15 April 2024 The passing away of Andalusian scholar, Roger Boase (1946 – 2024)*

Dr Roger Boase (Abdul Wahhab), born in Glasgow in 1946, was a pre-eminent British scholar of 15th century Spain, known especially for his work on cancionero poetry, what it revealed about the Islamic influence on European notions of chivalry and courtly love, and the cultural environment during the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain. The janaza prayer for Roger Boase, an old Etonian and alumnus of Pembroke College, Cambridge, was held at the Islamic Cultural Centre, Regent’s Park, on 15th April 2024. 

He was a Research Fellow in the Department of Hispanic Studies, Queen Mary University of London for four decades, and formerly a professor of English at the University of Fez, Morocco, where he taught for six years. He was a self-effacing gentleman, a devoted husband, father and grandfather and a lifelong academic, author of several dozen articles and books, and also a poet and a Sufi.

Roger Boase took a bay’ah at the hands of Shaikh Nazim al-Haqqani (1922 – 2014), In keeping with the best traditions of the Naqshabandi tariqa, a mild demeanour was accompanied with a streak of steel. In addition to Andalusian history, Dr Boase had wide ranging intellectual interests and his work on sufi thought included an essay on Muhyuddin Al-‘Arabi’s treatise Risala Ruh al-Quds, that he co-authored with Farid Sahnoun and published in 1993. [1]

As well as researching, translating and interpreting poetry in the court of Queen Isabel, and seeking to build bridges between people of different faiths, the book he was finishing when he died was about the first-hand experience of a Franciscan friar Anselm de Turmeda (Abdallah at-Tarjuman) who converted to Islam and became a customs official in North Africa. He believed that the full tale of the sufferings endured by the Moriscos before and during the Muslim expulsion had never been told – though he attempted to redress the balance in The Morisco Expulsion and Diaspora: An example of Racial and Religious Intolerance [2].

Among his early work to appear in a Muslim journal was a reflection on Islamic Economics in the present-day context. This was published in the journal of the Islamic Cultural Centre, Islamic Quarterly, in 1985 while a research associate at Westfield College, University of London.[3] It cited the leading lights on the subject at the time such as Professor Khurshid Ahmed, Dr. Umar Chapra, Shaikh Yusuf Qardawi and Muhammad Nejatullah Siddiqui.

Perhaps the most fitting appreciation of Roger Boase for his grasp of history, his clear-sightedness and his concerns for the ummah would be to quote the remarks he made in 1992 following a lecture by Karen Armstrong to mark five centuries since the fall of Granada, 

On behalf of all those who share the aims of the Calamus Foundation, it is my pleasure to congratulate Karen Armstrong on her honesty, her wide-ranging scholarship, her compassion, and her impartiality. She has the rare gift of seeing connections – connections which may seem surprising at first sight, but which are self-evident in retrospect – to which the specialist in one religion or one historical period is necessarily blind. Consider, for example, the parallels she finds between the medieval crusading mentality, the ideas of the Pilgrim Fathers who emigrated to the New World, and the Zionist ideology which served to justify the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Her research into various aspects of religious intolerance in Europe since the time of the Crusades made her realize that if there is to be any hope of global peace and prosperity, then Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who share a common Scripture, must develop what she calls a “triple vision”. This means that there must be a genuine triangular relationship between them: the Jew, the Christian, and the Muslim must each seek to understand, in a sympathetic way, the beliefs and practices of the other two. In our fragile and increasingly interdependent world, this is a difficult challenge which urgently needs to be met so that we can avert more bloodshed in the Middle East and elsewhere; so that we may work together to reduce poverty, sickness, crime, pollution, and all the other problems which we have the means but not the will to solve [. . .]
There is no harm in congratulating ourselves on what we have achieved in the last five centuries, but we Europeans should recall what was lost in 1492 as well as what was gained –  for after that date there was no country in Europe where Jews, Christians, and Muslims could live together in peace, free to practise their respective faiths, as they had done in Muslim Spain. Now that Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain each have growing Muslim populations, some useful lessons might be learnt from the history of al-Andalus. [4]

Dr Boase’s further remarks from the same piece are so apposite in our present times with regard to the situation in the Middle East in contradiction to an alternative spiritual tradition of co-existence:

“You too must love the stranger, for you once lived as strangers in Egypt” (Deut., 10: 19; cf. Exod. 22: 21, and Lev. 19: 33-34) … one can see a parallel between the situation of the Moriscos in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century (or that of the Jews and the Jewish converts in Spain at that time) and that of the Palestinians today.” [5]

While also a life-long poet, trying to capture the ineffable in words, be it a fleeting memory, or a keen observation of nature, he also used poetry to express his horror at the needless violence engulfing the world. He wrote this in October, 2023: 

Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth

at what a deep cost
eye for an eye
tooth for a tooth
we sow the dragon's teeth
a raging cycle of war and death
ashes to ashes
dust to dust
the blind leading the blind
down a dead-end street
no end in sight
you or they or we
may find at last
for we are all complicit
that victory is a hollow lie
and all of us have lost

Through inter-faith dialogue, he sought to bring about mutual understanding in our own times. He edited the collection Islam and Global Dialogue, Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace (Ashgate, 2005) including a contribution from his distinguished brother-in-law, Professor Akbar S. Ahmed.  Roger and his wife also co-authored ‘Pashtun Tales from the Pakistan – Afghan Frontier’, published by Saqi Books in 2008. 

Dr Boase is survived by his wife, his two sons: Mansur Boase, a mathematician at Cambridge and Muin Boase, an international lawyer, and two grand-daughters.  

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajiun.

[1] “Excerpts from the Epistle on the Spirit of Holiness”, in S. Hornstein and M. Tiernan, eds. Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi: A Commemorative Volume, Brisbane, Element, 1993.

[2] Cultures in Contact in Medieval Spain: Historical and Literary Essays Presented to L. P. Harvey, Kings College, 1990.

[3] Islamic Quarterly , Vol. XXIX, No. 3, 1985.

[4] Response to Karen Armstrong’s “The Andalus Legacy”; Karen Armstrong, The Andalus Legacy – A New World Discovered: an Old World Destroyed, European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Autumn 92), pp. 16-21; pp. 3-11, 1992 

[5] ibid.

*Updated version, 16 April 2024, 3 pm.