Images of Muhammed

When the controversy broke out last year over the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed, I read a lot about how depictions of Muhammed were strictly forbidden in Islam.

I remember thinking at the time that this didn't seem quite right. I specifically remembered seeing an image a few years ago of Muhammed riding a horse, with his face left blank.

Recently I stumbled across a website that contains a lot of images of Muhammed, some Islamic, others not. It's quite interesting. There is page with a number of images of Muhammed with a blank face, including the one I remember seeing before. There are also some Christian images, which are predictably very negative. One is a fresco from a church in Bologna, which shows Muhammed being tortured in hell. There are several depictions of a scene in Dante's Inferno in which Muhammed's torso is sliced down the front, and his entrails are hanging out.

Needless to say, it makes those Danish cartoons look really tame.

Here is a link to the site.


And now for something completely different...

No, not really. More on the Pope Benedict controversy. I just read this very interesting, very well-informed article by Juan Cole, about the speech. A long excerpt was posted on dotCommonweal, and the full thing is available here. I highly recommend reading it.


Benedict says he's "deeply sorry"

"This was a quote from a medieval text which does not express in any way my personal thoughts," the pope said in his regular Sunday blessing, the Angelus, at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, southeast of Rome.

The pope told pilgrims he hoped his remarks now and an explanation by the Vatican Saturday were enough to "placate spirits and give the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was an attempt to frankly and sincerely express my great reciprocal and mutual respect with the Muslim faith." (from CNN.com)

I'm still wondering why he quoted it. Maybe if he explained that, people would take him more seriously. But I haven't read the entire Angelus text, as it hasn't been posted on the Vatican website just yet. So we'll have to see.


Some thoughts on Benedict's speech

So now Cardinal Bertone is saying that the pope "had absolutely no intention" of implying that he shared Emperor Manuel's opinion about Islam. My question, then, is why did he quote him? Why quote someone else's opinion if you don't share it? If you don't distinguish between that opinion and your own, aren't people quite justified in taking offense?

If the pope wanted an example of religiously motivated violence to condemn, and if he was going to use an example from the distant past, why pick on Muhammed (as interpreted by a Byzantine emperor)? He couldn't have found something in his own church's history? Perhaps one of his predecessors, like Innocent III?

This is not to say that Islamic violence is not a problem. And contrary to the well-meaning assertions of the PC crowd, the problem is not confined to a tiny fringe of the Islamic population. The violence over the Danish cartoons a few months ago, and the violence against Christian churches in the last few days, are indications that the need to 'lighten up' is pretty widespread in the Islamic world. Actual physical violence may be perpetrated by a small minority, but the rage that gives rise to such violence and the values that allow it to arise, are much more widespread.

Obviously the pope knows this. But knowing this, he must also know that one must choose one's words carefully in addressing it. Especially if you're the pope.

The Bertone quotation is from this Reuters article.


Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: Signs of the End Times

I just watched this amusing/disturbing video of Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church (home of the very Christian "godhatesfags" website). I have read about Phelps, but I had never seen him before. He seems like quite a serious guy. I wonder if he ever laughs, or even smiles. Hard to imagine.

Anyway, if you think Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and William Donohue are extreme, you need to see Phelps. I'm not entirely sure, but I think he implied that Stephen Colbert's "Good evening Godless sodomites" line at the recent Emmy Awards was a sign of the end times. I'd watch it again, but it's 10 minutes long, and that's about all I can take right now. Much of the video is of Phelps criticising Colbert and Jon Stewart, although it's hard to tell if Phelps has ever seen them apart from their appearance at the Emmys.

You can see the video here. It's quite surreal.

Pope Benedict on Islam

Yesterday the New York Times reported on a speech given by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg.

In the second paragraph of the speech (available here, in German), Benedict quoted the Bynzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, who reportedly said,
"Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword by the faith he preached."
Whoa! Although he made clear that he was quoting someone else, Benedict was criticised for failing to distinguish between violent and non-violent forms of Islam.

Marco Politi, the Vatican expert for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, said that "the text reveals his deep mistrust regarding the aggressive side of Islam."

"Certainly he closes the door to an idea which was very dear to John Paul II — the idea that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the same God and have to pray together to the same God," he said.

Actually, the notion that Muslims worship the same God as Christians was affirmed by Vatican II:
The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom. (Nostra Aetate 3)
I've come across a few statements by Christians who have said that Muslims do not worship the same God as them. It's a curious statement. Does believing different things -- even incorrect things -- about God mean that one cannot worship that God? Surely one should not identify the reality that is God with the set of beliefs one holds about God.

I look at it this way: if two people have a mutual friend, and one of them believes this friend is a doctor, while the other believes she is a lawyer, surely one must be mistaken (and possibly both). But we can't say that they do not have the same friend.

