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Speeches

M. Frenschkowski: Peace in the Near East

  Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East

The impact of religion on peace and conflict, on violence and the dynamics of peacemaking is highly charged with ideologies, with many uncertainties and difficulties. What can academic science, in particular what can the field of Religious Studies contribute to the ongoing processes of struggling for peace? Max Weber, who in the early 20th century studied religion from an economic perspective and is a major figure in sociology, defined as the first duty of academic teaching to bring students to the acceptance of unwelcome facts. Fact is always more than theory. “Unbequeme Tatsachen anerkennen zu lehren,” as he writes in his famous lecture on science as a profession.[1]

Unwelcome facts: to realize things are not as easy as we might welcome. When you visit Israel a very common experience is a collapse of such easy theories. Peace must be so easy when people really want it: this is an easy theory, and it is a wrong theory. Peace is not easy. It takes all our intelligence, all our imagination, all our courage, all our trust, all our work. Good will without such energy, without passion alone is in fact quite useless.

The academic field of Religious Studies, the science of religion, very much has to deal with such unwelcome facts. Some clarification on Religious Studies may be needed first, what they are and what they are not. Religious Studies are not theology. Theology is a function of a church or religious congregation, a critical self-reflection and study of its roots and history. As such it has its dignity and cannot be replaced by anything else. Also non-theistic religions like Buddhism have something analogous, and the Christian churches, for example, could not exist without academic research and scholarly reflection on what they are doing and why they are doing it. If a religious community tries to live without such an open and scientific discourse it will become fundamentalist, and will no longer be able to contribute to peace and dialogue in society. This competence to critically reflect on one’s own practice and history is what theology is all about, and one criterion is one’s own holy tradition, particularly one´s holy writings. Academic theology does this in dialogue with all other sciences, such as sociology, psychology, historical sciences, philosophy, and uses the common methodology of historical and cultural sciences.

But Religious Studies, or Religionswissenschaft, as we say in German, is something quite different. Religious Studies is the academic field of multidisciplinary and secular study of religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. As such it is part of the wide field of Cultural Studies, or, as we formerly used to say, of the Humanities. Religious Studies describe, interpret, compare, and perhaps to some degree explain religions, but they generally do not evaluate them. They can emphasize either systematic, historically based, or cross-cultural perspectives. The scholar of religion may of course be a religious man or woman, as I, for example, am an ordained minister of my church, though I work at the University of Leipzig and no longer as a pastor. But I do not speak as such here, and we have to keep in mind Religious Studies is something not identical with theology.

I mention a few great and well-known names of the last 150 years to illustrate what is here called Religious Studies. Friedrich Max Müller, a German who edited and translated the oldest holy texts of India, James George Frazer, Rudolf Otto, Geo Widengren, Martin Nilsson, Marcel Mauss, Geerardus van der Leeuw, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mircea Eliade, Carsten Colpe, Georges Dumézil, Günter Lanczkowski, and Ninian Smart, to give only some names of scholars who are no longer among us.

Others have not been scholars of religion in a formal sense, but yet contributed much to our knowledge of religion from very different perspectives, such as Jakob Grimm, the greatest of all scholars on language, or Theodor Nöldeke. Religious Studies today of course have changed much, and scholars see it as an empirical science which is part of the larger network of sciences of culture. In German we say Kulturwissenschaften, which is not easily translated into English, as it covers both Cultural Studies, much of what would be called anthropology, and also most of what in a more classical curriculum would be called the Humanities.

For our context it is vital to recognize the fact that Religious Studies do not only exist with a Christian or Jewish background. They have some antecedents in antiquity: Greek writers like Plutarch and Poseidonios seriously tried to understand Egyptian, Celtic, Phoenician, and Punic, and other religions. For our present occasion more important, Religious Studies also have a tradition in Islam, a fact not often recognized in the west.

I will now proceed to say a few words on one of the greatest scholars of the Middle Ages, a Muslim who also gave serious attention to Christianity, Judaism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and even to polytheist religions like Hinduism. This will demonstrate how the serious struggle to understand other religions has a valuable tradition in all our great religions, and a science of religion is not something with only western roots, but with very deep roots in oriental cultures as well.

In fact this scholar can be seen as one of the very first scientists who wrote without polemical agenda about people of other faiths, and as such is one of the fathers of Religious Studies, and this all in combination with being a devout Muslim. You will immediately see how this very much contributes to our subject.

Abū al-Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī was born in 973 C.E. in a city in Khwarezm, which is now a region in Uzbekistan, and died in the year 1048. The Latin Christians called him Alberonius. He was a polymath well versed in mathematics, physics, astronomy, and natural sciences, and also distinguishing himself as a historian, cartographer, chronologist, and linguist. As all great scholars, he knew that the basic requirement to understand other cultures is to learn their languages, and he became conversant in Chorasmian, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Turkic; in addition, he knew Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac.

