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Cambridge Interfaith Programme

Photograph of a landscaped garden, with tended hedges, flowers, and grass.

During celebrations for the 20th anniversary of Cambridge Interfaith Programme, there were many kind words from friends of the Programme. One special token came from Kalam Research and Media, a collegial thinktank directed by Dr Aref Nayed. Dr Nayed has been a consultant and key advisor since the Programme's inception. Together with colleagues at Kalam, he has gifted a special commemorative edition of the lectures that marked the creation of a Sultan Qaboos Chair in Abrahamic Faiths and Shared Values here at the University of Cambridge. The edition is entitled Ecologies of Wisdom: Christian and Muslim Horizons.

Professor Esra Özyürek, the present incumbent of that Chair, provided a foreword. The text of that foreword is reproduced here. A digital copy of the full commemorative edition can be downloaded below. 

Ecologies of Wisdom: Foreword to the Commemorative Edition

Professor Esra Özyürek writes:

In 2009, Professor David Ford, my predecessor as a director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, travelled to Oman at the invitation of His Eminence Shaykh Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Salmi, Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs. He faced the honored and somewhat daunting task of addressing generations of Muslim scholars at the Institute of Shariah Studies and in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. For each audience, he drew upon the wisdom of his own tradition and position (Christian, lay, Anglican) to offer indications about what might make for good leadership and for good inter-faith relations. He distilled this wisdom into a series of recommendations which he termed a Muscat Manifesto. Six months later, the University of Cambridge welcomed a reciprocal event as esteemed scholar and long-term advisor to our Programme Dr Aref Nayed delivered a Muslim response to that manifesto. 

Thirteen years have passed. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Programme that Professor Ford founded, it is my turn to be daunted. The invitation is as great an honour: to deliver a foreword to this special edition of the talks, entitled Ecologies of Wisdom. As those who turn straight to the picture pages will soon discover, this is a celebratory edition that captures important moments and people in the history of Cambridge Interfaith Programme (as it is now known) with marvellous detail. The invitation demands first that I look back on a history to which I did not yet belong, and at the same time it encourages me to look forward and to shine a light on what may, I very much hope, come next.

In their talks, Professor Ford and Dr Nayed spoke of pioneers and lineage, of cultivation, compassion and flourishing. Each of them—or perhaps more exactly, they jointly—have pioneered much of what CIP has become. They have built friendships and trust, entered into deep engagement and debate in terms that allowed them to face difference without the need to overcome it, and they have done so largely as theologians and with the study of scriptures as their foundation. In the practice of Scriptural Reasoning, they have learned to inquire together into one another’s traditions, to query, quiz and push for greater understanding. That practice, I shall admit, is something that puzzles and confounds me. I am neither a theologian, nor a natural student of scripture. Rather my apprenticeship has been in anthropology: I read people, I quiz people, I push for greater understanding of people. Fortunately, and it must be fortunately, since I have inherited the great project that Cambridge Interfaith Programme represents, I think these acts of reading can be complementary.

In reading people, I attend most especially to the ways that relations between religions are lived. It can be productive here to make a distinction between inter-religious relations (what happens daily, in and between households, neighbourhoods, communities, and to some extent nations) and inter-faith relations. The former have been the substance of many anthropological works, and are a component of my own studies—for example, in relation to the experience of Muslims living in Germany and Turkey, and those who have chosen a religion not inherited from their grandparents. The latter, inter-faith relations, are, it seems to me, a product of the modern era: fostered intentionally and in pursuit of better mutual living. As an anthropologist, I am curious to study the people and contexts that foster and produce inter-faith relations, to better understand what they intend and how, where and why they might (or might not) be achieving it. But that is work for the future. 

One initial observation I can share: very often if one scrutinises the who and how of inter-faith relations, one sees men. As a Muslim woman, I notice this. I am sure that other women notice this too. And it gives me hope that I, a Muslim woman, have been granted admission not only to the University of Cambridge but to a significant professorship. I find it hard to imagine that that would have happened as recently as 2002 (when CIP was founded) and perhaps it could not yet have happened without the very manifest commitment to fostering good relations between the Abrahamic Faiths that CIP has willed into being. Is it wrong to find a little of myself in Professor Ford’s opening text?

Wisdom cries out in the street; 
in the squares she raises her voice …
(Proverbs 1:20; emphasis added)

Of course, I do not write wholly in jest. 

Those 2009 lectures were important for another reason: Dr Nayed delivered his lecture on an auspicious day. Visiting Cambridge with him was His Excellency Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammad Al Salmi, Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs for the Sultanate of Oman. His Excellency bore an important message: His Majesty (the late) Sultan Qaboos bin Said had determined to endow a permanent Chair in Abrahamic Faiths and Shared Values. It is that endowment that fetched me to Cambridge two years ago, and that investment that supports my vision as Academic Director of Cambridge Interfaith Programme today.

