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16 November 2006

Student of Islam: Professor William Montgomery Watt

Student of Islam: Professor William Montgomery Watt

The Rt Revd Richard Holloway writes:
IT MIGHT have been Bishop Alastair Haggart who said it to me more than 30 years ago. The Revd William Montgomery Watt, who had served Old St Paul’s, Edinburgh, for many years, and had an abiding affection for it, was sitting quietly in the congregation one Sunday morning. “Though he is almost unknown to the public at large,” I was told, “William Watt is one of the greatest Scots of his generation, and a legendary figure among Islamic scholars.”

Like many another distinguished Scot, Watt, who died on 24 October, aged 97, was a child of the manse, born to Andrew and Mary Watt, in Ceres, Fife, where his father was Minister. When he was only 14 months old, his father, who had just become Minister of Balshagray Parish Church in Glasgow, died.

In an unpublished manuscript, William later meditated on the impact his father’s death had on him. It had necessitated a fair amount of moving about in his early years, and he mused: “I sometimes wonder if this early change of abode is the source of my tendency, once I have found a tolerable billet, to remain in it as long as possible.”

He and Jean, whom he had married in 1943, bought the Neuk at Bridgend, Dalkeith, in 1947, and it has been an anchor for the family ever since. In 1956, they acquired a house in Crail for holidays. Those two welcoming homes supplied an almost liturgical rhythm to their family life.

If this was the emotional foundation for which William had clearly longed, the other equally powerful drive was intellectual and spiritual exploration. After acquiring, at Edinburgh and Oxford, three university degrees in six years, being ordained into the Episcopal Church, where he had found a spiritual rather than a doctrinal haven, William made a turn that would direct the rest of his life: he discovered Islam.

It began in a long-running argument with his Muslim lodger K. A. Mannan, a student from Pakistan and a member of the Ahmadiyya sect. This is how he described those debates: “I began to learn something about Islam, of which I had been largely ignorant; but the dominant impression was that I was engaged not merely in arguing with this individual, but in confronting a whole century-old system of thought and life.” That turn to Islam led to a job with the Jerusalem and the East Mission, where he was engaged in work on “the intellectual approach to Islam”.

He came back to Scotland in 1946, and by 1947 he was lecturer in Arabic at Edinburgh University, where he remained till retirement in 1979. He was given a personal chair in Arabic and Islamic Studies in 1964. Books began to flow from his pen, including the ground-breaking Muhammad at Mecca (1953), Muhammad at Medina (1956), and Muhammad: Prophet and statesman (1961), a popular abridgement of the material in the other two.

William said that he always had an ability to see the other person’s point of view, “indeed almost a tendency to prefer the other’s point of view”. He became fascinated by the historic prejudice of the West against Islam. His understanding of it was increased by his association with Norman Daniel, who had made clear to him that this distorted image was created by scholars between the 12th and 14th centuries to provide war propaganda for the crusades.

Later, William came to the conviction that the distorted image was the negative of European identity, the reverse image of what Europe was not. While he remained a Christian, there was a time, under Charles de Foucauld’s influence, when he thought of his vocation as constituting “a willed and deliberate presence” in the intellectual world of Islam. To implement this conception of presence, he often took as the basis for his daily meditation a passage either from the Qur’an or from an Islamic mystical work. One can only pray that this sort of exploratory reverence for another tradition might yet prevail in a world that is tearing itself apart over competing certainties.

William brought the same exploratory reverence to his own Christian faith. He was born in the Kirk, evolved into Anglicanism, but retained enormous respect for the Presbyterian tradition (I don’t think he thought very much of bishops), and deeply respected Jean’s decision to become a Roman Catholic.

He joined the Iona Community in 1960, because he found its brand of radical and exploratory faith congenial. And he continued to be both an explorer and a theological reconciler right up to the end. His last book, published four years ago when he was 93, was A Christian Faith For Today, a distillation of the sort of generous Christianity to which he had given his life.

That friend who spoke to me about William 30 years ago also suggested that we were talking about a modest man who did not like to draw attention to himself. Modest, certainly, but you also get from him a sense of tremendous, almost relentless determination. Unlike many academics, he was good at the domestic end of things. OK, the thermo-nuclear curries he concocted and the powerful fruit alcohol he brewed at the Neuk were a potential hazard to the unsuspecting people of Dalkeith; but he was always an affectionate and engaged father to the five talented Watt children.

At Crail, during those numerous summer holidays, William worked hard to create a little beach for them. He moved rocks, dug channels, and battled seaweed to provide them with a clear space on the rocky shore. By summer’s end it would be almost perfect, but when the Watts were all back in Dalkeith the sea would destroy the haven he had created. The following summer he had to do it all over again.

It speaks of his persistence and determination, but also of something more profound. The struggle against prejudice is never finished, but, though we may never finally sweep back the tide of intolerance, we can all make a difference where we find ourselves. In his life, William made a difference. Better than that you cannot say of any man.

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