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Debate
Last Updated: October 15, 2006
Where the Pope Went wrong?
By Ram Jethmalani

About the time when Columbus discovered America, the Renaissance was in full flower in the south of Europe. The individual had come to his own. He no longer believed that God was the designer and captain of his fate. His needs and ambition, his pleasures and passions, his intellect and emotions alone determine his life. His journey on this planet was no longer a weary exile on the way to meet some incomprehensible God.

In about a period of 60 years, roughly from 1470 AD to 1530 AD, a succession of half a dozen Popes drowned their office in an excess of venality, amorality, avarice and corrupt power politics. The faithful were dismayed and disenchanted. Impartial intellectuals repudiated the notion that bishops were necessary to salvation. The sacraments and the papacy itself were fiercely denounced.

Spanish and German princes decided to put an end to this farce and in May 1527 invaders breached the walls of Rome and poured into the city. The orgy of human barbarity that followed in the See of St. Peter’s, the capital of Christendom for 1,200 years, was a measure of how far the image of Rome had been demeaned by its rulers. Massacre, plunder, fire and rape raged out of control. Priests, monks and other clergy were victimised with extra brutality; nuns dragged to brothels or sold to soldiers in the streets. Palaces were plundered and left in flames; churches and monasteries sacked for their treasures, relics trampled on after being stripped of jewelled covers, tombs broken open in the search for more treasure, the Vatican was used as a stable. Archives and libraries were burned, their contents scattered or used as bedding for horses. "Hell has nothing to compare with the present state of Rome," a Venetian reported. No one could doubt that the sack was divine punishment for the worldly sins of the Popes and their hierarchy, and few questioned the belief that the fault came from within. The monsters who perpetrated these savageries were not Muslims. They were fellow Christians.

The perversity of the Popes broke apart the unity of Christendom. Half the papal constituency yielded to the Protestant cessation. This episode has a meaning for His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.

It was a delight to read M.J. Akbar’s balanced piece Holier than Me (Byline, September 17) about the controversy created by the unfortunate remarks of His Holiness the Pope of Rome. The last five lines of the piece should make the lunatic fringe of the Pope’s critics sit up and think for a change. "Hyper-reactions tend to suggest nervousness. Islam is not a weak doctrine; it is built on rock, not sand. Reason is a more effective weapon than anger" is Akbar’s suggestion to those who believe in an international outcry. He is so right. An attack in words must be repelled by words and an attack by intellect must be met by a superior intellect, an attack by argument must be countered by a more persuasive one.

If His Holiness the Pope was an ordinary citizen, and what he said in Germany he had said in India, I would have had no difficulty in having him prosecuted and punished under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code. Though I suspect this may not have been possible, because some Uttar Pradesh minister would have got him bumped off long before that by hired assassins for a huge reward.

I am glad that His Holiness has tendered an unconditional apology. It should be enough coming from a holder of the august office which millions of Christians throughout the world revere and would shed their blood to uphold its dignity. Those who have attacked Christian churches in retaliation are only justifying what the Pope has said. The latest to jump into the fray only to prove that they are faithful followers of Islam, are the Al Qaeda. In an Internet statement they declared jihad until the "West is defeated." "We say to the servant of the cross (the Pope), wait for defeat... We say to infidels and tyrants, wait for what will afflict you. We continue our jihad. We will not stop until the banner of Islam flies throughout the world…" "We will smash the cross … (you will have no choice but) Islam or death," it added, citing a reported saying of the Prophet promising Muslims they would "conquer Rome … as they conquered Constantinople."

These wild utterances will only damage Islam and smudge Islam’s copybook with their filthy abuses and impotent threats. Al Qaeda has already been decimated in Afghanistan and its supreme leader is hiding like a frightened rat in some secret mountain cave on the Pakistan-Afghan border. Even so, I must join Akbar in a critical refutation of His Holiness’ mistaken assumptions.

That does not mean that he did not speak some useful truths. Only four days earlier at the university where he had once taught theology, His Holiness had criticised the concept of jihad which is today being used by terrorists to justify suicide bombings and slaughter of the innocent. He had rightly raised the complex issue of faith and reason, the difficulty of separating them and the need for genuine dialogue of cultures and religions.
In another speech as well he did nothing wrong in preaching that spreading religious faith by violence is unreasonable. No one would find fault with him for saying that violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. His exhortation to Islamic leaders to inculcate abhorrence of violence in the minds of the young should be welcome. That religious differences do not justify bellicose behaviour towards non-believers is welcome advice.

The first error of His Holiness, however, is in assuming that violence or aggressive imposition of one’s faith on others is the exclusive feature of Islam. The history of the Crusades disproves this. The Christian zealots who participated in them were cruel beyond one’s imagination.

When Islam was born in the 7th century, the Arabs were given a simple and direct doctrine. There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet. The duties of being a Muslim were a simple package: belief in God and His Prophet, prayer, almsgiving, fasting during Ramzan, and pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in life.

With this new and early intelligible doctrine Muslims went out into the Arab world. They conquered Syria and captured Jerusalem. Khalifa Omar himself journeyed to Jerusalem in order to play a decisive part in the peaceful settlement which followed the Islamic conquest. The Christian inhabitants were promised complete security for their lives, property and the True Cross.

The Christians thus retained all their liberties. Omar visited the Jewish temple, unoccupied and ignored for centuries, covered in filth. He had it cleaned and himself participated in the cleaning operation.
In 869 AD, the patriarch Theodosius of Jerusalem wrote, "The Saracens (Arabs) show us great good will. They allow us to build our churches and to observe our own customs without hindrance."

