Has any Pope ever adopted Islam?

Opinion on the current conflict over the caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad

February 7, 2006

In the last few days my secretariat has been inundated with requests to comment on what has happened in relation to the cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. My secretariat always receives requests for comments whenever anything happens in the world that makes Islam and Muslims more the focus of public interest. I usually don't answer because I just don't have the time. In this case in particular, however, I did not answer because it hardly made sense to me to answer something really relevant in the usually very short time that the media made available to me.

Given the proportions that this matter has now assumed, I would like to take the opportunity to make a somewhat more detailed public statement on this problem and a few other questions which are more or less related to it, in order to clarify my position. I hope it will answer a number of questions that I have been asked and have been asked in the past. I am only speaking for myself here as a Muslim theologian. I cannot and will not claim to represent "the Muslims". There are now associations in Germany whose pronouncements can claim to represent larger groups of Muslims. I can only point out again and again that anyone who has an interest in dealing with the Muslims in the Federal Republic should also get in touch with these associations. These represent by no means all Muslims, but they represent a not inconsiderable number.

The Islamic world is currently being disturbed by the publication of caricatures in a Danish newspaper. These cartoons were later reprinted by newspapers in other countries. A storm of indignation is raging through the Islamic world and this storm of indignation seems to be fueled by various political leaderships. There have also been violent protests with attacks on embassies from Western countries. As far as I could follow the reporting in the German media, there were sometimes very differentiated representations that made it clear that there were also peaceful protests, that the violent protests were at least partially controlled and that the majority of Muslims, especially in Europe, but not only there, is angry, but does not take any protest actions.

The portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad is mostly omitted in Islam and even where one absolutely wanted to portray him, one usually did so without portraying the face. Islam has developed a general aversion to portrayals of people, which is related to the fact that the depiction of images is viewed as idolatry or at least as a gateway for idolatry. Calligraphy was used as an art form in Islam instead of depicting people in pictures. Koranic verses, but also the calligraphic representation of the names of the prophet, his family or his companions decorate the mosques. The portrayal of the prophet is therefore fundamentally rejected, even for the purpose of positive portrayal. The insult and abuse of the Prophet, however, was regarded by the Muslim jurists as a criminal offense which must be punished with death, whereby this criminal offense was also applied to non-Muslims who lived on Islamic territory.

There is no direct basis for any of these things in the Quran. At most, the tradition of the prophet provides a basis on which one can rely. The authenticity of this tradition, however, was and is controversial, also among Muslims, although in the course of historical development those who tend to place great trust in the tradition have prevailed among Muslims.

Regardless of these questions of Islamic law, however, it is true that the Prophet Muhammad is regarded as the ideal human role model in the Islamic world and that a deep love and bond is felt for him. If you want to understand this important aspect of Muslim piety, Annemarie Schimmel's excellent work "And Muhammad is His Prophet - The Adoration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety" is recommended. Insulting the Prophet was and is a highly emotional matter for many Muslims. This can lead to a problem in a free society that has to be dealt with theologically on the Muslim side. It's about the tension between freedom of expression and honor protection. '

In connection with the current cartoon controversy as well as many other areas of conflict between Islam and Western societies, both Muslims and non-Muslims alike need to do a lot of self-criticism and a learning process. The problem is that there are people on both sides who only look at their position and perspective from one side. You only see the other side's mistakes, not your own mistakes. This way of thinking must lead to conflict and unfortunately I have the impression that there are forces on both sides who also want this conflict.

