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Charis Waddy

Islamic scholar and worker for MRA

Charis Waddy was an Islamic scholar and writer, and the first woman graduate of Oriental Languages at Oxford University.

Charis Waddy, Islamic scholar and writer: born Parramatta, New South Wales 24 September 1909; died Oxford 29 August 2004.

Charis Waddy was an Islamic scholar and writer, and the first woman graduate of Oriental Languages at Oxford University.

Her best-known book, The Muslim Mind, was published in 1976. Reviewing it, the British Islamic scholar Professor W. Montgomery Watt expressed amazement that the work had attracted a foreword by Sheikh al-Azhar, Egypt's supreme religious authority. "We appreciate the attitude of the authoress," wrote Sheikh Abdul Halim Mahmud, "and the motive that has led her to consider Islam in its universal aspect."

The motive was Charis Waddy's affection for a vast range of Muslim friends from Indonesia to Ghana, met in her travels. As a Christian - and long before the trauma of 11 September provoked a renewed interest in Islam in the West - she believed that people of faith needed to find common cause and draw the best out of each other. Her book broke new ground in presenting Muslim answers to questions on areas of daily life such as family and forgiveness. Scholarly and genial, The Muslim Mind went into three editions, and was followed by Women in Muslim History (1980) and a host of articles and lectures.

Waddy owed much to the verve and hardiness of her Australian family tradition. She was born in Parramatta, near Sydney, in 1909. Her father, the Rev Stacy Waddy, was Headmaster of the King's School, Parramatta. He resigned his post to follow his former pupils to the First World War, and was a chaplain to the Australian forces for a period in Palestine.

After the Armistice he was called back from Australia to teach in Jerusalem. In 1919 his wife Ethel and their five children followed him by ship from Sydney. For Charis it would be 54 years before she saw Australia again. At the Jerusalem Girls' College she mingled with Arabs, Jews, Greeks and Armenians, learning something of what her father called "the comradeship of our joint belief". Later at Lady Margaret Hall she was the first Oxford woman to study Oriental Languages (Arabic and Hebrew), winning a First and going on to London for a PhD on Ibn Wasil, an Arab chronicler of the Crusades.

If Jerusalem was already a ferment of rival nationalisms, the Oxford of the 1930s was a cockpit of ideologies. Searching for an expression of faith that could have a bearing on world events, Waddy happened on the Oxford Group, which was out to prove that "changed lives are the foundation of a new world order". Bookish and awkward with people, she found an inner liberation that she could pass on to others.

As the Oxford Group, soon to be known as Moral Re-Armament (MRA) and now Initiatives of Change, set out to build communities of vital faith in the democracies, Waddy became one of their early full-time workers in 1935. She was at the heart of the post-war work of reconciliation in Europe undertaken by MRA. Much of this radiated from the newly opened conference centre in Caux, Switzerland, where she worked in the summer months for most of the next 50 years. There was a major phase with the organisation in Africa in the 1950s. Waddy spent three years in West Africa alongside those who wrote the feature film Freedom (1957), with its accent on the moral dimension of independence.

When in the 1960s she returned to her first love of the Middle East and Muslim world, it was with a deepened faith and a skilled discernment of the human heart. This earned her the trust of academic and religious leaders and their families in the many countries she visited. Her book Baalbek Caravans (1967) came from an extended stay in Lebanon; she gave a course of lectures on Mediterranean History in Cairo University; and she visited Australia, Malaysia, India, Iran, Turkey and Syria in research for her two later books. In Pakistan she spoke at a conference on Seerat (the life of the Prophet Mohamed), and in 1990 was decorated with the Sitara-I-Imtiaz (star of distinction) for her contribution to the understanding of Pakistan, and particularly its women, in the West.

By the time I came to work closely with her in Moral Re-Armament in the mid-1960s, Charis Waddy had the wisdom, sparkle and affection of a mother superior. The artistic Australian was in her too. Once, as she stood at the entrance of the Juma Mosque in the city of Isfahan, her eye fell on some gorgeous Iranian 17th-century tiles with the inscription "The hypocrite in the mosque is like a bird in a cage; the believer in the mosque is like a fish in water"; she included this in The Muslim Mind. In her introduction to the book she quotes the Arab proverb "What comes from the lips reaches the ear. What comes from the heart reaches the heart".

Many a Christian gained a respect for Islam as a result of The Muslim Mind. And a Pakistani Muslim, after reading it and meeting the author, publicly renounced his prejudice against Hindus. Zaki Badawi, Director of the Muslim College in London, describes Charis Waddy as "a great gift to the interfaith movement, of which she was a towering contributor".

Nomadic throughout her life, Waddy was given lodging by innumerable friends, notably in the last phase by Christine Morrison, a founding Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford. That Norham Road home became known for its legions of visitors and volume of mail from around the world.

Two friends visited her in hospital shortly before she died. She showed no response till one, in Arabic, gave her Christ's greeting that is also the Muslim greeting: " As-salaam alaikum" ("Peace be with you"). She raised her head, smiled and gave the Arabic response " Wa alaikum as-salaam" ("And on you be peace"). Then to the question "How are you?" came her answer, " Al-hamdu lillah", meaning "Praise be to God".

Peter Everington