Pope Bene­dict, Islam and Violence

Mazeni Alwi

When the Chris­tians of Jerusalem decid­ed to give in to the Mus­lim army that had been lay­ing siege to the city under the com­mand of Amr bin Al As (R), they set a con­di­tion that Caliph Umar (R) must come in per­son, to sign the peace treaty. Umar and his atten­dant had only one camel and they took turns to ride from Med­i­na to Jerusalem. He approached the city peace­ful­ly and by foot, to be cor­dial­ly received by its Chris­t­ian guardian, Bish­op Sophro­nius. Umar signed the peace treaty with the rulers of Jerusalem which read :

This is the pro­tec­tion which the ser­vant of God, Umar, the Ruler of Believ­ers, has grant­ed to the peo­ple of Jerusalem. The pro­tec­tion is for their lives and prop­er­ty, their church­es and cross­es, their sick and healthy and for all their core­li­gion­ists. Their church­es shall not be used for habi­ta­tion, nor shall they be demol­ished, nor shall any injury be done to them. There shall be no com­pul­sion for these peo­ple in the mat­ter of reli­gion, nor shall any of them suf­fer any injury on account of reli­gion. The peo­ple of Jerusalem must pay the poll tax like the peo­ple of oth­er cities and they must expel the Byzan­tines and the robbers …

The gates of the city were opened and Umar went to the Tem­ple Mount and said his prayer. After­wards the Bish­op invit­ed him to tour the biggest church of the city. Umar was in the church when the time for the after­noon prayer came. The Bish­op offered to let him pray in the church. No” replied Umar, If I do so, the Mus­lims one day might take this as an excuse to take the church from you”. So Umar prayed on the steps of the church. He then gave the Bish­op a pact that for­bade Mus­lims from ever pray­ing on the steps of the church. Until today, the keep­er of the key to Jerusalem’s Church of Holy Sepul­chre is in the same Mus­lim fam­i­ly for gen­er­a­tions. The fire-bomb­ing of a church in Gaza in the wake of Mus­lim protests over Pope Benedict’s speech rep­re­sents an aber­ra­tion in Chris­t­ian-Mus­lim rela­tions in Pales­tine, one that is spurred by the rad­i­cal­iza­tion of soci­ety under a long and bru­tal mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion than the teach­ings of Islam itself.

The por­tray­al of Islam as a reli­gion that preach­es vio­lence and is pri­mar­i­ly spread by it is noth­ing new in west­ern dis­course. It is the most potent argu­ment for jus­ti­fy­ing all man­ner of prej­u­di­cial treat­ment on the reli­gion and its fol­low­ers, from soft dis­crim­i­na­to­ry poli­cies to Islam­o­pho­bic writ­ings in the media even to occu­pa­tion of Mus­lim lands killing their inno­cents, destroy­ing their soci­eties and plun­der­ing of their resources. This is some­thing that Mus­lims have learned to accept to live with, espe­cial­ly in the last few years.

But why did the Mus­lim react in such a man­ner when Pope Bene­dict repeat­ed some­thing that we are already accus­tomed to hear­ing from not so friend­ly west­ern pub­lic fig­ures ? After all flam­boy­ant tel­e­van­ge­lists like Jer­ry Fal­well have said worse things than the Pope –- call­ing the Prophet of Islam a pae­dophile and ter­ror­ist – yet we nev­er asked for an apol­o­gy. In the mod­ern era, not least because of the late Pope John Paul II, Mus­lims have a gen­uine respect for the head of the Catholic church. The Cru­sades, the Recon­quista, the Inqui­si­tions were far behind us. The Catholic Church with its long his­to­ry and tra­di­tion, its large num­ber of faith­ful and the author­i­ty of its lead­er­ship, its unam­bigu­ous moral pre­cepts and its litur­gies and rites rep­re­sent what con­sti­tutes Chris­t­ian ortho­doxy to ordi­nary Mus­lim eyes, as the last bas­tion against the inex­orable march of sec­u­lar­iza­tion of west­ern society.

