Apr 12, 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 thatI have few qualifications as a scholar to justify my presence here, in this theatre, where so manypeople much more learned than I have preached and generally advanced the sum of humanknowledge. I might feel more prepared if I were an offspring of your distinguished University, ratherthan a product of that 'Technical College of the Fens' - though I hope you will bear in mind that a chairof Arabic was established in 17th century Cambridge a full four years before your first chair of Arabicat Oxford. Unlike many of you, I am not an expert on Islam - though I am delighted, for reasonswhich I hope will become clear, to be a Vice Patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. TheCentre has the potential to be an important and exciting vehicle for promoting and improvingunderstanding of the Islamic world in Britain, and one which I hope will earn its place alongside othercentres of Islamic study in Oxford, like the Oriental Institute and the Middle East Centre, as aninstitution 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 wellask why I am here in this marvellous Wren building talking to you on the subject of Islam and theWest. The reason is, ladies and gentlemen, that I believe wholeheartedly that the links between thesetwo worlds matter more today than ever before, because the degree of misunderstanding between theIslamic and Western worlds remains dangerously high, and because the need for the two to live andwork together in our increasingly interdependent world has never been greater. At the same time I amonly too well aware of the minefields which lie across the path of the inexpert traveller who is bent onexploring 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 worthrecalling another Arab proverb: 'What comes from the lips reaches the ears. What comes from theheart reaches the heart. The depressing fact is that, despite the advances in technology and mass communications of thesecond half of the 20th Century, despite mass travel, the intermingling of races, the ever growingreduction - or so we believe - of the mysteries of our world, misunderstandings between Islam and theWest continue. Indeed, they may be growing. As far as the West is concerned, this cannot be becauseof ignorance. There are one billion Muslims worldwide. Many millions of them live in countries of theCommonwealth. Ten million or more live in the West, and around one million in Britain. Our ownIslamic community has been growing and flourishing for decades. There are nearly 500 mosques inBritain. Popular interest in Islamic culture in Britain is growing fast. Many of you will recall - and Ithink some of you took part in - the wonderful Festival of Islam which Her Majesty The Queenopened in 1976. Islam is all around us. And yet distrust, even fear, persist. In the post-Cold Warworld of the 1990s, the prospects for peace should be greater than at any time in this century. In theMiddle East, the remarkable and encouraging events of recent weeks have created new hope for anend 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 yearI have wanted to find a suitable opportunity to express my despair and outrage at the unmentionablehorrors being perpetrated in Southern Iraq. To me, the supreme and tragic irony of what has beenhappening to the Shia population of Iraq - especially in the ancient city and holy shrine of Kerbala - isthat after the Western allies took immense care to avoid bombing such holy places (and I rememberbegging General Schwarzkopf when I met him in Riyadh in December 1990 to do his best to protectsuch shrines during any conflict) it was Saddam Hussein himself, and his terrifying regime, who causedthe destruction of some of Islam's holiest sites. And now we have had to witness the deliberatedraining of the marshes and the near total destruction of a unique habitat, together with an entirepopulation that has depended upon it since the dawn of human civilization. The internationalcommunity has been told the draining of the marshes is for agricultural purposes. How many moreobscenities do we have to be told before action is taken? Even at the eleventh hour it is still not toolate to prevent a total cataclysm. I pray that this might at least be a cause in which Islam and the Westcould join forces for the sake of our common humanity. I have highlighted this particular examplebecause 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 - inthe former Yugoslavia, in Somalia, Angola, Sudan, in so many of the former Soviet Republics. InYugoslavia the terrible sufferings of the Bosnian Muslims,alongside that of other communities in thatcruel war, help keep alive many of the fears and prejudices which our two worlds retain of eachother.Conflict, of course, comes about because of the misuse of power and the clash of ideals, not tomention 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 todistrust and fear. Ladies and gentlemen, we must not slide into a new era of danger and divisionbecause governments and peoples, communities and religions, cannot live together in peace in ashrinking world.It is odd, in many ways, that misunderstandings between Islam and the West should persist. For thatwhich 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 acommon monotheistic vision: a belief in one divine God, in the transience of our earthly life, in ouraccountability for our actions, and in the assurance of life to come. We share many key values incommon: respect for knowledge,for justice, compassion towards the poor and underprivileged, theimportance of family life, respect for parents. 