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The Dialogue that Sprouted from the Seed of Ratisbon



The Muslim reactions to the address of Ratisbon of Benedict XVI on the relations between faith and reason, within the initial framework of a question about possible relations between God and violence, have all affirmed the importance, within Islam, of a harmonious collaboration between philosophy and theology. As Abdelwahab Meddeb, the organiser in Paris of Cultures d’Islam, in a study on Le Dieu purifié, within a collection of essays entitled La conférence de Ratisbonne: Enjeux et controverses, has observed, the Pope wanted to locate ‘without hesitation God, as the foundation of Christianity, within an inexhaustible bond with the logos, and purified of all violence’. His words ‘have solicited in some Muslims reflection on their situation in the world, beginning with their present and their history, studying in depth their tradition on the basis of their current condition’, and making heard ‘a reasonable voice’ in the face of the ‘furore of preachers who manipulate and reduce meaning’ at the service ‘of an ideology that sows discord and crime’. The thirty-eight muftis and Ulemas of the Academy of Amman explained themselves in their Open Letter to the Holy Father, albeit expressing certain ‘defensive apologetics’: ‘to say that the will of God for Muslims “is not linked to any of our categories” constitutes a simplification that is susceptible to leading on to a misunderstanding…To conclude, as you do, that Muslims believe in an arbitrary God who can order us evil or can not do this, is to forget the words of God in the Most Noble Koran: “Surely God bids to justice and good-doing and giving to kinsmen; and He forbids indecency, dishonour, and insolence” (Koran 16:90)’. With respect to the use of the logos, they were able to state that ‘there are two extreme that classic Muslim thought has sought as a general rule to avoid: one consists in making of analytical reason the supreme arbiter of the True; the other is denying that the human intellect has available to it faculties by which to address fundamental questions. The research of Muslim thinkers…has above all else conserved a harmonious balance between the truth of the Revelation of the Koran and the claims of the human spirit, without sacrificing one to the other’.




A Libyan intellectual, Aref Ali Nayed, ‘a Sunnite by tradition, an Asharite in theology, a Malachite in law and a Shadhilite in spirituality’, reflected for a long time on the text of Ratisbon before observing that ‘Jews and Muslims, like Christians, have experienced a number of ways of harmonising the requirements of philosophy and the certainties of revelation’. In his view, ‘Muslims and Christians agree in stating that it is the grace (rahma) of God that saves, and reason, which is a grace, could never be ‘above God’!’ This is precisely what Ibn Hazm and the Asharite theologians affirm: God is absolutely free to act but He has freely imposed upon Himself to act in line with reason (this is to be exteriorly normative for Him), and this is a grace because God ‘has prescribed for Himself mercy’ (Koran 6:12). This does not remove the fact that for this writer ‘the sovereignty of God, whose voluntas ordinata alone is known (see Duns Scoto in Christian theology), goes beyond the claims of human reason’ and that the three de-Helenisations, referred to by the Pope, are not necessarily impoverishments of theological research.




Proceeding in the same direction, and not without a certain affirmation of identity, the Lebanese thinker Ridwân al-Sayyed, who was for a long time the editor of the Beirut journal Ijtihâd, asks in a long article in al-Sharq al-Awsat (1), that we become clear about the ‘rational image of God’. In his view, on both the Christian and Muslim sides, theologians are rather Aristotelian (recourse to formal logic by the Muslim Mutazilites


and Asharites and by Medieval Christian scholastics), whereas mystical experiences express an approach that is by tendency Platonic or Plutonian in relation to the mystery of the divine being. In addition, he makes clear that in the case of Christians as in the case of Muslims, theologians can be grouped into two families: one exalts divine transcendence and its total non-resemblance to our humanity, even though God obliges Himself to be ‘reasonable’ with us out of mercy towards us (hence our abandonment to providence); the other emphasises a certain resemblance between God and human beings, which is translated into a reciprocal commitment, so that God is held to fulfil His promises or threats and man is fully responsible for his acts. And Ridwân al-Sayyed comes to propose to everyone a common effort of asking ourselves about the relationship between faith and reason, which is equivalent to the relationship between ‘abstract mystery and concrete real’, because to what point can analogy (qiyâs) hold up in theology and mystics?




Of Tunisian origins but resident in Paris, Abdelwahab Meddeb well states that one is dealing with ‘saving the idea of God’ and that the Pope could but observe, in a West that is in the grip of cultural relativism and practical atheism, that one can never ‘exclude the divine from the universality of reason’. He is even happier at the Open Letter of Amman: ‘its authors allow you to understand’, in his view, ‘that they attribute a central position to mystic experience, which does not finish with speculations about the nature of the visible/invisible God, which oscillate between the pole of the tanzîh (distancing determined by transcendence, by abstraction and by invisibility) and the pole of the tashbîh (proximity produced by anthropomorphism and mimetic energy that draws near to His representation)’. And he comes to add that ‘such an appeal is as instructive for the Pope as it is useful for today’s Muslims, forgetful of the plurality, the ambivalence and the complexity of their tradition and the diversity of their conceptions of God, as well as of the multiple experiences of the divine, so many souls having being abandoned to themselves, to the mercy of the preaching of agitators who have changed a tradition open to the experience of the Absolute and the Invisible into a bloody ideology…for a revolutionary fight’.







