For me, the more dangerous assertion in the Pope’s speech was underplayed in the media. He raised the issue of forced conversion to make the point that reason precludes forced conversion, and “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.” Since His Holiness accepts the idea that forced conversion was part of Islam, this leads him to question whether Muslims believe that God is bound by reason. Here he turns to theology. He makes the argument, absolutely correctly, that the dominant strain in Muslim theology is that God is absolutely transcendent, omnipotent and inscrutable, not bound by any human category, including reason. The debate in the 10th century between the Mu’tazali rationalists, who were steeped in Greek philosophy and argued that, in effect, God is bound by His reason, and their opponents, who argued for the absolute transcendence of God, was decided against the Mu’tazilis. The Pope concedes that a similar debate occurred in Catholic theology about a century later, between rationalists like Thomas Aquinas and voluntarists like Duns Scotus and William of Occam (he of the famous razor). That debate was decided the other way, in favor of those who argued that God is bound by His reason.
It is on this point about faith and reason that the Pope makes his most serious error, that Islam is not a faith that respects reason. In the footnotes to his talk, added after the controversy arose, he writes, “In quoting the text of the Emperor Manuel II, I intended solely to draw out the essential relationship between faith and reason. On this point I am in agreement with Manuel II, but without endorsing his polemic” (my italics). The Pope, while professing his respect for Islam, doubts that it is a faith which respects reason, and thus implicitly questions the value of dialogue with it.
This is just profoundly wrong. His Holiness is an academic theologian, and thus would naturally look to theology for the essence of the role of reason in any religion. As I said above, his reading, at least on a superficial level, of the relation of reason to God’s essence in mainstream Sunni thinking is correct (though he ignores other important strains in Islamic theology, including all of Shi’ism, in his argument). However, it ignores the profound grounding in Greek rationalism that Muslim philosophers like al-‘Ashari, who argued against the Mu’tazilis, couched their points. It also ignores the absolutely central role of reason in areas of Islamic intellectual and philosophical development outside of theology. Law is central here. Muslim philosophers might not use the instruments of human reason to question the Quran itself (as the Mu’tazilis did), but in their development of shari’a, Islamic law, from its sources in the Quran and the hadiths they relied enormously on human reason. Reasoning by analogy (qiyas) has been a central element in the development of shari’a. The application of shari’a to specific cases is completely dependent upon the reason of the judge. To say that Islam, as a religion, is inimical to reason is just not true. Its entire legal edifice, developed over the centuries, refutes this charge.
Read the whole thing.