Muslim scholars engage Benedict in dialogue

Thirty-eight Muslim scholars from around the world have delivered an unprecedented open letter to Pope Benedict pointing out errors in his Regensburg speech last month but expressing appreciation for the Pontiff's clarifying comments and expression of regret over the misunderstandings of his text.

Aljazeera reports that the signatories to the open letter delivered on Sunday to the papal nuncio in Jordan said: "we must point out some errors in the way you (the Pope) mentioned Islam as a counterpoint to the proper use of reason, as well as some mistakes in the assertions you put forward in support of your arguments".

The scholars' letter also focused on perceptions of forced conversion, jihad versus holy war and the relationship between Christianity and Islam.

But those who signed the letter, including the Grand Muftis of Egypt, Russia, Kosovo, Oman and Istanbul, also said they appreciated the Pope's personal expression of sorrow over his citing of anti-Islamic quotes by a 14th-century Byzantine emperor.

The scholars also said that by following the Koranic precept of debating "in the fairest way," they hoped to reach out so as to increase mutual understanding, re-establish trust, calm the situation for the sake of peace and preserve Muslim dignity.

Islamica magazine, which published the letter on its website, said since signatories of all eight schools of thought and jurisprudence in Islam, including a woman scholar, are represented in the letter it "is unique in the history of interfaith relations."

Mohammed Samiullah Khan, managing editor of the magazine, said: "It was unprecedented that all these scholars came together.

"It took time, of course, to work out the text and get the right response. It obviously couldn't happen overnight. But we think it addresses the Pope's speech in a very constructive way.

"The initiative was taken by the scholars themselves, there was a large group of scholars who felt a correct response needed to be made and collectively they formulated the letter. It must be emphasised that this was a collaborative effort."

The letter points out that "holy war", referred to in the speech, is a term that does not exist in Islamic languages.

It says it should be emphasised that Jihad means struggle, and specifically struggle in the ways of God. This struggle may take many forms, and although this includes the use of force, it does not necessarily mean war.

With regard to perceptions of "forced conversion", the scholars say that the argument that Muslims are commanded to spread their faith "by the sword", or that Islam was largely spread "by the sword", does not hold up to scrutiny.

It points out that while as a political entity Islam was spread partly as a result of conquest, the greater part of its expansion came as a result of preaching and missionary activity. Moreover, Islamic teaching did not prescribe that conquered populations be forced or coerced into converting.

The Age adds that the letter also acknowledged that some Muslims used violence "in favour of utopian dreams", but said this went against Islamic teaching and specifically condemned the murder of the Italian nun in Somalia.

The scholars also chided Benedict for basing his view of Islam on books by two Catholic writers, saying Christians and Muslims should "consider the actual voices of those we are dialoguing with, and not merely those of our own persuasion".

In his speech the Pope cited the emperor's assertion that "anything new" brought by the Prophet was "evil and inhuman," such as the alleged command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

The scholars state that what the emperor failed to realise, aside from the argument above that no such command existed anyway in Islam, "is that the Prophet never claimed to be bringing anything fundamentally new and that according to Islamic belief, all the true prophets, preached the same truth to different peoples at different times."

The laws may be different, says the letter, but the truth is unchanging.

However, the signatories said that they appreciated the Pope's assurance that the words of the emperor cited did not reflect his personal opinion.

In another report, however, Aljazeera says that 500 people attended a memorial service on Thursday for Iraqi Orthodox priest, Fr Amer Iskender, after his decapitated body was found in an industrial area of the northern city of Mosul on Wednesday.

The relatives of a Christian priest who was kidnapped and beheaded in Iraq have said that his Muslim captors had demanded his Church condemn the Pope's recent comments about Islam and pay a US$350,000 ransom.

"He was a good man and we all shed tears for him ... He was a man of peace," said Eman Saaur, a 45-year-old schoolteacher who said she attended Iskender's church regularly.

Scholars raise 'errors' in pope speech (Aljazeera, 15/10/06)
Muslims fault Pope's Islam observations (The Age, 16/10/06)
Muslim clerics reach out to Pope (BBC News, 15/10/06)
Iraq priest 'killed over pope speech' (Aljazeera, 14/10/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Final Text Pope Benedict's Regensburg lecture Faith, Reason and the University, Memories and Reflections
Provisional Text, Lecture at the Meeting with Representatives of the Sciences, 12 September, 2006

Islam a great religion, says Benedict in corrected Regensburg text (CathNews, 10/10/06)
Spanish bishop says dialogue not possible with extremists (CathNews, 6/10/06)
Benedict stands firm despite calls to "retract or redress" (CathNews, 29/9/06)
Pope to meet Muslim ambassadors today (CathNews, 25/9/06)
No winners in Benedict polemic, says Melkite archbishop (CathNews, 22/9/06)
Sorry Benedict reiterates "deep respect" for Islam (CathNews, 21/9/06)
World leaders bid to hose down flames of Benedict controversy (CathNews, 20/9/06)
Australia's moderate Muslims a sign of hope, Pell says (CathNews, 19/9/06)
Benedict "deeply sorry" for Muslim outrage but violence continues (CathNews, 18/9/09)
Benedict tells priests to serve Christ and be His voice (CathNews, 15/9/06)
Religious violence contrary to God's nature, Pope says (CathNews, 14/9/06)
No chance of world without reason, says Benedict (CathNews, 13/9/06)

16 Oct 2006