Since the Rushdie affair at the latest, it has been known in Europe how offended Muslims react to something that they perceive as an insult to the prophet. The newspaper Jyllands-Posten knew this. From the not exactly glorious past of this paper and its role in Danish contemporary politics, it can be concluded that this newspaper intended exactly what has now happened. It was known that many Muslims would react the way they react now and that was certainly intended. Now they can be portrayed as fanatical irrationalists who pose a threat to the freedom of expression in the western world. By doing this, namely stimulating an in fact irrational and purely emotional level among the Muslims in order to induce them to act irrationally, one intends to activate precisely this level in the non-Muslims as well, which one is for the Muslims - in this case completely rightly! - accuses, namely an irrational and purely emotional level, which is now expressed in non-Muslims as Islamophobia, who no longer knows any critical questions or differentiations. It's about agitation and the elimination of differentiated thinking. With the previous political line of Jyllands-Posten, I have no reservations about assuming exactly this strategy.

Overall, only a few Muslims reacted violently and fanatically and it seems above all to be the case that many a government in the Middle East is trying to divert attention from domestic political difficulties by stirring up the issue. Nevertheless, for days there has been talk of the "clash of civilizations" and there has been talk of how backward Islam is, which does not appreciate the great good of freedom of expression as much as the enlightened Europeans. The conservatives in particular sing this high song of the Enlightenment. It is the same conservatives who, in their love of freedom of expression and tolerance, cannot bear when kindergarten teachers wear a headscarf, who say "Soldiers are murderers" (I do not think so absolutely formulated as correct, but given the reality of wars, it is understandable) absolutely wanted to be prosecuted, and who have been trying for years to tighten the medieval blasphemy paragraph 166 StGB! In the Federal Republic of Germany, too, a cartoonist can become a criminal by means of Section 166 StGB if, for example, one takes Christianity or the Church as an object.

So now to the real core of the problem in the current dispute. How should a society deal with the violation of religious feelings? How should the tension between freedom of expression and religious sentiments be resolved?

I have to admit that I cannot understand the emotional upsurge of many Muslims. I find the cartoons tasteless and they say a lot about the poor level of whoever drew and published them. But why should it hit me? I know that a lot of people don't like Islam and Muslims. Prophet Muhammad is vilified many times and even the words "murderer" and "child molester" are often used in connection with him. How does it make a difference whether these people keep their hatred to themselves, express it or spread it in the form of caricatures? I know that the Prophet was not like that and I know that Islam is different from what many opponents of Islam (for some of them the word "hate preacher" is quite appropriate) portray it, although I am aware of the fact that there are of course also Muslims who quite correspond to the image that many in the West have of Muslims. Islam is a world religion with different theological and regional characteristics like all other religions and as in all other religions there are intolerant fanatics who are willing to use violence.

Correcting these misconceptions about Islam is hardly possible if we Muslims react exactly according to the ideas that others have about us. Those who denigrate Islam because they do not know better will only be convinced of the opposite by exemplifying a different Islam than that of the radical and violent fanatics. Those who spread wrong ideas about Islam and do so knowingly and willingly, that is, deliberately, will not be dissuaded from their hatred anyway.

Some Muslims live under the mistaken idea that such actions, as they are currently occurring, would increase respect for Islam. This is of course wrong and a confusion between fear and respect. The non-Muslims get no respect for us, but fear. They just think of us as publicly dangerous lunatics and, given the reactions of some Muslims, they cannot even be blamed for that. The Koran, on the other hand, admonishes us not to lower ourselves to the bad level of others:

"The good deed and the bad deed are not the same. Repel with a better deed, then he who is enmity between you and you will become like a close friend" (sura 41, verse 34)

In my opinion, all historical experience shows us that a special criminal law protection of religion has always been abused and, moreover, is incompatible with the freedom of expression and the freedom of science. I am therefore also in favor of deleting § 166 StGB without replacement, which is a relic from the Middle Ages and is unworthy of a society that prides itself on having gone through the process of enlightenment. We Muslims should not try to use this paragraph for our religious concerns, even though its factual status would be fulfilled here, but we should work to delete it in the interests of freedom of expression and freedom of science.

A criminal law protection of religion and religious feelings is nonsensical and should be rejected because the facts can never be precisely defined and thus automatically always comes close to arbitrariness. For a lawyer based on the rule of law, however, arbitrariness is the sharpest judgment of unworthiness of all. This indefinability of the facts is the result of the fact that every person has a different perception of when they feel offended in their religious feelings. In the case of religious and philosophical conceptions, there is also the problem that what is pure nonsense for one person can represent an irrefutable truth for another.

