Volume 18 Number 1
Listening to Muslim Mind
01 February 2005
As a Christian married to a Muslim, Lorraine Khan finds inspiration in the books and life of Charis Waddy.
The recent death of the writer and scholar, Charis Waddy, led me back to her books and their influence on my life and the life of my husband.
Born in Australia and brought up in Jerusalem, Charis Waddy was the first woman to graduate from Oxford in Oriental Languages. It was there at Oxford that she came across the other major influence in her life, the Oxford Group (now Initiatives of Change). These two strands came together in her 50s, when she returned to the Middle East. She noted that nobody had cared to ask about Islam from those who actually believed and practised it. This was the seed for The Muslim Mind (Longman, 1976).
My husband is a Muslim and we have found her book to be of great value in our relationships in both the Muslim and the Western world. Her work helps to break down stereotypes, replaces many inaccurate images and gives an understanding of Muslims in all aspects of their lives.
The Muslim Mind allows Muslims to speak for themselves about their beliefs and perspectives. For instance, a Beirut professor gives an insight into how Muslims see the Holy Qur’an: ‘It is not a book in the ordinary sense, nor is it comparable to the Bible.... It is an expression of Divine Will.... Christ was the expression of the Divine among men, the revelation of the Divine Will. That is what the Qur’an is.’
She also quotes Ismail Izzet Hassan, an Egyptian Doctor of Music: ‘The secret of Muhammad’s effectiveness lies in his complete obedience to his Lord, in his total self-dedication to the execution of the instructions he received from Him. He did not fulfil his task out of his own strength, but as an instrument of a Higher Power.’
The role of forgiveness in Islam is referred to many times in the book. For instance, it tells of a Turkish editor who kept in touch with a high school student who attempted to assassinate him and arranged for him to continue his legal studies in prison. Later he wrote a newspaper article saying that the young man deserved forgiveness.
In his book Orientalism the writer Edward Said decried the work of orientalists ‘whose knowledge of Islam and of Islamic peoples has generally proceeded not only from dominance and confrontation but also from cultural antipathy’. One of the world’s leading Islamic scholars today, Akbar Ahmed, commends Waddy in his book Postmodernism and Islam for her ‘warm sympathy’. It is clear that amongst her contemporaries Charis Waddy was a pioneer.
My husband and I met Charis Waddy when she visited friends in Wales. Wales had a special place in her heart as she had worked among the coal mining and steel communities there after World War II. She used to recall an evening there that focused for her a choice between bitterness and freedom and led her to decide never to harbour resentment overnight. She felt that this prepared her for those later years in the troubled Middle East.
She had a special quality of listening and appreciating the best in others. As she shared the difficulties she had faced in her own life, we began to realize that change in the world would only come about with a change in ourselves. We wondered how we could bring this approach to the attention of other people, and ended up organizing an evening on ‘Different faiths—common tasks’ in our city, Cardiff, which has one of the earliest settlements in Britain of people from Somalia and also has large West Indian and Asian communities.
Soon after this meeting we attended a conference in India on the theme of ‘Reflection, healing and reconciliation’. There my husband spoke of how his family lost their home to arsonists at the time of the partition of India in 1947. He told how his uncle’s family had been protected by a Hindu neighbour and of his Hindu friends from student days at Glasgow. He was given the grace to apologize to Hindus and Sikhs for Muslims’ part in the violence at the time of partition. This was a precious moment both for him and the people listening.
Charis Waddy was a confidante and friend to many women in the Muslim world, and this gave birth to another book, Women in Muslim History (Longman 1980). Here she brings to life women mystics, rulers, educators and administrators. Not all the women are ‘good’ Muslims and others are Christians who made their mark in Islamic society. A new generation of Muslim women are now writing the next chapter in the story of women’s contribution to Muslim history.
To Charis Waddy, the study of the Muslim world called ‘for an attitude in the non-Muslim which it must be acknowledged has often been lacking: a respect for a way of life which has already lasted for 14 hundred years, which has nurtured more than one great civilization, and which is at present in a state of upheaval and expansion. Such respect can be sincere though not uncritical, and can recognize the wide areas of agreement that exist between the traditional values of Islam and Christendom, especially in the honouring of women and the centrality of family life.
‘If the gigantic tasks of the 21st century are to be achieved, mutual fear and suspicion must be replaced by a common fight against materialism and corruption. In this battle the millions of women in the Muslim world, with their ideals and their courage, are one of the greatest sources of hope.’
Her words are as pertinent today as when they were written, nearly 25 years ago.
*Third edition, New Amsterdam Books, Maryland, 1988, ISBN: 1-56131-014-X