Vice-Chancellor, Ladies, and even the occasional Gentleman, thank you Vice-Chancellor for your marvellously kind words, and I apologise to you that my wife and I have taken you so much by surprise. For all those students that don’t do so well in your forthcoming exams, you can always blame my unexpected visit. You won't be the first!
You can have no idea how much my wife and I have looked forward to visiting your country. For various reasons it has taken me very nearly fifty-eight years of my life to reach this remarkable part of the world, about which I have read and heard so many fascinating stories. Believe it or not, I think I was probably conceived in the months following independence for the Sub-Continent and therefore I feel I have somehow grown up, as it were, with both Pakistan and India. Above all, I have always wanted to experience and to understand the depth of the historic ties between our two countries.
Of course, you know better than I, that understanding requires willing partners. It also requires knowledge and a lack of prejudice. It is the importance of understanding and knowledge which has brought my wife and myself here today. This University clearly imparts knowledge to the highest standards. It is a heartening example of understanding between communities and, above all, between faiths. This understanding is not, of course, a new phenomenon. One could draw examples from Islamic Spain or from Ottoman Turkey. But one need not look so far afield to find examples of equal, or, perhaps, greater relevance. In this ancient part of South Asia, back in 1875, Syed Ahmed Khan founded Aligarh College to provide a modern education, principally to Muslims (men and, later, women), in a manner which encouraged them to play a full part in the national mainstream. The first graduate of the College was a non-Muslim.
Later in our visit to Pakistan, I shall have the honour of laying a wreath at the Tomb of Allama Mohammed Iqbal. That great poet – a graduate, incidentally, of my old Cambridge college – was familiar with both the Western and Islamic philosophical traditions and, of course, benefitted from both. He saw so clearly the importance of understanding between faiths, drawing out the central truth that “Religion does not teach us to harbour enmity amongst us.” This is why I find it so hard to believe those who assume some inevitable conflict between faiths and civilisations. The temptation is there. It always has been. But there is no obligation to succumb to it. Indeed, in both our countries we set our face against it; but we must at all costs guard against this assumption turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. That would be the greatest tragedy for mankind.
Understanding is, of course, the foundation of the relationship between Pakistan and Britain today. We are linked by our history, by our communities, and by our common interests – in this region, and more broadly across the World. Ours is an enduring relationship, founded on mutual trust and respect. It is not just a relationship between leaders, but an unusually strong partnership between our peoples, strengthened by ties of trade, family and faith. It is also reinforced by the outstanding contribution made to the U.K. by those who have come from Pakistan to make their home with us; those who came all the way from Mirpur and Jhelum and Gujrat and who found themselves settling in Bradford, Leicester, Manchester and London. The support of the British public – led by those of Pakistani descent, through the remarkable effectiveness of Islamic Relief and other humanitarian agencies – together with the British Government in response to last year’s earthquake was nothing short of magnificent. My wife and I will be visiting the earthquake zone later this week, to see at first hand something of the reconstruction work and how those shattered communities are rebuilding their lives.
Now, looking about me, I have a feeling that you, all the very high powered, very intellectually gifted ladies, will have an important role to play in Pakistan’s future. The world is in desperate need of people who have moral courage; who are not afraid of standing up for truth and fairness and civilized values – especially at a time in the world’s history when ignorance and prejudice are so prevalent and so dangerous. Religion has once again become a source of conflict and intolerance. But one of the tasks of education must surely be to engender the acquisition of wisdom. And wisdom tells us that all the great religions provide a different path to the ultimate source of Truth – as if we were all stationed at various points around the circumference of a circle and following separate radii that lead to the sacred centre.
Do you remember the famous eleventh century proverb about the blind men feeling the elephant when “each conceived a visionary whole and to the phantom clung with heart and soul?” At the end of the day “Each had but known one part, and no man all, Hence into deadly error each did fall.” Personally, I have the greatest respect for the inner meaning of Islam and for that of the other great religions. I respect the different approaches to the profound mystery of ultimate knowing. So can we not begin to understand that the outward forms of each religion – although very different – are the diverse manifestations of that inner journey to the sacred centre?
In a secular age you hear again and again the accusation that religion is the cause of so much misery and strife in the world. However, religion itself is not the problem – it is surely human misinterpretation of the sacred texts handed down to us that can lead to such appalling misunderstanding and hatred. A too literal reading of the texts, for instance, can so easily obscure the inner, symbolic meaning contained within them. As Jalaluddin Rumi put it so perceptively – “He who hears the inner voice within him has no need to listen to outside words.”
Incidentally, when I was roughly your age we had a Prime Minister in Britain called Harold MacMillan. He was a remarkable man with an immense knowledge of the sweep of history. According to him there was a Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford when he was there as a young man who used to greet his new students with the following – “Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in later life – save only this – that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when someone is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education!”
I believe that wise leadership is crucial; hence the importance of your role in the future. Will you, for instance, have the moral courage to stand up against the kind of mistaken and misguided leadership that can so easily set one community against another?
Will you have the wisdom and the understanding to recognize that it is a re-discovery of the universal message contained in all the great religions that can help to lead us out of the overwhelming environmental crisis that threatens to engulf our world?
This planet’s survival will depend on you understanding that you can achieve unity through diversity; that you can in fact build on living, timeless traditions that are a part of your unique culture and still be “modern”. It will also depend on you realizing that the planetary crisis we face is so profound in its rapidly developing consequences that we simply cannot afford to go on squabbling amongst ourselves while we destroy the world around us at a truly terrifying rate. As it says in the Qu’ran – “Only they pay attention who have hearts; only they believe (or see signs) who have hearts.” Have you seen the signs? Will you trust in what your hearts are telling you?