Should the theory of evolution no longer be taught because it offends creationists? Should the Pope or Ayatollah Khamenei no longer be criticized because blindly devoted followers see it as an insult to their religious feelings? These examples alone show how absurd the protection of religious beliefs by criminal law is. Where is the line and who should draw it? Are rabbis, priests and mullahs really supposed to be able to decide on the limits of freedom of expression and freedom of science? - God forbid! Section 166 of the Criminal Code is currently interpreted narrowly and, above all, scientific criticism in a factual form is excluded. All of this, however, is merely an interpretation of a "rubber paragraph", which could also turn out differently, and one can also argue about what scientific criticism is in factual form.

Anyone who considers the Pope to be a criminal or Muhammad a murderer must also be able to say so. Anyone who wants a society that recognizes freedom of opinion and science has to live with the fact that there are people who do not share his ideological views and who consider things to be nonsense that he himself regards as truths. Those who are sincere will try to hurt other people's feelings as little as possible. It will hardly be possible to avoid it completely if one considers things to be wrong or nonsensical that are sacred to other people. However, despite all criticism of content-related questions, one can try to make the other person understand that despite this criticism, one takes them seriously as a person in their dignity and strives to choose a way of criticism that offends as little as possible.

If you know that Muslims find a graphic representation of the Prophet particularly hurtful, then someone who criticizes Islam and would like to discuss his criticism in an honest dialogue with Muslims should ask himself whether he might be able to criticize his content with the same degree of severity could not express with a means that expresses his concern just as clearly but hurts the other side less. This is a matter of propriety and style.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that any conflicts that arise cannot and must not be resolved using criminal law. In the area of ​​tension between freedom of expression and freedom of science on the one hand and religion on the other, there must be absolute freedom of opinion and science, even if this may offend religious feelings. Any attempt to limit this is incompatible with the essence of the basic freedoms just mentioned and all historical experience shows that nothing good can come of it.

Still, there are limits. However, these limits do not affect people's religious creed, but their personal dignity. When the followers of any religious denomination, be it Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Baha'is or whoever, are portrayed in caricatures or other expressions of opinion in such a way that they appear as a mere mass, who without any individual differentiation understood undisputedly negative Properties such as lies, falsehood, deceit or even lust for murder are attributed, then without a doubt the dignity of the human being has been violated and there is a hateful depiction. A Muslim or Christian has to accept it if his religion is described as murderous, backwoodsmen or anti-democratic, even if this is nonsense. Otherwise, courts would have to rule on the nature of Islam or Christianity and free scientific research could be censored at any time with the argument that a religion was being misrepresented. Conversely, however, it must not be the case that a person is automatically placed under general suspicion and given the attributes of criminals just because he belongs to a certain religion. Indeed, energetic action on the part of the state is to be demanded here! The discussion about Islam or any other religion can only be conducted as a free discussion without taboos, in which only the arguments for the respective allegations counted. In such a discussion, completely insubstantial claims are quickly debunked. The freedom of opinion and science will ensure that agitators and demagogues do not gain the upper hand. A lot of nonsense is written about Islam and there are very one-sided representations. However, there are also very differentiated and defensive representations. I am firmly convinced that in a society that consistently guarantees freedom of opinion and science, there will always be a differentiated image of a religion in public discussion in the long run and that representations that are completely one-sided and deliberately distorted will always be strong Will meet with criticism. There are undoubtedly representations of Islam whose authors deliberately select facts one-sidedly and distort things with the aim of agitation. In addition, there are also representations of Islam that contain a representation and evaluation of facts that are not shared by a Muslim without the author intending to incite or consciously distort them. However, because these two cases could never be differentiated with certainty in court, it must be accepted that freedom of expression and academic freedom can also be abused in order to preserve freedom of opinion. The followers of any religion have to be ready to listen to harsh criticism of their own religion.

