Jun 27th 2018
ONE of the world’s most lucrative prizes for spiritual endeavour, bequeathed by an American-British billionaire who was a fervent Christian, has been awarded this year to one of the luminaries of the Muslim world, King Abdullah of Jordan.
The Jordanian monarch, whose dynasty claims descent from the prophet Muhammad, is only the second Muslim to receive the Templeton Prize, worth £1.1m, since it was instituted in 1973. Its stated aim is to honour, every year, an individual who has made an exceptional contribution to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.
The prize, and the Templeton Foundation which administers it, were established by Sir John Templeton, an American-born investor who was a devoted Presbyterian Christian but also saw value in learning about other religions. Previous recipients have included South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lord Jonathan Sacks (former chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth), and Charles Colson, a member of Richard Nixon’s White House who went to jail for obstructing justice and then became a prison evangelist.
By honouring the Jordanian sovereign, the prize-givers are sending quite a subtle message about the value of patient diplomacy rooted in strong scholarly work. King Abdullah and his Hashemite dynasty have been responsible for some impressive initiatives aimed at curbing extremism within Islam and at easing tensions between the leading monotheistic faiths.
In one of these initiatives, known as the Amman declaration, eminent figures from eight different legal schools, representing virtually all the strains of Islam, came together. They affirmed that despite sectarian differences they would recognise one another as valid Muslims and hold back from branding each other with proclamations of Takfir, in other words allegations of apostasy. That might sound trivial but it isn’t: one of the hallmarks of murderously extreme jihadists is that they are quick to describe Muslims less fanatical than themselves as apostates or deviants from the faith. That is only a small step from calling them worthy of death.
Another trademark of modern Jihadis is that they claim the right to proclaim Fatwas or judgments on religious matters, regardless of whether they have any training in theology. So signatories of the so-called Amman declaration (whose numbers have steadily increased, across at least 50 countries) specified that only qualified authorities could issue Fatwas.
Another big initiative by the Jordanian royal house was the Common Word in which distinguished Muslims issued a friendly challenge to bigwigs of the Christian world, inviting them to dialogue and co-operation on the basis of two axioms which, in the signatories’ view, were present in both religions: love of God and love of neighbour.
In recent times, religious diplomacy by much wealthier rulers of Saudi Arabia has enjoyed more publicity than the highbrow work sponsored by the Jordanian royals. In part this reflects a shift in the Arab world’s centre of gravity, away from the troubled Levant and towards the wealthy Gulf. But the newly announced prize is a reminder that in a faith which values continuity and tradition, there is no substitute for diligent scholarly work. In the words of H.A. Hellyer, an analyst of Islam with RUSI, a London think-tank, and the Atlantic Council based in Washington, DC:
This news [about the award] is very significant because of what the prize was awarded for: inter-faith work between Christians and Muslims, initiated by Muslims, and intra-faith work among Muslims, initiated by Sunni Muslims. For all the recent media frenzy over Saudi Arabia’s claimed shift to the mainstream of Sunni Islam, it is difficult to imagine any such prize being awarded to Riyadh’s rulers for this kind of work.