Pope Francis arrived in the United Arab Emirates yesterday, February 3. Tonight he will address the “Muslim Council of Elders,” a body based in the UAE which supposedly “seeks to counter religious fanaticism by promoting a moderate brand of Islam.” We’ll reserve our judgment until we see the text of his speech (cf. Part II tomorrow); but on current form nothing good should be expected from the occasion.
The “Council of Elders” is the brainchild of Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque and university. Today’s meeting between Francis and el-Tayeb (fifth in three years) is light years away from Al-Azhar’s angry freezing of relations with the Holy See which followed Pope Benedict XVI’s September 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg on Islam and violence, and his subsequent demand for greater protection for Christians in Egypt.
The Legacy of Pope Benedict—The ongoing improvement in relations was predicated on a clear volte-face on the Roman side, an implicit albeit not openly stated admission that Pope Benedict’s analysis is not accepted by his successor. As if to confirm the hint, in 2016 Pope Francis claimed that his meeting with el-Tayeb at the Vatican—ended with an embrace—was proof that “they [Muslims] seek peace, encounter.” On the other side, however, throughout the past decade Sheikh el-Tayeb himself has remained unyielding on his condemnation of Benedict’s alleged Islamophobia and insulting intolerance.
As it happens, Pope Benedict’s statements in Regensburg were taken out of context: he had said nothing that a reasonable person of any religious persuasion would find objectionable. His comments were made in the course of a complex theological-philosophical treatise delivered to academics in an ancient institution of higher learning, not in a public homily to the faithful in a square or a cathedral. Had he intended to make a high-profile and potentially controversial statement, the chosen venue would have been obviously inappropriate.
“God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature” was the key statement in Byzantine Emperor Manuel’s verbal duel with his Persian interlocutor, which Pope Benedict quoted in Regensburg. “Faith is born of the soul, not the body.” The world outlook based on this simple yet essential adage is light years away from the Verse of the Sword (9:5), the key message of the Kuran. The timeless Kuranic dictum to all faithful, to fight the infidels until they pay the poll tax (Jizya) with the trembling hand of abject submission, conclusively denies the possibility of “peace” (short of Islam’s global triumph), or even of peaceful co-existence. “Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them” is Allah’s injunction both unambiguous and powerful.
Allah . . . As then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger wrote back in 1979, “the unrelated, unrelatable, absolutely one, could not be a person. There is no such thing as a person in the categorical singular.” In the end, Allah-the-unknowable and un-personable is served out of fear, obedience, and hope of bountiful heavenly reward. Islam explicitly rejects the notion that “he who has my commandments and keeps them, he is it who loves me.” (John, 14:21) The Kuran states the opposite: “Say, If ye love Allah, follow me; Allah will love you and forgive you your sins.” (3:31) This “love” is a means of winning love and forgiveness, “love” of the self, the opposite of love.
The Scriptural Legacy—The apologists, Muslim and Western liberal, reply with the verse “la ikraha fiddeen”—“no compulsion in religion”—but this verse (2:256) does not prove that forced conversion is against Islam. Explicitly it does not leave non-Muslims free to make their religious choices, in accordance with their conscience and free will. There is no compulsion in making the choice of whether you want to be a Muslim or not, but both alternative options are bleak: death or submission to institutionalized discrimination and oppression. Islam does not say that others must be forced into it: if they become Muslims, well and good. If they do not, they are to be killed or taxed, that the choice is theirs.
In the same vein, there was no compulsion to accept Communism under the 1936 Soviet constitution, but its unenthusiastic embrace meant death in the Gulag. The foremost Islamic scholar of all time, Ibn Khaldun, summed up the mainstream consensus, valid to this day, when he defined systemic violence as a religious duty based on the universalism of the Muslim mission, and the obligation to convert all men to Islam either by persuasion or by force: “Islam is under obligation to gain power over all nations.” “No compulsion” actually means compulsion, and “freedom” is only the freedom to accept revealed truth. After all, “The Prophet said: I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah.” This Hadith followed from the Kuran, “Fight them on until there is no more tumult and religion becomes that of Allah” (2:193). Aa al-Azhar holds to this day, jihad is “a divine obligation: the Muslim is always mindful that his religion is a Qur’an and a sword . . . the Muslim is forever a warrior.”
