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Facing Islam

Religion | Desperate times generate desperate responses. In 1453 Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell to the Turks. In 2001 the Twin Towers fell to terrorists. During the decade after the conquest of Constantinople some in Europe stressed the need for stronger military forces and others the need for stronger Christian faith, but some looked for ways to make theological peace with what appeared to be unstoppable Muslim force. Today, the same three sets of attitudes are evident, as a new book shows

Issue: "2008 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 13, 2008

In 1453 much of Europe mourned. When the news of Constantinople's fall reached Venice, "a great and excessive crying broke out, weeping, groaning . . . everyone beating their chests with their fists." Frederick III, the Holy Roman Emperor, wept. Christian I, king of Denmark and Norway, called the Turkish conqueror, Mehmet, the beast described in the book of Revelation. Diplomat Aeneas Sylvias Piccolomini wrote to Pope Nicholas V about the "frightening news . . . these matters press upon and overwhelm my heart, most Holy Father. I see belief and truth wiped out at the same time."

On the winning side, some Middle Eastern crowds celebrated much as their descendants did on 9/11. When Cairo received the news that Constantinople's walls were breached and thousands of its residents killed, one Muslim wrote that "the good news was sounded by the bands each morning . . . people celebrated by decorating shops and houses most extravagantly." Mehmet sent round to leading Muslim cities what he believed was the head of Constantine, the last Byzantine emperor, stuffed with straw. He also sent 1,200 Greek children as slaves to Muslim rulers in Egypt, Tunis, and Spain.

Christian leaders in 1453 immediately began debating how they should respond. Spanish bishop John of Segovia argued that it was futile to confront Islam militarily: He argued that Muslims were good at holy wars and Christians were not. John also said he could not recommend the sending of missionaries, since Muslims would not allow them. The only alternative was for Christian and Muslim leaders to meet and see if what they agreed on was greater than their differences.

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German Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa also pushed that point; as R.W. Southern writes in Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, "Nicholas of Cusa and John of Segovia stand out as dramatic exceptions to the accepted view that Islam and its prophet were not of God." Nicholas in 1453 wrote De Pace Fidei-The Peace of Faith-which suggests that Christians think about Islam not in terms of conversion or mission, but in terms of merged understanding.

An English translation of De Pace Fidei is available online, so readers themselves can assess the audacity of Nicholas' hope, but here's an example: If Muslims rebel against the doctrine of the Trinity, explain that they represent unity, equality, and connection. Southern's summary is good: "Even this seemingly insoluble difficulty all but vanishes before the deft reductionist wand" of Nicholas and his "humanistic universalism."

As De Pace Fidei continues, Cusa argues that the Quran itself attributes to Jesus supernatural wisdom and miraculous ability, so Islam and Christianity share a faith in Jesus: Muslims "acknowledge that Christ has resuscitated the dead and created birds from clay. . . . On this basis they can very easily be won over, since it cannot be denied that he has done this in the strength of the divine nature." People of all religions "worship the one God" and are in "concord," even though theologians don't realize it.

Nicholas in 1453 suggested that all the world needed were wise leaders to teach their people and finally meet in Jerusalem where all faiths will be unified and peace will be everlasting. He backed away a bit from that optimism in 1461, when he wrote a sequel titled Cribratio Alkorani, or Scrutiny of the Quran-but he continued to emphasize Islam's monotheism and to argue that Muslims should be applauded for having left idolatry. In scholar Nancy Bisaha's summary, Nicholas challenged "dismissive Christian insights. [He] viewed Islam as a monotheistic faith and an instrument of providence."

That same year the diplomat Piccolomini, who had become Pope Pius II, sent a letter to Mehmet suggesting that the Turkish sultan could become ruler of the East without any contest from Christians: Rather than changing his beliefs, he only had to submit to "a few drops of water" within the ceremony of baptism. Historians today wonder whether the pope was serious, but Papal Secretary George of Trebizond apparently believed that Mehmet could "use his imperial might to unite Christianity and Islam in a single faith."

Desperate times bring desperate proposals: Pius II had convened a council in 1459 with the goal of building a unified strategy against Islamic invasion, but no ruler attended and nothing happened. Everyone had an excuse: England had civil war (The War of the Roses), Spaniards were fighting Muslims on their own peninsula, France was recovering from its warfare with England, and so forth. Meanwhile, Muslims advanced in southeastern Europe and European governments (Venice, for example) made their own deals with what seemed like an unstoppable force. Pope Pius may have felt he had no choice in 1461 but to offer a deal.

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