Jim Al-Khalili at Physics & Faith
Jim Al-Khalili speaking at Physics and Faith

On 24th September at St Ethelburga’s in the City of London we hosted an amazing event. Physics & Faith combined some very distinct voices. The result was extraordinary…

Jim, a.k.a. Jameel

“One of my grandfathers was a Shia Ayatollah”. This is a surprising admission from one of the UK’s most popular broadcasters and self-professed atheist, Jim Al-Khalili. He is standing in St Ethelburga-the-Virgin within Bishopsgate. It is one of the few medieval churches to have survived the Great Fire of London. Jim (or Jameel as they call him in Iraq) is not here to denounce religion. He wants to support our peace-building work. He is here to tell us about his childhood growing up in Baghdad. Distinguished Chair in Physics at the University of Surrey, the face of numerous BBC programmes and now a highly-regarded novelist, Jim is also tonight’s first speaker. 

“Had my family not escaped Iraq when they did, my brother and I would have been cannon fodder in the Iran-Iraq war”. It is a melancholy thought. Jim talks of “survivor’s guilt”. Known to his Iraqi school friends as “the English kid” (his mother is an English Christian), Jim grew up unhindered by the sectarianism that now plagues Iraq. “I didn’t care or even know if my friends were Muslim or Christian, it didn’t matter.” The Iraq Jim speaks of is buried under thick layers of time. However, we believe that pluralism can flourish again (once the fighting has stopped). Jim shares how at night in the summer heat of Baghdad he would lie on the roof looking up at the stars. This stirred in him questions which became the spark for his interest in Physics, which has lasted a lifetime.

A reunion of broken parts

Among the personal reflections, Jim also speaks about The Golden Age of Science in the medieval Arab world. Shortly after the collapse of the Roman Empire, much of what the Romans had inherited of Greek thought was rescued by Arab scholars. In the Dark Ages, when most of Europe was an intellectual wilderness, the Arab peninsula was steeped in Aristotle and Plato. This gave rise to wonderful advances in mathematics, medicine and engineering. Jim points out that Algebra comes from the Arabic phrase “al-jabr”, literally meaning “reunion of broken parts” (an apt name for what Iraq needs right now). Much of these developments prefigured Newton and other Enlightenment thinkers. It is a fascinating chapter in the history of science.

Jacob & Drinkwater

After Jim’s powerful talk, we hear music from the incomparable Jacob & Drinkwater. Their haunting set includes a song written specially for the occasion. We hope to include this in our Christmas film. Watch this space!

Jacob & Drinkwater performing at Physics and Faith
Jacob & Drinkwater performing at Physics and Faith

Why Faez became a priest

Much has been said of Revd Faez Jirjees. As many of you will know, he is Priest in Charge at St George’s in Baghdad (and a dear friend and partner to FRRME). What you may not know is the story of why Faez became a priest. After his son was born with severe brain damage (the result of birth asphyxia), Faez was plunged into despair. He tells the hushed audience at St Ethelburgas that he was angry with God after the birth of his son. After much soul-searching, he and his wife decided to pray for their son. They prayed for him and other children suffering from the same affliction. This intense period of prayer reignited Faez’s childhood dream of entering the priesthood. From the pain emerged a lasting desire to help others. This has led to an astonishing holistic ministry at St George’s in Baghdad.

Turning his life around

Faez is the only Anglican Vicar in Iraq. He is going to be made an Honorary Canon later this year. Faez tells us he is honoured by this promotion but says “that is not why I do this work”. He concludes by telling us that his son was not expected to live more than a few years but is now 19, although needing constant care. Faez is proud of his son. Faez is thankful for his son because his son ‘turned our lives around’ and set him on a new course. God’s grace has given Faez the strength to continue his reconciliation work despite often homicidal opposition from zealots and extremist groups. We are thankful to Faez for coming to the UK to share this and many other poignant stories with us. Thank you too to all those who bought tickets for Physics and Faith, it really was an extraordinary event.

Revd Faez Jirjees speaking at Physics & Faith
Revd Faez Jirjees speaking at Physics & Faith

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