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High Profile

The Good Fight

Interview by Huw Spanner

As a bishop in Raiwind and Rochester and as a 'lord spiritual', Dr Michael Nazir-Ali has been a controversial champion of both Christian truth and human dignity. Third Way engaged with him at the Bible Society's offices in Westminster.


Your background, I believe, is very important to who you are. Your father was a convert from Islam…
Yes, I come from quite a large Shia Muslim family. My father was the only one who became a Christian, be­fore I was born - indeed, before he was married. My mother was from a Methodist tradition.

Were there repercussions from his conversion? Obviously, in Pakistan today it would be quite a serious matter.
t's always serious and, yes, there have been some quite difficult times for him, and for us; but equally we have had good relations with many family members. I've just visited my senior uncle, who is the head of the family now, and head of the religious leaders of the Shia community in that part - and that was a cordial visit.

You come across as quite patrician, if you don't mind me saying so. Was your family quite well-to-do?
Well, it's not like that. My grandfather was a civil servant, my father was a civil servant and then an accountant, and I have a scattering of relatives who are in banks and things like that; but that's not the point. The point is that the family are sayyids, which means that they claim descent from the family of Muhammad himself. That does not mean that they have any access to mater­ial wealth, but they certainly have a spiritual status in their community - and, indeed, more widely, I think.

Have you ever thought how differently your life might have turned out if your father had remained a Muslim?

Yes, I mean, my father was the eldest, I'm the eldest of the eldest, and the position that my uncle has now as the head of the family, and therefore of that group of re­ligious leaders, no doubt my father would have had and no doubt I would have had.

Once you were ordained, your promotion in the church was very rapid, wasn't it? You were a bishop at 35.
Well, it wasn't anything deliberate. When I returned to Pakistan from [studying and teaching in] this country, my bishop said, 'You've been in ivory towers too long' and he put me into­­­ a slum parish. The first year I was there, cholera broke out there and we spent the summer burying babies in fruit crates, because the parents couldn't afford coffins.
I then went to Lahore Cathedral, which, if there's any Christian 'establishment' in Pakistan, that is it. And then when they created a new, rather rural, diocese, people might have thought, well, a young man for a new diocese… I don't know.

Why did you then have to leave Pakistan?
At that time, General Zia ul-Haq was trying to Islam­icise the country and on a number of oc­casions we had to say to him: 'We cannot support what you are doing.' For instance, we co-operated with various women's groups, mainly Muslim, in resisting the narrowing of the scope for women in the universities and the professions and so on. We also felt that we could not go along with the shari'a hudud punishments that he was introducing, because they not only mutilated the body but also humiliated people, like public flogging.1

I was also working increasingly with the very poor, particularly bonded labour in the brick kilns. Those who owned the kilns were happy for us to go and take services there, but when we started talking about educ­ation and a way out - if not for the grown ups, perhaps for their children - there was a coming together of tre­mendous opposition by vested interests and by radical, extremist Islamists. It took the form of harassment - a car being stopped on a country road, the threat of phys­ical violence. It was not pleasant, but it was bearable.


It sounds as if from the beginning you saw your faith as something that has a bearing on public affairs.
Yes, I mean, I am not an activist in the sense that I go out looking for problems to solve; but when they have come to me and I've seen that loyalty to the gospel did not al­low any other course of action, of course I have had to do what I've had to do.

Just to finish that story: we started getting threats to our children, and that did worry me a lot. Robert Runcie, who was then the Arch­bishop of Canterbury, suggested that it might be a good idea if I came out of Pak­istan for a while. He was just beginning to prepare for the 1988 Lambeth Con­fer­­ence, so he asked me to co-ordinate it.

What do you think he saw in you?
It was a worldwide conference and he needed - I mean, I'm guessing; he never told me this - someone who was not obviously English, so that the conference did look truly international. And indeed we did make it so.

