Published today on First Things
I first met Sir Roger Scruton (1944–2020) some years ago, at a conference on the pernicious effects of pornography. I presented a paper addressing the root cause of the plague ravaging societies worldwide: lust. When I finished, Sir Roger approached me, introduced himself, and said, “It’s very important that Muslims come to these events, as the Muslim voice of reason is too seldom heard.” It was the beginning of a wonderful relationship that led to Sir Roger penning powerful essays for Zaytuna College’s journal, Renovatio, on matters of faith and modernity. In the intervening years, we had many conversations, both public and private (including at my home). After each encounter, I felt edified and enriched.
Sir Roger earned well-deserved encomiums as an erudite polymath, a defender of freedom, and a reminder of the importance of beauty amid a civilization that relishes the repulsive. He saw himself as a member of an endangered species: the intellectual conservative. But his argument was clear: Most people, he believed, are conservative by nature, whether they know it or not; they understand the need to conserve the best from our inheritance. “A typical conservative,” he once told me, “is someone who looks around himself and he finds things that he loves, and he thinks those things are threatened, they’re vulnerable, and I’ve got to protect them.” He was talking about institutions that mediate our differences, the rule of law, and the classic works of art and literature, among other things.
In many ways, Sir Roger shared much in common with the philosophical founder of conservatism, Edmund Burke, a man he revered. Like Burke, an Irishman in the prejudiced English high society of the eighteenth century, Sir Roger was a working-class graduate of Oxford in a world of privileged elites. Later, he found himself in an academic environment disdainful of all things conservative. Burke was deeply concerned with England’s injustices in Ireland and India and worked to impeach Governor-General Warren Hastings for abuses against the Indian people; Sir Roger worked to end the abuses of the totalitarian states of the east and was a staunch advocate of religious freedom. But he was most like Burke in that he possessed a phenomenal intellect that enabled him to see what most others could not: where things are headed.
Religious freedom and secular law became keen interests of his. In an essay published last year, Sir Roger was critical of “Islamism” but praised Islam, saying that the Western notion of citizenship, even though it confined religion to the private sphere, was worth defending—“but only if we recognize the truth of which Islam reminds us: citizenship is not enough, and it will endure only if it is associated with meanings to which the rising generation can attach its hopes and its search for identity.”
He had studied Arabic so he could read the Qur’an. He appreciated the legacy of the intellectual giants of the Islamic tradition, including Avicenna, Ghazali, and Averroes, and knew well the history of Muslim civilization’s significant contributions to the West in science, philosophy, and literature. He also supported his son’s study of Arabic and Islamic civilization at Oxford. What troubled him about Islam also troubles most Muslims: What happened? Why does so much of the Muslim world currently live in failing states or despotic ones? These are legitimate questions, and asking them does not render one an Islamophobe, an accusation leveled at him. Moreover, Muslim radicalism in Europe, fanned by almost twenty years of war in the Middle East, does pose a serious concern for people of all faiths in Europe. These were topics he addressed honestly, civilly, and publicly. Always in his talks and books, he embodied the Arabic term adib, a word he knew well: “a learned gentleman.” As he came to know Zaytuna College and its mission of teaching the canons of two traditions—the Islamic and the Western—he said something that touched me: “Zaytuna is one of the points of hope in the world in which we live now.”
Sir Roger was more than a scholar isolated in an ivory tower: He entered the fray and the forum. He did not run from the battlefield; rather, he rallied the troops, sometimes at great risk to his personal safety. He supported and worked with dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, traveling to Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia to give solace and intellectual aid to the victims of collectivism. He was a man whose vast range of knowledge, peerless perspicuity, and rhetorical prowess enabled him to produce a body of work in defense of common sense and sanity that will last long after the hollow op-eds and blogs of his detractors have dissipated into digital darkness.
Sir Roger was a constant gadfly cajoling us back to sanity. Socrates asked for free meals for the rest of his life for providing such a great service to Athens, and he was put to death; Sir Roger never asked for a free meal, but his character was nonetheless assassinated. Time will out the imposters and restore the men and women of truth to their proper place. The outpouring of love, support, and respect for Sir Roger Scruton following his death is sign enough for those who can see our culture has lost one of its greats. As a Muslim, in keeping with the Islamic tradition, I offer a Qur’anic verse for my departed friend: “We belong to God alone, and to God we return.”
Hamza Yusuf Hanson is President of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California.