Feb 16, 2007




Speech by HRH The Prince of Wales, at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on the occasion of his visit to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies: Wednesday 27 October 1993

Ladies and gentlemen, it was suggested to me when I first began to consider the subject of this lecture,
that I should take comfort from the Arab proverb,'In every head there is some wisdom'. I confess that
I have few qualifications as a scholar to justify my presence here, in this theatre, where so many
people much more learned than I have preached and generally advanced the sum of human
knowledge. I might feel more prepared if I were an offspring of your distinguished University, rather
than a product of that 'Technical College of the Fens' - though I hope you will bear in mind that a chair
of Arabic was established in 17th century Cambridge a full four years before your first chair of Arabic
at Oxford. Unlike many of you, I am not an expert on Islam - though I am delighted, for reasons
which I hope will become clear, to be a Vice Patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. The
Centre has the potential to be an important and exciting vehicle for promoting and improving
understanding of the Islamic world in Britain, and one which I hope will earn its place alongside other
centres of Islamic study in Oxford, like the Oriental Institute and the Middle East Centre, as an
institution of which the University, and scholars more widely, will become justly proud.

Given all the reservations I have about venturing into a complex and controversial field, you may well
ask why I am here in this marvellous Wren building talking to you on the subject of Islam and the
West. The reason is, ladies and gentlemen, that I believe wholeheartedly that the links between these
two worlds matter more today than ever before, because the degree of misunderstanding between the
Islamic and Western worlds remains dangerously high, and because the need for the two to live and
work together in our increasingly interdependent world has never been greater. At the same time I am
only too well aware of the minefields which lie across the path of the inexpert traveller who is bent on
exploring this difficult route. Some of what I shall say will undoubtedly provoke disagreement,
criticism, misunderstanding and probably worse. But perhaps, when all is said and done, it is worth
recalling another Arab proverb: 'What comes from the lips reaches the ears. What comes from the
heart reaches the heart.

The depressing fact is that, despite the advances in technology and mass communications of the
second half of the 20th Century, despite mass travel, the intermingling of races, the ever growing
reduction - or so we believe - of the mysteries of our world, misunderstandings between Islam and the
West continue. Indeed, they may be growing. As far as the West is concerned, this cannot be because
of ignorance. There are one billion Muslims worldwide. Many millions of them live in countries of the
Commonwealth. Ten million or more live in the West, and around one million in Britain. Our own
Islamic community has been growing and flourishing for decades. There are nearly 500 mosques in
Britain. Popular interest in Islamic culture in Britain is growing fast. Many of you will recall - and I
think some of you took part in - the wonderful Festival of Islam which Her Majesty The Queen
opened in 1976. Islam is all around us. And yet distrust, even fear, persist. In the post-Cold War
world of the 1990s, the prospects for peace should be greater than at any time in this century. In the
Middle East, the remarkable and encouraging events of recent weeks have created new hope for an
end to an issue which has divided the world and been so dramatic a source of violence and hatred.
But the dangers have not disappeared.

In the Muslim world, we are seeing the unique way of life of the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq,
thousands of years old, being systematically devastated and destroyed. I confess that for a whole year
I have wanted to find a suitable opportunity to express my despair and outrage at the unmentionable
horrors being perpetrated in Southern Iraq. To me, the supreme and tragic irony of what has been
happening to the Shia population of Iraq - especially in the ancient city and holy shrine of Kerbala - is
that after the Western allies took immense care to avoid bombing such holy places (and I remember
begging General Schwarzkopf when I met him in Riyadh in December 1990 to do his best to protect
such shrines during any conflict) it was Saddam Hussein himself, and his terrifying regime, who caused
the destruction of some of Islam's holiest sites. And now we have had to witness the deliberate
draining of the marshes and the near total destruction of a unique habitat, together with an entire
population that has depended upon it since the dawn of human civilization. The international
community has been told the draining of the marshes is for agricultural purposes. How many more
obscenities do we have to be told before action is taken? Even at the eleventh hour it is still not too
late to prevent a total cataclysm. I pray that this might at least be a cause in which Islam and the West
could join forces for the sake of our common humanity. I have highlighted this particular example
because it is so avoidable. Elsewhere, the violence and hatred are more intractable and deep-seated,
as we go on seeing every day to our horror in the wretched suffering of peoples across the world - in
the former Yugoslavia, in Somalia, Angola, Sudan, in so many of the former Soviet Republics. In
Yugoslavia the terrible sufferings of the Bosnian Muslims,alongside that of other communities in that
cruel war, help keep alive many of the fears and prejudices which our two worlds retain of each
other.Conflict, of course, comes about because of the misuse of power and the clash of ideals, not to
mention the inflammatory activities of unscrupulous and bigoted leaders. But it also arises, tragically,
from an inability to understand, and from the powerful emotions which out of misunderstanding lead to
distrust and fear. Ladies and gentlemen, we must not slide into a new era of danger and division
because governments and peoples, communities and religions, cannot live together in peace in a
shrinking world.