Out of interest, how many languages do you speak? I've read that you write poetry in Persian.
Well, let's see. I have some knowledge of eight or nine.

Do you think about God only in English?
No, no, not at all. In certain contexts I think about God in Arabic. In a literary context, in Persian. My mother tongue is Urdu. If I'm preparing for a sermon, I have to read the Hebrew and the Greek texts…
One thing that has really influenced me in thinking about God is the Psalms in Punjabi. They were translated by an ordinary man by the name of Din Shehbaz, who set them to folk tunes, and they are really the basis of the spirituality of the Pakistani church. I know near­ly all the psalms in Punjabi and I can sing them to myself.

In Britain, you continued to rise rapidly in the church. Would you say that you were ambitious?
Well, no, because - well, look, if I had been ambitious I would have been a sayyid. I wouldn't have turned my back on all that. Secondly, I would not have espoused unpopular causes. I mean, the first thing with worldly ambition is to fit in with what the powers-that-be want. I've never been able to do that.

In 2002, one bookie had you as 3-1 favourite to win the race to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, but things turned nasty and there was a lot of briefing against you. At the time, you said: 'I ask for prayers … that God's will be done.' Looking back, do you think God's will was done?

God's will is always done. I have to say that I encountered a level of nastiness in English society, in the En­glish church, that I did not think existed; but, having said that, but of course God's will is always done. What we have to do is to pray that the church will be faithful to it, leaders will be faithful to it, I will be faithful to it, and to seek our unity on the basis of that faithfulness.

What do you think are the qualities most needed in the leaders of the church in Britain today?
I think it is to be able to bring the Christian tradition to bear on contemporary questions. I think it has been the failure of the church in the last 50 years to do this, its ac­ceptance of a kind of secular Enlightenment consensus as good enough, that has marginalised it, or given the impression that it really has nothing particular to say.

As a child, I was taught that Islam is a legalistic religion whereas evangelical Christianity is all about grace. Over the years, I've realised that evangelicalism is a lot more legalistic than it claims to be -
It certainly is.

- and I've got the impression that there is a measure of grace in Islam. From your observation of the two faiths, what is the fundamental difference between them?
God's grace is available universally and people respond to it in different ways. Sometimes they respond to it in terms of their religious background, sometimes not. I don't think we can limit God's grace to the working of systems, whatever they may be.

I think it is true that as a system Islam puts great weight on the shari'a. Of course, there are Muslim tra­ditions that are aw­are of the spiritual - I have for a long time been interested in Sufism, partly because Sufism and Christianity have had a very close literary and historical relationship, partly because I think it provides a vocabulary for Christians to talk about Christ to Mus­lims. Like many Muslims, I can't agree with everything ever said by any Sufi, because it's such a vast ocean; but the forms in which it has been said are very significant.

Do you expect to see Muslims in heaven?
Look, that is God's busi­ness, not mine. I have been asked to be a faithful witness to what God has done in Jesus Christ, and I have tried to do that. It is not my job to comment on people's final destiny.

Would you be surprised if there were Muslims in heaven?
I wouldn't be surprised by anything in heaven. I'm sure heaven is supposed to be a surprise.


Is there anything the Church can learn from the umma, the worldwide community of Muslims?
Yes. I mean, this is one of the reasons for dialogue. For instance, when I am talking to Muslims I am remind-ed very strongly of the biblical doctrine of the unity of God. Christians sometimes talk of the Trinity in a kind of trigger-happy fashion but, whatever else we may say about God, our starting-point must be that God is one.

Is there anything Christians can do to help the umma to rid itself of religious extremism?
Well, in a way it's up to Muslims themselves, but yes, I think we can, for instance, in the context of dialogue, urge Muslims to say something about freedom of be­l­ief: freedom to express one's beliefs, freedom to change one's beliefs. In my dialogue with [the ancient Islamic university] al-Azhar al-Sharif, which I led for the An­glican Communion for many years, freedom was al­ways on the agenda. Just before he died, I did a joint lecture in Cairo with the sheikh of al-Azhar, Sheikh [Muh­am­mad] Tantawi, and he said that people are free in Egypt to believe whatever they like - it is not the business of the state and it's not the business of religion. I think that is a very significant ad­vance. Similarly, the Grand Mufti of Egypt has issued a very progressive fatwa declaring that apostasy from Islam is not punishable in this life.

