The Pope, The Emperor, and The Other Guy

In the fall of 2006, the Pope of the Catholic Church, in a public discourse, quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor who had declared (hundreds of years ago) that Islam had added nothing new to the world of religious thought.

cherubPlaque01 Implied in the statement was the idea that much of Islam is found in the beliefs of those who were assimilated into the Arab Empire and that Islam had added only the oppression of the new rulers.

This quotation caused an outpouring of indignation, with many voices claiming to have been sorely insulted. Of course, the original statement from the late 1300s can tell us quite a bit about the conflicts between empires, the nature of religious controversy and something of the Byzantine mind. 

But, equally fascinating is the reaction of representatives of the modern Muslim world, who protested as if remonstrating against the long-dead leader of the defunct Byzantine Empire. In addition to this, there was much commentary on the unexpected nature of the Pope’s discourse.

A Muslim student of mine had found the quotation very insulting; however, when pressed, he could not say if he would expect this type of statement from a Christian leader. He was a very thoughtful student, who willingly admitted that many Muslim clerics of varying popularity publically condemn Christian thought and history – which, he told me, is often part of a Muslim homily.

Why would anyone of either faith not expect references to quotes on Islam by the clerics of Christianity? Here, I make high demands of the student who claims to strive for religious literacy; whether from a Muslim or Christian background, the honest student, I insist, must see this event and events like it in light of the perennial nature of religious controversy, and not as an error, faux pas, or aberration.

In this single modern event, the student of religion should find an introduction to a little known and thankfully extant (surviving) dialogue between a Byzantine emperor and his interviewer, a clear statement concerning the religious controversy between the medieval Christian and Islamic world, and also the modern perplexity in face of the religious controversy that makes up the two most populated of the world religions.

The irony of a Byzantine emperor complaining of the oppression perpetrated by the Muslim emperors is easily lost on the modern reader. Among its many qualities, being highly cultured, expansive and innovative in science, art and architecture, Byzantium was also brutally oppressive and disfigured by political intrigue and cultural self-mutilation.

By the time the medieval statement was made, during a most interesting dialogue between a Persian scholar and one of the last Christian emperors in the East, Constantinople had neared the end of a 600-year conflict with the Arab Empire and, soon, what remained of the Eastern Roman Empire would become entirely Muslim.

For those members of either religion who know little of the history of the Greek Christian Empire, it is very difficult to understand this instance of religious controversy between a modern pope and modern Islamic politicians and religious leaders.

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