might once have been Archbishop of Canterbury, but comes from a family that claims descent from Muhammad.
Huw Spanner engaged with the influential former Bishop of Rochester at the Bible Society’s offices in Westminster on 17 January 2011.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Your background is very important to who you are, I believe. Your father was a convert from Islam…
Yes, I come from quite a large Shia Muslim family. My father was the only one who became a Christian, before I was born – indeed, before he was married. My mother was from a Methodist tradition.
Were there repercussions from his conversion? Obviously, in Pakistan today it would be quite a serious matter.
It’s always serious and, yes, there have been some quite difficult times for him, and for us; but equally we have had good relations with many family members. I’ve just visited my senior uncle, who is the head of the family now, and head of the religious leaders of the Shia community in that part – and that was a cordial visit.
You come across as quite patrician, if I may say so. Was your family quite well-to-do?
Well, it’s not like that. My grandfather was a civil servant, my father was a civil servant and then an accountant, and I have a scattering of relatives who are in banks and things like that; but that’s not the point. The point is that the family are sayyids, which means that they claim descent from the family of Muhammad himself. That does not mean that they have any access to material wealth, but they certainly have a spiritual status in their community – and, indeed, more widely, I think.
Have you ever thought how differently your life might have turned out if your father had remained a Muslim?
Yes, I mean, my father was the eldest, I’m the eldest of the eldest, and the position that my uncle has now as the head of the family, and therefore of that group of religious leaders, no doubt my father would have had and no doubt I would have had.
Once you were ordained, your promotion in the church was very rapid, wasn’t it? You were a bishop at 35.
I am not an activist in the sense that I go out looking for problems to solve; but when I’ve seen that loyalty to the gospel did not allow any other course of action, of course I have done what I’ve had to do
Well, it wasn’t anything deliberate. When I returned to Pakistan from [studying and teaching in] this country, my bishop said, ‘You’ve been in ivory towers too long’ and he put me into a slum parish. The first year I was there, cholera broke out there and we spent the summer burying babies in fruit crates, because the parents couldn’t afford coffins.
I then went to Lahore Cathedral, which, if there’s any Christian ‘establishment’ in Pakistan, that is it. And then when they created a new, rather rural, diocese, people might have thought, well, a young man for a new diocese… I don’t know.
Why did you then have to leave Pakistan?
At that time, General Zia ul-Haq was trying to Islamicise the country and on a number of occasions we had to say to him: ‘We cannot support what you are doing.’ For instance, we co-operated with various women’s groups, mainly Muslim, in resisting the narrowing of the scope for women in the universities and the professions and so on. We also felt that we could not go along with the shari’ah hudud punishments that he was introducing, because they not only mutilated the body but also humiliated people, like public flogging.1Hudud (literally, ‘limit’) punishments are, generally, those that the shari’ah stipulates for crimes ‘against God’, such as murder, theft, extramarital sex and apostasy.
I was also working increasingly with the very poor, particularly bonded labour in the brick kilns. Those who owned the kilns were happy for us to go and take services there, but when we started talking about education and a way out – if not for the grown ups, perhaps for their children – there was a coming together of tremendous opposition by vested interests and by radical, extremist Islamists. It took the form of harassment – a car being stopped on a country road, the threat of physical violence. It was not pleasant, but it was bearable.
It sounds as if from the beginning you saw your faith as something that has a bearing on public affairs.
Yes, I mean, I am not an activist in the sense that I go out looking for problems to solve; but when they have come to me and I’ve seen that loyalty to the gospel did not allow any other course of action, of course I have had to do what I’ve had to do.
Just to finish that story: we started getting threats to our children, and that did worry me a lot. Robert Runcie, who was then the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that it might be a good idea if I came out of Pakistan for a while. He was just beginning to prepare for the 1988 Lambeth Conference, so he asked me to co-ordinate it.
What do you think he saw in you?
It was a worldwide conference and he needed – I mean, I’m guessing; he never told me this – someone who was not obviously English, so that the conference did look truly international. And indeed we did make it so.
Out of interest, how many languages do you speak? I’ve read that you write poetry in Persian.
Well, let’s see. I have some knowledge of eight or nine.
Do you think about God only in English?