It is odd, in many ways, that misunderstandings between Islam and the West should persist. For that
which binds our two worlds together is so much more powerful than that which divides us. Muslims,
Christians - and Jews - are all 'peoples of the Book'. Islam and Christianity share a
common monotheistic vision: a belief in one divine God, in the transience of our earthly life, in our
accountability for our actions, and in the assurance of life to come. We share many key values in
common: respect for knowledge,for justice, compassion towards the poor and underprivileged, the
importance of family life, respect for parents. 'Honour thy father and thy mother is a Quranic precept
too. Our history has been closely bound up together.There, however, is one root of the problem. For
much of that history has been one of conflict: fourteen centuries too often marked by mutual
hostility.That has given rise to an enduring tradition of fear and distrust, because our two worlds have
so often seen that past in contradictory ways. To Western school children, the two hundred years of
Crusades are traditionally seen as a series of heroic, chivalrous exploits in which the kings,
knights,princes - and children - of Europe tried to wrest Jerusalem from the wicked Muslim infidel. To
Muslims, the Crusades were an episode of great cruelty and terrible plunder, of Western infidel
soldiers of fortune and horrific atrocities, perhaps exemplified best by the massacres committed by
the Crusaders when, in 1099, they took back Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam. For us in the
West, 1492 speaks of human endeavour and new horizons,of Columbus and the discovery of the
Americas. To Muslims, 1492 is a year of tragedy - the year Granada fell to Ferdinand and Isabella,
signifying the end of eight centuries of Muslim civilisation in Europe. The point,I think, is not that one or
other picture is more true, or has a monopoly of truth. It is that misunderstandings arise when we fail to
appreciate how others look at the world, its history, and our respective roles in it.

The corollary of how we in the West see our history has so often been to regard Islam as a threat - in
mediaeval times as a military conqueror,and in more modern times as a source of intolerance,
extremism and terrorism.One can understand how the taking of Constantinople, when it fell to
Sultan Mehmet in 1453, and the close-run defeats of the Turks outside Vienna in1529 and 1683,
should have sent shivers of fear through Europe's rulers.The history of the Balkans under Ottoman rule
provided examples of cruelty which sank deep into Western feelings. But the threat has not been
one way. With Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, followed by the invasions and conquests of the
19th century, the pendulum swung, and almost all the Arab world became occupied by the Western
powers. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Europe's triumph over Islam seemed complete. Those
daysof conquest are over. But even now our common attitude to Islam suffers because the way we
understand it has been hijacked by the extreme and the superficial. To many of us in the West, Islam is
seen in terms of the tragic civil war in Lebanon, the killings and bombings perpetrated by
extremist groups in the Middle East, and by what is commonly referred to as 'Islamic fundamentalism'.
Our judgement of Islam has been grossly distorted by taking the extremes to be the norm. That, ladies
and gentlemen, is a serious mistake.It is like judging the quality of life in Britain by the existence of
murder and rape, child abuse and drug addition. The extremes exist, and they must be dealt with. But
when used as a basis to judge a society, they lead to distortion and unfairness.

For example, people in this country frequently argue that the Sharia law of the Islamic world is cruel,
barbaric and unjust. Our newspapers,above all, love to peddle those unthinking prejudices. The truth
is, of course, different and always more complex. My own understanding is that extremes, like the
cutting off of hands, are rarely practised. The guiding principle and spirit of Islamic law, taken straight
from the Qur'an, should be those of equity and compassion. We need to study its actual
applicationbefore we make judgements. We must distinguish between systems of justice administered
with integrity, and systems of justice as we may see them practised which have been deformed for
political reasons into something no longer Islamic. We must bear in mind the sharp debate taking place
in the Islamic world itself about the extent of the universality or timelessness of Sharia law, and the
degree to which the application of that law is continually changing and evolving.