The Pope and the church is seen as embody­ing the ves­tiges of sacred­ness and oth­er world­li­ness of that soci­ety, whose his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry and for­tunes is a reminder to us of the dan­gers of unfet­tered hubris. This is also an era where few have the nei­ther the desire nor the stom­ach for reli­gious wars. Where the role of reli­gion in soci­ety has been rad­i­cal­ly rolled back, both the Islam­ic and Chris­t­ian ortho­dox­ies should be shar­ing a com­mon vision of restor­ing spir­i­tu­al­i­ty to mod­er­ate the ram­pant indi­vid­u­al­ism, mate­ri­al­ism as well as oth­er less edi­fy­ing aspects of moder­ni­ty. This is at least the gen­er­al view point of ordi­nary Mus­lims, giv­en the posi­tion as the Chris­t­ian faith­ful as Peo­ple of the Book” and the rev­er­ence with which Jesus (P) is held by Muslims.

There­fore, to Mus­lim eyes, what the Pope said in his address at his old uni­ver­si­ty about the Prophet and Islam is total­ly unchar­ac­ter­is­tic for some­one hold­ing the office of Head of the Catholic Church. That Pope Bene­dict was the Vatican’s fore­most the­olo­gian before his appoint­ment, for His Holi­ness to have descend­ed to the lan­guage and rhetorics of Amer­i­can tel­e­van­ge­lists pressed into the ser­vice of Pres­i­dent Bush’s war on ter­ror is a great dis­ap­point­ment and utter­ly shock­ing to Muslims.

One can’t help com­par­ing him to his pre­de­ces­sor, whom Mus­lims regard­ed as some­one who had served his faith with utmost sin­cer­i­ty, and at the same time a gen­uine builder of bridges. At his death Mus­lim reli­gious lead­ers praised Pope John Paul as hav­ing con­tributed great­ly to his reli­gion and human­i­ty, as a unique exam­ple in spread­ing peace and tol­er­ance among peo­ples. When the Mus­lim world felt anguished and humil­i­at­ed, he stood firm­ly against the US-led occu­pa­tion of Iraq and the Israeli sep­a­ra­tion wall, point­ing out that US Mid­dle East poli­cies were not help­ing the cause of peace.

Not only did Pope Benedict’s attack on Islam and the Prophet fol­lowed by a half-heart­ed apol­o­gy grudg­ing­ly giv­en evoked strong reac­tion in the Mus­lim world, a num­ber of west­ern com­men­ta­tors took him to task for his low-brow cri­tique of Islam that appeared more like com­mon-place prej­u­dice and ques­tioned his pos­si­ble motives, jux­ta­pos­ing his well known posi­tion on Turkey with regards to its EU mem­ber­ship bid for greater effect. One notable piece that has been in wide cir­cu­la­tion among Mus­lims was writ­ten by the vet­er­an Israeli jour­nal­ist and peace activist Uri Avneri. Draw­ing many exam­ples main­ly from the Ottoman era and Andalu­sian gold­en age to debunk the Pope’s the­sis, he gave an insight­ful account of Mus­lim society’s tol­er­ance of Chris­tians and Jews in their midst, some flour­ish­ing as schol­ars while some oth­ers rose to the ranks of ministers.

It has to be admit­ted that wars are part of Islam­ic his­to­ry from very ear­ly on, but per­haps not more or not less than in the his­to­ry of oth­er reli­gions that have built civ­i­liza­tions. Wars were sim­ply an instru­ment of pol­i­tics for much of the his­to­ry of human civ­i­liza­tion up to the recent era when the mas­sive destruc­tion and colos­sal loss of lives wrought by mod­ern war­fare in World War II made us shud­der, and diplo­ma­cy and inter­na­tion­al law became estab­lished as the frame­work for set­tling the affairs of nations. The bat­tles led by the Prophet at Badr and Uhud was a defence against the idol­a­tors of Mec­ca who mus­tered a supe­ri­or force to anni­hi­late the nascent Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty. In the clas­si­cal Islam­ic peri­od there were many wars fought between Mus­lim polit­i­cal enti­ties vying from pow­er with­in the larg­er body-pol­i­tics of the Islam­ic Caliphate – wars that were moti­vat­ed pri­mar­i­ly by world­ly ambi­tions. The biog­ra­phy of Ibn Khal­dun tells of his for­tunes and rever­sals as he switched polit­i­cal loy­al­ties from one court to anoth­er in the mini-king­doms of North Africa of the 1300’s. It was dur­ing one of his low peri­ods that he spent 3 years in iso­la­tion to write his His­to­ry of the Maghreb” whose intro­duc­to­ry vol­ume, the Muqad­dimah became a cel­e­brat­ed text today a pio­neer­ing work in sociology/​historiography. In the ear­ly Islam­ic peri­od vio­lent strife stirred up by extrem­ist ele­ments like the Khar­i­jites had been the cause of cost­ly internecine bat­tles that took the lives of some emi­nent com­pan­ions of the Prophet (SAW). The war that the first Caliph Abu Bakr (R) waged on the rejecters of the zakat was per­haps the rare instance where reli­gion rather than realpoli­tik had been the basis.