I have to say that I encountered a level of nastiness in English society, in the English church, that I did not think existed
No, no, not at all. In certain contexts I think about God in Arabic. In a literary context, in Persian. My mother tongue is Urdu. If I’m preparing for a sermon, I have to read the Hebrew and the Greek texts…
One thing that has really influenced me in thinking about God is the Psalms in Punjabi. They were translated by an ordinary man by the name of Din Shehbaz, who set them to folk tunes, and they are really the basis of the spirituality of the Pakistani church. I know nearly all the psalms in Punjabi and I can sing them to myself.
In Britain, you continued to rise rapidly in the church. Would you say that you were ambitious?
Well, no, because – well, look, if I had been ambitious I would have been a sayyid. I wouldn’t have turned my back on all that. Secondly, I would not have espoused unpopular causes. I mean, the first thing with worldly ambition is to fit in with what the powers-that-be want. I’ve never been able to do that.
In 2002, one bookie had you as 3-1 favourite to win the race to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, but things turned nasty and there was a lot of briefing against you. At the time, you said: ‘I ask for prayers … that God’s will be done.’ Looking back, do you think God’s will was done?
God’s will is always done. I have to say that I encountered a level of nastiness in English society, in the English church, that I did not think existed; but, having said that, but of course God’s will is always done. What we have to do is to pray that the church will be faithful to it, leaders will be faithful to it, I will be faithful to it, and to seek our unity on the basis of that faithfulness.
What do you think are the qualities most needed in the leaders of the church in Britain today?
I think it is to be able to bring the Christian tradition to bear on contemporary questions. I think it has been the failure of the church in the last 50 years to do this, its acceptance of a kind of secular Enlightenment consensus as good enough, that has marginalised it, or given the impression that it really has nothing particular to say.
As a child, I was taught that Islam is a legalistic religion whereas evangelical Christianity is all about grace. Over the years, I’ve realised that evangelicalism is a lot more legalistic than it claims to be –
It certainly is.
– and I’ve got the impression that there is a measure of grace in Islam. From your observation of the two faiths, what is the fundamental difference between them?
God’s grace is available universally and people respond to it in different ways. Sometimes they respond to it in terms of their religious background, sometimes not. I don’t think we can limit God’s grace to the working of systems, whatever they may be.
I think it is true that as a system Islam puts great weight on the shari’ah. Of course, there are Muslim traditions that are aware of the spiritual – I have for a long time been interested in Sufism, partly because Sufism and Christianity have had a very close literary and historical relationship, partly because I think it provides a vocabulary for Christians to talk about Christ to Muslims. Like many Muslims, I can’t agree with everything ever said by any Sufi, because it’s such a vast ocean; but the forms in which it has been said are very significant.
Do you expect to see Muslims in heaven?
Look, that is God’s business, not mine. I have been asked to be a faithful witness to what God has done in Jesus Christ, and I have tried to do that. It is not my job to comment on people’s final destiny.
Would you be surprised if there were Muslims in heaven?
I wouldn’t be surprised by anything in heaven. I’m sure heaven is supposed to be a surprise.
Is there anything the Church can learn from the ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims?
Yes. I mean, this is one of the reasons for dialogue. For instance, when I am talking to Muslims I am reminded very strongly of the biblical doctrine of the unity of God. Christians sometimes talk of the Trinity in a kind of trigger-happy fashion but, whatever else we may say about God, our starting-point must be that God is one.
Is there anything Christians can do to help the ummah to rid itself of religious extremism?
Well, in a way it’s up to Muslims themselves, but yes, I think we can, for instance, in the context of dialogue, urge Muslims to say something about freedom of belief: freedom to express one’s beliefs, freedom to change one’s beliefs. In my dialogue with [the ancient Islamic university] al-Azhar al-Sharif, which I led for the Anglican Communion for many years, freedom was always on the agenda.
Just before he died [in 2010], I did a joint lecture in Cairo with the sheikh of al-Azhar, Sheikh [Muhammad] Tantawi, and he said that people are free in Egypt to believe whatever they like – it is not the business of the state and it’s not the business of religion. I think that is a very significant advance. Similarly, the Grand Mufti of Egypt has issued a very progressive fatwa declaring that apostasy from Islam is not punishable in this life.
There is a very long tradition in Islam of relating the shari’ah to the situation in which Muslims find themselves and this allows room for applying the shari’ah for the common good, for the welfare of the people, even the welfare of those to whom it is being applied. Now, that is certainly a principle I would want to commend. It is absolutely vital that Muslim states, particularly, should take account of the whole tradition of [Islamic] jurisprudence, rather than relying on an extremist, literalist interpretation.
