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Posted on Sun 1 May 2022

A bold and partial description of long division

If this book were a painting, it would have been done in bold strokes and vibrant colours. It evokes the sights, smells and flavours of “Old” Jerusalem effectively, as Matthew Teller integrates the geography of the city with the stories of the people who live in it. He is an enchanting but angry storyteller; angry about the injustices and inequities experienced in the city over centuries.

Teller does not claim a balanced narrative. He concentrates on those who identify as Palestinian, and Muslims in particular, even if many of his interlocutors are eastern Christians. This raises the thorny question of who is a Palestinian. The stories reveal the diverse origins of their subjects ranging from the Caucasus and beyond, to Turkey, Central Asia, Armenia, India and Africa, as well those who have lived in the land for centuries.

This is also true of the Jews he meets. They, too, come from the Baltic to Yemen and Ethiopia and everywhere in between, including those whose families have lived in the city and the land for centuries, if not millennia. There are good descriptions of some of the most underprivileged Palestinian communities, such as the Gypsy Dom or the West African Takrana, but only passing ones to the poorer Jewish communities, such as the Ethiopian Falashas or the Yemeni Mizrahi.

The Muslim character of historic Jerusalem is assumed throughout, but there is little about how it became Muslim through conquest and re-conquest. The virtues of Saladin and Suleiman the Magnificent are well paraded, but not the harsh dhimmitude the former imposed on the Jews and Christians of the city.

There is not much on the regular enslavement of Christian boys to feed the Ottoman military and imperial machine, nor on the slavery of Jewish and Christian captives taken either during jihad or because they were unable to pay the punitive taxes levied on them by the conquerors. Discussion is needed about whether the “quartering” of Jerusalem was in fact because Jews and Christians were required to live in separate areas from Muslims, rather than a romantic invention of British administrators.

The Crusades are called “barbaric” invasions of a civilised Muslim land by westerners, but Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade because of the increasing hostility of Seljuk Turks towards European pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the unhinged Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim (who is also said to have destroyed Muslim sacred sites) and the desperate appeals by the Eastern Roman Emperor for western support. During the centuries spanning the Crusades, there were periods of truce and even of cordiality. St Francis of Assisi was able to appear before the Sultan at Damietta, and the encounter was peaceful and friendly. There was much bravery and chivalry on all sides but also cruelty and barbarity, typical of the times. 

The Crusaders certainly did not always behave with Christian restraint and magnanimity; the massacre after they took Jerusalem is inexcusable, as is the Muslim conquest of Antioch. Muslim accounts often see the Crusades as “Frankish” attacks rather than as religious wars, rather like near-contemporary invasions by Turks or Mongols. They also record a desire for tolerance, peace, justice and friendship among all parties involved. A final point, which should be made, is that it was perhaps the eastern Christians who suffered the most: the Crusaders often regarded them as heretics and schismatics, whereas the Muslims saw them as a fifth column in their midst.

The British mandate in Palestine after the First World War is described throughout as “colonial”, even though the British never settled there in significant numbers. The Kurdish, Mameluke or Ottoman rule, however, is never described in this way, even though large numbers of people from other parts of the Muslim world settled in Palestine during this period. Crusader rule is called an “aberration”, but it’s not clear why this is so more than various, extended, periods of Muslim rule. 

Teller seems to regard Jewish and Christian presence as foreign, and Muslim presence as somehow native; this is surprising, since Islam is a relative latecomer. Fierce criticism of British policies in Palestine are tempered by a grudging admission that they might have brought some hope to the inhabitants. The renewal of Arab awareness, much of it anti-Ottoman, which the British encouraged and which produced some fine Christian writers and activists, is barely mentioned. Surely it made an impact on Jerusalem, as it did on the rest of the Arab world?

Teller adores Sufism, and recounts with affection his presence at devotional events. He notes, but does not investigate, possible Christian relationships with Sufis; he refers to Sufism’s “boundary-pushing” ideas, but doesn’t say what they are. Some acknowledgement of Sufi involvement in jihad and Ottoman political structures would have been helpful.

Teller tells us he is Jewish but seems critical of the “return” of Jews to the land and of the State of Israel’s “colonial” policy. On the other hand, he tells us of Suleiman the Magnificent’s welcome of Jews who were being expelled from Europe. Why did his modern co-religionists not find it possible to extend a similar welcome to the survivors of the Holocaust? Might this have avoided some of the suffering which Palestinians have undoubtedly undergone? 

He is, understandably, dismissive of much Christian missionary activity but then, time and again, tells us of schools and hospitals, centres for the disabled and hospices for pilgrims established by missionary societies and individuals. He identifies Anglicans as “Protestant” but it is well known that Anglican work with the eastern churches was committed to their renewal and to non-proselytisation. Much Catholic work, similarly, concentrated on education, social service and medical care rather than a merely proselytising mission. Might a more positive evaluation of missionary work have balanced his criticism of it? 

Teller seems implacably opposed to Zionism, especially what he calls “Christian Zionism” which, to put it at its most basic, is the belief that the return of Jews to the land presages the return of Christ. In one place he associates all Christian pilgrims with this ideology. This is not only unfair but also untrue as most pilgrims come better to understand the Gospel and their own faith, rather than to support any kind of religio-political ideology.

Some of the early history sounds like educated guesswork and some references are selective: for instance, it is claimed that Abraham (or Ibrahim) is called “Friend of God” because the Qur’an does so. In fact, here as elsewhere, this title is derived from the Bible. 

Although there is some history here and also some acute social analysis, it is best to read this book as an engrossing travelogue written by someone who has avowedly eschewed any attempt at balance and presents a largely Palestinian, and more specifically, a Muslim point of view. Whether the future will vindicate such a view remains to be seen. 

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