1391 and all that

What has the pope got to be sorry for? Manuel said what he said. The past cannot be altered.

By GEOFFREY ALDERMAN
October 4, 2006 20:55
3 minute read.
1391 and all that

byzantine icon 88. (photo credit: )

 
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What was the Byzantine Empire? It was the Greek-speaking part of the former Roman Empire. Its capital was Byzantium - Greek for Constantinople. When did the Byzantine Empire cease to exist? When Constantinople fell to Turkish Muslims in 1453. What happened then? Muslim armies gradually conquered the Balkans (Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and so on), often forcing the local inhabitants to choose between conversion to Islam and summary execution. In 1683 Turkish armies reached Vienna, where they were decisively defeated by Polish and Austrian forces. Why didn't the Europeans act much earlier against this Islamic invasion? Apart from the historic rivalry between the eastern (Byzantine Orthodox) and the western (Roman Catholic) churches, the Europeans were simply too busy fighting each other. But one Byzantine Emperor did travel extensively in Europe trying to get help to defend Europe against Islamic fundamentalism. Who was that? It was the Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, who reigned in Constantinople from 1391 to 1425. Manuel was in fact the only Byzantine Emperor ever to visit England. How much did he really know about Islamic society? Quite a lot. We must remember that Manuel was a well educated and sensitive individual, whose writings included poetry, philosophy and biography. Apart from the fact that he spent most of his adult life fighting Muslims, in 1390 he had agreed to become a hostage at the court of the Ottoman Sultan in Turkey, as guarantor for the good behavior of his father, John V Palaiologos. So he experienced Muslim society at first hand. Do we know what he really thought about Islam? Yes. There survives an account of a debate he had in 1391 with a Persian scholar about the respective merits of Christianity and Islam. In that account - the authenticity of which is not contested - Manuel said: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." That's a bit one-sided, isn't it? What about Muslim architecture, Muslim poetry, Muslim philosophy and science? Of course what Manuel said wasn't the whole truth. His response to the Persian scholar naturally reflected the times in which the dialogue took place. It was not the whole truth. But it was the truth as he saw it. Islam was - before that time, at that time, and for a long time afterwards - "spread by the sword." Fair enough, but has it any truth today? Yes. As recently as August 2006 two journalists were kidnapped by an Islamic group in Gaza and forced to convert to Islam as a condition of their safe release. Hasn't there been some very recent controversy about Manuel's remarks? Yes, as a matter of fact there has. On September 15 the current head of the Roman Catholic church quoted Manuel's words in a lecture the theme of which was the incompatibility of a holy war, or jihad, with what the Pontiff referred to as "the nature of God." What happened then? The Muslim world experienced one of its ever-more-frequent fits of moral outrage. Apart from the riots that have become an indispensable feature of these outbursts, effigies of the pope were burned and in the Palestinian Authority some churches were fire-bombed. In Kuwait, the leader of the Islamic Nation Party called on all Arab and Islamic states to recall their ambassadors from the Vatican and expel those from the Vatican "until the pope says he is sorry." But what has the pope got to be sorry for? After all, Manuel said what he said. The past cannot be altered. No-one denies that Manuel said what he said. But some Muslims seem to think that the pope should have denounced Manuel's views. But you've just said that, although Manuel's words were not by any means the whole truth, they were nonetheless true - certainly at the time they were uttered, if not later. And doesn't the Koran itself, in Sura 9, verse 29 and elsewhere, glorify offensive war against "unbelievers," who are deemed explicitly to include Jews and Christians - "the people of the Book" as the verse puts it? Don't Muslim scholars themselves refer to these verses as "the Sword verses?" True. But you need to read "the Sword verses" in context. They were probably written against the background of the persecution of Mohammed and his followers by polytheists in Mecca, whence he had to flee to Medina. So why don't present-day Islamic theologians apologize for these verses, just as they seem to want the pope to do over the words of Emperor Manuel? That's quite enough questions for now. OK? The writer, an academic, is the author and co-author of some 12 books, including Modern British Jewry. He writes irregularly for The Jewish Chronicle.

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