The peace and calm of West Asia were rudely disturbed by the Christian Crusaders. At the end of the 11th century they captured Jerusalem from the Muslims. Here is an authentic description of what happened: "The red flood-tide which coursed through the streets of the Holy City took with it the severed heads and limbs of the thousands of victims, and in the area of the Temple (or Haram) the horses of the knights slithered in a shallow lake of blood. The victors reeked of decaying guts, and the air was filled with the pungent odour of burning flesh, for a community of Jews who had crammed themselves into their synagogue were incinerated. In contrast amidst the terror, the Crusaders, dripping with blood from head to foot, experienced a sense of release and satisfaction."
The impartial historian Gibbon described the Crusades as episodes of "holy madness," manifestations of "savage fanaticism" whose participants were alike destitute of humanity and reason.

Every impartial historian has denounced these ventures "as singular monuments of human folly." It is a pity that all this senseless warfare was undertaken in the name of the Prince of Peace.

The Prophet of Islam himself never sought warfare outside the Arabian peninsula. Indeed, in his youth he traded with Christian cities and had received a very significant moment of spiritual enlightenment in the cell of the Nestorian monk known in Christian literature as Sergius and in Muslim texts as Bahira.

It is regrettable that the Pope, unwittingly perhaps, projected a false image of Islam, an image which some European scholars have deliberately kept alive. True history teaches that at some time in the past tolerance was practically alien to Christian society but it was part of the structure of Islam. In the Quran itself one finds the statement that there can be no compulsion in religion.

My understanding of and respect for Islam are fortunately not destroyed or even diminished by the actions and announcements of Al Qaeda monsters. But what makes me sad beyond measure is that amongst the Muslims Al Qaeda do find secret admirers. What is even more tragic is that those who do not approve of their actions do not have the courage to speak up and denounce them. The impression is thus created that Al Qaeda’s version of Islam is the real one. Why then blame the Pope?

It is unfair and unprofitable to dwell upon those episodes and phases in the history of every religion in which the essence of religion was departed from and true doctrine was almost submerged. Peaceful co-existence requires that the objectionable elements of every faith must be forgiven and forgotten. We must instead concentrate and applaud the divine and socially useful elements in every religion. No religion is fortunately without them.
So in the first place the Pope was wrong in his reading of history. In the second place he has incorrect notions of the role of jihad in Islam.

It is unfortunate that jihad has come to be recognised as an essential feature of Islam. This is a dangerous half truth. One reference to it in Sura 22 A.39 says: "To those against whom war is made, permission is given to fight because they are wronged; and verily Allah is most powerful for their aid." It is tragic that this wholesome and innocuous injunction of the Prophet has been totally distorted out of shape to serve malign purpose of some later politicians and present day practitioners of terrorism.

So much so the authoritative Encyclopaedia of Islam equates jihad with Holy War, a divine institution of warfare to extend Islam into the Dar al-Harb (the non-Islamic territories which are described as the "abode of struggle" or of disbelief) or to defend Islam from danger. Adult males must participate if the need arises, but not all of them, provided that "a sufficient number" (fard al-kifyah) takes it up.

The history of the colonial era during which most Islamic countries were subjugated by non-Muslim rulers, shows that this misinterpretation was expressly given up. The Muslim divines conceded that so long as Muslims were allowed the freedom to profess and practise their religion, jihad cannot be legitimately employed.
The original meaning of jihad is clearly deducible from the Prophet’s own life. He never fought an aggressive war for the purpose of propagating the faith.

Lastly, the Pope was wrong in thinking that reason is the monopoly of western Christianity and faith the sole basis of eastern Islam. The great Ameer Ali in his famous book The Spirit of Islam, wrote that the Prophet has consecrated "reason as the highest and noblest function of the human intellect. Our Schoolmen and their servile followers have made its exercise a sin and a crime."

What a fall! The Prophet proclaimed that the ink of the scholar is more valuable than the blood of a martyr. And yet there are today thousands of madrasas, where for years the Holy Book is only committed to memory without imbibing its real meaning and message.

Muslims produced brilliant kings like Harun-al-Rashid, the greatest medieval philosopher Avicenna, the greatest medieval physician Al-Razi. It was they who brought enlightenment to Europe and literally brought civilisation to it. It is idle to talk of reason and faith as alternatives and antithetical. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is nothing more than faith to believe that our finite brain can penetrate all the mysteries of this gigantic universe and provide answers to all the riddles of life. Even men of science would confess that the great discoveries of science came not from reason alone but from the depths of the subconscious.

This is not to denigrate reason. Human life must be guided by reason but inspired by love. Intellectual honesty in all things including the arena of belief is the greatest achievement of emancipated man. It is an indispensable moral requirement. Contempt for rationalism is often a sure sign of indifference to search for truth. But reason must admit its own limitations. Says Rubaiyyat of Omar al-Khayyam:

There was a door to which I found no keyThere was a veil past which I could not see,

Some little talk awhile of me and thee

There seemed — and then no more of thee and me.

That key may well be found in religious faith but the faith inwardly experienced by the individual and not just borrowed from some clerics.

The final test of religious faith is whether it will enable man to endure this life in security but without complacency or despair. Religious faith is not a storm cellar to which men and women can flee for refuge from the storms of life. It is instead an inner spiritual strength which enables them to face those storms with hope and serenity. The Pope wants a dialogue. Let us comply.

(Courtesy: The Asian Age, October 11& 12)


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