The individual or a group, however, must also be criminally protected in their dignity and must not be portrayed as criminals or liars just because they belong to a certain religion. Islam may be called a religion of terror and violence, which it is not.Such an insubstantial assertion must nonetheless be accepted for the reasons already given in the context of freedom of expression. A specific person or a group of people, however, is generally to be assumed to behave in accordance with the law and a violation of the law must be proven within the framework of a constitutional procedure. This is a basis of democracy, the rule of law, human rights and pluralism. Anyone who really believes that all Muslims, all Jews or all atheists are criminals can no longer be protected by freedom of expression in this view because they do not accept the basis on which freedom of expression itself rests, namely human dignity and the idea that guilt can always be individual and never collective, so it makes no sense to assume that certain groups are generally immoral and illegal. The image of man, on which freedom of expression and democracy are based, initially does not assume any single person or group of people will have bad intentions or even bad deeds and regards the idea that members of a certain ethnic group or religion are fundamentally bad as irrational.

This is where I think the real problem lies. It is no longer just about criticizing Islam. As shown, this is of course legitimate. The problem lies in the fact that we Muslims are often only seen as a unified mass that is invariably and undifferentiated with negative attributes. Islam and we Muslims are being built into an enemy image with some means of hate speech. It is no longer differentiated. A small group of violent terrorists is identified with an entire religious community. We are supposed to distance ourselves constantly from terror and violence, which implies that it is to be assumed in principle that we would approve of this. A general suspicion is built up against Muslims - unfortunately also with the approval of politicians in this country, as the "Muslim test" in Baden-Württemberg shows. From my point of view, there is an absurd discussion about the headscarf, which in practice leads to emancipated Muslims being excluded from working life. The conservative parties make it unmistakably clear through their policies that they advocate unequal treatment of religions, which in my opinion cannot stand constitutionally. Lately there has been a lot of talk about the Judeo-Christian foundations of the West. Interestingly, Muslims and Jews get along quite well, apart from the Palestine conflict, which is a political conflict. It is therefore incomprehensible why the Christians supposedly get along so well with the Jews and not with us Muslims, although Jews and Muslims are theologically closer than Jews and Christians, which becomes clear again and again in every religious trialogue.

But it is not just suspicion. In fact, Muslims in the Federal Republic apparently no longer have full protection of their fundamental rights. If you wake up as a German citizen in a Syrian torture cellar, if you are a Muslim, you will not get a visit from German diplomats who are campaigning for your release, but from German detectives who help their Syrian colleagues with their work. Haydar Zammar may be a criminal and should be punished accordingly. But the presumption of innocence and other basic rights also apply to him. This is what constitutes a constitutional state, which under no circumstances is allowed to provide support to unjust states in actions that violate human rights. The state is bound by the law. Federal Interior Minister Schäuble has recently made some worrying statements about his relationship to torture. In general, attempts are made again and again to put the ban on torture up for discussion. Even leading commentaries on the Basic Law usher in a turning point that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. The concept of enemy criminal law emerges. As abstract as the discussions are conducted, everyone knows that all of these considerations are primarily directed against Muslims. Germany is about to follow in American footsteps, which means that the very political ideals that are supposedly being fought for will be betrayed and abandoned. But then the only core of the western fight against terror is securing the supply of raw materials and maintaining the prosperity of the western world.

If you take note of all the statements and actions of politicians who always urge us Muslims to abide by the Basic Law, then one wishes that these politicians are just as serious about the Basic Law as they always ask us to do.

