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Interview: Ida Glaser academic director, Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies

23 August 2013

'I knew God was calling me into the forefront of the spiritual battle'

I was teaching, after recovering from a breakdown I had in the middle of my Physics Ph.D. I had a choice between going into the Civil Service - safe and well-paid for the foreseeable future - or going back to write up my physics research for an M.Phil. - not an easy thing to do after leaving it for three years. 

For no particular reason, I leapt into my ancient Morris Minor one Sunday morning, and drove from Shropshire, where I was teaching, to my home church, St Helen's, Bishopsgate. Jonathan Fletcher was preaching on the letter to the Church at Pergamom, where "Satan's throne is". What was it at Pergamom that indicated the locus of Satan's throne? His answer was: "The Library."

That did it: I knew God was calling me into the forefront of the spiritual battle, which was the battle for people's minds. He would bless me if I chose the security of the Civil Service, but I would please him more by getting back into the library and writing up my thesis.

The change from physics to theology? I don't see this as a change, but as a progression. As John Polkinghorne wrote somewhere: the difference between physics and theology is that physics is easy, and theology is difficult. Otherwise, they are part of a single endeavour for seeking truth.

It was just part of a long-term call from God to serve Muslims in the gospel. That first took me to teach physics in Muslim contexts; then to help an inner-city church in its outreach to its Asian neighbours; then into teaching in Christian colleges.

Newcastle diocese took a pastoral interest in my future, and thought I should get a theological qualification. As I already had an M.Phil., the wonderful supervisor I found in Durham suggested I went straight for a Ph.D. The thesis was on reading Genesis 1-11 in the context of my ministry among Muslims in Newcastle.

Studying Islam has made me appreciate more the human dimension of the Bible, and see that this human dimension is an intrinsic part of the way that God reveals not only his will (as in most Islamic thinking) but also himself. The form of the revelation, both in Christ and in scripture, is as important as the content.

Muslim cultures are often closer to the cultures of biblical times than are Western Christian cultures. It is transformative to read the biblical material on women when relating at depth with Muslim families.

The Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies, in Oxford, is an independent Christian centre for research on the interfaces between Christianity and Islam.

This includes Christians studying Islam, Muslims studying Christianity, and multi-disciplinary work, such as the history of Muslim-Christian relations and dialogue, intertextual readings comparing the Bible and the Qur'an, sociological study of Christian and Muslim attitudes to each other, studies of Islamic legal views of Christianity, Christian theologies of Islam, conversion between the two faiths, missiology.

We have regular research seminars, and a Friday-afternoon "Tea and Conversation", when people can chat around a theme and/or questions they bring with them.

The other week, as an example, I had tea with a distressed student; taught for a morning on the relationship between the Qur'an and the Bible, at Wycliffe Hall; attended a seminar on the teaching of Islam in UK theological colleges at our Centre; marked some essays on the meaning of jihad; gave email advice to two people who want to do doctorates; had a meeting with my "Reading the Bible in the Context of Islam" research team; gave tutorials to students working on topics ranging from the five pillars of Islam to the treatment of religious themes in recent films. . .

We don't offer courses in our own right. Most people who come to our seminars and study groups are studying in Oxford or elsewhere. We also have people come to do "guided reading" with us - anything from three days to six months. And we have people who are attached to us for a year or more to do some specific research.

I have been employed by Crosslinks, an Anglican mission agency, since 1992, and they second me to work at the Centre. I also teach at Wycliffe Hall. It's one of my passions that the next generation of Christian leaders will do all their theology and ministry with Islam in mind. 

I'm named after my father's mother, who died in Auschwitz. That really fuels a lot of my passion for resisting the labelling of people of other faiths as "the other", and the way I respond to communal violence and ethnic cleansing. It also makes me appreciate deeply all the biblical stuff that reflects agonies over loss of land and violence, and drives me again and again to the Cross as the only thing that makes sense of anything.

And it helps me to counter Western Christian individualism. I often tell my students: "You think you know Ida - but if you don't also know me as a Glaser, you don't know me at all. For most Muslims, if you don't know something of their family history and community, you don't understand them. It's also true of you." 

I lost my parents in a car accident when I was 15, and my home changed immediately. My father's sister came straight over from Czechoslovakia, and took over the household. That makes me acutely aware of the struggles of immigrants, and the losses that so many people experience. The Muslim-Christian interface is littered with loss: young Muslim women who leave their families and countries to marry someone in the UK; or converts who are dismissed from their families; or people who have lost family and property as a result of violence. All the academics in the world won't help if we can't help people to deal with the resulting grief, terror, and rage. 

Probably my most important decision was, aged 16, to say yes, in advance, to anything and everything that God would ask me for the rest of my life.

Functioning as an academic with a fairly recent head injury is like running in the Olympics with only one leg. And there is no "para-academia". Every lecture I give, and every piece I write, is, for me, a miracle. I have to depend on God. I can do only half of what I did before, but, probably, at least half what I did before didn't really matter in eternal terms. So my prayer is that God will show me the half that really matters.

I'm only a very small part of God's world. It's not what I do that matters, but what he is doing.

I'd like to be remembered for being like Jesus in some way. 

I like holidays somewhere beautiful and quiet, where my husband, David, and I can walk and we don't need a car. Neither of us drives. The Isle of Wight is a favourite.

Favourite books: Pascal's Pensées, Simone Weil's Waiting for God, Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge, Karl Popper's Conjections and Refutations, and Reijer Hooykaas's Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Before that, the Evangelicals who were popular among students: John Stott, Michael Green, Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness.

Muslim writers? Mahmoud Ayoub, especially Redemptive Suffering in Islam, which looks at parallels between Christian views of the sufferings of Christ and Shi'ite views of the sufferings of Hussain; the Deobandi text Bahishti Zewar by A. A. Thanvi, which is what Pakistani women are likely to have been taught; and my colleague Shabbir Akhtar's The Qur'an and the Secular Mind

My husband is away working a lot, and I love to hear his voice on the phone. And I love silence, especially since my head injury. I don't listen much to music these days, because it tires the head rapidly. But Handel's Messiah and Bach's Mass in B Minor. Hymns are important parts of my mental furniture: "My song is love unknown" is special.

I love Genesis 6.6: the pain in the heart of God makes the world bearable. Things like the story of the Levite and his concubine in Judges are appalling, but it's good to have that recognition of how a woman can be so badly treated when people live "each according to what is right in his own eyes". The last thing that made me angry was the wicked exploitation of a vulnerable woman. 

I'm happiest teaching the Bible and looking at my garden; hearing that I've planted seeds that have changed a life, especially if they have brought them to Christ; sharing someone's deep pain; being somewhere beautiful with my hus- band. 

I pray for people I know, especially those in pain; for the glory of Christ through our work; and for my family. And I pray: "Lord, I don't know what to do: please help me." 

I'd choose to be locked in a church with President Assad. It might do him good to have to be somewhere quiet and look at the image of Jesus on the cross. I'd just sit and pray for him and the people of Syria. 

Dr Glaser was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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