "infidels". But the Vatican had stopped such vilification, and it is unfortunate that Pope Benedict has revived it. If he had consulted a few experts who understood Islam, he might have been better educated on "holy war".


The war verses are sent to the Prophet only when he has been in Medina for some time, and has become not only a leader of the community but also head of a multi-faith state. War, in other words, is permitted as an exercise in statecraft, and not for personal reasons, including persecution. Further, it is circumscribed with important conditions. Surely no one, including Pope Benedict, believes that a state cannot ever take recourse to war? Indeed, the history of the Vatican is filled with war. The Quran's view of war, as an answer to injustice, certainly merits more understanding than censure.


Manuel's view is better understood in the context of his times. He was monarch of a once-glorious but now dying empire. The Ottomans had been slicing off territory for centuries; the first Crusade had been called by Pope Urban II three centuries before to save the Byzantines from Muslim Turks. The heart of the empire, Constantinople, was now under serious threat. If Tamerlane (another Muslim) had not suddenly appeared from the east and decimated the Ottomans, Constantinople might have fallen during that siege which so depressed Manuel. It was hardly a moment when the Byzantines could have the most charitable view of an Islamic holy war. What is less understandable is why Pope Benedict should endorse a fallacy.

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