I asked those last two questions because I have read that you believe that Christians and Muslims have the capacity to bring out the best in each other.
Whenever human beings meet each other, they enrich each other – if they are open to one another.
The impetus for the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself – what someone has called one of the few ‘perfectly virtuous pages’ in our history – had Christian inspiration. And that’s not an accident
Well, whenever it’s been great – I’m not talking about a particular period. Whenever it has shown its best side, if you like, it has been because of the Christian tradition. I mean, the very fact that Britain is a nation, rather than mutually hostile tribes, fiefdoms and petty kingdoms, it owes to Christianity. Its fundamental freedoms – even the Magna Carta – are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Bible. The King James Bible (and, behind that, Tyndale) more or less created our language, and all the literary greatness that comes from that. You know, wherever you look, the great principles of liberty, of responsibility, that have made Britain great…
There have been times, of course, when it has not acted in a way that’s been great – take the story of slavery; and yet the impetus for the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself – what [the great 19th-century historian William] Lecky has called one of the few ‘perfectly virtuous pages’ in our history3The full quotation, from A History of European Morals (1869), is: ‘The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.’ – had Christian inspiration. And that’s not an accident.
Surely, Christian concepts and language have come as naturally to the forces that have opposed reform as to those that have promoted it?
Well, yes, indeed, but…
If only because they were the common currency.
But that is not what makes Britain great. I mean, you asked me what it is that makes Britain great and I’m giving you the answer. The attitude to slavery in the English Christian tradition goes back to Anselm. The fact that slavery disappeared in this country, very rapidly, after the coming of Augustine – it was replaced by serfdom, which you might say was not too much of an improvement; nevertheless, it did [disappear], and there has been a consistent witness since against it. Of course, there have been people who have tried to argue for slavery from the Christian tradition; but, as I say, that is not what I would regard as having made Britain great.
If you look at the Evangelical Revival in the 18th and the early part of the 19th century, there was a kind of integrated vision – you might even call it ‘evangelical humanism’. It had not just to do with slavery, it also had to do with improving working conditions for men, women and children, with the Ragged Schools and the beginning of universal education, the revival of nursing as a noble profession – all of those things.
The other word in that quotation that jumped out at me was ‘destiny’. Is it appropriate to talk about a national destiny? And who, for you, has articulated a sense of a national Christian destiny?
Well, T S Eliot, for instance. I think his book The Idea of a Christian Society in  was quite prophetic. I don’t agree with him about everything…
By ‘a national destiny’, I don’t mean something that is prescribed in advance. It has to be worked out – but it has to be worked out in terms of Christian principles. And a Christian vision will always be inclusive: it can’t be exclusive, in terms of race or creed or whatever.
When you talk about a need to revive our Christian heritage, are you saying that the people of Britain need to be educated about the roots of our culture and society, or that Christianity should in some way be privileged because of the role it has played in our past?
Are there circumstances in which we can say that a person does not retain human dignity? You need a moral and spiritual tradition on which to base your decisions
Or are you expressing a kind of nostalgia for a time when Britain was more Christian than it is today?
Not that, not the last.
After all, a huge factor in shaping the best of what this country is today has been Classical philosophy, but I don’t suppose you are calling for a revival of that heritage.
That is a very interesting point that I would like to take up with you, because Roman law, Greek philosophy – indeed, the use of Greek forms in art – came to northern Europe through Christianity largely. When people talk about Roman law, it was Theodosius and Justinian4Respectively, Roman Emperor from 379 to 395 and Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565 [who influenced the development of European law], not pagan Roman [legislators]. Similarly with philosophy – from Avicenna onwards, the rediscovery of Aristotle (which was, again, a very interesting thing, because it involved the Islamic world) – all of that was mediated through the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But I’m not talking about nostalgia, I never use the word ‘revival’ or ‘going back’. What I am talking about, first of all, is [the need for people to recognise] who they are, what has made them a nation, what stands behind the institutions, the Monarchy, parliamentary government, the constitution itself – the idea of human rights, for instance, which was taken over by the Enlightenment but really had its origins in the debates the Dominicans and the Jesuits had about the fundamental rights of the indigenous people of the Americas.