We should also distinguish Islam from the customs of some Islamic states.Another obvious Western
prejudice is to judge the position of women in Islamic society by the extreme cases. Yet Islam is not a
monolith and the picture is not simple. Remember, if you will, that Islamic countries like Turkey, Egypt
and Syria gave women the vote as early as Europe did its women - and much earlier than in
Switzerland! In those countries women have long enjoyed equal pay, and the opportunity to play a full
working role in their societies. The rights of Muslim women to property and inheritance,to some
protection if divorced, and to the conducting of business, were rights prescribed by the Qur'an twelve
hundred years ago, even if they were not everywhere translated into practice. In Britain at least,
some of these rights were novel even to my grandmother's generation! Benazir Bhutto and Begum
Khaleda Zia became prime ministers in their own traditional societies when Britain had for the first time
ever in its history elected a female prime minister. That, I think, does not smack of a mediaeval
society.Women are not automatically second-class citizens because they live in Islamic countries. We
cannot judge the position of women in Islam aright if we take the most conservative Islamic states as
representative of the whole. For example, the veiling of women is not at all universal across the Islamic
world. Indeed, I was intrigued to learn that the custom of wearing the veil owed much to Byzantine and
Sassanain traditions, nothing to the Prophet of Islam. Some Muslim women never adopted the veil,
othershave discarded it, others - particularly the younger generation - have more recently chosen to
wear the veil or the headscarf as a personal statement of their Muslim identity. But we should not
confuse the modesty of dress prescribed by the Qur'an for men as well as women with the outward
Forms of secular custom or social status which have their origins elsewhere.

We in the West need also to understand the Islamic world's view of us.There is nothing to be gained,
and much harm to be done, by refusing to comprehend the extent to which many people in the Islamic
world genuinely fear our own Western materialism and mass culture as a deadly challenge to their
Islamic culture and way of life. Some of us may think the material trappings of Western society which
we have exported to the Islamic world- television, fast-food, and the electronic gadgets of our
everyday lives- are a modernising, self-evidently good, influence. But we fall into the trap of dreadful
arrogance if we confuse 'modernity' in other countries with their becoming more like us. The fact is that
our form of materialism can be offensive to devout Muslims - and I do not just mean the
extremists among them. We must understand that reaction, just as the West's attitude to some of the
more rigorous aspects of Islamic life needs to be understood in the Islamic world. This, I believe,
would help us understand what we have commonly come to see as the threat of Islamic
fundamentalism. We . be careful of that emotive label, 'fundamentalism', and distinguish,as
Muslims do, between revivalists, who choose to take the practice of their religion most devoutly, and
fanatics or extremists who use this devotion for political ends. Among the many religious, social and
political causes of what we might more accurately call the Islamic revival is a powerful feeling of
disenchantment, of the realisation that Western technology and material things are insufficient, and that
a deeper meaning to life lies elsewhere in the essence of Islamic belief.

At the same time, we must not be tempted to believe that extremism is in some way the hallmark and
essence of the Muslim. Extremism is no more the monopoly of Islam than it is the monopoly of other
religions, including Christianity. The vast majority of Muslims, though personally pious, are moderate in
their politics. Theirs is the 'religion of the middle way'.The Prophet himself always disliked and feared
extremism. Perhaps the fear of Islamic revivalism which coloured the 1980's is now beginning to
give away in the West to an understanding of the genuine spiritual forces behind this groundswell. But if
we are to understand this important movement,we must learn to distinguish clearly between what the
vast majority of Muslims believe and the terrible violence of a small minority among them which civilized
people everywhere must condemn.

