In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s address in Germany last month, it is useful to recapitulate the views of a 10th-century Muslim historian by the name of al-Masudi on the relationship between faith and reason.

In a famous historical work, Masudi wrote that the Byzantine Christians of his time were suffering civilisational decline because they had rejected the pagan Greek sciences as incompatible with Christianity. In contrast, he wrote that Muslim civilisation was prospering because it had assimilated ancient learning and built on it.

Some of the best-known philosophers of the medieval period — Avicenna, Averroes, al-Farabi — were Muslims, and their thought was influential in medieval Europe, too. Without the diffusion of this intellectual and cultural legacy, there may well have been no European Renaissance!

In other words, it were the Muslims who had successfully blended faith with reason and left the Christians behind. As such, it is highly ironic that the pope would use the words of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor to redirect the same accusation at Muslims in the 21st century. There is a danger when any person argues that his own religion and civilisation have

a monopoly on reason and have effected the best synthesis between faith and reason. Such triumphalism is a serious impediment to dialogue and any kind of sustained civil discourse. If dialogue is what the pope sought, implying the superiority of Western civilisation and its supposedly unique values is a nonstarter. Dialogue is better served through the humble acknowledgment of commonalities, of one’s own sins, and of one’s connectedness to the other. It is also served by setting the record straight. Muslims have subscribed to a variety of views on the relationship between faith and reason.

Two main trends remain influential within Sunni Muslim theology today. One is represented by the Ashari school of thought, which maintains that faith or revelation always trumps reason. The other is represented by the Maturidi school, which holds that reason, independent of revelation, can arrive at the same truths. Both camps are considered orthodox within Sunni Islam, with Maturidi thought gaining ground. One cannot, therefore, portray Islam as preferring faith over reason or vice versa. Nor can one portray Christianity, or any other faith tradition, in this manner.

The key to getting along is to learn the truth about one another and avoid trading in pernicious stereotypes. Professor Richard Bulliet of Columbia University has recently coined the term “Islamo-Christian civilisation” to describe our shared heritage. Religious groups can limit extremism by uniting on common social causes: eradicating global poverty, promoting human dignity, reinserting moral and ethical values in the public sphere and in international diplomacy, and holding our leaders accountable to such values. It is on such common ground that diverse groups of people, faith-based and secular, can come together. — The Christian Science Monitor