Secondly, my concern is about using Christian principles in making decisions today. Take the idea of intrinsic or inalienable human dignity. Now, where has this idea come from? Is it negotiable? Are there any circumstances in which we can say that a person does not retain human dignity? When the Mental Capacity Bill was being debated in Parliament [in 2004/05], this was a fundamental issue. Similarly, how you treat the early embryo or what you do with a terminally ill person who wants to end his life. When you are debating these, you need a moral and spiritual tradition [on which to base] your decisions.
Thirdly, I think I’m not talking about privileging this or that church – that’s a separate argument – but I think that the nation as a whole, its political apparatus, its national life, needs some kind of moral and spiritual tradition to which an appeal can be made. I’m not talking about a sort of jingoism – you know, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and so forth – but some common recognition of principles that will allow us to decide together.
There is an argument that for centuries Christianity has been co-opted by the state, very much to the detriment of a genuine witness. I wonder whether that is another reason why it is not held in more regard in this country nowadays, because people see that.
For example, every year at the Cenotaph the Bishop of London invites us to ask God to help us ‘to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds’. Where is the Christian critique of the Great War? It is almost as if the church is still blessing it.
Well, some of the church did, but there was considerable resistance, as you know. You only have to read the poetry of Studdert Kennedy…5G A Studdert Kennedy, aka ‘Woodbine Willie’, was an Anglican priest and poet. When war broke out in 1914, he volunteered as an Army chaplain on the Western Front, where he won the Military Cross. At first an enthusiast for the war, he became a leading Christian socialist and pacifist. The most recent anthology of his writing is After War, Is Faith Possible? (Lutterworth Press, 2008). In fact, the First World War changed the whole course of Christianity because it put an end to the kind of facile optimism of liberal Protestantism – and if one Christian tradition has been thoroughly co-opted, it has been that. There was a very stern critique, and of course some of the benefits of that critique were reaped later on when the world had to face a much greater evil.
But I agree, there has been co-option, and this is why in my writing I always point out that religion does have a cohesive function in society – it does provide the reasons for moral behaviour, for national decisions and so on – but it can and should also have a prophetic function, where it says no to a direction that society may be taking – as the Confessing Church did in Germany [in the 1930s].
If we were to discard our current, rather quaint national anthem, what would we celebrate in a new one?
I think the recognition that an ordered society comes from a recognition of an ordered universe – which in the West has demonstrably come from the Christian faith. (It needs to take account of new knowledge, of course.) I think the teaching of Jesus on loving God and neighbour, as set out in the parable of the good Samaritan – that should be reflected in it. I think something about fundamental human freedom. I think something about mutuality – in Parliament we have a prayer [that speaks of] ‘having a care one for the other’.
What do you think? What have I missed out?
Tolerance? But that’s quite a wishy-washy virtue.
Yes, it is, isn’t it?
When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations, it is amazing how many societies and cultures were able to sign up to it; but some have demurred. Do you think we should try to impose the idea of human rights on others?
I think the first thing to say is that the reason that there appeared to be a consensus in 1948 is that many people even in the non-Western world were actually influenced by Western ideas. There just was not the diversity on the international scene we have now. I doubt if a consensus would be achievable now in the same terms. Jawaharlal Nehru wore national dress but he was actually a very Western-influenced leader. Now you might have to cope with a politician steeped in Hindutva or whatever.
But yes, one thing that really worries me is the number of Islamic countries that have entered codicils to international agreements like the [UDHR] or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, saying that they will only honour these agreements insofar as they are consistent with shari’ah. I’ve found that in many cases that means they’re not honoured at all. I think in our dialogue with Muslims we must try and bring out from them and from their tradition what is consistent with human freedoms and human rights. Some very brave [Muslims] have been doing this – Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab who was killed recently, was trying to do this.
It is impossible to impose it on people militarily, if that is what you mean –
No, no, I meant: Is it right intellectually? You wonder whether our own society can continue to bear the fruits (if you like) of Judeo-Christian thinking now that it has largely rejected its premises, and yet you are saying, aren’t you, that you want other societies to bear those fruits that have never accepted those premises.
It’s no use just saying, ‘We believe in all these principles’ – the question is: Where have they come from? So far, I’ve never had a satisfactory answer from secular humanists
Yes, I am. Of course, historically, talk of human rights and freedoms has come from the Christian tradition – I think the belief in inherent human dignity has arisen from the teaching that human beings are all made in God’s image. However, the fact that human-rights discourse has come from Christian roots does not mean that it’s true only for Christians. I believe it says something fundamental about human beings, and I would hope that other people who are not Christians would agree with it. If they can do so using their own tradition, that’s fine – I look forward to that very much.
