President, Lord Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I really cannot tell you what an enormous pleasure it is for me to be here this evening. I feel immensely privileged to be celebrating my birthday ‘again’ with so many wonderful familiar faces. I would like to thank you all, and especially those who have come from overseas for this occasion. I find it difficult to believe that it has been almost 16 years since I made that speech on ‘Islam and the West’ at The Sheldonian under the auspices of the Centre for Islamic Studies. Incidentally, it is the only speech I have ever given which apparently still makes money to this day!
I cannot thank enough the President and Fellows of Magdalen College for all their support to the Centre and Farhan Nizami for his conspicuously successful leadership of it. I would also like to thank the Heads of House and other representatives of the University of Oxford for welcoming the opportunities that the Centre brings to broaden the scholarly perspectives through which we see Islam and contemporary Muslim society. And I am hugely grateful to so many international friends, benefactors and well-wishers of the Centre - both those present and those who could not be present this evening – for giving of their time and resources to help establish such an important institution in this city.
There is no doubt in my mind that its importance transcends national and international boundaries – and we can confidently expect that, with the continued and steadfast support of so many of the important people in this room, it will bring great benefit to this University and this city and, indeed to this country as a whole.
One area on which I have been focussing, with Farhan’s great assistance, is the teaching of the Scriptures on Mankind’s stewardship of the natural environment. I was delighted with the positive and practical outcomes of the recent Ditchley conference on ‘Islam and the Environment’ that discussed ways of raising awareness of traditional Muslim concepts and practices and considered how these can be applied in the protection of our natural environment.
Respect for the environment and conservation of resources are emphasized throughout the Qur’an and the Sunnah and are, of course, connected with such theological doctrines as the oneness of the Creator; the inherent worth and interdependence of all created beings; human stewardship, and man’s accountability for his actions. Like other sacred texts, the Qur’an offers some profound and perceptive understanding of human and economic development: concepts that do not calculate well-being in merely financial terms, credit crunch or not!
One of the conclusions of the conference was to encourage universities and other institutions to conduct research into traditional conservation practices, resource management systems and technologies in the Islamic world, such as the hima (protected areas), waqf (charitable endowment), falaj, qanat, and other rainwater harvesting methods and that there should be collaboration, where necessary, in building the capacities of local communities and other stakeholders to strengthen, improve and, where necessary restore and revive such practices within the context of the immense challenges the world now faces.
And one of the other challenges we face, of course, is the process of integration, which in many ways, is a dynamic one, evolving with each successive generation. To be successful - to deliver a truly harmonious society in which everyone's talent can be recognized and developed on its own merits - we have to find the right ways to derive strength and unity from our diversity. As inhabitants of this country, we all have a role to play in shaping our society on the basis of one fundamental principle and that is understanding; understanding based upon what the three great Abrahamic faiths share in common, rather than an obsession with the differences between them. The future surely lies in re-discovering the universal truths that dwell at the heart of these religions - truths that speak directly to our hearts and transcend the sometimes narrow and literalist interpretations of divine revelation that have so disastrously and needlessly created great chasms between us. All I have ever wanted to do is build bridges that can span these chasms and unite us with the patterns Divine Harmony in our souls and within the world soul.
I really could not have been more delighted by the Centre’s work to increase understanding and break down barriers in collaboration with my Charities by establishing a regular Summer School programme for promising young British Muslims, as Farhan mentioned, to learn about the history and operation of government and civil society in this country. The idea, quite simply, is to inspire and equip them to play constructive roles in the life of the wider society, as well as within their own communities. I understand that from next year, also in collaboration with my Charities, the Centre will begin a Scholarship Programme to provide financial and moral support for young people from the British Muslim communities who have been accepted for a degree course at Oxford.
Finally, I am delighted that the construction of the Centre’s splendid new building is proceeding steadily, (perhaps somewhat too steadily!). The exterior work has been completed and the interior works, also a labour of love, are under way. What pleases me the most is the way in which the building is using the higher quality traditional materials and techniques of Islamic design. And I am thrilled that my School of Traditional Arts has been responsible for the design of the Centre’s formal Islamic gardens.
I have no doubt that when, going at the steady pace which I mentioned earlier, the buildings and the gardens are all finally completed, they will make a distinguished addition to the architecture of Oxford. The Centre’s permanent home promises to be something in which the city, the University and, indeed, the country as a whole can take great pride.
But, Ladies and Gentlemen, we must not forget the larger aspirations that the building in many ways symbolizes, and the hopes that rest on the continued progress and further enlargement of the Centre’s work. I am able to reflect, with immense gratitude on the generosity of all those supporters and well-wishers of the Centre, who have made its establishment and progress a reality. The Centre will continue, I hate to say, to need the help and encouragement of its friends and well-wishers in the years ahead, both here at Oxford and beyond. I know only too well it is a most difficult time for everyone, but nevertheless I can only urge you all to continue to assist it to secure its place in the scholarly and institutional landscape of this University and the wider nation. Institutions like the Centre not only enrich our lives, they also help to build those badly-needed bridges and to overcome dangerous ignorance and prejudice.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am indebted to you all for your support of the Centre for Islamic Studies, and for your kindness in attending this occasion.