How, then, should one make sense of the joint statement signed April 30 between the Vatican and a group of visiting Iranian clerics, attesting to the benefits of reason? According the May 1 L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict XVI and the Iranians agreed that "Faith and reason do not contradict each other; although faith can in some cases be above reason, it never can be against it", and that "Faith and reason are intrinsically nonviolent".
In his September 2006 address in Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI challenged elements of manifest irrationality in Muslim theology, for example, the view of some Islamic theologians that "God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice – idolatry." Outrage erupted against the pope throughout the Islamic world.
But perhaps Spengler jumped the gun on this one, on a theoretical level at least.
This topic came up a few weeks back on Abu Daoud’s blog. The concept of "changing Islam" (or more accurately redefining it) is called ijtihad, and he says the following about it:
One interesting aspect of the conversation going on today in this area has to do with the "gates of ijtihad". Ijtihad–and this is not a simple topic–is a sort of authoritative interpretation of the Quran which provides a hermeneutical foundation wherefrom one can embark upon the issuance of new verdicts and legal opinions. The question is this: can original ijtihad (that is, novel ijtihad) be produced today? I would say no, that since the 10th C. or so it has been forbidden by Islamic orthodoxy.
But I think Hallaq wants to suggest that there is at least a theoretical opening for novel ijtihad. I am interested in hearing his arguments, though I suspect that it will remain just that, theoretical. Just as it is theoretically possible to have a new ecumenical council that is both Orthodox and Catholic which will issue a new Creed. In theory it could happen. In practice? Almost impossible.
But such a change is simpler in Sh’ia Islam–the Islam of the Iranian religious establishment–than in Sunni Islam. The reason is because Sh’ia Muslims ascribe broader powers of inspiration and interpretation to their imams–their ayatollahs–than their Sunni counterparts, much as Roman Catholics do as opposed to their Protestant counterparts. The Pope is probably armed with this understanding, which would explain his reception of the Iranian clerics.
Whether it will actually come to pass is another matter altogether. To do this would require the acquiescence of Sh’ia Muslims in Iran at large, and I don’t see that happening any time soon. Such major changes along these lines could also damage the hard-won credibility the Iranians currently have in the (Sunni) Arab street. Many Sunni Muslims (especially the Salafis) consider Sh’ia Muslims as outside of Islam to start with; to add this to the mix would be a geopolitical setback for Iran.
Spengler’s dismissal of this change makes more sense when applied to Sunni Islam and especially the Salafi/Wahhabi version the Saudi practice. Such a change would degenerate into a war of duelling fatwas and imams, and the reformers would be quickly overwhelmed by the counterassault of the traditionalists.
My guess is that the Pope is attempting to drive a wedge between those who think that Islam is fine as it is and those who see the weaknesses of a system whose insistence of Allah’s absolute sovereignty creates inconsistencies that people find hard to deal with. From a structural standpoint, he’s picked the weakest spot he cound find to start with. Will it work? Only time will tell.