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Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and the Spread of Islam
Posted by TheIslamBlog, Editor in History
Topics: Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI

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A couple of years ago, Pope Benedict XVI decided to find an obscure quote from a debate around 600 hundred years ago claiming that Islam brought nothing but evil and the spreading of the faith by the sword. The following is an apt response from 'Jewish' atheist, Uri Avnery. Here are some excerpts from his response to Pope Benedict:

In his lecture at a German university, the 265th Pope described what he sees as a huge difference between Christianity and Islam: while Christianity is based on reason, Islam denies it. While Christians see the logic of God's actions, Muslims deny that there is any such logic in the actions of Allah.

As a Jewish atheist, I do not intend to enter the fray of this debate. It is much beyond my humble abilities to understand the logic of the Pope. But I cannot overlook one passage, which concerns me too, as an Israeli living near the fault-line of this "war of civilizations".

In order to prove the lack of reason in Islam, the Pope asserts that the Prophet Muhammad ordered his followers to spread their religion by the sword. According to the Pope, that is unreasonable, because faith is born of the soul, not of the body. How can the sword influence the soul?

Jesus said: "You will recognize them by their fruits." The treatment of other religions by Islam must be judged by a simple test: how did the Muslim rulers behave for more than a thousand years, when they had the power to "spread the faith by the sword"? Well, they just did not. For many centuries, the Muslims ruled Greece. Did the Greeks become Muslims? Did anyone even try to Islamize them? On the contrary, Christian Greeks held the highest positions in the Ottoman administration. The Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians, Hungarians and other European nations lived at one time or another under Ottoman rule and clung to their Christian faith. Nobody compelled them to become Muslims and all of them remained devoutly Christian.

In 1099, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and massacred its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants indiscriminately, in the name of the gentle Jesus. At that time, 400 years into the occupation of Palestine by the Muslims, Christians were still the majority in the country. Throughout this long period, no effort was made to impose Islam on them. Only after the expulsion of the Crusaders from the country, did the majority of the inhabitants start to adopt the Arabic language and the Muslim faith - and they were the forefathers of most of today's Palestinians.

About Muslim Spain, Avnery writes:

There no evidence whatsoever of any attempt to impose Islam on the Jews. As is well known, under Muslim rule the Jews of Spain enjoyed a bloom the like of which the Jews did not enjoy anywhere else until almost our time. Poets like Yehuda Halevy wrote in Arabic, as did the great Maimonides. In Muslim Spain, Jews were ministers, poets, scientists. In Muslim Toledo, Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars worked together and translated the ancient Greek philosophical and scientific texts. That was, indeed, the Golden Age. How would this have been possible, had the Prophet decreed the "spreading of the faith by the sword"?

What happened afterwards is even more telling. When the Catholics reconquered Spain from the Muslims, they instituted a reign of religious terror. The Jews and the Muslims were presented with a cruel choice: to become Christians, to be massacred or to leave. And where did the hundreds of thousand of Jews, who refused to abandon their faith, escape? Almost all of them were received with open arms in the Muslim countries. The Sephardi ("Spanish") Jews settled all over the Muslim world, from Morocco in the west to iraq in the east, from Bulgaria (then part of the Ottoman Empire) in the north to Sudan in the south. Nowhere were they persecuted. They knew nothing like the tortures of the Inquisition, the flames of the auto-da-fe, the pogroms, the terrible mass-expulsions that took place in almost all Christian countries, up to the Holocaust.

At the closing of his piece, Avnery writes:

Every honest Jew who knows the history of his people cannot but feel a deep sense of gratitude to Islam, which has protected the Jews for fifty generations, while the Christian world persecuted the Jews and tried many times "by the sword" to get them to abandon their faith.The story about "spreading the faith by the sword" is an evil legend, one of the myths that grew up in Europe during the great wars against the Muslims - the reconquista of Spain by the Christians, the Crusades and the repulsion of the Turks, who almost conquered Vienna. I suspect that the German Pope, too, honestly believes in these fables. That means that the leader of the Catholic world, who is a Christian theologian in his own right, did not make the effort to study the history of other religions.

Another interesting read is "The Jews of Islam" by Bernard Lewis, where he demonstrates the claim that Islam was spread with the Qur'an in one hand and the sword in the other is in fact a falsification.There is also the encyclopedic, "A History of the Jewish People" by Hayim Ben-Sasson. This is a detailed Jewish history book written by Jewish scholars from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and offers an objective viewpoint on this subject. Some quotes that relate to the period between 600-1000 CE

The height of magnificence and luxury was reached by the wealthy Jews in the lands of Islam, particularly in Moslem Spain. We know that the court bankers of Baghdad in the tenth century kept open house for numerous guests and for the poor. Similarly, the ceremonies of the Jewish leaders in Babylonia and the patronage of the leading Jews in Moslem Spain, indicate conditions of ease and plenty. (p.401)

