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
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
Were there repercussions from his conversion? Obviously,
in Pakistan today it would be quite a serious matter.
It'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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Well, TS Eliot, for instance. I think his book The
Idea of a Christian Society in  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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.