The New Thinkers of Islam





This is thus the paradoxical consequence of the address of Ratisbon: an indirect invitation to believers to engage in dialogue with each other about a joint approach to the mystery of God, conjoining the requirements of reason and the riches of faith. Christians and Muslims have always known, and still know, thinkers who are inclined to rationalism and rather fideist intellectuals, whereas the ideal seems, specifically on both sides, to harmonise philosophy and theology according to a middle way. Does one need, with so many Greek and Western philosophers, to be satisfied with the sole first and absolute Act, denying any possibility of revelation, or, with Pascal, to forgo the ‘God of the philosophers’ in order to adhere solely to the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’, despising every ‘reasonable’ approach?




Believers would have many things to share in this dual subject because the long history of their spiritual research, in the great variety of schools and doctrines, would without doubt teach them the best way of conjoining, with Benedict XVI, ‘faith and reason’, ‘divine revelation and human wisdom’. A rapid survey of the contemporary positions within Islam testifies, in turn, to this curious variety. Certain intellectuals privilege the requirements of reason as did, in his time, the Indian Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), and as do today many of the new thinkers of Islam, as they are called, who are seen as rationalists along the lines of the Mutazilites


of previous times and of the reformists in the spirit of Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), at the cost of arriving, paradoxically, at certain positions of the European Enlightenment. Others are seen as being more particularly fideist, such as Sheik and Dâ‘î Muhammad al-Ghazâlî, a missionary and singer of the sole Islamic creed, and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), whose commentary on the Koran (Fî zilâl al-Qur’ân) was adopted by the Muslim Brothers. Many, nonetheless, identify themselves with the ‘middle way’, as practiced by the great Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâlî (1058-1111) in his Revivification of the Religious Sciences (Ihyâ’ ‘ulûm al-dîn). This is the position of Rashîd Ridâ (1865-1935) in his commentary on the Manâr; of Sheik Mahmûd Shaltût (1893-1963) in his book Islam, Creed and Law (al-Islâm, ‘aqîda wa-sharî‘a), who was for a long time Rector of the University of al-Azhar in Cairo; and Sheik Abû Rîda who for his part taught at the University of Kuwait; such was also the approach of the Tunisian, Sheik


Muhammad Ben ‘Âshûr (1879-1973), in his commentary on the Koran entitled Tafsîr al-tahrîr wa-l-tanwîr. Whether one is dealing with theology (kalâm) or law (fiqh), they strive to assure all the correspondences that are needed between the requirements of reason and the facts of revelation. Do not theologians and jurists often repeat that ‘the law is reason that proceeds from outside, whereas reason is law that proceeds from inside’ (al-Shar‘ ‘Aql min khârij wa-l-‘Aql Shar‘ min dâkhil)? Could one say the same of the field of the relative truths about the mystery of God, of man, and of the universe?




It is here that theologians often diverge, specifically in line with their capacity for interpretative efforts (ijtihâd), in order to integrate the requirements of a healthy philosophy with their ‘intelligence of faith’. Baghdad was a witness to this more than a thousand years ago and the great Egyptian historian Ahmad Amîn describes its importance in his Morning of Islam (Duhâ l-Islâm), deprecating the fact that ‘the door was closed’ so hurriedly, because, as he wrote, ‘the failure of the Mutazilites was a catastrophe for Islam’.







Spiritual Emulation




It is advisable, therefore, to take on board with interest, if not with sympathy, all the Muslim reactions to the address of Ratisbon so that they recognise at the same time that the real debates of a courageous and demanding dialogue are located at that level of philosophical and theological explanation of divine mystery through the cultural expressions to which it is obliged refer, and this is not without effects as regards the relativisation of their absolute value. For that matter, one should be happy, together with Abdelwahab Meddeb, at the fact that with the Open Letter of Amman ‘this reconsideration by the institutional voices of the finest part of Islam, that of Sufism, indicates a line of partition that separates them from the Islamists, the declared enemies of those who allow God to come within themselves in line with an approach and an experience of the intimate that makes them ‘Christic’ in Koranic form, confirming their journey on the open pathway of their Prophet’. Thus there emerge renewed prospects that should foster on both sides a dialogical wish to explain themselves, to help each other and to esteem each other in the name of a holy spiritual emulation between sincere and generous believers.




Such is the judgement that the same author expresses in interpreting the address of Ratisbon: ‘the Pope wanted (in this address) to incite Muslims to engage in a work of anamnesis so that they lay down violence and return to the articulation of the logos that their ancestors knew in order to be able to broaden and explore it’. And Abdelwahab Meddeb then evokes three examples to encourage his people to engage in this anamnesis: that of the polygraph Bîrûnî (973-1050) with his Description of India (1030); that of Averroes (1126-1198) with his Decisive Treatise (Fasl al-maqâl); and that of Tâhâ Husayn (1888-1973) with his literary work in Egypt in the twentieth century. ‘It is to these territories’, he goes on, ‘that the Muslim must return, in order to take part in the great logos, its broadening and its exploration on the path of purification that neutralises violence and installs an ethical serenity’. Who does not see that here there is enough to install a philosophical and theological dialogue more necessary than ever before between Muslims, Jews and Christians? Rich in their spiritual heritages, are they not invited to draw together upon values and energies that will allow them, as Benedict XVI invites, to call on ‘the reason of modern sciences’ to go beyond its ‘self-limitation’ to mere comment on the phenomena of nature in order to be interested in these as well and understand better ‘the great religious experiences and insights of mankind’?








(1) See Ridwân








21 september