The need to maintain undisturbed relations with those on whom the existence of an economic structure and civilization depended gradually shaped the Moslem attitude towards those members of the 'peoples of the Book' who refused to accept Islam. The attitude toward these non-Moslems in the Islamic territories was shaped in principle in accordance with the concept of dhimma, meaning protection granted to them by agreement or treaty... The major expressions of dhimmi status were the poll-tax or jizia, which all male non-believers above the age of fifteen had to pay, and the special land-tax, known as the kharaj. In return, their lives and property were protected and, in accordance with the general attitude of Islam to infidels, they were assured liberty of faith and worship. They were also permitted to organize themselves as they wished, and the Jews fully availed themselves of that permission. Naturally there were changes for the better or for the worse in various places and at various times; but the principles established in the early days of Islam continued to serve as the basis for the relations between Moslem and dhimmi throughout the ages. (pp. 404-405)

From the Jewish viewpoint, this conglomerate of Moslem attitudes to infidels was easier to live with than the one that had been established by Christianity, particularly in the Byzantine Empire. As we have noted above, for hundreds of years the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in the Islamic territories. Although it is possible to perceive some Christian impact on the Moslem attitude towards non-believers and even towards the Christians themselves, the moderation with which the Moslems applied this influence proved to be of great importance to the majority of Jewry over a long period. Unlike the masses of Christians and pagans who joined the Moslems over the first half century or so, the overwhelming majority of the Jews under Moslem rule held firmly to their own faith. (p. 405)

The exilarch served as manifestation of the splendour of bygone days, which the Jews wished to preserve, to the extent that the Moslem government would permit a dhimmi people. He was 'like one of the lords of the king in his behaviour' - the reference being to the ministers of the Moslem caliph. The exilarch used to enter the royal court, speaking to the caliph 'with pleasant words until he granted his request'. Thus the resh galuta majestically represented the Jews and performed the diplomatic function of intercession at the caliph's court. He also appointed judges, as has been mentioned, and had an authoritative say in matters of Jewish law and the organization of the yeshivot. His office, though maintained in the shadow of the caliphate and interwoven with the leadership of the scholars and sages of the yeshivot, reflected on a small scale the ancient monarchy of Judah. (pp. 422-423)

The Jews of the Middle Ages, as we have remarked, inherited from ancient times an entire range of viewpoints and ideals that were transmitted in an extensive literature and were preserved throughout the generations. Many of their guiding institutions were, or at least claimed to be, continuations of institutions of the ancient past. Naturally, however, the social and cultural circumstances and trends of the contemporary environment had their effect. Life in the Islamic countries, with its flow of commerce and bustling urban activity, exerted considerable influence. An equal and possibly even greater influence was the new Arabic culture, in wihch the Platonic, neo-Platonic and Aristotelian elements moulded much of the spectrum of thought.

The Jewish literature of the period came to be dominated by Arabic, which gradually became the spoken and written language of the Jewish masses, as well as the language of study, even in matters pertaining to sacred Jewish tradition. Jewish religious philosophy, which made its appearance in the tenth century, was written mostly in Arabic. Admittedly, however, Arabic never fully displaced Hebrew and Aramaic. Furthermore, the Arabic of the Jewish scholars and merchants came to be written in Hebrew characters and acquired a style and grammar of its own, gradually becoming a Judeo-Arabic dialect. From the eleventh century there is evidence of cultural ties within Jewry extending from Babylonia [Iraq] to Moslem Spain by way of the Mediterranean islands. In addition, there were communications between the geonim and other Jewish scholars, on the one hand, and with the surrounding Moslem and cultures, on the other...

Under the impact of Arab culture and language, contemporary Arabic literary and verse forms were adopted by Jews, together with verse metres and genres. These were widely and successfully used in Hebrew and proved to be fruitful elements in the emergence of new literary styles. (pp. 439-440)

Some more useful information:

In return for royal protection during the first two Crusades, German Jews were made 'serfs of the Imperial Chamber' and were required to pay vast sums of 'protection money' for this privilege. Those Jews eventually became a very real source of royal revenue. As the king's property, they could be - and were - bought, loaned and sold, to pay off creditors. The custom spread to other European countries. Church leaders justified this status theologically on the basis of earlier Church teaching that the Jews were doomed to eternal servitude for having crucified their lord - Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, the protection for which the Jews paid such a hefty price in Europe did not always materialize. For instance, before setting out for the 3rd Crusade the Crusaders plundered the possessions of the Jews, who had fled into the royal castle where they were besieged by the warriors - many of whom were deeply in debt to their quarry. In York, England, the climax was reached when a stone, thrown from the castle, killed a Christian monk. A battle cry was raised urging the people to "destroy the enemies of Christ." When the Jews saw the fury of the besiegers and felt their fate to be sealed, they took their own lives, cutting one another's throats. When the mobs gained access to the tower, the few Jews left, who begged for baptism and deliverance, were slaughtered. The total casualties have been estimated variously from 500 to 1500. From this scene of carnage, the attackers converged on the cathedral and burned all the records of financial obligations to the Jews kept in its archives.

