For the five calendar years 2006 to 2010, I had the pleasure to be able to
concentrate exclusively on promoting a better understanding of Islam,
Christian-Muslim relations, the situation of Muslims in Western Europe and to
attempt to enhance Muslims’ understanding of Christianity. This work was
nominally hosted by the St Ethelburga Centre for Reconciliation and Peace,
Bishopsgate, and funded by a syndicate of four charitable bodies. The brief
was to develop courses, promote an understanding, raise awareness and build
up a cohort of people who were interested in multiplying this work in their own
neighbourhoods or professional lives, so that the work could be taken up by an
appropriate institution. The geographical focus was on Greater London with an
awareness of the need for occasional programmes in other parts of Britain and
The genius of the project can be indicated in the following ways:
Through the generosity of the members of the syndicate, I was able to offer my services without charge, including travel and office expenses.
St Ethelburga’s hosted my presence on their web site, which allowed for advertisement and recruitment for the study days that I did for them and allowed us to build up an e-list of people interested in the Understanding Islam project. Throughout the five years, St Ethelburga’s, in the persons of their Director, Simon Keyes, and the team and volunteers, has provided stalwart support and taken an interest in the project and their Fellow in an exemplary way; the original concept was one of symbiosis and I believe that this has been fulfilled.
The lack of a physical location for the project (I only actually “worked” at St Ethelburga’s for nine Saturdays each year) meant that its overheads were extraordinary low; there was never the immense burden of “having to generate funds to preserve the fabric of the building”, pay administrative costs, etc.
Courses, study days and talks went to people wherever they naturally gather by habitation, interest or work. In this way the logistics of attracting people to a teaching centre, wherever it might be located, were avoided. This is of particular note in an area the size of Greater London, where I could easily spend six hours per day in travelling to reach teaching locations; and this given the fact that I was able to take rooms fairly centrally. Courses etc. were hosted in religious, educational, community or domestic locations that were “within the comfort zone” for participants and could be provided either free or at a nominal cost by the hosts.
There was an explicit agreement from the outset that I was to avoid involvement in committees, working parties, boards of enquiry, commissions and suchlike, therefore being able to devote all my time and energy to the project itself.
The project grew on the basis of securing the services of an individual with proven knowledge, skills and experience. I had an academic background in Christian theology, Islamic studies, pedagogy and interfaith relations spread across four decades. I had a proven track record in teaching about Islam, including explicitly to the target audiences and enjoyed a degree of respect within both Christian and Muslim communities. The “course book” for the project (Understanding Islam: the first ten steps, London: SCM) was published in April 2006 and during the London years has sold around 5,500 copies, 50% of which were sold in relation to the project’s work directly. The much shorter basic introduction: The Essence of Islam, aimed at the widest possible audience, has similarly sold around 2,500 copies directly in relation to project events.
This article was written by Chris Hewer for a presentation volume dedicated to Prof. Dr Christian Troll SJ to mark his seventieth birthday (Im Dienst der Versöhnung: Für einen authentischen Dialog zwischen Christen und Muslimen, (ed.) Peter Hünseler, Regensburg: Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 2008). Prof. Troll has worked in the field of the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations since 1961. He studied in Germany, the Lebanon and Britain and subsequently taught in India, Britain, Italy, Turkey and his native Germany, where he is currently Honorary Professor at the Jesuit Theological Faculty in Frankfurt am Main. The article shows the methodology and structure of a course in the historical development of Islamic religious thought as taught by a Christian with a Muslim colleague to a group of Christian and Muslim students in a British university context. Four colleagues of ours at Selly Oak contribute their own reflections: the late Prof. Khalid Alavi from Pakistan, the Revd Gisela Egler from the Church of Hessen Nassau, Germany, the Revd Dr Herman Roborgh SJ from Sydney, Australia and Dr Ataullah Siddiqui from the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, Leicester
Christian Troll was present in the Selly Oak Colleges in May 1975 when the original
