A Contemporary Muslim View from a
North American Jesuit Campus
By Amir Hussain
I am a Canadian Muslim of Pakistani background who teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. You can imagine the number of people who have asked for my thoughts on the remarks of Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg on September 12 and on the subsequent developments. Before sharing those, I will begin with a story about the importance of symbols for Christians and Muslims.
I feel incredibly blessed in my second year on the faculty at Loyola Marymount, where colleagues in the department and across the university have warmly welcomed me. On my office door are a number of postcards as decorations. They include a photograph of Woody Guthrie (a favourite songwriter of the 20th century), a painting of retired Montreal Canadiens hockey goalie Ken Dryden (I am, after all, Canadian), William Blake’s watercolour of “Satan, Sin and Death” from his Paradise Lost illustrations (I came to theology through English literature) and a version of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous quotation that begins “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up. . .” In the summer, a colleague in the department returned from London with a postcard of the famous painting of Sultan Mehmet II by Gentile Bellini that hangs in the National Gallery. I added that to the collection.
After the Pope’s remarks, a Greek Orthodox colleague in the department took me aside and explained that the postcard of the Turkish sultan was offensive to him, because overt Muslim symbols seemed arrogant in a Christian institution. Never mind that a Christian colleague gave it to me, fully aware of the complexities of a representation by a European artist who visited the sultan’s court in Constantinople. Never mind that the original is on loan to a Paris exhibition titled “Venice and the Islamic World” and next year will travel to New York. Never mind that I am the only full-time member of a department of 18 who is not a Christian. Never mind that the offended colleague had already mentioned to me that he thought Allah was a moon god and not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Jesus. Never mind that he wears a large cross around his neck as symbol of his office, a symbol not at all “neutral” for many Muslims and Jews. Of course, not wanting to give offense, I promptly removed the postcard, placing it inside my office alongside treasured postcards sent by students studying abroad.
I share this story not to embarrass my colleague but because it speaks to my own position. I have lived the great majority of my life as a member of a Muslim minority community. I am deeply and thoroughly “western,” as evidenced by the postcards I chose to decorate my door. Inspired by my mentor, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, I have worked on interfaith dialogue in my professional and personal life and, all too often, I must deal with basic misunderstandings.
By now, people are well aware of the points of Muslim objection to the Pope’s statements. Scholars such as John Borelli, John Esposito and John Renard have described these wonderfully in Jesuit and Catholic journals. As a Muslim teaching theology in a Jesuit university, I was puzzled by the initial remarks in Regensburg. How he quoted the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologos did not hurt me. The emperor wrote this dialogue probably when Ottoman Muslims were laying siege to Constantinople. When one is at war, one often does not portray enemies accurately. The Muhammad that the emperor described as bringing “vile and inhuman” things is not the Prophet who is beloved by me and other Muslims. The emperor’s suggestion that Islam was spread by the sword is also inaccurate. A century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Muslim population of Iran was approximately 10 percent, while that of the area comprised of modern-day Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories was no more than 20 percent. Clearly, the historical evidence does not support the stereotype of mass conversions at the point of a sword.
I was, however, puzzled that His Holiness did not seem to recognize the Greek intellectual heritage shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims. It was during Arab Muslim rule that the Greek philosophical tradition was preserved, commented upon and transmitted to the European world. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, was dependent on a Muslim philosopher, Al- Farabi, for his knowledge of Aristotle. One cannot properly understand the European philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages without including the contributions of other Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Even today, Muslim theology students in Iran read Aristotle. This gives the lie to the simple and unhelpful dichotomy of “Islam” and “the West.”
I was heartened to hear Pope Benedict’s apology and even more delighted at his meeting on September 25 with ambassadors of Muslim nations. There, His Holiness affirmed and sought to continue the work of his predecessor, the late John Paul II, who was deeply concerned and involved in dialogue between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Through this dialogue, we will learn about each other, but also, more importantly, about ourselves. Perhaps we will gain a better understanding of each other’s symbols. With my colleagues at Loyola Marymount, I can agree that a Jesuit university is precisely the place where people of diverse religious communities should be able to discuss, reasonably and even bluntly, their religious symbols and the roles they play in the history of our relations.
Hussain is an associate professor in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University and the author of “Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God” (Kelowna: Copper House, 2006), an introduction to Islam for a North American Christian audience.
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