In 1017 of the Common Era he first traveled to India, and his Tarikh Al-Hind (History of India) became the best book ever written in the Middle Ages on a foreign culture. In 1910 the German scholar Edward Sachau translated it into English. Europeans only could compete with the fairness and broad interest of this work much later, in 17th and 18th century writings, and even today it remains a model of well-informed tolerance, though he certainly is not uncritical of Indian culture. Exploring nearly every aspect of Indian life as history, geography, religion, history, astronomy, and mathematics, he is led by an agenda of serious research and fairness. Al-Bīrūnī discusses Sanskrit concepts from the original texts, never being satisfied with hearsay and second-hand information. This agenda he expresses with simple eloquence, and I quote some words from Sachau’s translation:

[I have] written this book on the doctrines of the Hindus, never making any unfounded imputations against those, our religious antagonists, and at the same time not considering it inconsistent with my duties as a Muslim to quote their own words at full length when I thought they would contribute to elucidate a subject. […] This book is not a polemical one. I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists in order to refute such of them, as I believe to be in the wrong. My book is nothing but a simple historic record of facts. I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the Greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them.[2]

Al-Bīrūnī clearly saw that religion can at times become a source of hate and intolerance, and he gives a poignant analysis of why many Hindus hate Muslims, who came to India as conquerors.

In this analysis he gives attention to factors on both sides, considering for example some Hindu ideas about the general impurity of foreigners which led to a refusal to have any connections with them. But he also sees clearly that a policy of plundering the wealth of India cannot possibly lead to a peaceful community, and strongly criticizes Muslim rulers for partaking in this exploitation of India. Knowledge is his basic antidote against violence. Discussing earlier books on India he forcefully analyzes the sources of mistaken notions and superficial research; he calls these books a “farrago of materials never sifted by the sieve of critical examination.”[3]

Al-Bīrūnī in this context also quotes the Qur’an: “Speak the truth, even if it were against yourselves” (4:134) and combines this with quotations from the Christian gospels. He clearly states that both groups had much to learn from each other. But the real value of his writings is not just in these declarations but in his careful attention to detail. He also sees that no description of a religion could be of any value if the adherents of this religion would see it as a caricature or even as a lie. Franz Rosenthal, famous scholar of Islam and translator of works like the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldūn, writes about al-Bīrūnī: “What al-Biruni seems to be arguing is that there is a common human element in every culture that makes all cultures distant relatives, however foreign they might seem to one another.”[4]

Islamic theology as far as I can see sometimes does not find it too easy to stay seriously in touch with these traditions. I may be wrong in this. But they do exist, and can be a forceful background to our recent inter-religious dialogue. In late April this year (2012) I took part in a large conference bringing together many German Christian theologians and many Egyptian Muslim theologians. Our host was the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and both conservative and liberal theologians took part. The original initiative of the meeting had been taken by the Orient Institut Beirut, which since its founding in 1961 (by the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft) has been a major voice in contact between western and Middle Eastern universities and other institutions of science. Such meetings are still much too rare. I learned that we have still much to understand not only about our theologies but more particularly about our very different cultures of communication, about styles of politeness, respect, and questioning each other and about what really is at stake in discussions. I am deeply grateful for such opportunities.

Judaism of course also has had its share of great scholars who gave their whole life to understand Islam and Christianity. I mention only three names devoted to Islam: first Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921), who as a young man in 1873 got a chance to attend lectures at the Al-Azhar in Cairo and later, being a Jew, was for many years denied any academic career in Budapest, where he lived, even when all over Europe he was already seen as one of the greatest living scholars of Islam. I quote some words from his travel diary:

Ich lebte mich denn auch während dieser Wochen so sehr in den mohammedanischen Geist ein, dass ich zuletzt innerlich überzeugt wurde, ich sei selbst Mohammedaner und klug herausfand, dass dies die einzige Religion sei, welche selbst in ihrer doktrinär-offiziellen Gestaltung und Formulierung philosophische Köpfe befriedigen könne. Mein Ideal war es, das Judenthum zu ähnlicher rationeller Stufe zu erheben. Der Islam, so lehrte mich meine Erfahrung, sei die einzige Religion, in welcher Aberglaube und heidnische Rudimente nicht durch den Rationalismus, sondern durch die orthodoxe Lehre verpönt werden.[5] (In those weeks, I truly entered into the spirit of Islam to such an extent that ultimately I became inwardly convinced that I myself was a Muslim, and judiciously discovered that this was the only religion which, even in its doctrinal and official formulation, can satisfy philosophic minds. My ideal was to elevate Judaism to a similar rational level. Islam, as my experience taught me, is the only religion, in which superstitious and heathen ingredients are not frowned upon by rationalism, but by orthodox doctrine. - translation by a Wikipedia-author)

He did not leave Judaism, however, but learned to face Islam with respect as a sister religion. There are similar people who as Jews devoted their lives or parts of their lives to understanding Islam, including Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), Giorgio Levi Della Vida (1886-1967), and the already mentioned Franz Rosenthal (1914-2003). And of course many Christians did the same. These are just some examples, but they give some historical depth to our own studies, for which we can be grateful.

Today Religious Studies are a multifaceted network of scientific endeavors. What can Religious Studies, or let´s say what can the science of religion, contribute to what we are talking about at this conference?

