Friday, 11 March 2011

Prince Charles Speech: Islam and the West

Excerpt from speech by Prince Charles at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on the occasion of his visit to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (27 October 1993):

"We in the West need also to understand the Islamic world's view of us. There is nothing to be gained, and much harm to be done, by refusing to comprehend the extent to which many people in the Islamic world genuinely fear our own Western materialism and mass culture as a deadly challenge to their Islamic culture and way of life. Some of us may think the material trappings of Western society which we have exported to the Islamic world - television, fast-food, and the electronic gadgets of our everyday lifes - are a modernising, self-evidently good, influence. But we fall into the trap of dreadful arrogance if we confuse 'modernity' in other countries with their becoming more like us. The fact is that our form of materialism can be offensive to devout Muslims - and I do not just mean the extremists among them. We must understand that reaction, just as the West's attitude to some of the more rigorous aspects of Islamic life needs to be understood in the Islamic world. This, I believe, would help us understand what we have commonly come to see as the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. We need to be careful of that emotive label, 'fundamentalism', and distinguish, as Muslims do, between revivalists, who choose to take the practice of their religion most devoutly, and fanatics or extremists who use this devotion for political ends. Among the many religious, social and political causes of what we might more accurately call the Islamic revival is a powerful feeling of disenchantment, of the realisation that Western technology and material things are insufficient, and that a deeper meaning to life lies elsewhere in the essence of Islamic belief.

Ladies and gentlemen, if there is much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there is also much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilisation owe to the Islamic world. It is a failure which stems, I think, from the straightjacket of history which we have inherited. The mediaeval Islamic world, from Central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic, was a world where scholars and men of learning flourished. But because we have tended to see Islam as the enemy of the West, as an alien culture, society and system of belief, we have tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to our own history. For example, we have underestimated the importance of 800 years of Islamic society and culture in Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries. The contribution of Muslim Spain to the preservation of classical learning during the Dark Ages, and to the first flowerings of the Renaissance, has long been recognised. But Islamic Spain was much more than a mere larder where Hellenistic knowledge was kept for later consumption by the emerging modern Western world. Not only did Muslim Spain gather and preserve the intellectual content of ancient Greek and Roman civilisation, it also interpreted and expanded upon that civilisation, and made a vital contribution of its own in so many fields of human endeavour - in science, astronomy, mathematics, algebra (itself an Arabic word), law, history, medicine, pharmacology, optics, agriculture, architecture, theology, music. Averroes and Avenzoor, like their counterparts Avicenna and Rhazes in the East, contributed to the study and practice of medicine in ways from which Europe benefited for centuries afterwards.

Islam nurtured and preserved the quest for learning. In the words of the tradition, 'the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr'. Cordoba in the 10th century was by far the most civilised city of Europe. We know of lending libraries in Spain at the time King Alfred was making terrible blunders with the culinary arts in this country. It is said that the 400,000 volumes in its ruler's library amounted to more books than all the libraries of the rest of Europe put together. That was made possible because the Muslim world acquired from China the skill of making paper more than four hundred years before the rest of non-Muslim Europe. Many of the traits on which modern Europe prides itself came to it from Muslim Spain. Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques of academic research, of anthropology, etiquette, fashion, alternative medicine, hospitals, all came from this great city of cities. Mediaeval Islam was a religion of remarkable tolerance for its time, allowing Jews and Christians the right to practise their inherited beliefs, and setting an example which was not, unfortunately, copied for many centuries in the West. The surprise, ladies and gentlemen, is the extent to which Islam has been a part of Europe for so long, first in Spain, then in the Balkans, and the extent to which it has contributed so much towards the civilisation which we all too often think of, wrongly, as entirely Western. Islam is part of our past and present, in all fields of human endeavour. It has helped to create modern Europe. It is part of our own inheritance, not a thing apart."

You can read the full transcript of the speech here.

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