It is under­stand­able that in the con­text of the pol­i­tics times, the Prophet and his com­pan­ions took part in bat­tles and wars. Even in the era of the pri­ma­cy of inter­na­tion­al law, how­ev­er unde­sir­able and destruc­tive wars are, they may be inevitable and legit­i­mate. Just as just war” is an accept­ed con­cept in inter­na­tion­al law and diplo­ma­cy, jihad in its spe­cif­ic mil­i­tary sense is part of the Islam­ic lex­i­con. What Islam laid down should war becomes inevitable is eth­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions and chival­rous con­duct, that the human­i­ty of the adver­sary must be respect­ed, that non com­bat­ants, women, chil­dren, the aged and reli­gious lead­ers must not be harmed and that pub­lic build­ings, dwellings, crops and water sources must not be destroyed. The books of fiqh of the clas­si­cal Islam­ic peri­od would cus­tom­ar­i­ly have a chap­ter on Jihad to remind Mus­lims of their reli­gious duty to act with­in the limits.

Need­less to say, how Mus­lim armies con­duct­ed them­selves through­out Islam­ic his­to­ry or what their motives were for going to war may not nec­es­sar­i­ly accord with what have been laid down in the books of Fiqh any­more than the con­duct of cru­sad­er Regi­nald of Chatil­lon or the Ser­bian militia’s mur­der and rape of Bosn­ian Mus­lims in the name of defend­ing Chris­ten­dom rep­re­sent Chris­t­ian teachings.

Had Pope Bene­dict ques­tioned why the Mus­lim armies crossed the Straits of Gibral­tar and went on to con­quer Spain for Islam or why the Moors pushed north as far as Poitiers and Tours in the French heart­land to sup­port his argu­ment, we may have some dif­fi­cul­ty in giv­ing a con­vinc­ing answer, nev­er mind that con­quest of Spain gave birth to civ­i­liza­tion that became a con­duit for Europe’s recov­ery of the Greek intel­lec­tu­al lega­cy though the works of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina and Al Fara­by that was to pave the way for the Renais­sance and the Enlight­en­ment. But Pope Bene­dict chose to attribute to Prophet Muham­mad (P) him­self the vio­lence and the sword to per­pet­u­ate the west­ern prej­u­dice on Islam. Thanks to ear­ly Mus­lim schol­ars for their scrupu­lous­ness who have record­ed in metic­u­lous detail the Prophet’s life, his com­pan­ions and Islam’s ear­ly his­to­ry, it is not dif­fi­cult to respond to mis­con­cep­tions and delib­er­ate dis­tor­tions. One such exam­ple from Al Tabari is the Covenant of Umar”, the sec­ond Caliph of Islam, a doc­u­ment addressed to the peo­ple of Jerusalem after the con­quest of the city in 638 CE, 5 years after the prophet’s death, nar­rat­ed in the intro­duc­to­ry pas­sage above. Not only did Umar (R) act in a just man­ner that is a reflec­tion of his deep piety, being one of the Prophet’s clos­est com­pan­ions, he also exhib­it­ed the aus­tere sim­plic­i­ty (zuhd) that was excep­tion­al for the age when con­quer­ing emper­ors would ride in tri­umphant­ly with pomp and splen­dor. The Caliph took turns to ride the one camel he shared with his atten­dant from Med­i­na to Jerusalem. Al-Tabari also wrote in detail of sim­i­lar treaties made by the Prophet’s com­pan­ions with the inhab­i­tants of oth­er con­quered cities in Syr­ia – Pales­tine and Egypt. It is clear that the Islam­ic con­quest of Jerusalem and oth­er cities in the region was not to seek con­ver­sion of the Chris­tians. It was an imper­a­tive of realpoli­tik of the age and the Mus­lims sought to put Islam­ic polit­i­cal order in place of the Byzan­tines who hap­pened to be Christians.