I am an advocate of religious engagement in politics and society, because religions have something positive to give society and they are not neutral in social and political questions. Historical experience teaches that religion can have positive as well as negative influences on societies. The danger of abuse of power and persecution of dissidents by religious communities has always been realized in the past as in the present. This danger can only be averted if the various religions in the individual societies are bound by democratic rules and human rights standards. For Islam, as an Islamic theologian, I am of the opinion that these democratic rules and human rights standards can be derived from Islam itself, and that compliance with them and thus the self-restriction of religion is part of the religion itself. The current ideology of Islamist organizations that strive for an Islamic state and understand by it an Islamic dictatorship of opinion, operate an interpretation of the sources that is very one-sided and above all disregards reason. Reason, however, was once much more important in Islamic thought than it is today, and this is where the crisis of Islamic thought lies.

My Muslim teacher, with whom I studied Islamic law and Islamic theology, answered the question asked about the limits of Islam for reason with a clear answer with "none". I share his view, but I am also aware that with this extreme rationalism I represent a minority position within Islamic theology. Nevertheless, the great importance of reason is fundamentally recognized by all Muslims. As far as I know, there is no sacred text of mankind in which the word "reason" or "make use of reason" occurs as often as in the Koran.

Today's Islamism identifies a certain theological and legal conception with Islam itself. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the right to represent other views is not restricted. There has never been a uniform Islam, neither in law nor in theology. There is no authority in Islam that is binding for all Muslims. The Koran says "There is no compulsion to believe" (Sura 2, verse 256) and the majority of Muslim theologians teach that belief is only valid if it has been verified through personal reflection and not simply blindly adopted from tradition. In my opinion, the most brilliant Islamic thinker of the last century, Muhammad Iqbal, once put it in a poem (translation by A. Schimmel):

Hit your own paths with your own ax,
Because it is punishment to go in different ways.
Then does your hand create rare masterpieces-
If it were a sin itself, it would be a blessing to you


In my opinion, freedom of expression and scholarship is an essential requirement of Islam itself. With the Mutazilites, Avicenna, Averroes, Suhrawardi al-Maqtul or the mystics, the history of Islam has enough potential of its own to deal with the great challenges that a contemporary modern Islamic theology must be made ready. As far as jurisprudence is concerned, there has been an encouraging tendency for many years to go newer paths, although there is still a lot to be done here, too. As far as theology is concerned, there are challenges in this area too, which may be shocking to some conservative Muslims, but which can nonetheless be solved with the help of the advancement of models of thought developed many centuries ago by philosophers and mystics. If Islamic theology does not want to play in a league with evangelical revival preachers, but wants to seriously pursue scientific theology, then it must face the challenges posed by modern scientific research on the history of religion. Old Testament scholars and archaeologists such as Thomas Thompson, Philip Davies, Niels Peter Lemche or Israel Finkelstein have shown us in recent decades that we can remove Abraham, Moses and some other biblical and Koranic figures from the list of real historical persons. Such insights call for a further development of the hermeneutics of the Koran, a new occupation with the concept of revelation and new approaches to an Islamic theology of religions. Here one can build on the approaches of the Muslim philosophers and mystics in particular.

As for the history of Islam, one must also think critically. The first and second centuries of the Islamic calendar have left us few sources. The reconstruction of the history of the first two Islamic centuries is mainly based on sources from the third and fourth centuries of the Islamic calendar. Here, too, one can fall back on one's own, inner-Islamic critical methods in dealing with tradition, which need to be further developed.

The Islamic world is in deep crisis. This crisis is partly self-inflicted and can only be overcome if changes occur in Islamic thinking in the Islamic world. If tomorrow the United States suddenly withdrew completely from world politics, the chaos in the Islamic world would not end, because the real causes of the crisis also lie in the Islamic world itself. Only if the Muslims recognize this and not always take responsibility Push on others, they will manage to get out of the crisis. Islamic thinking needs a renewal.

But it is also a fact that the USA has always used this crisis in the Islamic world to push through its interests at the expense of the people in the Islamic world. Every dictatorship friendly to the USA was and is supported by the USA. Saddam Hussein was supported by the US and nobody was bothered by his human rights abuses until he turned against the US. The Taliban, that fanatical group that has become a symbol of Islamist rule injustice, has only ever been able to take power in Afghanistan because the United States built it. When the US judges Saddam Hussein or the Taliban today, they judge their own creatures and thus themselves!

