September 20, 2006 | Family Security Matters

What We Can Learn from a Medieval Dialogue

Amid all the metaphorical smoke arising from the, alas, very real flames of hatred that some Muslim fanatics have managed to kindle out of Pope Benedict XVI's lecture to academics at the University of Regensburg, one can easily miss the lessons that might be drawn from the medieval episode recounted by the pontiff immediately before the historical quotation which has proven so incendiary:
Part of the dialogue [was] carried on—perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara—by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between—as they were called—three “Laws” or “rules of life”: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an.
While offense has been incited because of the emperor's quoted condemnation of “holy war” carried out in the name of Islam as “evil and inhuman,” the real point perhaps is that the conversation even took place between the “erudite” Manuel and his “educated” Persian interlocutor.
Historically, Manuel is an almost tragic figure. Scion of the imperial line of the Palaiologoi, whose founder Michael VIII in 1261 had driven the Crusaders from the imperial capital, Manuel was destined to become the second-to-last emperor to reign in the city founded by Constantine the Great. Manuel's father, John V (1341-1391), had had to deal with the crossing of the Hellespont by the Turks, who conquered Thrace and Macedonia and went on to destroy the Serbian Empire of Manuel's in-laws (his empress was Helena, daughter of the Serbian prince Constantine Dragaš) on the plains of Kosovo in 1389, a battle with whose consequences we still live as the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s proved. For a time, Manuel even resided at the court of the Sultan Bayazid I as a hostage and later was able to ascend the Byzantine throne only by acknowledging Turkish suzerainty. As a vassal, Manuel had to perform military service at times for his overlords. On one such occasion, between October and December 1391, Manuel enjoyed the hospitality of the qadi (Islamic law judge) of Ankara and engaged in a series of discussions with his host. The fruit of these conversations was the Twenty-six Dialogues with a Persian, the recent critical edition of which the pope quoted from, which text was written from notes the emperor presumably took during the discussion. At the end of the Dialogues, the qadi pronounced himself ready to come to Constantinople and continue the discussion. Alas, the 1394-1402 Turkish siege of the imperial capital, the longest in the city's history, while giving the monarch time to compose his work, precluded the continuation of the theological discussion.
Dialogue between religions and cultures—something that every person of good will presumably desires in these times—does not occur in neat laboratory conditions. Rather, if it is to have any real meaning, it must be characterized by an openness to engage in all dimensions and the freedom to express all thoughts. There is no record in the Dialogues or in any of the other contemporary sources we have of the period of the qadi (or anyone else for that matter) organizing street protests—much less attacks on churches or the murder of nuns—in response to the emperor's brusque comments about the prophet of Islam and his legacy. Rather, true to his calling as a learned man, the Islamic jurist answered the emperor point-by-point and was willing to pursue the conversation further.
If we look at the context of this discussion—Manuel's involuntary vassalage to the Turkish sultan even as he was fighting for the life of ancient Byzantine world and the qadi's role as his sovereign's overseer of the Greek monarch—there was no reason why it should have taken place at all, but for the reason (logos) that was the imprint of the divine in both the participants. This enabled them to transcend their differences and have a frank airing of views, the first step to mutual comprehension, if not necessarily agreement. It was also this reason, which, tested in the fire of debate, eventually led Manuel to give his son, in his testamentary The Virtue of a King, advice which modern statesmen would still do well to heed:
Fight neither against the brothers in Christ, nor against whatever nation, even a barbaric nation, if it made peace with you and wishes to keep it… I think all would call a fool someone who would believe that there is in the world a complete stranger. Because we are all children of One, even if we differ in language or whatever, even in faith. Well, human beings as we are, we need to care about people, and to wish for all any good, to help anyone, as is just and possible. Because our nature is common, and one earth for all, one roof, one light and one air is extended above all of us from the Creator. And in one word, what is His, is common to all of us. But you need also to understand what is more distant and less distant (because there exist many degrees in affinity) and to be good with all, as far as that depends on you, and to those who are closer to you, to offer yourself with due affinity and warmth in your relationship.
And might we not speculate that perhaps the “educated Persian” came to a not dissimilar humanist understanding, even though both men lived and died as faithful sons of their respective religious traditions?
Unfortunately, today, an open exchange like the one which the emperor and the qadi had is almost unthinkable—as the reactions to the pontiff's speech underscore. “Political correctness” as well as fear of the sort of reactions as have met the pope's quoting of Manuel stifle debate, contributing a great deal to a false sense of comity while leaving sores to fester and not at all conducive to the reasoned conclusions that the emperor eventually arrived at towards the end of his philosophical and theological quest. For this we have to thank various academic departments of “Middle Eastern Studies”—many richly endowed (academic-speak for “bought”) with funds from rather questionable Saudi sources—filled with apologists for terrorists, politicians mouthing meaningless clichés, and other do-gooders at home, in addition to the declared Islamist radicals and cowed moderate Muslims abroad.
Even if Pope Benedict is now “deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few speeches in [his] address,” he should not regret having raised questions on his mind and called for a reasoned discourse that has “the courage to engage the whole breadth of reason.” If anything, we should all regret that “political correctness” in the West and self-censorship in many Muslim communities means that the pontiff is unlikely to have many take him up on his generous invitation to frank dialogue, leaving us all in many respects worse off than the Byzantine emperor and his Persian friend.
J. Peter Pham, Ph.D., is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, and an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has written for a variety of publications, and has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.