Ladies and gentlemen, if there is much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there is
also much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilisation owe to the Islamic world. It is a
failure which stems, I think, from the straightjacket of history which we haveinherited. The mediaeval
Islamic world, from Central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic, was a world where scholars and men of
learning flourished.But because we have tended to see Islam as the enemy of the West, as an alien
culture, society and system of belief, we have tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to our own
history. For example, we have underestimated the importance of 800 years of Islamic society and
culture in Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries. The contribution of Muslim Spain to the
preservation of classical learning during the Dark Ages, and to the first flowerings of the Renaissance,
has long been recognised. But Islamic Spain was much more than a mere larder where Hellenistic
knowledge was kept for later consumption by the emerging modern Western world. Not only did
Muslim Spain gather and preserve the intellectual content of ancient Greek and Roman civilisation, it
also interpreted and expanded upon that civilisation,and made a vital contribution of its own in so
many fields of human endeavour- in science, astronomy, mathematics, algebra (itself an Arabic
word),law, history, medicine, pharmacology, optics, agriculture, architecture,theology, music.
Averroes and Avenzoor, like their counterparts Avicenna and Rhazes in the East, contributed to the
study and practice of medicine in ways from which Europe benefited for centuries afterwards.

Islam nurtured and preserved the quest for learning. In the words of the tradition, 'the ink of the scholar
is more sacred than the blood of the martyr'. Cordoba in the 10th century was by far the most
civilised city of Europe. We know of lending libraries in Spain at the time King Alfred was making
terrible blunders with the culinary arts in this country.It is said that the 400,000 volumes in its ruler's
library amounted to more books than all the libraries of the rest of Europe put together. That was made
possible because the Muslim world acquired from China the skill of making paper more than four
hundred years before the rest of non-Muslim Europe. Many of the traits on which modern Europe
prides itself came to it from Muslim Spain. Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques of
academic research, of anthropology, etiquette, fashion, alternative medicine, hospitals, all came from
this great city of cities. Mediaeval Islam was a religion of remarkable tolerance for its time, allowing
Jews and Christians the right to practise their inherited beliefs, and setting an example which was not,
unfortunately, copied for many centuries in the West. The surprise, ladies and gentlemen, is the extent
to which Islam has been a part of Europe for so long, first in Spain, then in the Balkans,and the extent
to which it has contributed so much towards the civilisation which we all too often think of, wrongly, as
entirely Western. Islam is part of our past and present, in all fields of human endeavour. It has helped to
create modern Europe. It is part of our own inheritance, not a thing apart.

More than this, Islam can teach us today a way of understanding and living in the world which
Christianity itself is poorer for having lost.At the heart of Islam is its preservation of an integral view of
the Universe.Islam - like Buddhism and Hinduism - refuses to separate man and nature,religion and
science, mind and matter, and has preserved a metaphysical and unified view of ourselves and the
world around us. At the core ofChristianity there still lies an integral view of the sanctity of the world,
and a clear sense of the trusteeship and responsibility given to us for our natural surroundings. In the
words of that marvellous seventeenth century poet and hymn writer, George Herbert: 'A man that
looks on glass, on it may stay his eye, Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, and then the heaven espy.'

But the West gradually lost this integrated vision of the world with Copernicus and Descartes and the
coming of the scientific revolution. A comprehensive philosophy of nature is no longer part of our
everyday beliefs.I cannot help feeling that, if we could now only rediscover that earlier,all-embracing
approach to the world around us, to see and understand its deeper meaning, we could begin to get
away from the increasing tendencyin the West to live on the surface of our surroundings, where we
studyour world in order to manipulate and dominate it, turning harmony and beauty into disequilibrium
and chaos. It is a sad fact, I believe, that in so many ways the external world we have created in the
last few hundred year has come to reflect our own divided and confused inner state.
Western civilisation has become increasingly acquisitive and exploitive in defiance of our environmental
responsibilities. This crucial sense of oneness and trusteeship of the vital sacramental and spiritual
character of the world about us is surely something important we can relearn from Islam. I am quite
sure some will instantly accuse me, as they usually do, of living in the past, of refusing to come to terms
with reality and modern life. On the contrary, ladies and gentlemen, what I am appealing for is a wider,
deeper, more careful understanding of our world: for a metaphysical as well as material dimension to
our lives, in order to recover the balance we have abandoned, the absence of which, I believe, will
prove disastrous in the long term. If the ways of thought in Islam and other religions can help us in that
search, then there are things for us to learn in this system of belief which I suggest we ignore at our peril.

