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Byzantine background of the Pope's remark about Islam


After I wrote about the anti-Pope* controversy stirred by the supposed anti-Islam remarks of the Pope, a reader who is a Byzantine scholar graciously supplied the background below about the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Paleologus.

Historical background concerning Manuel II Palaeologus

In his conference in Regensburg University, Pope Benedict XVI quoted a statement of a Dialogue of Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus with a Muslim, and this statement is in the focus of a polemics. The Pope said that he did not adopt the statement he quoted, therefore everybody agrees now in rejecting that the Pope who has responsibility for this this "medieval text of a by-gone age." Now, it is Manuel II who appears as the "naughty boy" of the story.

I am puzzled that in a controversy which concerns a Byzantine Emperor, nobody asked the advice of byzantinists. I happen to know about Manuel II and to have studied this text. For that reason, I believe it is my duty to bring some details to the attention of the public, because in the media, everyone has said just about anything about this text and about Manuel II. For example, somebody said, on the France Culture, channel that he used to burst the eyes of his prisoners. In fact, seven centuries separate Manuel II and Basil II, the emperor who, indeed, burst the eyes of his prisoners.

Context of the quotation
The controversial statement ("Show me that Mohammed brought anything new: you will find nothing, but bad and inhuman, for instance what he states by ordering his faith to be imposed by sword") is taken from the 7th chapter of a book which is composed of 26 chapters.

This 7th book was edited in 1966 by Th. Khoury in Sources Chretiennes 115, and, it seems, it is from this edition that Pope took this statement, since he quotes Th. Khoury. The entire Greek text was edited by E. Trapp in 1966 in the Wiener Byzantinische Studien. A revised edition is being done by K. Förstel in the le Corpus islamo-christianum, series graeca. A German translation of chapters 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7 has been published by R. Senoner in 2003 in Wien.

Context of the discussion

According to a treaty between his father John V and the Sultan Bayezid, who had helped him against his rebel grandson, Manuel II has to serve as a vassal in the army of Bayezid. During a campaign in Asia Minor against the Mongols (1391), he held a discussion, as sharp as peaceful, with an ulema of Ankara, with whom he is staying. Some years after, while Bayezid was besieging Constantinople, Manuel wrote this discussion. The title was : "Dialogue of Emperor Manuel with a Persian" ("Persian", in the Byzantine language of this time, meant Turk, to remind people of the ancient conflict between Greeks and Persians).

Contrary to many treatises of anti-Muslim polemics, which we find in Western Christendom as well as in the Byzantine Empire, this text is the written record of a discussion that really took place. Manuel presents his Muslim partner in a positive way, as an host respectful and curious to know the religion of his host. The discussion is as cordial as frank, since neither of the two hesitates to expose what he doesn't like in the religion of the other. The relations between both men are not altered by it. This text is one of the first interreligious dialogues, where each people displays his own truth and looks for dialogue without disavowing anything of what he believes.

The editor, Th. Khoury, writes in his introduction: "The immoderate expressions, relatively rare, which we can read in the text come mostly from the liberties that Manuel took when finally writing his text". The fact that Bayezid was besieging Constantinople when Manuel was writing can explain the hardening of his language.

Violence and Faith

Returning to the quotation, and the issue of violence and faith. Benedict XVI quotes a statement of the 7th Controversy, which concerns Jihad. It is a classical theme of the polemics between Byzantines and muslims. We find it from the first centuries of the arab conquest.

This theme gained importance after the Crusades. At the time of Manuel, when Byzantines objected to the idea of a holy war, they have as a line of sight, in the same time, Muslim Jihad and western crusade. It is an aspect of Byantine mentality that we should never forget, especially at the end of the Empire. By opposing Islam on that point, a Byzantine has always in his mind the trauma of 4th Crusade and all the expeditions when they saw Christian soldiers with a cross on their dresses and handling a sword on the name of Christ.

We see that this statement, when put into its context, gains a meaning different from the one the media give it.

Marie Helene Congourdeau

*Yes, I know what an anti-Pope is. - A.I.

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Replies: 1 Comment

This is very enlightening. Thanks for publishing this.

Posted by Lecteur @ 09/22/2006 09:36 PM CST

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