Professor W. Montgomery Watt

Son of the Presbyterian manse and Episcopal priest who became a leading interpreter of Islam


William Montgomery Watt, Orientalist and priest: born Ceres, Fife 14 March 1909; Assistant Lecturer in Moral Philosophy, Edinburgh University 1934-38, Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy 1946-47, Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer and Reader in Arabic 1947-64, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies 1964-79 (Emeritus); ordained deacon 1939, priest 1940; Curate, St Mary, Boltons, London 1939-41; Curate, Old St Paul's, Edinburgh 1941-43; Arabic specialist to Bishop of Jerusalem 1943-46; Chairman, Association of British Orientalists 1964-65; married 1943 Jean Donaldson (one son, four daughters); died Edinburgh 24 October 2006.

W. Montgomery Watt, who in his long lifetime was probably the foremost non-Muslim interpreter of Islam in the West, was an enormously influential scholar in the field of Islamic studies and a much-revered name for many Muslims all over the world.

Born in Ceres, Fife, in 1909, William Montgomery Watt, like many other famous Scots, was a son of the manse. His father died while he was still a baby and he was brought up, as an only child, by his mother, uncle and aunt in Edinburgh. Educated at George Watson's College, he then studied at the universities of Edinburgh, Jena and Oxford.

Although he specialised initially in philosophy and theology, he became interested in Islam through lengthy conversations with an Indian lodger who was of the Ahmadi persuasion. His serious study of Arabic began with Richard Bell, the Edinburgh Orientalist. He was ordained in the Episcopalian Church in 1939. His subsequent appointment as chaplain to the Bishop of Jerusalem took his interest in Islam to a new level.

Soon after he returned to Scotland, he was appointed Lecturer in Arabic at Edinburgh in 1946; there he spent nearly all his long and fruitful career. He was awarded a personal chair in 1964 and he retired in 1979.

Unlike many famous Scots, Watt didn't seek his fortune south of the border, but settled in a charming house in Dalkeith, just outside Edinburgh, in 1947. There he and his wife, Jean (née Donaldson), whom he had married in 1943, enjoyed a long and happy life. As well as his academic duties, Watt continued as a serving minister of the Scottish Episcopal Church for many years until infirmity confined him to his home. He remained a member of the ecumenical Iona Community from 1960.

Watt's vast scholarly output - he wrote 30 books and scores of articles - has made his name renowned in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as in the West. He was a towering figure in the history of Edinburgh University Press, establishing the highly successful Islamic Surveys series in 1962 to bring the subject to a wider readership, and writing seven books for that press, all of which are still in print and are amongst its bestsellers. His other books have been translated into a vast array of other languages.

His early books on Islam concentrate primarily on the career of the Prophet Muhammad. They are based on a close analysis of the original Arabic sources and the two works Muhammad at Mecca (1953) and, especially, Muhammad at Medina (1956) remain classic studies. Freewill and Predestination in Early Islam - the subject of his PhD - was published in 1948 and reveals an interest in Islamic theology which stayed with him all his life. He translated the spiritual "autobiography" of the great medieval Muslim scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali, 1953) and followed that with an excellent study of al- Ghazali entitled Muslim Intellectual (1963). Perhaps his finest achievement in the field of Islamic theology was his magisterial The Formative Period of Islamic Thought (1973).

For these works on theology Watt relied not just on primary Arabic sources but, because of his excellent reading knowledge of German, he could draw on the great pioneering traditions of 19th-century German scholarship on Islam. Especially in his later years Watt's writing concentrated on an abiding concern of his - dialogue between Christians and Muslims - and in this field he published, for example, Muslim-Christian Encounters: perceptions and misperceptions (1991). He also published steadily on Christian topics and his own faith gave a spiritual dimension not just to his discussion of Christianity but also to what he said about Islam.

Watt was awarded many academic honours; he held visiting professorships at the University of Toronto, the Collège de France, and Georgetown University, and received the American Giorgio Levi Della Vida Medal and was, as its first recipient, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies award for outstanding scholarship.

Long before the recent wave of Islamophobia in the West, Watt advocated dialogue with Muslims, not demonisation of them. He doubted the appropriateness of conversion and felt that those of all faiths should collaborate in friendship to stem the tide of materialism and secularisation. Unlike certain Orientalist scholars of previous generations, Watt was indeed convinced that the Koran was divinely inspired and that Muhammad received true religious experiences directly from God. Watt roundly condemned those in the West who sought to perpetuate scurrilous medieval misconceptions about the Prophet of Islam.

He was not afraid to express rather radical theological opinions - controversial ones in some Christian ecclesiastical circles. He often pondered on the question of what influence his study of Islam had exerted on him in his own Christian faith. As a direct result, he came to argue that the Islamic emphasis on the uncompromising oneness of God had caused him to reconsider the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which is vigorously attacked in the Koran as undermining true monotheism.

Influenced by Islam, with its 99 names of God, each expressing special attributes of God, Watt returned to the Latin word "persona" - which meant a "face" or "mask", and not "individual", as it now means in English - and he formulated the view that a truer interpretation of the Trinity would not signify that God comprises three individuals. For him, the Trinity represents three different "faces" of the one and the same God.

Always a shy man, he enjoyed the simple life with his family, either in Dalkeith or in his summer home in Crail on the Fife coast, walking, gardening, stamp-collecting, and latterly, in extreme old age, he derived great pleasure from doing several crosswords a day.

Carole Hillenbrand

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