The USA is a world power with contradicting tendencies. Inwardly, the USA is a constitutional state that has shown time and again that it has amazing self-cleaning powers against forces that want to change this. There are many Muslims who live in the United States and even many Muslims who like to rant about the United States often admit that they would actually not be reluctant to live there. Several eminent Muslim theologians teach at American universities. You can live in America as a radical critic of American politics, such as Noam Chomsky. American society and the American legal system have some aspects that can only be assessed as extremely positive.

This free American society based on the rule of law was also based on the annihilation and extermination of its natives and was a society of slave owners for a long time. The descendants of the African slaves and the indigenous people are disadvantaged to this day. In this American society there is a powerful group of Christian fundamentalists who are now also part of the government and influence American politics. These are people whose obscurantism is no different from that of the Taliban, as the creationism debate has once again made clear in recent months. People like Pat Robertson, who publicly called for the assassination of a foreign head of state, document that this is not a group of harmless bigots, but violent fundamentalists who regard war as a means of their politics and also defend themselves domestically religious vigilante justice, as shown by the murder of doctors by fundamentalist anti-abortionists. The Christian fundamentalists in the USA have made it clear that they would reject the American constitution in its current pluralistic openness and change it if they were able to do so.

American foreign policy has always cooperated with any dictatorship when it served the economic interests of the United States. They claim the right to attack any state that they dislike, in violation of international law, and they evade international criminal justice. It is this false double standard that upsets Muslims around the world and drives the fundamentalist seducers to new followers. Because the US and its allies often misuse democracy and human rights as a pretext for selfish actions, it is easy for radical Islamists to brand democracy and human rights as a Western fraud. Those who consider democracy and human rights to be compatible with Islam are seen as westernized.

But the majority of Iraqis, as well as Muslims around the world, have made it clear that they are happy about the liberation from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and that they welcome the opportunity for a new democratic beginning. The Iraqis and Muslims around the world also see what the US is really about and they see how the next war against Iran should be prepared. The fact that Ahmedinejad is a muddle and that the Iranian regime has significant deficits in human rights and democracy (albeit less than such a sincere ally of the West as Saudi Arabia) should not be denied here at all. Before him, Khatami ruled, whose opening course and advances were not at all appreciated by the American side, which inevitably had to strengthen the radical forces that have always held the view that the West only accepts total submission from the Islamic world and that opening is therefore pointless is. Indeed, one cannot help but get the impression that this is indeed the case and that the United States is downright happy to see Ahmedinejad in the government in Iran who provides them with the excuse to intervene militarily.

It seems to me that there are massive forces on both sides aiming to confront each other. There are radical Islamist forces who are determined to fight against the West and want to realize their vision of an Islamic state. These forces are undemocratic and anti-pluralistic. They propagate an Islamic dictatorship of opinion without democratic legitimation and freedom of expression and constantly demand understanding for their positions without worrying about the point of view of others. Conversely, there are forces on the western side who are very keen to have a trouble spot in the Middle East and to whom the enemy image of Islam is welcome after the fall of the Eastern Bloc. Here, too, the argument is made from a purely western perspective, without worrying about the point of view of the others. When western politicians talk about western interests in the Gulf region, for example, this is taken for granted and without any surprise. Why actually? Just imagine the Iranian Foreign Minister talking about Iranian interests in the North Sea! Anyone would find this absurd, but Western interests in the Gulf are in fact no less absurd. Behind this simple way of speaking is a way of thinking that naturally assumes that the prosperity of the western world must and may be preserved at all costs. It is, so to speak, Western oil, which, unfortunately, lies under the Arabian sands.

But there are also politicians, scientists, journalists, business people and, above all, large sections of the population on the Western and Islamic sides who do not want a conflict and certainly not a war. The clash of cultures therefore does not seem to be inevitable to me, even if some would like it to be that way.