I warmly welcome the theme of this conference held under the gracious auspices of His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco, a celebrated patron of scholarship. It has long been my concern that, in our modern societies, we neglect the spiritual side of life which can be so important in reinforcing our values and shaping our behaviours. I see this concern clearly reflected in the purpose of today’s discussion: to identify the civilisational values to be derived from the life of the Prophet. As the agenda of this conference makes clear, this is not just a matter of respect for tradition, but has important practical implications. We can learn much from Islam.
I speak, of course, not as a scholar of Islam, but as someone who believes deeply that we too often underestimate the importance of faith and that we are the poorer for it. As I put it in a lecture, in 1993, on “Islam and the West” at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, of which I am Patron, “what I am appealing for is a wider, deeper, more careful understanding of our world; for a metaphysical as well as a material dimension to our lives, in order to recover the balance we have abandoned”.
I believe this spiritual dimension should lie at the heart of our efforts to resolve social problems in all our societies and to face up to the huge global challenges confronting us; not least the current pandemic with which we are still struggling, and the fundamental threat posed by the degradation of our planet. I understand that, as co-Presidents, the United Kingdom and Italy are bringing together religious leaders and scientists ahead of the 26th UN Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, in which communities of faith continue to play a crucial role in leading and encouraging action. We must also recognise the need to heal the divisions which afflict our societies if we are to mount the global effort required. I believe that our faiths can provide guiding principles which enable us to look beyond mere materialism.
Today’s world is more interdependent than at any time in human history and this impels us to value understanding and mutual respect. These are principles that are enshrined in our religious faiths. Indeed, in another lecture in Oxford on “Islam and the Environment”, in 2010, I set out a challenge that remains urgent today: “to mobilise scholars, poets and artists, as well as craftsmen, engineers and scientists who work with and within the Islamic tradition, to identify the general ideas, the teachings and the practical techniques within the tradition which encourage us to work with the grain of Nature, rather than against it”. There is, after all, a welcome call to humility in Islam about our place on this Earth.
I would also argue that these are universal values not confined to one religion, but expressed in different ways in all our holy books. I believe this approach can encourage cooperation and a shared understanding. This is all the more important in the multi-cultural societies in which we live and in which I believe people of all faiths can play a particularly positive role.
In that spirit, I send you my warmest greetings and best wishes for the success of this conference.