'Honour thy father and thy mother is a Quranic precepttoo. Our history has been closely bound up together.There, however, is one root of the problem. Formuch of that history has been one of conflict: fourteen centuries too often marked by mutualhostility.That has given rise to an enduring tradition of fear and distrust, because our two worlds haveso often seen that past in contradictory ways. To Western school children, the two hundred years ofCrusades 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. ToMuslims, the Crusades were an episode of great cruelty and terrible plunder, of Western infidelsoldiers of fortune and horrific atrocities, perhaps exemplified best by the massacres committed bythe Crusaders when, in 1099, they took back Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam. For us in theWest, 1492 speaks of human endeavour and new horizons,of Columbus and the discovery of theAmericas. 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 orother picture is more true, or has a monopoly of truth. It is that misunderstandings arise when we fail toappreciate 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 - inmediaeval 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 toSultan 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 ruleprovided examples of cruelty which sank deep into Western feelings. But the threat has not beenone way. With Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, followed by the invasions and conquests of the19th century, the pendulum swung, and almost all the Arab world became occupied by the Westernpowers. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Europe's triumph over Islam seemed complete. Thosedaysof conquest are over. But even now our common attitude to Islam suffers because the way weunderstand it has been hijacked by the extreme and the superficial. To many of us in the West, Islam isseen in terms of the tragic civil war in Lebanon, the killings and bombings perpetrated byextremist 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, ladiesand gentlemen, is a serious mistake.It is like judging the quality of life in Britain by the existence ofmurder and rape, child abuse and drug addition. The extremes exist, and they must be dealt with. Butwhen 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 truthis, of course, different and always more complex. My own understanding is that extremes, like thecutting off of hands, are rarely practised. The guiding principle and spirit of Islamic law, taken straightfrom the Qur'an, should be those of equity and compassion. We need to study its actualapplicationbefore we make judgements. We must distinguish between systems of justice administeredwith integrity, and systems of justice as we may see them practised which have been deformed forpolitical reasons into something no longer Islamic. We must bear in mind the sharp debate taking placein the Islamic world itself about the extent of the universality or timelessness of Sharia law, and thedegree 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 Westernprejudice is to judge the position of women in Islamic society by the extreme cases. Yet Islam is not amonolith and the picture is not simple. Remember, if you will, that Islamic countries like Turkey, Egyptand Syria gave women the vote as early as Europe did its women - and much earlier than inSwitzerland! In those countries women have long enjoyed equal pay, and the opportunity to play a fullworking role in their societies. The rights of Muslim women to property and inheritance,to someprotection if divorced, and to the conducting of business, were rights prescribed by the Qur'an twelvehundred 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 BegumKhaleda Zia became prime ministers in their own traditional societies when Britain had for the first timeever in its history elected a female prime minister. That, I think, does not smack of a mediaevalsociety.Women are not automatically second-class citizens because they live in Islamic countries. Wecannot judge the position of women in Islam aright if we take the most conservative Islamic states asrepresentative of the whole. For example, the veiling of women is not at all universal across the Islamicworld. Indeed, I was intrigued to learn that the custom of wearing the veil owed much to Byzantine andSassanain 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 towear the veil or the headscarf as a personal statement of their Muslim identity. But we should notconfuse the modesty of dress prescribed by the Qur'an for men as well as women with the outwardForms 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 Islamicworld genuinely fear our own Western materialism and mass culture as a deadly challenge to theirIslamic culture and way of life. Some of us may think the material trappings of Western society whichwe have exported to the Islamic world- television, fast-food, and the electronic gadgets of oureveryday lives- are a modernising, self-evidently good, influence. But we fall into the trap of dreadfularrogance if we confuse 'modernity' in other countries with their becoming more like us. The fact is thatour form of materialism can be offensive to devout Muslims - and I do not just mean theextremists among them. We must understand that reaction, just as the West's attitude to some of themore 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 Islamicfundamentalism. We . be careful of that emotive label, 