Anglican service hears Muslim preacher's plea

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The first British Muslim to preach at an Anglican service last night used the occasion to make an impassioned plea for mutual tolerance and understanding.

Forces of hatred and intolerance were to be found both in the West and among Muslims, said Professor Akbar Ahmed, of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was invited by the Dean, the Rev Nicholas Cranfield, to preach at evensong yesterday, despite the evangelical protest that greeted a similar invitation to Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan in Oxford last year.

"The generalised and intense contempt of the Western media towards Islam pushes many Muslims into an anti-Western stance. It also makes the the Islamic concept of Jihad, usually translated as meaning Holy War, in essence a peaceful one," he said.

"It was explained by the Prophet as the attempt to control our own base instincts and work towards a better, more harmonious world. The lesser jihad is to battle physically for Islam: that, too, only against tyranny or oppression."

Professor Ahmed told the congregation that he was doing his Islamic duty to proclaim God. "My Muslim friends warned me that given the vast chasm of misunderstanding between Islam and the West, the general suspicion, the ignorance, and the high emotions around religion, some Muslims may spread the rumour that Akbar Ahmed has not only converted to Christianity, but even begun as a priest and taken services. Before fatwahs start flying about, let me scotch the rumour. I am here very much as a Muslim," he said.

Professor Ahmed pointed out that the elements of mutual trust and respect in Muslim-Christian relations went right back to the beginnings of Islam: "When Muslims were being persecuted in Mecca in the early days of Islam, the Holy Prophet sent them to the Christian land of Abyssinia, confident that they would find hospitality there. Late in the 20th century, many Muslims again find refuge in the Christian - or at least partly Christian - land of Britain."

Then, in a clear reference to the attempts to expel Saudi dissidents from this country, Professor Ahmed added: "These days I often wonder what the fate of those earlier Muslims would have been if Michael Howard had been waiting for them in Abyssinia."

Understanding between Islam and the West will be crucial for peace in the next millennium, Professor Ahmed said, yet both Muslims and the Western media contrived to distort the message of Islam when it came here.

Western children should be taught a basic understanding of Islam in their schools, he said. By the same token, Muslim children should be taught about democracy in their schools, too. "Islam has much to offer a world saturated with disintegration, cynicism, and loss of faith. However, this will only be possible if there is a universal tolerance of others among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, an appreciation of their uniqueness and a willingness to understand them."