There is a very long tradition in Islam of relating the shari'a to the situation in which Muslims find them­selves and this allows room for applying the shari'a for the common good, for the welfare of the people, even the welfare of those to whom it is being applied. Now, that is certainly a principle I would want to commend. It is absolutely vital that Muslim states, particularly, should take account of the whole tradition of [Islamic] jurisprudence, rather than relying on an extremist, literalist interpretation.

I asked those last two questions because I have read that you believe that Christians and Muslims have the capacity to bring out the best in each other.
Whenever human beings meet each other, they enrich each other - if they are open to one another.

In 2008, you wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that Britain needs to 'recover that vision of its destiny which made it great'.2 When do you think Britain was great?
Well, whenever it's been great - I'm not talking about a particular period. Whenever it has shown its best side, if you like, it has been because of the Christian tradition. I mean, the very fact that Britain is a nation, rather than mutually hostile tribes, fiefdoms and petty kingdoms, it owes to Christianity. Its fundamental freedoms - even the Magna Carta - are rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the Bible. The King James Bible (and, be­hind that, Tyndale) more or less created our language, and all the literary greatness that comes from that. You know, wherever you look, the great principles of liberty, of responsibility, that have made Britain great…

There have been times, of course, when it has not acted in a way that's been great - take the story of slavery; and yet the impetus for the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself - what [the great 19th-century historian William] Lecky has called one of the few 'perfectly virtuous pages' in our history3 - had Chris­tian inspiration. And that's not an accident.

Surely, Christian concepts and language have come as naturally to the forces that have opposed reform as to those that have promoted it?
Well, yes, indeed, but…

If only because they were the common currency.
But that is not what makes Britain great. I mean, you asked me what it is that makes Britain great and I'm giv­­ing you the answer. The attitude to slavery in the En­glish Christian tradition goes back to Anselm. The fact that slavery disappeared in this country, very rapidly, after the coming of Augustine - it was replaced by serf­dom, which you might say was not too much of an im­provement; nevertheless, it did [disappear], and there has been a consistent witness since against it. Of course, there have been people who have tried to argue for slav­ery from the Christian tradition; but, as I say, that is not what I would regard as having made Britain great.

If you look at the Evangelical Revival in the 18th and the early part of the 19th century, there was a kind of integrated vision - you might even call it 'evangelical humanism'. It had not just to do with slavery, it also had to do with improving working conditions for men, women and children, with the Ragged Schools and the beginning of universal education, the revival of nursing as a noble profession - all of those things.

The other word in that quotation that jumped out at me was 'destiny'. Is it appropriate to talk about a national destiny? And who, for you, has articulated a sense of a national Christian destiny?
Well, TS Eliot, for instance. I think his book The Idea of a Christian Society in [1939] was quite prophetic. I don't agree with him about everything…
By 'a national destiny', I don't mean something that is prescribed in advance. It has to be worked out - but it has to be worked out in terms of Christian principles. And a Chris­tian vision will always be inclusive: it can't be exclusive, in terms of race or creed or whatever.


When you talk about a need to revive our Christian heritage, are you saying that the people of Britain need to be educated about the roots of our culture and society, or that Christianity should in some way be privileged because of the role it has played in our past? Or are you expressing a kind of nostalgia for a time when Britain was more Christian than it is today?
Not that, not the last.