In Baladhuri’s account of the ear­ly jihad (Futuh al Bul­dan -– the open­ings of the nations), there is clear evi­dence of the impor­tance Mus­lims attached to the idea of no com­pul­sion in reli­gion”, as demon­strat­ed by a text writ­ten by the Prophet to the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty of Najran in South­ern Ara­bia guar­an­tee­ing them cer­tain social and reli­gious rights under Islam­ic rule :

Najran and their fol­low­ers are enti­tled to the pro­tec­tion of Allah and to the secu­ri­ty of Muham­mad the Prophet, the Mes­sen­ger of Allah, which secu­ri­ty shall involve their per­sons, reli­gion, lands and pos­ses­sion, their camels, mes­sages and images (a ref­er­ence to cross­es and icons) … No attempt shall be made to turn a bish­op, a monk from his office as a monk, nor the sex­ton of a church from his office.

The oth­er con­tro­ver­sial point raised by Pope Bene­dict com­ment­ed on the verse There is no com­pul­sion in reli­gion (2:256)”, was the charge that the Prophet was the author of the verse which he lat­er abro­gat­ed. He not­ed that the experts” say that this was com­posed ear­ly on when Muham­mad was pow­er­less and still under threat” but lat­er he ordered the use of the sword in the ser­vice of the faith. Was the Pope imply­ing that the Quran was authored by the Prophet ? While this is per­fect­ly under­stand­able for a non mus­lim to hold as a per­son­al opin­ion, to insist so pub­licly in such a man­ner while hold­ing the high­est office in the Catholic Church is insen­si­tive and does great dam­age to good faith between Mus­lims and Christians.

The decline of reli­gion and reli­gious cul­ture in the west, the Catholic coun­tries like Spain, France, Italy and Ire­land includ­ed, is not about to let up. Known for his doc­tri­nal con­ser­v­a­tive­ness, this must be one of Pope Benedict’s major area of con­cern. In the attempt to con­flate Chris­tian­i­ty with post-mod­ern, post-Chris­t­ian west and doing its bid­ding by recy­cling the old Euro­pean myths about Islam and its Prophet –- is this a sign of des­per­a­tion in a strug­gle against the relent­less decline of reli­gion ? In the mod­ern Euro­pean con­text Islam is not in com­pe­ti­tion with Chris­tian­i­ty. Mus­lim read­i­ly rec­og­nize Europe’s Chris­t­ian her­itage and its immense con­tri­bu­tion to West­ern civ­i­liza­tion from art and archi­tec­ture to the devel­op­ment of aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­plines and the uni­ver­si­ty, to pro­vid­ing the eth­i­cal foun­da­tions in lib­er­al thought, even if many have decried reli­gion as an obsta­cle to human progress. The idea of re-assert­ing Chris­t­ian val­ues, cul­ture and iden­ti­ty in high­ly sec­u­lar Europe is going to be tough and one can only view it with resigned pes­simism. How­ev­er it is some­thing that many Mus­lims could iden­ti­fy with if the vision is to leav­en sec­u­lar moder­ni­ty with a moral and eth­i­cal com­pass that is expan­sive and accom­moda­tive. How­ev­er the Pope start­ed on the wrong foot­ing by reviv­ing the old prej­u­dices against Islam.

Today it is the Mus­lims who con­tin­ue to fierce­ly hold on to the notion of the Sacred Tran­scen­dent, Divine Guid­ance and Grace through prophet­hood, of unam­bigu­ous immutable moral pre­cepts and val­ues, and of the Sacred Law with­out hav­ing to apol­o­gize to sec­u­lar mate­ri­al­ism. If the Catholic Church needs friends in these lean times, they can find them in the Muslims.