Ladies and gentlemen, we live today in one world, forged by instant communications, by television, by
the exchange of information on a scale undreamed of by our grandparents. The world economy
functions as an inter-dependant entity. Problems of society, the quality of life and the environment,
are global in their causes and effects, and none of us any longer has the luxury of being able to solve
them on our own. The Islamic and Western worlds share problems common to us all: how we adapt to
change in our societies,how we help young people who feel alienated from their parents or
society's values, how we deal with Aids, drugs, and the disintegration of the family.Of course, these
problems vary in nature and intensity between societies.But the similarity of human experience is
considerable. The international trade in hard drugs is one example, the damage we are collectively
doing to our environment is another. We have to solve these threats to our communities and our lives
together. Simply getting to know each other can achieve wonders.I remember vividly, for example,
taking a group of Muslims and non-Muslims some years ago to see the work of the Marylebone
Health Centre in London,of which I am patron. The enthusiasm and common determination that
shared experience generated was immensely heart-warming. Ladies and gentleman,somehow we have
to learn to understand each other, and to educate our children- a new generation - whose attitudes
and cultural outlook may be different from ours so that they understand too. We have to show trust,
mutual respect and tolerance, if we are to find the common ground between us and work together to
find solutions. The community enterprise approach of my own Trust, and the very successful
Volunteers Scheme it has run for some years,show how much can be achieved by a common effort
which spans the classes,cultures and religions. The Islamic and Western world can no longer afford to
stand apart from a common effort to solve their common problems. We cannot afford to revive the
territorial and political confrontations of the past. We have to share experiences, to explain ourselves to
each other,to understand and tolerate, and build on the positive principles our culture shave in
common. That trade has to be two-way. Each of us needs to understand the importance of
conciliation, of reflection - TADABBUR - to open our minds and unlock our hearts to each other. I
am utterly convinced that the Islamic and Western worlds have much to learn from each other. Justas
the oil engineer in the Gulf may be European, so the heart transplant surgeon in Britain may be

If this need for tolerance and exchange is true internationally, it applies with special force within Britain
itself. Britain is a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. I have already mentioned the size of our
own Muslim communities who live throughout Britain, both in large towns like Bradford and in tiny
communities in places as remote as Stornaway in Western Scotland. These people, ladies and
gentlemen, are an asset to Britain.They contribute to all parts of our economy - to industry, the public
services,the professions and the private sector. We find them as teachers, doctors,engineers and
scientists. They contribute to our economic well-being as a country, and add to the cultural richness of
our nation. Of course, tolerance and understanding must be two-way. for those of us who are not
Muslim,that may mean respect for the daily practice of the Islamic faith and a decent care to avoid
actions which are likely to cause deep offence. For the Muslims in our society, there is a need to
respect the history, culture and way of life of our country, and to balance their vital liberty to
be themselves with an appreciation of the importance of integration in our society. Where there are
failings of understanding and tolerance, we have a need, on our own doorstep, for greater
reconciliation among our own citizens.I can only admire, and applaud, those men and women of so
many denominations who work tirelessly, in London, South Wales, the Midlands and elsewhere,to
promote good community relations. The Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations
in Birmingham is one especially notable and successful example. We should be grateful for the
dedication and example of all those who have devoted themselves to the cause of
promoting understanding.

Ladies and gentlemen, if, in the last half hour, your eyes have wandered up to the marvellous allegory
of Truth descending on the arts and sciences in Sir Robert Streeter's ceiling above you, I am sure you
will have noticed Ignorance being violently banished from the arena - just there in front of the organ
casing. I feel some sympathy for Ignorance, and hope I maybe able to vacate this theatre in somewhat
better condition. Before I go,I cannot put to you strongly enough the importance of the issues which I
have tried to touch on so imperfectly. These two worlds, the Islamic and the Western, are at something
of a crossroads in their relations. We must not let them stand apart. I do not accept the argument that
they are on a course to clash in a new era of antagonism. I am utterly convinced that our two worlds
have much to offer each other. We have much to do together.I am delighted that the dialogue has
begun, both in Britain and elsewhere.But we shall need to work harder to understand each other, to
drain out any poison between us, and to lay the ghost of suspicion and fear. The further down that road
we can travel, the better the world that we shall create for our children and for future generations.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...