Affirm commonalities – and set the record straight on Islam.
NOTRE DAME, IND.
In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI's address in Germany last month, it is useful to recapitulate the views of a 10th-century Muslim historian by the name of al-Masudi on the relationship between faith and reason.
In a famous historical work, Masudi wrote that the Byzantine Christians of his time were suffering civilizational decline because they had rejected the pagan Greek sciences as incompatible with Christianity. In contrast, he wrote that Muslim civilization was prospering because it had assimilated ancient learning and built on it.
Some of the best-known philosophers of the medieval period – Avicenna, Averroes, al-Farabi – were Muslims, and their thought was influential in medieval Europe, too. Without the diffusion of this intellectual and cultural legacy, there may well have been no European Renaissance!
In other words, it was the Muslims who had successfully blended faith with reason – and left the Christians behind.
As such, it is highly ironic that the pope would use the words of a 14th- century Byzantine emperor to redirect the same accusation at Muslims in the 21st century.
There is a danger when any person argues that his own religion and civilization have a monopoly on reason and have effected the best synthesis between faith and reason. Such triumphalism is a serious impediment to dialogue and any kind of sustained civil discourse. If dialogue is what the pope sought, implying the superiority of Western civilization and its supposedly unique values is a nonstarter.
Dialogue is better served through the humble acknowledgment of commonalities, of one's own sins, and of one's connectedness to the other.