The author is the Chair­man of the Mus­lim Pro­fes­sion­als ForumEndmark


  1. I assume you are respond­ing to my pre­vi­ous point, and I thank you for doing so but it seems that in your iden­ti­fy­ing my mistakes/​misinterpretations’ you have not seen your own. first­ly the sita­tions you make which you assume give valid­i­ty to your points are not cor­rect Jesus fell before God in prayer becoz he was scared and wished for mer­cy, and your sec­ond sita­tion well obvi­ous­ly God cre­at­ed him so who would he be with­out God ? The term slave can be seen as offen­sive by Chris­tians because the word slave evokes scenes of dom­i­na­tion and lack of free­dom Chris­tans unlike mus­lims dont wish to force peo­ple to join the reli­gion or remain in it, its very much about free­dom, jesus relied on the free­domn of peo­ple to fol­low him he spread his word vocal­ly and showed he was the son of god through the mir­i­cles he made and the ful­fill­ments of the prophe­cies about him. Mohammed how­ev­er forced peo­ple to fol­low with the the belief of spread­ing the word by the sword so you may be a slave but i cer­tain­ly am not, I believe in God and Chris­tian­i­ty as a choice i fol­low its teach­ing as best i can as do all good chris­tians I am not dom­i­nat­ed by God but choose to accept his teach­ings and his love for me.
    If you wished to respond to me why did you not respond to every-thing i said instaed choos­ing to talk about one point and for­get the oth­ers, you are exact­ly the kind of mus­lim i was talk­ing about its one rule for you and anoth­er for every­one else, you deny Jesus as the son of God but you when some­one says some­thing about mohammed well thats wor­thy of death… maybe the space you took up with your com­ment would have been bet­ter filled with why the pope may have been wrong (WHAT mohammed brought that was new for exam­ple) instead of call­ing him a dolt’. and in response to your third para­graph i dont fol­low islam and i can think of many prob­lems with islam heres a few ;
    1)If the qur’an is divine and in fact the third in the tril­o­gy of monothe­is­tic reli­gions then why is it the only one of the two and in fact the only reli­gion that speakes of such hate for those who dont choose to fol­low its teachings ?
    Choose not friends from them [unbe­liev­ers]. … Take them and kill them wher­ev­er ye find them. – 4:89
    2)in Sura 29:46 Mus­lims are told by Allah, not to ques­tion the author­i­ty of the scrip­tures of the Chris­tians, say­ing, And dis­pute ye not with the Peo­ple of the Book, but say, We believe in the rev­e­la­tion which has come down to us and in that which came down to you ; Our Allah and your Allah is one ; how can this be if the bible and the bibles God preach­es peace and love and that Jesus is the son God, sure­ly if im cor­rect in my under­stand­ing then your reli­gion should not ques­tion the bible and all that hap­pens with­in it and yet it does ?
    3)why did your prophet mar­ry and have sex with a child ?
    4) why did he kill inno­cent peo­ple and rape their women eg the sto­ry of Safiyah.
    5) and the satan­ic vers­es did­nt your prophet speak the words of the dev­il and con­done the idol­a­try of al uzza and man­at etc the daugh­ters of the pagan moon God in which your sign the moon and the star originate,
    just a few ques­tions i would be great­ful for your answers.

    That’s right, I bring ref­er­ences to my rants, what do you bring ?

    i may not bring cita­tions but i bring my opin­ion that im enti­tled to here and gave b4 i have brought you cita­tions so plz bring your answers forward.

    We are believe in the true God of the Torah and the Bible, who’s your God ? because ur Gods teach­ings and mine are not the same so one must be incor­rect as there is only ONE GOD ?

  2. A’Sal­lam­ou’Alaikum wa Rahmah­tul­lahi wa Barakatuhu,

    First, Islam says many things that peo­ple of oth­er reli­gions would find offen­sive. The cause of their offence, how­ev­er, is not their knowl­edge of their faith, but their igno­rance of Islam. First, SLAVE is a rough trans­la­tion at best and, ulti­mate­ly, we are all slaves” to the ones to whom we bow down. Mus­lims bow to God, thus are slaves. The BEST among us are the MOST obe­di­ent SLAVES, thus, the prophets. It is only due to your igno­rance that you find this offen­sive. Does the Bible not say that Iesa (AS) fell on his face and BEGGED god ? Go point at your own text and think before you write next time. (Matthew 26:39) Bet­ter still, Iesa(AS) SWEARS to his peo­ple that he is USELESS with­out God ! (John 5:19) — Also, FYI, we are for­bid­den to say any­thing offen­sive about any prophet. It would be an act of blas­phe­my for us.