'fundamentalism', and distinguish,asMuslims do, between revivalists, who choose to take the practice of their religion most devoutly, andfanatics or extremists who use this devotion for political ends. Among the many religious, social andpolitical causes of what we might more accurately call the Islamic revival is a powerful feeling ofdisenchantment, of the realisation that Western technology and material things are insufficient, and thata 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 andessence of the Muslim. Extremism is no more the monopoly of Islam than it is the monopoly of otherreligions, including Christianity. The vast majority of Muslims, though personally pious, are moderate intheir politics. Theirs is the 'religion of the middle way'.The Prophet himself always disliked and fearedextremism. Perhaps the fear of Islamic revivalism which coloured the 1980's is now beginning togive away in the West to an understanding of the genuine spiritual forces behind this groundswell. But ifwe are to understand this important movement,we must learn to distinguish clearly between what thevast majority of Muslims believe and the terrible violence of a small minority among them which civilizedpeople everywhere must condemn.Ladies and gentlemen, if there is much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there isalso much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilisation owe to the Islamic world. It is afailure which stems, I think, from the straightjacket of history which we haveinherited. The mediaevalIslamic world, from Central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic, was a world where scholars and men oflearning flourished.But because we have tended to see Islam as the enemy of the West, as an alienculture, society and system of belief, we have tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to our ownhistory. For example, we have underestimated the importance of 800 years of Islamic society andculture in Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries. The contribution of Muslim Spain to thepreservation 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 Hellenisticknowledge was kept for later consumption by the emerging modern Western world. Not only didMuslim Spain gather and preserve the intellectual content of ancient Greek and Roman civilisation, italso interpreted and expanded upon that civilisation,and made a vital contribution of its own in somany fields of human endeavour- in science, astronomy, mathematics, algebra (itself an Arabicword),law, history, medicine, pharmacology, optics, agriculture, architecture,theology, music.Averroes and Avenzoor, like their counterparts Avicenna and Rhazes in the East, contributed to thestudy 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 scholaris more sacred than the blood of the martyr'. Cordoba in the 10th century was by far the mostcivilised city of Europe. We know of lending libraries in Spain at the time King Alfred was makingterrible blunders with the culinary arts in this country.It is said that the 400,000 volumes in its ruler'slibrary amounted to more books than all the libraries of the rest of Europe put together. That was madepossible because the Muslim world acquired from China the skill of making paper more than fourhundred years before the rest of non-Muslim Europe. Many of the traits on which modern Europeprides itself came to it from Muslim Spain. Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques ofacademic research, of anthropology, etiquette, fashion, alternative medicine, hospitals, all came fromthis great city of cities. Mediaeval Islam was a religion of remarkable tolerance for its time, allowingJews 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 extentto which Islam has been a part of Europe for so long, first in Spain, then in the Balkans,and the extentto which it has contributed so much towards the civilisation which we all too often think of, wrongly, asentirely Western. Islam is part of our past and present, in all fields of human endeavour. It has helped tocreate 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 whichChristianity itself is poorer for having lost.At the heart of Islam is its preservation of an integral view ofthe Universe.Islam - like Buddhism and Hinduism - refuses to separate man and nature,religion andscience, mind and matter, and has preserved a metaphysical and unified view of ourselves and theworld 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 thewords of that marvellous seventeenth century poet and hymn writer, George Herbert: 'A man thatlooks 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 thecoming of the scientific revolution. A comprehensive philosophy of nature is no longer part of oureveryday beliefs.I cannot help feeling that, if we could now only rediscover that earlier,all-embracingapproach to the world around us, to see and understand its deeper meaning, we could begin to getaway from the increasing tendencyin the West to live on the surface of our surroundings, where westudyour world in order to manipulate and dominate it, turning harmony and beauty into disequilibriumand chaos. It is a sad fact, I believe, that in so many ways the external world we have created in thelast 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 environmentalresponsibilities. This crucial sense of oneness and trusteeship of the vital sacramental and spiritualcharacter of the world about us is surely something important we can relearn from Islam. I am quitesure some will instantly accuse