  • It can help to read the holy texts of religions, and clarify their historical background.
  • It can help to understand our own place in the history of our faith and not take for timeless truth what in fact is a special expression of faith at a certain time and under certain cultural circumstances.
  • It can distinguish and separate what does not belong together. By this it can help to liberate, to disengage religion from political and military agendas trying to use religious energies for their own ends.
  • It can overcome clichés and stereotypes.
  • It can fight sheer stupidity.
  • It can chair or host interreligious dialogue: but it cannot create such a dialogue.
  • It can destroy prejudices, if it has a free hand to do so.
  • It can help to overcome kitsch and other forms of infantile regression in religion.
  • It can keep a discussion sober and useful. The sobriety and properness of dialogue is not easy to keep up, and for this you need scholars who are fair and interested observers, not participants.
  • As in recent post-colonial studies it can teach to overcome European or Oriental myopic vistas.

And here is what as far as I can say about what the academic study of religion cannot do:

  • It cannot answer the religious question itself. Max Weber, whom I quoted earlier, already saw this clearly, though other scholars of religion sometimes have been more reluctant to concede this. To me it seems obvious that Religious Studies are not religion: they just describe what religion is and how it works. This also means that it cannot lead the interreligious dialogue by itself, because it is not religion.
  • It cannot pray and heal: this only religious people can do.
  • It cannot lead us to God: this only faith can do.
  • It cannot be a foundation of mankind as a family under God: this only love can be.
  • It cannot keep open the doors of dialogue: this only hope can accomplish.

So there has to be a certain humility in Religious Studies. But on the other side deeply religious people sometimes think they can do without such studies. They sometimes think in simple faith that they have everything they need to cope with the problems of modernity, globalization, scientific progress, and perhaps even the ugly faces of materialism and atheism. In this they are wrong, as I believe. This is not just a question of intellectual honesty, but more of a willingness to face complexity and ambivalence. In other words: it is a question of avoiding the pitfalls of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism which today exists in every religion means giving much too easy answers to difficult questions. The tempting power of such answers is that they are not plain wrong, but that they are half-truths. Half-truth is always much more dangerous than error. If we want to be faithful to our religion we are not allowed not use all our intelligence, creativity, and ability to ask all kind of questions.

On the other side, it is not enough to speak up against religious violence. We have to understand it. It is not enough to conjure up the peacemaking potential of religions. We have to understand what makes religious communities peaceful and what makes them violent, because they have both options. For this Religious Studies can help. Some observations are basic: no peace without justice. No peace without mercy and forgiveness. No peace without giving things their proper name. No peace without the willingness just to hear the other side for a very long time. This is basic. But of course it is not enough. Religious Studies can help as already mentioned to understand the history of stereotypes. These stereotypes often are not lies: they are half-truths, and this is what makes them so dangerous.

The most useless figure of speech – and I take the liberty of speaking here quite frankly – is conjuring up an image of “true Christianity”, “true Judaism”, or “true Islam.” Peaceful people say “if my religion is understood truly, it contributes to peace.” But this does not and will not help anyone, because it does not say why other adherents of the same religion understand things otherwise. We have to do the painstaking and frustrating work of analysis and dialogue.

Allow me to share one last thought with you. Religious tolerance is easily invoked, but much more difficult to cultivate. Tolerance is easy when we just do not speak about those points about which we do not happen to have the same mind. Also we have missionary traditions that advertise what is dear to our heart. We will not be ashamed of such missionary endeavors, and it does not contradict the spirit of dialogue and tolerance. I have learned that both ridicule and too much politeness can be ways of evading dialogue. Dialogue is useless if we do not talk about those things that seem strange and perhaps even ridiculous to us in other religions. Do not let us cover that up with too much politeness and pathos of tolerance. I personally think what we need in interreligious dialogue is not so much tolerance: we usually already have that, at least when we go to conferences - but a culture of dialogue that does not evade the difficult points, that is willing also to hear exactly what is dear to heart of the other ones, and that allows us to express without fear what we really think. We certainly must develop a culture that seriously talks about traditional stereotypes.

Much work remains to be done, but we have many co-fighters in this cause, some here today in this very room.

Prof. Dr. Marco Frenschkowski is a German Protestant theologian, scholar of the history of religions, and a faculty member at the Universität Leipzig. He has published extensively in the fields of early Christianity, ancient religions, and new religious movements, and is a contributor to about 20 encyclopedias and works of reference including: Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (4th edition), Theologische Realenzyklopädie, Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Enzyklopädie des Märchens and others.


[1] “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” 1917.

[2] Alberuni´s India. 2 vols., London 1910, Reprinted in New Delhi 1983, Vol. 1, p. 7.

[3] Ibid., p. 6.

[4] Franz Rosenthal and Ehsan Yarshter, Eds., Al-Biruni between Greece and India, New York: Iran Center, Columbia University, 1976, p. 10.

[5] Tagebuch. Ed. by Alexander Scheiber, Leiden: Brill, 1978, p. 59.