Writing in 1135, the French scholar Pierre Abelard has a European Jew in "Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian" speak these words: "No nation has ever suffered so much for God. Dispersed among all nations, without king or secular ruler, the Jews are oppressed with heavy taxes as if they had to repurchase their very lives every day. To mistreat the Jews is considered a deed pleasing to God. Such imprisonment as is endured by the Jews can be conceived by the Christians only as a sign of God's utter wrath. The life of the Jews is in the hands of their worst enemies. Even in their sleep they are plagued by nightmares. Heaven is their only place of refuge. If they want to travel to the nearest town, they have to buy protection with the high sums of money from the Christian rulers who actually wish for their death so that they can confiscate their possessions. The Jews cannot own land or vineyards because there is nobody to vouch for their safekeeping. Thus, all that is left them as a means of livelihood is the business of money-lending, and this in turn brings the hatred of Christians upon them."

See: Edward H. Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, 1985; Michael L. Brown, Our Hands Are Stained with Blood: The Tragic Story of the "Church" and the Jewish People, Destiny Image Publishers, Shippensburg, 1992. By way of Habib Siddiqui

An article from fifteen years ago appeared in the Los Angeles Times, here are some excerpts from it:

Los Angeles Times November 2, 1991, Saturday, Home Edition
SECTION: Part A; Page 12; Column 1; Foreign Desk



The Jews of Istanbul, who have lived for centuries along the shores of the Golden Horn, never tire of one particular sea story: In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from the tiny port of Palos . . . because the harbors at Cadiz and Seville were jammed with boatloads of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain by his royal sponsors.

Columbus went west to uncertainty. Around 60,000 Jews exiled that year by Ferdinand and Isabella came east to official welcome in lands of the Ottoman Empire. Thousands more joined them after an interim stop in Portugal.

Now, their Turkish descendants are preparing a yearlong celebration of a Jewish tradition that since the 15th Century has flourished in an Islamic universe.

"There is no other example of a Jewish minority living as well in a Muslim country," said Yakup Barouh, an advertising agency owner who is president of the community.

The celebration, by a Jewish minority that has preserved its language - a cousin of Spanish - as well as its religious and cultural identity, will be both a kind of 500th birthday party and a thanksgiving.

"We want to send the world a message that we have been living here peacefully for centuries while other Jewish communities have suffered in many lands of Europe," said Sami Kohen, a prominent Istanbul newspaper columnist and Turkish nationalist. "Jews here have been almost immune to state repression. We are proud of that. We want to pay tribute to Turkey."

Today, about 26,000 Jews live in Turkey, including around 2,500 in the southern city of Ismir, and about 100 in the capital at Ankara. The five-rabbi, 15-synagogue Istanbul community runs a Jewish hospital, an old-age home and its own 600-student school. The principal is Muslim.

"I think it's more important to celebrate 500 years of acceptance here than to remember the expulsion by visiting Spain," said Arthur Jablon of Los Angeles, one of a growing number of American visitors who tour Jewish sites in Istanbul, a metropolis better known for its minarets.

In Ottoman days, when Istanbul, then Constantinople, was a small town, Jews were 10% of the city's population. About 80,000 Jews lived in Turkey as recently as 1927, according to Stanford J. Shaw, a UCLA professor cooperating with the quincentennial celebrations.

The numbers were thinned by subsequent exoduses, principally for economic reasons. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Havana was a popular destination. "People said, 'What do we know? We know Spanish.' So they went to Cuba," said Nedim Yayha, the community's avid amateur historian.

Emigration to the United States created communities of Turkish Jews in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and many Jewish Cuban exiles in Miami today also trace their ancestry through the Bosporus. Kohen, visiting Havana six years ago, found that the octogenarian caretaker of a tiny synagogue there was an Istanbul native.

During World War II, Turkish Jews survived unscathed at home, and often were protected by Turkish diplomats in Nazi-occupied parts of Europe. Yayha remembers standing in the rain on the Istanbul docks with Vatican Nuncio Angelo Roncalli, who had come to help welcome a boatload of Jews fleeing Bulgaria. The nuncio would pass into history as Pope John XXIII, but to Yayha he will always be 'Monsignor Roncalli.'

After World War II, many Jews left for Israel. Yayha says 130,000 Turkish Jews live there today, many of them around Bat Yam near Tel Aviv, where Turkish language, music and food are part of the landscape.

"Sure, sometimes kids throw stones at synagogues, and there are anti-Semitic remarks, but there's never been a Jew killed by the state. Anti-Semitism is not a problem here," said Kohen, three decades a Turkish newspaperman. "When I started in journalism, I expected antagonism. It never came. I write a featured column for a big newspaper, and I've never even gotten a letter."

"We are entirely Orthodox as a religious community, but members (are) not really Orthodox. For community events we keep kosher, but not at home," said Barouh. Prayers are sung in Hebrew, but the melody is Turkish, and during services worshipers pray for the wealth of their country and the health of their (Muslim) president, naming him.

In 1892, Jews celebrated their 400th anniversary with a courtesy visit to the Sultan. This time, they are more ambitious. The 500th celebrations range from conferences and a photography competition to performances next summer by the Israel Philharmonic.

Istanbul's Jews are also building a new school, creating a museum in one disused synagogue and restoring another built in 1420 by Jews who had moved to Constantinople from Macedonia long before the Ottoman conquest in 1453...

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