Not the Same God—The Pope’s ongoing “interfaith dialogue” notwithstanding, the lasting benefit of his predecessor’s Regensburg controversy is that it forced reconsideration of the claim that three “great monotheistic religions” share common roots and “believe in the same God.” Do Christians really believe in the same God that Muslims say they worship, and Pope Francis agrees? To all orthodox Christians, Eastern and Western, the answer is clear.
The formal argument first. The Christian God of the Creed is trinitarian: the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen; the Son, our Lord and Savior, eternally begotten of the Father; and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. This is the orthodox faith needed to be in a state of salvation. The doctrine of the Deity of Christ is essential. Unless the Son is truly God and “one with the Father,” Christians would be idolaters. If He were but a prophet, Christians would be foolishly entrusting themselves to a created creature in the vain hope of salvation.
Islam, on the other hand, violently and explicitly rejects and condemns the Christian doctrine of God (Kuran 4:171), the Trinity (5:37), and the deity of Christ (5:72, 5:17). Allah unambiguously condemns Christians as disbelievers worthy of destruction (9:29-30). Muhammad’s insistence that there is a heavenly proto-Scripture and that previous “books” are merely distorted and tainted copies sent to previous nations or communities means that these scriptures are the “barbarous Kuran” as opposed to the true, Arabic one. The Muslim Tradition also regards the non-canonical Gospel of Barnabas, and not the New Testament, as the one that Jesus taught. Orthodox Islam teaches that it alone worships one true God that Judaism and Christianity tell lies about-lies for which Christians and Jews will be punished in hell.
“One God” cannot be trinitarian and infinitely transcendent. Christians and Muslims cannot be both right. Their convergent paths do not lead to the same hilltop. Unlike the Christian faith in God revealing Himself through Christ, the Koran is not a revelation of Allah—a heretical concept in Islam—but the direct revelation of his commandments and the communication of his law. Christian God “comes down” and seeks man because of His fatherly love. The Fall cast a shadow, the Incarnation makes reconciliation possible.
Allah, by contrast, is unknowable and so purely transcendent that no “relationship” is possible. He reveals only his will, not himself. Allah is “everywhere,” and therefore nowhere relevant to us. He is uninterested in making our acquaintance, let alone in being near to us because of love. We are still utterly unable to grasp his purposes and all we can do is what we have to do, to obey his command. His absolute transcendence means that he cannot be fathomed, only worshipped. It is by virtue of being infinite, not loving, that he is inseparable from his creation. His absolute sovereignty means that his “closeness” to man is not a two-way relationship; man’s experience of Allah is impossible. Any such attempt would imply heretical encroachment on his absolute transcendence. Ultimately, Allah’s absolute transcendence means that he is everything and nothing. He cannot be grasped by the human mind and is greater than we can comprehend. Every thought about him is insufficient and false. This is emphatically not the “same God” we believe in. Judging by Islam’s fruits through the ages, “Allah” is His arch-enemy . . .
A Tale of Two Popes—As for the Muslims, Pope Benedict’s 2006 message came at the end of his address. “‘Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God’, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.” It was an eminently conciliatory and generous message. It could be argued that it was unduly optimistic in tone and excessively conciliatory in its assumptions, in view of Islam’s past record on “dialogue.”
Even had the Pontiff repeated Emperor Manuel’s words without the disclaimer, those words should have been judged by their veracity and not by their emotional effect on a supposedly aggrieved group. That Muhammad’s major innovation was “his command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached” is not a value judgment, it is an “objective” truth. The sentence does not suggest that “Muhammad was evil and inhuman,” as Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb and his ilk have repeated ad nauseam ever since, but rather that his original contribution to the edifice of Islam—as opposed to the many elements he had borrowed from Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastranism, pre-Islamic Arab paganism, etc.—was such.