The lectures you can read below give an indication of what our Programme had achieved by 2009. Of great significance was the work of Professor Ford and Dr Nayed in encouraging publication of A Common Word, an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI from 138 Muslim signatories, acknowledging the shared commitment to love of God and love of neighbour.  That approach stimulated rich discussion and thoughtful response, catalysing a new era of dialogue and the establishment of initiatives in Muslim-Christian relations that continue to inspire and influence much that is good. Professor Ford draws out a connection between those moves and earlier work within the Christian world, especially the rapprochement of historically-divided Christians as an outworking of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Since 2009, the work of Cambridge Interfaith Programme has continued. An ever-changing team has curated activities ranging from high-profile exhibitions, workshops, and training programmes to academic conferences, research projects, classroom resources and syllabi. Through a process of continuing evaluation and discernment, the team has been humble enough and bold enough to recognise where others had grown in capability and were more suited to take forward particular initiatives. Where CIP once served as the hub for Scriptural Reasoning in the UK and beyond, the Rose Castle Foundation (est. 2015) is now the primary base for coordination, training and facilitation in this important practice. We have similar positive relations with other external partners, including Faith In Leadership. Our work has evolved in other ways: alumni of CIP’s Summer programmes speak in passionate terms about the influence on their lives. This is as true for those who staffed residential summer schools as those who attended as participants. As of 2021, we have established an academic summer school programme, supporting international students—from a range of stages and contexts—to advance their understanding of inter-faith relations in terms of methods and practice. A conversation with my co-convenors will readily convince you of the significance of this intensive work for those who study and learn together—even as pandemic circumstance forced such activity online. 

Dr Nayed refers to a passage from the Qur‘an that characterises a good word as a tree, firmly rooted and branching out (cf. Surah 14). He rather quickly acknowledges that to grow wisdom, we want trees, and indeed whole forests, “akin to Qur‘anic gardens”. The diverse organisations not simply branching off from but establishing separate identities from our Programme are, I trust, a healthy example of seedlings rising to independent stature, the foreshadowing of a blossoming forest. 

What then, comes next?

At the time of my appointment to the Sultan Qaboos Chair, I brought with me a vision: the Religion and Global Challenges Initiative. The world of the 2020s resembles the 2000s in many respects. Yet we must concede that certain challenges press upon us with increasing urgency: climate change and its implications for all who cohabit planet earth—but most especially those in the developing world who feel its impacts most harshly; migration, whether provoked by conflict, economic necessity or choice, and the pressurised intercultural and inter-religious encounter that often results; discrimination on grounds of gender, race, sexuality, and religion and perceptible increases in identity politics and oppression of minorities, to give just a few examples. Since religion is a global phenomenon, we must not shy away from tackling these global challenges in terms that make sense of and take seriously the role of religions—that harness the power of religious communities even—to create the change the world needs. It is, as Dr Nayed has said, “vital for theological ecologies to be fruitful and to be of service to people”. Acknowledging the arrival of Cambridge Muslim College, Professor Ford speculated about the capacity of Europe to be “a laboratory for exploring what wise, faithful and creative responses might be possible”. For him, the challenges have been as much intellectual as practical, and that is to be expected given the considerable seat of learning which he has occupied. I hope though, that we will collectively turn our intellects, our creative powers and our wisdom to seeing what inter-faith and inter-religious studies can offer in the face of the great challenges of our time, and that we will do so in a way that is necessarily empirical but also radically rooted in the diverse international contexts of all whose trees can be nourished with the compost of Cambridge learning. 

Meanwhile, I invite you to read on and to glean nourishment from the theological compost of my predecessors, and to celebrate with me the great generosity of these scholars and all who have contributed to the first twenty years of Cambridge Interfaith Programme.

Contents of the special edition

  • Foreword to the Commemorative Edition (Esra Özyürek)
  • Seeking Muslim, Christian and Jewish wisdom in the fifteenth, twenty-first and fifty-eighth centuries: a Muscat manifesto (David F. Ford)
  • What is required of a religious leader today? (David F. Ford)
  • Opening Address (H.E. Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammad Al-Salmi)
  • Growing ecologies of peace, compassion and blessing: a Muslim response to ‘A Muscat Manifesto’ (Aref Ali Nayed)

This publication also includes photographs from the 2009 lectures in Muscat (Oman) and Cambridge (UK). The download is a low resolution PDF. 

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