Conviction and conflict

Anything by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali is going to be a good read, and this more than most. It is about the role of religion in society and especially the relationship of religion to conflict. Nazir-Ali is uniquely qualified to comment on such issues. Initially an Anglican priest and bishop in his home country of Pakistan, he was later General Secretary of the Church Mission Society and is now Bishop of Rochester.

The book covers a huge amount of ground. The first half looks at the history of relations mainly between Islam and Christianity, but also with other religions. More importantly, Nazir-Ali delves into the meaning behind those encounters, both peaceful and in conflict. There is some especially interesting coverage of how Islamic/Christian relations evolved, initially congenial but then descending into periods of mutual hostility (and back!); with times of high classicism and peaceful co-existence, but intervals of barbarity on one or both sides.

The second half of the book considers a wide range of issues in Islamic/Christian relations today and gives hugely valuable insights. How literally should the Koran and the secondary Islamic texts be applied in today’s world? How should the provisions of Dhimma be applied to recognise the rights of non-Muslims in Islamic countries? What does Jihad mean today? Should Islamic countries be expected to adopt western-style democracy? The last question is especially interesting, as Nazir-Ali suggests that a more natural structure may be, for example, government by consent through recognised elders, such as the Loya Jirga in today’s Afghanistan. The book closes with a concise four pages setting out a possible agenda for how to deal with the international situation and flashpoints; world leaders please note!

The strength of this title is that it comes from someone who has long experience in both Islamic and Christian cultures and countries and has thought through the issues both widely and deeply - and someone who seeks to be a peacemaker but with no grinding agenda other than the love of Christ. Its weakness is a tendency to overdo the facts and history such that it is sometimes a little hard to see the wood for the trees and some sections read like a history lesson. So many issues are considered that some topics are introduced and start to be discussed, but then are left rather hanging in the air.

It is also quite a heavy and, at times, dense read, quite academic too, although far more anchored in practice and reality that the word normally implies. This is accounted for by its origins in Nazir-Ali’s Scott-Holland 2005 Lectures in Oxford, and the text rather reads like this. To do it justice I would need to re-read it, and digest some parts quite slowly. But it certainly repays the effort in bettering our understanding of some of the largest issues in our world today.