As for the unoriginality of Muhammed, that's a more complicated topic that I'll have to return to in the future. Needless to say, I don't share the opinion of Manuel II Palaeologus on that one.


The speech is now available in English.


Jon Stewart in 2008?

Jon Stewart for U.S. President? There are at least two websites devoted to the idea.

Says one,
Being great fans of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, we came to realize that Jon Stewart would make a great President. His honesty, compassion, easy communication, sense of the ridiculous that permeates our government and culture, and tell it like it is attitude is refreshing at the very least. (source)
Of course, if he was elected he wouldn't be able to host The Daily Show, which would be a loss.


Historical Evidence and Critical Thinking

The blog Catholic Sensibility today featured an excerpt from Vatican II's Lumen Gentium (22) that affirmed that the bishops of the church are "successors of the apostles."

So this got me thinking. Fr. Raymond Brown, the eminent American biblical scholar, had said somewhere that this affirmation was "biblically naïve." I wanted to find the source of that quotation, which led me to an article that I read a few years back by Msgr. George Kelly entitled, "A Wayward Turn In Biblical Theory."1

The first time I read this I was an undergrad, gobbling up all of the New Testament scholarship I could handle (which was quite a bit, as it turns out!). I didn't care much for Raymond Brown's work at the time, because I found him a little too conservative (and I still sort of do, although I've come to appreciate his work tremendously). Anyway, when I originally read Kelly's article I remember being quite angered by it. I guess I've mellowed with age, because when I read it again today I was only mildly irritated by it, and even a little bit amused.

Here's an excerpt:

Cardinal Cooke mailed a copy of Raymond E. Brown’s Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections to every New York priest free of charge. My copy of the book lay unread on a table for many months, until a troubled journalist visited me to say that Priest and Bishop had shaken his convictions about the truth of Catholicity. Halfway through the book, I understood the journalist’s concern: Fr. Brown could not prove on historical grounds, he said, that Christ instituted the priesthood or episcopacy as such; that those who presided at the Eucharist were really priests; that a separate priesthood began with Christ; that the early Christians looked upon the Eucharist as a sacrifice; that presbyter-bishops are traceable in any way to the Apostles; that Peter in his lifetime would be looked upon as the Bishop of Rome; that bishops were successors of the Apostles, even though Vatican II made the same claim.
This really leaves me shaking my head. When someone claims that they cannot find historical evidence that the first bishops (some 1900 years earlier) were successors to the apostles, you cannot refute that claim by citing a church council that took place in the 1960s. That is not historical evidence, by any stretch of the imagination.

If someone says they can't find historical evidence for something, and you are troubled by this, complaining about their work is hardly an appropriate response. Either there is historical evidence to be found, or there is not. If there is, one should find the evidence and present it. If there is not, there is no basis for complaining, because the person was correct.

So Kelly cannot present evidence to refute Brown's claims because, as Brown correctly pointed out, there is no extant historical evidence to be presented. That doesn't necessarily mean those things are false, but it is not on the basis of historical evidence that one can believe them to be true.

In a mostly unrelated story, today I was looking over the curriculum policy document for religion in Ontario's Catholic secondary shools, in preparation for the school year that begins tomorrow. It says, "Critical thinking is an essential expectation in Religious Education."2

Yes, indeed it is.


[1] The article has been posted on a number of websites. Here, for example.

[2] Emphasis in original. Institute for Catholic Education, "Ontario Catholic Secondary Curriculum Policy Document," page 4.


More insight from Chomsky

On February 12, the statements of Osama bin Laden were reviewed in the New York Times by NYU law professor Noah Feldman. He described bin Laden's descent into utter barbarism, reaching the depths when he advanced "the perverse claim that since the United States is a democracy, all citizens bear responsibility for its government's actions, and civilians are therefore fair targets." Utter depravity, no doubt. Two days later, the lead story in the Times casually reported that the United States and Israel are joining bin Laden in the lower depths of depravity. Palestinians offended the masters by voting the wrong way in a free election. The population must therefore be punished for this crime. The "intention," the correspondent observed, "is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections" so that President Mahmoud Abbas will be "compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement." Mechanisms of punishment of the population are outlined. The article also reports that Condoleezza Rice will visit the oil producers to ensure that they do not relieve the torture of the Palestinians. In short, bin Laden's "perverse claim"; but when the United States advances the claim, it is not ultimate evil but rather righteous dedication to "democracy promotion."1

Notes: 1. Noah Feldman, "Becoming bin Laden" (review of Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden), New York Times Book Review, February 12, 2006, p. 12; Steven Erlanger, "U.S. and Israelis Are Said to Talk of Hamas Ouster," New York Times, February 14, 2006, p. A1.

This is from Noam Chomsky, an excerpt by from a new book called Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, by Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, which is coming out in a couple of weeks. This was taken from a larger excerpt found here. I recommend checking it out, of course.

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