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Philip Parham

UK Commonwealth Envoy, former British Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates

Part of UK in UAE

2nd November 2014 London, UK

What’s in a date?

For as long as they have recorded themselves, humans have divided time – by the cycles of the sun (or rather the earth) and the moon, by the visibility of the constellations, by the migration of prey and the growth of crops, and by the anniversaries of the events and heroes through whose prisms they make sense of their existence.

Sometimes these various calendars produce happy or thought-provoking coincidences. One such fell on 4 October this year: Eid Al Adha in the calendar of Islam; and, for Catholics, the feast of St Francis of Assisi, who stripped himself of all worldly possessions to identify himself with the poor, the suffering and the outcast. One commemoration recalls Abraham’s willingness to give up his son for God, and God’s signal that he did not desire that sort of sacrifice; the other celebrates an example of radical self-sacrifice inspired by religious devotion and human generosity.

St Francis famously travelled to Palestine in 1219. Appalled by the behaviour of the “Christian” troops who claimed to bear the standard of their religion, he slipped through the lines to meet the Muslim commander Sultan Al-Kamil. They are said to have impressed each other by their wisdom and humanity, while each remained in his own faith.

The celebrations of Eid Al-Adha and St Francis both remind us that the great monotheistic religions do not demand bloody human sacrifice, but rather sacrifice of the human heart. Not aggression and imposition, but humility and peace.

And the figure of Abraham reminds us of the common heritage which we share as People of the Book. We are much more closely entwined than most realise and many wish to admit. My fifteen-times-great-grandmother was Margaret Plantagenet. The last member of the family which had ruled England for nearly four centuries, and mother of the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, she was decapitated on the orders of Henry VIII because she opposed his religious policy. Her six-times-great-grandmother was St Elizabeth of Portugal, a champion and protector of the poor. St Elizabeth’s ten-times-great-grandmother was a daughter of Abu’l Mutarrif al-Hakim al-Muntasir, second Caliph of Córdoba, and a Basque woman called Aurora or (in Arabic) Subh. And Abu’l Mutarrif of course descended directly from Umayya, cousin of the Prophet’s grandfather.

So a descent of fifty-four generations includes, in the same direct line, the family of the Prophet, the Umayyad Caliphs, a canonised Catholic saint, a beatified Catholic martyr, and – after more meandering centuries – the British Ambassador to the UAE. I and countless other Europeans are accumulations of all those same genes, and all that religious and cultural heritage.

Just as humans like to divide time, they like also to divide themselves into neat and comfortable categories. But those divisions quickly break down under the barest scrutiny. The thugs of so-called “ISIL” have their gruesome historic parallels among those who falsely claimed Christianity to justify their own thuggishness. We should assign them the place they deserve – as awful warnings of how humans can be deluded by greed and sadism. And we should concentrate instead on those, of all cultures and traditions, who demonstrate the human capacity for sacrifice to serve the common good.

1 comment on “What’s in a date?

  1. Fascinating read, thank you Philip.

    With such a vast array of nationalities and cultures present in the UAE, I feel there is a special kind of harmony here amongst the population.

    As we shared common ancestry in the past, we must strive to share common bonds in the future – whilst respecting and understanding each others’ respective beliefs and traditions.

    Wishing you all the best in your term as Ambassador to the UAE.

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About Philip Parham

Philip Parham became the UK government’s Envoy to the Commonwealth on 18 June 2018. Previously Philip was Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2014 until 2018.

Philip Parham became the UK government’s Envoy to the Commonwealth on 18 June 2018. Previously Philip was Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2014 until 2018.