With the hyped media interest in the Pope’s intervention in Regensburg now over, the time has come perhaps to place the quote that caused so much fuss in its right context, which is what the Studio Domenicano has tried to do in publishing the Italian translation of the seventh Conversation (out of 26) that the Byzantine emperor had with an anonymous Persian erudite. Released in print over the last ten years the original Conversations date back to 1390-1391 or 1391-1392 when the emperor was a guest of the sultan in Ankara. As a genre they are part and parcel of a long standing tradition of controversies which Théodore Khoury, editor of the French edition, has widely discussed in various scholarly publications.
In the seventh Conversation the author addressed the relative merit of the three “Laws.” Starting from one of Islam’s typical apologetic arguments, the Persian erudite responded claiming that the Qur'an strikes the right balance between the excessively crude and worldly rules of the Old Testament, and the sublime but impractical teachings of Christianity.
Manuel II Palaiologos retorted that in some aspects the Islamic “Law” embodied a return to Jewish norms if not worse. “First there was the Law of Moses, which you too say is imperfect and which laid down the rule of circumcision [. . .]. Later there was Baptism, Chrismation and our other Mysteries, and a Law that was better and more perfect that the one that preceded it, which is something you have always acknowledged. After that we are back to circumcision and almost all of the old Law! And you call this progress?” Similarly, this dialectical core is tied to the digression the pope makes on violence as something contrary to Reason and thus contrary to God Himself as the One who initiates the conversation.
Despite some well-chosen and colourful remarks, which in no way undercut the fundamentally literary nature of the text, and despite the honest presentation of the arguments of Islamic apologetics (even worthier of admiration since all the conversations took place through an interpreter), Khoury correctly notes that after all was said and done, “the two interlocutors, the Christian and the Muslim, [. . .] each stuck to his own doctrinal system. [. . .] Each thought in self-centred terms, not in terms of the other. This way the conversation appears more like a set of juxtaposed reflections on given issues which in the end never meet each other.”
Let us therefore leave the debate over the relative merit of the three Laws to our two controversialists, a debate that is inherently fruitless unless its terms are clearly defined beforehand. Let us conversely keep in mind and reflect upon the admirable words Benedict XVI told to his audience, namely that “God is not pleased by blood” and that “not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature.”