Many people – say, secular humanists – who believe strongly in human rights look in the Bible and say: Well, there’s not much evidence of respect for them there! When some boys called Elisha ‘Baldy’, he cursed them – and two wild bears came and mauled them!6See 2 Kings 2:23f.
Yes, we are not talking about – The Bible is a vast book, spanning many centuries. What we are talking about is fundamental principles, and it’s no use just saying, ‘We believe in all these principles’ – the question is: Where have they come from? So far, I’ve never had a satisfactory answer from secular humanists. When the matter comes up in Parliament, there’s nearly always an appeal to the Judeo-Christian foundation. And when you’re talking about things like human dignity, somehow some transcendent value has to be invoked, to justify [the claim] that human beings do have inalienable dignity.
Similarly with the idea of equality. I mean, equality is not obvious in many ways. If you survey the human scene, human beings look unequal in terms of wealth or achievement or capacity or whatever it may be. The idea of equality has arisen because of the Judeo-Christian tradition of common origin…
When Christ says to you (as I imagine you hope he will), ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’, what do you think he might be referring to?
Well, I mean, my fear is the number of occasions when I have not done what he’s been asking me to do, fallen short of what I should have done, failed in love, failed in courage. That would be what I would think of first: that we have been unworthy servants. Certainly that.
But I think, if anything, it is – I’ve tried to be faithful by standing up for people who could not stand up for themselves, and I think that has arisen out of a following of the gospel. I have tried to understand people’s cultural, and even religious, background before speaking to them about Christ, and I hope he will approve of that. And I have worked for a world in which the God-given freedoms of people are respected.
A longer version of this interview was published in the November 2011 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||Hudud (literally, ‘limit’) punishments are, generally, those that the shari’ah stipulates for crimes ‘against God’, such as murder, theft, extramarital sex and apostasy.|
|⇑3||The full quotation, from A History of European Morals (1869), is: ‘The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.’|
|⇑4||Respectively, Roman Emperor from 379 to 395 and Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565|
|⇑5||G A Studdert Kennedy, aka ‘Woodbine Willie’, was an Anglican priest and poet. When war broke out in 1914, he volunteered as an Army chaplain on the Western Front, where he won the Military Cross. At first an enthusiast for the war, he became a leading Christian socialist and pacifist. The most recent anthology of his writing is After War, Is Faith Possible? (Lutterworth Press, 2008).|
|⇑6||See 2 Kings 2:23f.|
Michael Nazir-Ali was born in 1949 in Karachi, where he was educated at St Paul’s High School and St Patrick’s College.
He read economics, Islamic history and sociology at Karachi University, and went on to study theology at Ridley Hall and Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, St Edmund Hall, Oxford and Harvard. He taught at Cambridge from 1973 to 1976. In 1985, he gained his ThD from the Australian College of Theology.
He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1976 in Karachi, and taught at its theological college until 1981, when he was appointed provost of Lahore Cathedral. In 1984, he was elected as the first bishop of Raiwind, in the province of Punjab.
In 1986, he returned to Britain, where he assisted Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, in planning the 1988 Lambeth Conference. He then served as general secretary of the Church Mission Society and assistant bishop in Southwark (both from 1990) and canon theologian at Leicester Cathedral (from 1992) until 1994, when he was enthroned as the 106th bishop of Rochester.
He entered the House of Lords in 1999. In 2002, his name was one of the two put to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury.
From 1998 to 2003, he was a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and chaired its committee on ethics and law.
He resigned his bishopric in 2009, to become president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue.
His books include Islam: A Christian perspective (1983), Frontiers in Muslim-Christian Encounter (1987, 2007), From Everywhere to Everywhere (1990, 2009), Mission and Dialogue (1995), Citizens and Exiles (1998), Shapes of the Church to Come (2001), Conviction and Conflict (2006) and The Unique and Universal Christ (2008).
He was awarded a Lambeth doctorate in 2005. He also has a number of honorary doctorates and is an honorary fellow of both Fitzwilliam and ‘Teddy Hall’.
He has been married since 1972 and has two sons. He holds both Pakistani and British citizenship.
Up-to-date as at 1 October 2011