Two of the country's best known universities are to set up research centres aimed at promoting a better understanding of Islam.
Cambridge and Edinburgh universities will share a £16m endowment from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Abdulaziz al-Saud, a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family and chairman of the Kingdom Foundation – a charitable and philanthropic foundation set up to alleviate suffering around the world.
Both universities, members of the 20-strong Russell Group, which represents the leading research institutions, will set up study centres with the aim of fostering better understanding between the Muslim world and the West.
In Cambridge, the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies will seek to develop a "constructive and critical awareness of the role of Islam in wider society". There will be research programmes on Islam in the UK and Europe and the portrayal of Islam in the media. Public lectures, conferences and summer schools will be organised to promote better understanding, with policy makers from both worlds invited to become visiting fellows at the centre.
At Edinburgh, the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Modern World will aim to concentrate on promoting understanding of the history of Islamic civilisation and of Muslims in Britain.
Professor Carole Hillenbrand, head of the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Edinburgh, said the centre's programme would have "twin emphases on both the past and the present and how they reinforce and illuminate each other".
In both cases, the universities have a history of involvement with Islamic studies. In Edinburgh's case, this dates back 250 years to its first scholarship in Islamic studies. The university was recently placed top in the UK for research on Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. The university has one of the largest concentrations of expertise in Britain on Islamic studies, bringing together 20 full-time members of staff.
About 60 undergraduates a year study at Cambridge's Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Courses in Islam are also provided to students at the Faculty of Divinity. The study of the Middle East and Islam, and its role in the contemporary world, is a growing element of the Centre for International Studies and Department of Political Science's research programmes at the university.
An agreement to set up the two centres was formally signed at Buckingham Palace yesterday. The ceremony was attended by the Duke of Edinburgh, chancellor of both universities.
Professor Yasir Suleiman, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Cambridge, said: "We intend to create a world-class cadre of researchers and build partnerships with other centres and members of the European Muslim community to advance tolerance, mutual understanding and cross-cultural dialogue between Islam and the West."
Prince Alwaleed said: "It is paramount for both Islam and the West to reach mutual ground for pro-active dialogue, respect, acceptance and tolerance. We are determined to continue building the bridge between Islam and the West for peace and humanity."