    That’s right, I bring ref­er­ences to my rants, what do you bring ?

    Sec­ond, we as Mus­lims should not become offend­ed at an igno­rant per­son­’s stu­pid state­ments about our faith. We know bet­ter and, ulti­mate­ly, can­not expect them to know bet­ter because they ARE NOT MUSLIM ! (Mean­ing in the supe­ri­or def­i­n­i­tion of Mus­lim being one who bows to God”) Thus, they’re not even believ­ers if they are that igno­rant because no believ­er would be such a hypocrite.

    LOL ! Best part : He did­n’t even try to man­gle the words of Islam­ic schol­ars ! He used the words of a Chris­t­ian Emper­or ! What a dolt !

    May Allah(SWT) keep us from their fool­ish­ness and their vain-talk­ing. May Allah(SWT) show them the way unto Jan­nah and unto right-con­duct. Not one non-Mus­lim who actu­al­ly thinks can find one prob­lem with Islam. All of the oth­ers sim­ply don’t both­er to check accu­rate sources. They are con­tent to deal with spec­u­la­tion and lies that are fed by zealo­tous non­sense on all sides of the fence. Insh’Al­lah fol­low­ers of Islam will one day have earned the place we have been asked to earn.

    Peace, Mer­cy, and Bless­ings of Allah(SWT) upon you all.

  3. Although mak­ing any com­ments about any reli­gion is harm­fu­land has the result of hurt­ing feel­ing i believe that every­one has free speech includ­ing the Pope so why is it that mus­lims can say that Jesus is not the son of God but a slave of Islam which is high­ly offen­sive to chris­tians it goes both ways so why do mus­lims fight for free speech only when it con­cerns them. As a result of the popes com­ments how many church­es, nuns and chris­tians were attcked in mus­lim coun­tries etc sure­ly by these acts you are prov­ing the Pope correct.

  4. Mazeni Alwi:“The oth­er con­tro­ver­sial point raised by Pope Bene­dict com­ment­ed on the verse There is no com­pul­sion in reli­gion (2:256)”, was the charge that the Prophet was the author of the verse which he lat­er abro­gat­ed. He not­ed that the experts” say that this was com­posed ear­ly on when Muham­mad was pow­er­less and still under threat” but lat­er he ordered the use of the sword in the ser­vice of the faith. Was the Pope imply­ing that the Quran was authored by the Prophet ? While this is per­fect­ly under­stand­able for a non mus­lim to hold as a per­son­al opin­ion, to insist so pub­licly in such a man­ner while hold­ing the high­est office in the Catholic Church is insen­si­tive and does great dam­age to good faith between Mus­lims and Christians.”

    Actu­al­ly it is a sim­ple state­ment of an obvi­ous fact — the Pope is not a Mus­lim. There­fore he can­not believe that the Quran was dic­tat­ed by God. Ther­fore some­one else must have writ­ten it.

    How is it insen­si­tive to state the obvi­ous truth ? The dam­age done is done by Mus­lims who insist on a lev­el of respect for them­selves they do not grant to oth­ers. The Pope did absolute­ly noth­ing wrong and it is a pity that this arti­cle chose not to address a sin­gle rel­e­vant issue.

  5. Assalam Alaykum Nice arti­cle by the Team

    You would be inter­est­ed to read anoth­er response by our team at thetrue​call​.com here


  6. Assala­mualaikum

    Ok. 1 more good arti­cle from BA team. I am very impressed. Now
    we should send this link to every one inclu­id­ing those dogs at faith​free​dom​.org who inl­sut our beliv­ed prophetMuhammad(p) and call him chil­drens moles­ter and rapist and bad thing like that,

    Allah bless only jihad fight­ers., jihad mena fight with weapon and p fight with pen(that is internet)
    So you can write good arti­cle and defeat ali sina types and you can do oth­er dawa programeses.

    Jaza­kallah Khayrun.


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