The statement may be insulting or painful to some, but it is nonetheless true. The doctrine of jihad—violence in the path of Allah, with the objective of converting, killing, or else subjugating and taxing the “infidel”—was Muhammad’s most significant original contribution to world history. It defined Islam in its earliest days, it has defined the relations between “the world of faith” and “the world of war” ever since, and it continues to define the mindset of Islam to this day. That Islam sees the world as an open-ended conflict between the Land of Peace (Dar al-Islam) and the Land of War (Dar al-Harb) is the most important legacy of Muhammad. Ever since his time, Islam has been a permanent challenge to all non-Muslim polities around it. The Kuranic dictum to fight the rest of us infidels until we “pay the Jizya with willing submission,” denies the possibility of permanent peaceful co-existence. “Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them” is an injunction both unambiguous and powerful.
The Pope’s Muslim Friend—Sheikh el-Tayeb is routinely described by Western media and academia as a “leading moderate” and “a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue.” In his Egyptian TV sermons, however, he presents a very different face to the faithful. He approvingly uses a radical phrase, “the faith and the polity,” which affirms that Islam is both a religion and an ideological blueprint for governance based on its supremacist, anti-infidel essence. Tayeb firmly asserts that a Muslim apostate “must either renounce his apostasy or else be killed.” Three years ago, when asked why Al Azhar refused to issue a formal statement denouncing the Islamic State as lapsing into kufr, of becoming “infidel.” Tayeb responded: “Al Azhar cannot accuse any Muslim of being a kafir as long as he believes in Allah and the Last Day, even if he commits every atrocity . . . I cannot denounce ISIS as un-Islamic.”
Tayeb’s hypocrisy has prompted the Cairo Institute for Human Rights to accuse Al Azhar of having two faces: one directed at the West, another at Muslims. Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah Nasr, Al Azhar graduate who has parted ways with Tayeb, concluded that the Islamic State itself is a byproduct of Al Azhar’s programs which preach the establishment of the caliphate, hostility towards religious minorities, upholding the jizya (poll tax for “infidels”), and stoning sexual transgressors. At the same time, Tayeb insists that Europe “must support all moderate Islamic institutions that adopt the Al Azhar curriculum.” He willfully turns a blind eye to the unceasing persecution of Coptic Christians, asserting that “Egypt represents the ultimate and highest example of national unity” between Muslims and Christians.
On the eve of Pope Francis and el-Tayeb addressing the “Human Fraternity Meeting” on February 4, Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Sant’Egidio Community, enthused that “it’s something new for the Muslim world, that within the discussion of dialogue, they’re talking about interreligious dialogue across the board.” In reality this is a major victory for Tayeb and his ilk. It has been made possible by the fact that pope Francis’s understanding of Islam is problematic: “Authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” is a statement both willfully self-deceptive and demonstrably false.
Pope Francis is accordingly reluctant to address the persecution of Christians in the Muslim world, even though it is the most egregious example of human right violations in today’s world: according to “Open Doors,” at least 4,305 Christians known by name were murdered because of their faith in 2018. Aid to the Church in Need in its latest “Religious Freedom Report” warned that 300 million Christians, overwhelmingly in the majority-Muslim countries, were subjected to violence, making it “the most persecuted religion in the world.”
Seemingly indifferent to the plight of Christianity in the Middle East, Francis is simultaneously supportive of the Islamization of Europe, as evidenced by his emphatic encouragement of mass migration and condemnation of any resistance to it as sinful. Whether he truly believes the myth that Islam is a religion of peace, or he hopes that appeasement may help create a more moderate Islam, is irrelevant. As William Kilpatrick has warned recently, “he is taking a huge gamble—not only with his own life, but with the lives of millions.”
Muslims, as Christians once did, always sympathize with each other when facing “the Other,” which produces a vision of world affairs in which Muslim polities are always victims, always innocent. Continued “infidel” appeasement can only encourage Tayeb et al to hone their skills at playing at “dialogue” while resorting to lies and deception. It is understandable that Pope Francis and other Western liberals would like to have a reformed, friendly Islam as our global neighbor, but its ability to reform itself—slim to start with—is further undermined by their appeasement of raw, unrepentant Islamic traditionalism. It is understandable, but it is not reasonable.