After all, a huge factor in shaping the best of what this country is today has been Classical philosophy, but I don't suppose you are calling for a revival of that heritage.
That is a very interesting point that I would like to take up with you, because Roman law, Greek philosophy - indeed, the use of Greek forms in art - came to northern Europe through Christianity largely. When people talk about Roman law, it was Theodosius and Justinian4 [who influenced the development of European law], not pagan Roman [legislators]. Similarly with philo­sophy - from Avi­c­enna on­wards, the rediscovery of Aristotle (which was, again, a very interesting thing, because it involved the Islamic world) - all of that was mediated through the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

But I'm not talking about nostalgia, I never use the word 'revival' or 'going back'. What I am talking about, first of all, is [the need for people to recognise] who they are, what has made them a nation, what stands behind the institutions, the Monarchy, parliamentary govern­ment, the constitution itself - the idea of human rights, for instance, which was taken over by the Enlight­en­ment but really had its origins in the debates the Dom­inicans and the Jesuits had about the fundamental rights of the indigenous people of the Americas.

Secondly, my concern is about using Christian prin­ciples in making decisions today. Take the idea of in­trinsic or inalienable human dignity. Now, where has this idea come from? Is it negotiable? Are there any circumstances in which we can say that a person does not retain human dignity? When the Mental Capacity Bill was being debated in Parliament [in 2004-05], this was a fundamental issue. Similarly, how you treat the early embryo or what you do with a terminally ill person who wants to end his life. When you are debating these, you need a moral and spiritual tradition [on which to base] your decisions.

Thirdly, I think I'm not talking about privileging this or that church - that's a separate argument - but I think that the nation as a whole, its political apparatus, its national life, needs some kind of moral and spiritual tradition to which an appeal can be made. I'm not talking about a sort of jingoism - you know, 'Land of Hope and Glory' and so forth - but some common recognition of principles that will allow us to decide together.

There is an argument that for centuries Christianity has been co-opted by the state, very much to the detriment of a genuine witness. I wonder whether that is another reason why it is not held in more regard in this country nowadays, because people see that. For example, every year at the Cenotaph the Bishop of London invites us to ask God to help us 'to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds'. Where is the Christian critique of the Great War? It is almost as if the church is still blessing it.
Well, some of the church did, but there was considerable resistance, as you know. You only have to read the poetry of Studdert Kennedy…5 In fact, the First World War changed the whole course of Christ­i­an­ity because it put an end to the kind of facile opti­m­ism of liberal Protest­antism - and if one Christian tradition has been thoroughly co-opted, it has been that. There was a very stern critique - Karl Barth's, for a start - and of course some of the benefits of that critique were reaped later on when the world had to face a much greater evil.

But I agree, there has been co-option, and this is why in my writing I always point out that religion does have a cohesive function in society - it does provide the reasons for moral behaviour, for national decisions and so on - but it can and should also have a prophetic func­tion, where it says no to a direction that society may be taking - as the Confessing Church did in Ger­many.

If we were to discard our current, rather quaint national anthem, what would we celebrate in a new one?
I think the recognition that an ordered society comes from a recognition of an ordered universe - which in the West has demonstrably come from the Christian faith. (It needs to take account of new knowledge, of course.) I think the teaching of Jesus on loving God and neighbour, as set out in the parable of the good Sam­aritan - that should be reflected in it. I think something about fundamental human freedom. I think something about mutuality - in Parliament we have a prayer [that speaks of] 'hav­ing a care one for the other'.
What do you think? What have I missed out?

Tolerance? But that's quite a wishy-washy virtue.
Yes, it is, isn't it?

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations, it is amazing how many societies and cultures were able to sign up to it; but some have demurred. Do you think that we should try to impose the idea of human rights on others?
I think the first thing to say is that the reason that there appeared to be a consensus in 1948 is that many people even in the non-Western world were actually influenced by West­ern ideas. There just was not the diversity on the international scene we have now. I doubt if a consensus would be achievable now in the same terms. Jawa­h­arlal Nehru wore national dress but he was actually a very Western-influenced leader. Now you might have to cope with a politician steeped in Hindutva or whatever.

