In Cairo the Lecture of Regensburg Is Relevant Again

Never has a pope been so clear and courageous in unveiling the roots of violence in Islam, before Benedict XVI. And not afterward, either. Two obligatory rereadings, to decipher the Egyptian crisis

by Sandro Magister


ROME, August 20, 2013 – In a few days many dozens of churches, convents, homes of Christians in Egypt have been attacked or burned. A tragedy within the tragedy, after the coup d’état that has plunged the nation of the Nile into a civil war with hundreds if not thousands of victims.

In covering the news of the numerous appeals for the cessation of violence, “L’Osservatore Romano” of August 18 did not, however, succeed in listing among these invocations even one from the Muslim world.

This public silence of the Islamic spiritual guides does not come as a surprise. It accompanies almost every act of political violence that sees Muslims in action, in one or another region of the globe.

It is a silence that is not explained by calculations of timeliness alone, or by the fear of retaliation. Nor by the fact alone that today in Egypt the greatest clash is between opposing Muslim factions, both of them determined to assert with force the precepts of Islam: because it is not only the Muslim Brotherhood of the deposed president Mohamed Morsi that has a conception of the political struggle as jihad, as holy war, but this is also held by its adversary, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, the general placed at the head of the armed forces by Morsi himself because he was believed to be the most faithful Islamist of all.

In order to understand the ultimate root of the silence of Muslim spiritual leaders in the face of the explosion of violence of Islamic inspiration, one need do just one simple thing. It is enough to reread the initial part of the lecture given by Benedict XVI on September 12, 2006 in the aula magna of the University of Regensburg.

The aggressive actions with which Muslim men and groups reacted to this lecture were the tragic confirmation of the correctness of the theses presented by pope Joseph Ratzinger. According to whom violence associated with faith is the inevitable product of the fragile connection between faith and reason in Muslim doctrine.

No pope before Benedict XVI had ever had the clarity of vision and courage to express such a blunt judgment of Islam, nor to formulate with such rigor the difference between Islam and Christianity.

Within the Catholic Church Benedict XVI was highly criticized for having dared so much. He was accused of having destroyed the “dialogue” with the Muslim world.

In reality, just two months after Regensburg pope Ratzinger recollected himself in silent prayer in the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. And he was able to perform this gesture – otherwise incomprehensible – precisely because he had stated clearly what was his thought in this regard.

And it was precisely from the lecture in Regensburg that there came to life that sprout of Islamic-Christian dialogue that found its expression in the “letter of the 138 scholars” written to the pope by Muslim representatives of various orientation.

Not only that. Also in that autumn of 2006, during his voyage to Turkey, Benedict XVI said clearly to the Muslim world that it was facing the same challenge that Christianity had already faced and overcome positively: that of “welcoming the true achievements of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its exercise.”

Here as well, no pope had ever gone so far before Benedict XVI. Nor afterward. Even today.

To the civil war that is inflaming Egypt Pope Francis dedicated these words, after the Angelus on the feast of the Assumption:

“Unfortunately sorrowful news is arriving from Egypt. I wish to pledge my prayers for all of the victims and their relatives, for the wounded and for those who suffer. Let us pray together for peace, dialogue, reconciliation in that dear land and in the whole world.”

And three days later, at the Angelus of Sunday, August 18, he may have alluded to it:

“The Gospel does not authorize in any way the use of force to spread the faith. It is precisely the contrary: the true force of the Christian is the force of truth and love, which involves renouncing all violence. Faith and violence are incompatible.”

But let us return to the Ratzinger of 2006 and to those memorable words of his on Islam, which are also decisive for understanding the Egyptian tragedy.

The following is what he said in the lecture of Regensburg on September 12 and how he commented – after he had returned to Rome – on his voyage to Turkey that same autumn.



[…] I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara – by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. […]

In the seventh conversation (“dialexis”  – controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to some of the experts, this is probably one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war.

Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached. The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably (‘sun logo’) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”.

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry.

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.

Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the logos”. This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, “sun logo”, with logos. Logos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God […]


[…] In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that has been imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and to which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult research, found real solutions for the Catholic Church. […]

On the one hand, one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations, thereby depriving man of his specific criteria of judgment.

On the other, one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion. As in the Christian community, where there has been a long search to find the correct position of faith in relation to such beliefs – a search that will certainly never be concluded once and for all -, so also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard.

The content of the dialogue between Christians and Muslims will be at this time especially one of meeting each other in this commitment to find the right solutions. We Christians feel in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious conviction as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom. […]


The complete text of the lecture in Regensburg on September 12, 2006, with the notes added subsequently:

> To the representatives of science

And the complete commentary made by Benedict XVI on his voyages of 2006, including those in Germany and Turkey:

> To the Roman curia, December 22, 2006


English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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