Celebrated British author and religious commentator Karen Armstrong has won the inaugural British Academy Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding. The jury awarded the £25,000 prize in recognition of her body of work that has made a significant contribution to understanding the elements of overlap and commonality in different cultures and religions.
Responding to the award, Karen Armstrong said:
“I am so honoured to receive this prize. I am also most grateful to Dr Nayef Al-Rodhan and the British Academy for drawing attention in this way to the need for transcultural understanding. One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community where people of all ethnicities and ideologies can live together in harmony and mutual respect: if we do not achieve this, it is unlikely that we will have a viable world to hand on to the next generation. Religion should be making a contribution to this endeavour but, sadly, for obvious reasons, it is often seen as part of the problem. Yet I have been enriched and enlightened by my study of other faith traditions because I am convinced that they have much of value to teach us about our predicament in our tragically polarized world.”
The Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding, which is open to nominations from around the world, is a new award from the British Academy. It is named after International Relations scholar, Dr Nayef Al-Rodhan, who is the author of numerous works, including The Role of the Arab-Islamic World in the Rise of the West: Implications for Contemporary Trans-Cultural Relations (2012). This new prize – worth £25,000 and to be awarded annually for five years – is designed to honour outstanding work illustrating the interconnected nature of cultures and civilizations.
Dr Nayef Al-Rodhan has said of this prize: “Positive transcultural understanding and synergy is not only morally appropriate but also necessary for the sustainable future of our globalized world. The multi-sum security nature of our connected and interdependent world makes such positive interactions an important pre-requisite for transcultural security, national security of all states, and the security and stability of the whole global system.”
Sir Adam Roberts, President of the British Academy, will say at the award ceremony on 4 July: “This is the British Academy’s newest and biggest prize, and we are deeply grateful to Nayef Al-Rodhan for having initiated it. Much of the Academy’s work – in a huge range of subjects from classical antiquity to modern politics and international relations – draws attention to the elements of sharing, borrowing and even theft of ideas between different civilizations. The British Academy is delighted to inaugurate this very special prize. A distinguished jury, chaired by Dame Helen Wallace, Foreign Secretary of the Academy, selected the winner. From a large and impressive field they have made a brilliant choice.”
A former Roman Catholic nun, Karen Armstrong is well known for her work on comparative religion. She has drawn attention to the commonalities of the major religions, such as their emphasis on compassion. She rose to prominence in 1993 with her book A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Her substantial body of work (translated into 45 languages) also includes:
- Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (1996).
- Islam: A Short History (2000)
- Buddha (2000)
- The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000)
- The Spiral Staircase: A Memoir (2004)
- A Short History of Myth (2005)
- The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006)
- Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time (2006)
- The Bible: The Biography (2007)
- The Case for God: What Religion Really Means (2009)
She has been notably active in bringing together different faith communities to encourage mutual understanding of shared traditions. In 2005, at the inauguration of Alliance of Civilizations, a UN initiative sponsored by the Prime Ministers of Spain and Turkey, she was appointed a member of the international High-Level Group that was asked by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to diagnose the causes of extremism and to propose measures to counter it. She is a Trustee of the British Museum and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
She has received many awards and prizes. In 2008, on receiving the TED Prize, she called for the creation of a Charter for Compassion, which was unveiled the following year (www.charterforcompassion.org). The Charter was written by leading activists and thinkers representing six of the major world faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The Charter has now become a global movement, and is particularly active in Pakistan, the Netherlands, the Middle East and the United States. Armstrong and other activists are now creating a network of “Cities of Compassion”. She has said: “My hope is to ‘twin’ some of these cities, so that a city in the Middle East can twin with one in the USA to exchange news, and encourage email friendships and visits. In Pakistan, we are creating a network of Compassionate Schools to train the leaders of tomorrow, and in September 2012, the Islamic Society of North America endorsed the Charter, making its schools ‘Schools of Compassion’ and urging its mosques to become ‘Compassionate Mosques’.”