W. Montgomery Watt

The Reverend Professor
W. Montgomery Watt

Watt (right), interviewed by Ali Akbar Abdolrashidi
Born William Montgomery Watt
(1909-03-14)14 March 1909
Ceres, Fife, Scotland
Died 24 October 2006(2006-10-24) (aged 97)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Nationality Scottish
Title Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies
Religion Christian (Anglicanism)
Academic work
Discipline Oriental studies and Religious studies
Sub discipline Arabic
History of Islam
Islamic Philosophy
Islamic theology
Institutions Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem
University of Edinburgh
Notable works Muhammad at Mecca (1953)
Muhammad at Medina (1956)

William Montgomery Watt (14 March 1909 – 24 October 2006) was a Scottish historian, Orientalist, Anglican priest, and academic. From 1964 to 1979, he was Professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Watt was one of the foremost non-Muslim interpreters of Islam in the West, and according to Carole Hillenbrand "an enormously influential scholar in the field of Islamic studies and a much-revered name for many Muslims all over the world". Watt's comprehensive biography of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, Muhammad at Mecca (1953) and Muhammad at Medina (1956), are considered to be classics in the field.[1]

Early life and education

Watt was born on 14 March 1909 in Ceres, Fife, Scotland.[2] His father, who died when he was only 14 months old, was a minister of the Church of Scotland.[2][1]


Ordained ministry

Watt was ordained in the Scottish Episcopal Church as a deacon in 1939 and as a priest in 1940.[3] He served his curacy at St Mary The Boltons, West Brompton, in the Diocese of London from 1939 to 1941.[3] When St Mary's was damaged in The Blitz, he moved to Old Saint Paul's, Edinburgh to continue his training.[3] From 1943 to 1946, he served as an Arabic specialist to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem.[2]

After Watt returned to academia in 1946, he never again held a full-time religious appointment. He did, however, continue his ministry with part-time and honorary positions. From 1946 to 1960, he was an honorary curate at Old Saint Paul's, Edinburgh, an Anglo-Catholic church in Edinburgh.[3] He became a member of the ecumenical Iona Community in Scotland in 1960.[1] From 1960 to 1967, he was an honorary curate at St Columba's-by-the-Castle, near Edinburgh Castle.[3] Between 1980 and 1993, following his retirement from academia, he was an honorary curate at St Mary the Virgin, Dalkeith and at St Leonard's Church, Lasswade.[3]

Academic career

He was Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh from 1964–79.

He has been called "the Last Orientalist".[4]

Watt held visiting professorships at the University of Toronto, the Collège de France, and Georgetown University

Later life

Watt died in Edinburgh on 24 October 2006 at the age of 97.[5]


Watt received the American Giorgio Levi Della Vida Medal and won, as its first recipient, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies award for outstanding scholarship.[1]

Watt received an Honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 1977.[6]

Watt's views

Watt believed that the Qur'an was divinely inspired, though not infallibly true.[4]

Martin Forward, a 21st-century non-Muslim Islamic scholar, states:

His books have done much to emphasize the Prophet's commitment to social justice; Watt has described him as being like an Old Testament prophet, who came to restore fair dealing and belief in one God to the Arabs, for whom these were or had become irrelevant concepts. This would not be a sufficiently high estimate of his worth for most Muslims, but it's a start. Frankly, it's hard for Christians to say affirmative things about a religion like Islam that postdates their own, which they are brought up to believe contains all things necessary for salvation. And it's difficult for Muslims to face the fact that Christians aren't persuaded by the view that Christianity is only a stop on the way to Islam, the final religion."[7]

Carole Hillenbrand, a professor of Islamic History at the University of Edinburgh, states:[1]

He was not afraid to express rather radical theological opinions – controversial ones in some Christian ecclesiastical circles. He often pondered on the question of what influence his study of Islam had exerted on him in his own Christian faith. As a direct result, he came to argue that the Islamic emphasis on the uncompromising oneness of God had caused him to reconsider the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which is vigorously attacked in the Koran as undermining true monotheism.
Influenced by Islam, with its 99 names of God, each expressing special attributes of God, Watt returned to the Latin word "persona" – which meant a "face" or "mask", and not "individual", as it now means in English – and he formulated the view that a true interpretation of Trinity would not signify that God comprises three individuals. For him, Trinity represents three different "faces" of the one and the same God.

His account of the origin of Islam met with criticism from other scholars such as John Wansbrough of the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, and Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, in their book Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977), and Crone's Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam.[8]


Pakistani academic, Zafar Ali Qureshi, in his book, Prophet Muhammad and His Western Critics: A Critique of W. Montgomery Watt and Others has criticized Watt as having incorrectly portrayed the life of Muhammad in his works.[9] Qureshi's book was praised by Turkish academic İbrahim Kalın,[10] and has been seen by its proponents as an attempt at countering orientalist bias, inaccuracies and distortion.[11] Qureshi makes his case against Watt by stating:

"Dr. Watt has presented a highly distorted picture of the Life and Teachings of Prophet Muhammad. (peace be upon him). I have refuted his untenable hypotheses, biassed and prejudiced conclusions, and tried my level best to put the record straight."[12]

Georges-Henri Bousquet has mocked Watt's book, Muhammad at Mecca, as an "A Marxist interpretation of the origins of Islam by an Episcopal clergyman."[13][14]

Selected works


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Hillenbrand, Carole (8 November 2006). "Professor W. Montgomery Watt". The Independent. Retrieved 1 June 2016.
  2. 1 2 3 Holloway, Richard (14 November 2006). "William Montgomery Watt". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 June 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "William Montgomery Watt". Crockford's Clerical Directory (online ed.). Church House Publishing. Retrieved 1 June 2016. (subscription required)
  4. 1 2 Interview: William Montgomery Watt
  5. The Herald, The Scotsman, The Times, 27 October 2006
  6. [email protected]. "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates". www1.hw.ac.uk. Retrieved 2016-04-06.
  7. The Prophet Muhammad: A mercy to mankind (dead link)
  8. Patricia Crone, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Princeton University Press. 1987
  9. Zafar Ali Qureshi, Prophet Muhammad and His Western Critics: A Critique of W. Montgomery Watt and Others, Volume 1, Idara Ma'arif Islami
  10. Ibrahim Kalin, Prophet Muhammad and His Western Critics: A Critique of W. Montgomery Watt and Others
  11. Ghulam Sarwar, Book Review - Prophet Muhammad and His Western Critics, Volume 4, The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, p. 115
  12. Zafar Ali Qureshi, Preface - Prophet Muhammad and His Western Critics: A Critique of W. Montgomery Watt and Others, Volume 1, Idhara Ma'arif Islami, p. xiii
  13. Fred M. Donner, The Study of Islam’s Origins since W. Montgomery Watt’s Publications (PDF), p. 4
  14. Jacques Waardenburg, Muslims as Actors, Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, ISBN 978-3-11-019142-4
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/21/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.