me, as they usually do, of living in the past, of refusing to come to termswith 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 toour lives, in order to recover the balance we have abandoned, the absence of which, I believe, willprove disastrous in the long term. If the ways of thought in Islam and other religions can help us in thatsearch, 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, bythe exchange of information on a scale undreamed of by our grandparents. The world economyfunctions 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 solvethem on our own. The Islamic and Western worlds share problems common to us all: how we adapt tochange in our societies,how we help young people who feel alienated from their parents orsociety's values, how we deal with Aids, drugs, and the disintegration of the family.Of course, theseproblems vary in nature and intensity between societies.But the similarity of human experience isconsiderable. The international trade in hard drugs is one example, the damage we are collectivelydoing to our environment is another. We have to solve these threats to our communities and our livestogether. 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 MaryleboneHealth Centre in London,of which I am patron. The enthusiasm and common determination thatshared experience generated was immensely heart-warming. Ladies and gentleman,somehow we haveto learn to understand each other, and to educate our children- a new generation - whose attitudesand 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 tofind solutions. The community enterprise approach of my own Trust, and the very successfulVolunteers Scheme it has run for some years,show how much can be achieved by a common effortwhich spans the classes,cultures and religions. The Islamic and Western world can no longer afford tostand apart from a common effort to solve their common problems. We cannot afford to revive theterritorial and political confrontations of the past. We have to share experiences, to explain ourselves toeach other,to understand and tolerate, and build on the positive principles our culture shave incommon. That trade has to be two-way. Each of us needs to understand the importance ofconciliation, of reflection - TADABBUR - to open our minds and unlock our hearts to each other. Iam utterly convinced that the Islamic and Western worlds have much to learn from each other. Justasthe oil engineer in the Gulf may be European, so the heart transplant surgeon in Britain may beEgyptian.If this need for tolerance and exchange is true internationally, it applies with special force within Britainitself. Britain is a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. I have already mentioned the size of ourown Muslim communities who live throughout Britain, both in large towns like Bradford and in tinycommunities in places as remote as Stornaway in Western Scotland. These people, ladies andgentlemen, are an asset to Britain.They contribute to all parts of our economy - to industry, the publicservices,the professions and the private sector. We find them as teachers, doctors,engineers andscientists. They contribute to our economic well-being as a country, and add to the cultural richness ofour nation. Of course, tolerance and understanding must be two-way. for those of us who are notMuslim,that may mean respect for the daily practice of the Islamic faith and a decent care to avoidactions which are likely to cause deep offence. For the Muslims in our society, there is a need torespect the history, culture and way of life of our country, and to balance their vital liberty tobe themselves with an appreciation of the importance of integration in our society. Where there arefailings of understanding and tolerance, we have a need, on our own doorstep, for greaterreconciliation among our own citizens.I can only admire, and applaud, those men and women of somany denominations who work tirelessly, in London, South Wales, the Midlands and elsewhere,topromote good community relations. The Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relationsin Birmingham is one especially notable and successful example. We should be grateful for thededication and example of all those who have devoted themselves to the cause ofpromoting understanding.Ladies and gentlemen, if, in the last half hour, your eyes have wandered up to the marvellous allegoryof Truth descending on the arts and sciences in Sir Robert Streeter's ceiling above you, I am sure youwill have noticed Ignorance being violently banished from the arena - just there in front of the organcasing. I feel some sympathy for Ignorance, and hope I maybe able to vacate this theatre in somewhatbetter condition. Before I go,I cannot put to you strongly enough the importance of the issues which Ihave tried to touch on so imperfectly. These two worlds, the Islamic and the Western, are at somethingof a crossroads in their relations. We must not let them stand apart. I do not accept the argument thatthey are on a course to clash in a new era of antagonism. I am utterly convinced that our two worldshave much to offer each other. We have much to do together.I am delighted that the dialogue hasbegun, both in Britain and elsewhere.But we shall need to work harder to understand each other, todrain out any poison between us, and to lay the ghost of suspicion and fear. The further down that roadwe can travel, the better the world that we shall create for our children and for future generations.

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