consultation with leading Christians and Muslims took place that formulated the vision and launched the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. By this time, he had completed his theological studies in Germany, his Arabic studies in Lebanon, his Persian and Urdu studies in London, and was completing his doctoral work on Sayyid Ahmad Khan. In 1976 he left for Delhi, where he taught at the Vidyajyoti Institute until his return to Selly Oak in 1988. During his five years at the Centre, in addition to supervising research, editing the Centre journal Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations that he began, consultations and occasional lectures, his principal teaching responsibility was the MA core course on the Historical Development of Islamic Religious Thought. When the MA was first developed in conjunction with the University of Birmingham, whose degree it was, the schema was to mirror a Master’s degree in Christian theology, with one paper on scriptural material, one on systematic theology, an optional paper and a dissertation. The Troll course, which was first taught by the Centre’s founder David Kerr, was the Islamic equivalent of a paper on systematic theology…
This article was written by Chris Hewer as a contribution to the two-volume
posthumous book to mark the contribution of Prof. David Kerr, the Founder-Director of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations in Selly Oak, Birmingham (World Christianity in Muslim Encounter: Essays in memory of David A Kerr, Vol II, (ed.) Stephen Goodwin, London: Continuum, 2009 ). David died in his early sixties, just at the moment when he had settled to polish and publish the
contributions that he had made to the field orally during four decades. The article
seeks the rationale and spirit behind the founding of the Centre – as much needed
today as when it was founded.
For those of us involved in the world of Christian-Muslim relations, the name of David Kerr will for ever evoke the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations that he founded at the Selly Oak Colleges in 1976. As the reality of the Centre passes into memory, it is important in the context of the current Festschrift to record something of that vision from early documentation and the memories of those involved over the first decade…
For much of the last dozen years, I have been running courses, writing and
talking to people to help them to understand Islam and Christian-Muslim
relations. For six years in Birmingham (1999-2005), when I was the Adviser
on Inter-Faith Relations to the Bishop of Birmingham, my focus widened to
include practical and structural relations between all the major faiths in that
great cosmopolitan city. For the last five years (2006-2010), I worked in
London with a narrower focus – precisely to develop adult popular education in
understanding Islam for Christians and others, understanding Christianity for
Muslims, Christian-Muslim relations in history and today, and exploring the
multi-faceted world of Muslims and the West. This work was generously
funded by a syndicate of four charitable bodies, both Muslim and Christian, of
which the St Ethelburga Centre for Reconciliation and Peace was one, and so I
was known as the St Ethelburga Fellow in Christian-Muslim Relations. But the
story does not begin there!
Crucible: The Christian journal of social ethics devoted its July-September 2008
number to “Islam in Britain: challenge and opportunity”. The following article was
written by Chris Hewer. It explores some of the key social values that Islam might
have to contribute to the future of British society without doing the work of Muslim
scholars in addressing their tradition and working out the application in detail.
The 2001 Census gave the Muslim population of Britain as approximately 1.6m
people. There are reasons to think that this might have been rather a low figure and, with the passage of nearly seven years, we can reasonably estimate the current total to be in the order of 2 million. The key statistic that the last census produced was the age profile of Muslims in Britain…
In 2007 Chris Hewer was invited to give a paper to the Catholic Theological
Association at its annual meeting in Leuven, Belgium, on theological issues in
Christian-Muslim dialogue, which was subsequently published in New
Blackfriars, vol. 89, no. 1021, May 2008.
The Church of Ireland held a national in-service training day in Dublin in 2006
at which Chris Hewer spoke and later contributed the following paper to the
Church of Ireland Journal, June 2006. It serves as a useful first introduction to
Muslims never understand Islam as a new religion that began with the
revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century CE.
Rather, to understand Islam, we need to go back to the starting point of all
theology, that is the doctrine of God. According to Islamic understanding, God
is one, indivisible, eternal, transcendent, omniscient, and omnipotent (Q. 6:59,
34:22). God is like no other being and does not share divinity with any created
being or thing (Q. 112). Indeed the sin of shirk, that is to associate partners
with God, in the one sin that God will never forgive (Q. 4:48)….