But yes, one thing that really worries me is the num­ber of Islamic countries that have entered codicils to in­ternational agreements like the [UDHR] or the Inter­n­ational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, saying that they will only honour these agreements insofar as they are consistent with shari'a. I've found that in many cases that means they're not honoured at all. I think in our dialogue with Muslims we must try and bring out from them and from their tradition what is consistent with human freedoms and human rights. Some very brave [Muslims] have been doing this - Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab who was killed recently, was trying to do this.

It is impossible to impose it on people militarily, if that is what you mean -


No, no, I meant is it right intellectually? You wonder whether our own society can continue to bear the fruits (if you like) of Judaeo-Christian thinking now that it has largely rejected its premises, and yet you are saying, aren't you, that you want other societies to bear those fruits that have never accepted those premises.
Yes, I am. Of course, historically, talk of human rights and freedoms has come from the Christian tradition - I think the belief in inherent human dignity has arisen from the teaching that human beings are all made in God's image. However, the fact that human-rights discourse has come from Christian roots does not mean that it's true only for Christians. I believe it says some­thing fundamental about human beings, and I would hope that other people who are not Christians would ag­­ree with it. If they can do so using their own tradition, that's fine - I look forward to that very much.

Many people - say, secular humanists - who believe strongly in human rights look in the Bible and say: Well, there's not much evidence of respect for them there! When some boys called Elisha 'Baldy', he cursed them - and two wild bears came and mauled them!6
Yes, we are not talking about - The Bible is a vast book, spanning many centuries. What we are talking about is fundamental principles, and it's no use just saying, 'We be­l­ieve in all these principles' - the question is: Where have they come from? So far, I've never had a satisfactory answer from secular humanists. When the matter comes up in Parliament, there's nearly always an ap­peal to the Judaeo-Christian foundation. And when you're talking about things like human dignity, somehow some transcendent value has to be invoked, to justify [the claim] that human beings do have inalienable dignity.

Similarly with the idea of equality. I mean, equality is not obvious in many ways. If you survey the human scene, human beings look unequal in terms of wealth or achievement or capacity or whatever it may be. The idea of equality has arisen because of the Judaeo-Chris­tian tradition of common origin…

It caused a lot of surprise when, at the age of only 59, you resigned your bishopric. Why did you do that?
Well, a number of reasons. Church leaders in different parts of the world, particularly where the church is per­secuted, had been saying to me: 'Please come and help us to develop leadership in our churches!' At the same time, I had got into a pattern of con­ver­sations with gov­­ernments in the Middle East, Central Asia, West Africa, where we were making (very slow) progress on some very difficult questions about fundamental freedoms.

Thirdly, I had got to a stage in my conversations with Islamic organisations such as al-Azhar al-Sharif and the holy city of Qom in Iran where I felt I needed
to de­vote more time to specialist preparation. Fourth was the question of education in the West about some of the big questions the world is facing.
Now, I realised that all of this would involve travel and that it wouldn't be fair to a long-suffering diocese, if I can put it that way; and so I felt that if I was going to respond to what was being asked of me, then I had to be free to do it. I mean, last year I visited 20 countries. Well, I couldn't have done that as a diocesan bishop.

When Christ says to you (as I imagine you hope he will), 'Well done, good and faithful servant!', what do you think he might be referring to?
Well, I mean, my fear is the number of occasions when I have not done what he's been asking me to do, fallen short of what I should have done, failed in love, failed in courage. That would be what I would think of first: that we have been unworthy servants. Certainly that.
But I think, if anything, it is - I've tried to be faithful by standing up for people who could not stand up for themselves, and I think that has arisen out of a following of the gospel. I have tried to understand people's cultural, and even religious, background before speaking to them about Christ, and I hope he will approve of that. And I have worked for a world in which the God-given freedoms of people are respected.

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