Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Assalaam alaikum.
After twenty-four years as Patron, I could not be more delighted to join you all for the inauguration of this outstanding new home for the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. That so many distinguished figures have travelled so far to be here – and that many more have sent such heartfelt messages of support for the occasion - is a testament to the strength of the friendships the Centre has forged during the thirty-two years of its existence; and, if I may say so, to the enduring significance of the values upon which the Centre was founded.
Over these past three decades, so many of you here today have encouraged the Centre’s work and contributed to its success. I am sure that each of you shares my pride in what has been accomplished. Today is an opportunity both to celebrate everything that the Centre has so far achieved and to demonstrate our collective commitment to its continued success in the years ahead.
Those of you who, like me, have been associated with the Centre for many years will perhaps recall its modest first home, which was a wooden hut on St Cross Road. You will also recall, as I do, the ambitions of its founders, even then, to contribute significantly to scholarship both in Oxford and more widely. Against the thousand-year history of learning in this City, the thirty-two year span of the entire project seems very short indeed. And yet, there is little doubt that in those few decades the Centre has opened up so many important new perspectives and new avenues for scholarly collaboration in the study of Islam and the Islamic world. It was therefore a source of particular pride for so many of us that this extraordinary contribution was recognized at the highest level in 2012 through the grant of a Royal Charter by Her Majesty The Queen.
Of course, the long road that the Centre has travelled from its humble beginnings has not been navigated by chance. It has taken remarkable courage and determination and, above all, the clearest of visions for how this Centre could take its place in Oxford and in the wider world of Islamic scholarship. For that, the Trustees, the Director – in the form of the indefatigable Dr. Farhan Nizami – and all his colleagues are deserving of the warmest praise. So, too, are all those among the leadership of the University whose foresight in embracing – as they did at the very outset – the establishment of the Centre, has been so splendidly justified.
None of this would have been possible without the generosity of a large number of countries, institutions and individual donors from around the world. Many of you are with us in person or are represented here today and my heartfelt thanks go to you all. It is not simply these remarkable buildings that will stand as testament, in perpetuity, to your generosity, but the learning and scholarship that will take shape within these walls and resonate far beyond them.
Today, the sense of ambition upon which the Centre was founded remains undimmed. Indeed, I am pleased to say that the Centre continues to set its sights ever-higher and is determined to develop and extend the range of its activities. So I could not be more delighted that it now has, as its home, a building that is at last worthy of that ambition, following years of determined and dedicated work to realize the exceptional architectural vision of Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil.
It requires extraordinary skill and sensitivity to design a new building, drawing distinctively from the architectural traditions of classical Islam, that can immediately appear so completely at home alongside the celebrated and historic university buildings of Oxford. And yet to many of you here today this will of course be no surprise; the traditional form of the Centre – with its combination of interconnected courtyards, halls, spaces for learning, reflection and prayer – being every bit as familiar historically to the Islamic world as it has been to Oxford Colleges for the last eight centuries. This blending of styles, this symbolism, narrates a wider – and vital – message about the blending of culture and Faith in contemporary British society to produce a cohesive and unified whole of which we can all be immensely proud.
Oxford was, of course, the first university established in England (as any Member of the university is only too ready to point out!) and has come, in many people's minds, to epitomise the British – indeed, the European – popular concept of what a university should be. But some scholars, such as the late George Makdisi, have argued that the rise of the university in Christian Europe was shaped in part by European encounters with the Islamic Near East and North Africa – and Edward Gibbon famously mused in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on the consequences for Oxfords' quads and dreaming spires if the forces of Muslim Spain had triumphed at the Battle of Tours in 732!
These buildings have been built to last, and to age gracefully and above all beautifully, using traditional materials and crafts – clear evidence that we have the skills to achieve such things, when we have the will. This is why I have been so determined over all these years to support traditional crafts and design across the Islamic world through my School of Traditional Arts and, more recently, my Turquoise Mountain Institute for Arts and Architecture. Time and again I have seen how the dignity of the craftsmen is reflected in the buildings they produce and how this Centre embodies the goals and values of those who work within it – of dialogue, understanding and connection.
Because, Ladies and Gentlemen, there has perhaps never been a greater need for cultural connectivity. In the world in which we now live, with fears about "The Other" – whether that be Sunni, Shia, Jew, Christian, Yazidi, Hindu or Buddhist – stoked and spread through social media, and amplified by those who would seek to suppress understanding, rather than promote it, there is an urgent need for calm reflection and a genuinely sustained, empathetic and open dialogue across boundaries of faith, ethnicity and culture.
The discontents and anxieties of our age are not all imaginary. They often have their basis in material inequities, a lack of social justice and a retreat into what that great and visionary Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, some six hundred years ago identified as 'asabiyya – a communal solidarity that can be a force for good or bad.
Another great historian, Max Weber, also at a moment of civilizational conflict and turmoil, would reflect a hundred years ago on the consequences of misplaced communalism for the exercise of power. All this remains urgent and relevant for us today, when the challenges we encounter across the globe are often similar and similarly great.
If we are to face the anxieties of our age with equanimity, we need disinterested enquiry, serious scholarship and a spirit of rigorous and humane partnership.
That, it seems to me, is at the heart of what the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies should represent, in this city above all. The quads and gardens of Oxford’s colleges, the courts and gardens of the Alhambra, the courtyards and gardens of these new buildings, are all analogous to the classical architectural traditions of Greece, Rome and Persia.
They reflect an adaptation from common origins and shared ideas of harmony, views of the relationship between humans and the physical world and the purposeful differentiation of space. All of the great religions have thought deeply about these matters because they reflect such fundamental choices about the way in which we live our lives and relate to others.
We need to rediscover and explore what unites rather than what divides us. And that involves a recognition that we have all learned from each other and should continue to do so. No one culture contains the complete truth. We are all seekers. And our search is – or should be – a collective human enterprise.
That this Centre could perhaps play just the smallest part in this enterprise is my greatest wish.
So, although today is undoubtedly a moment for celebration, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am sure the Trustees would not wish me to give the impression that our work is now done, or that the Centre can afford to rest on its laurels. This is not an end of the story; it is just the beginning of a new chapter. In the years ahead the Centre must build upon what has been achieved, prepare to meet new challenges and ambitiously pursue new opportunities.
It seems to me, Ladies and Gentlemen, that as it looks to that future, the Centre has a clear mission – to promote dialogue and understanding. I hope that, today, you will join me in reaffirming our shared commitment to that goal and, in so doing, our commitment to the Centre's continued success in the years ahead.