How much are you guided by your faith? Is your faith everything?

Yes. I wouldn’t be guided by anything else. I wouldn’t understand that.

So every minute of every day, you’re guided by your faith?

Well, the faith has 1400 years of tradition. It has been exposed to so many different situations that there’s practically no human situation unknown to it, although science is changing things today.

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Interview excerpts published in the documentary

… Salim and Sulaiman are Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, a Shia sect of about 15 million scattered around the globe. Ismailis are unique, they say, because throughout history they are the only Shia community led by a living hereditary imam in direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. His hereditary title is Aga Khan, and it was the Aga Khan who inspired them to make devotional music….

Sulaiman Merchant: We pray to him to pray for us, and the beauty of that is we have somebody who’s guiding us through our days.

Lucky Severson: Is that a heavy weight on your shoulders?

His Highness the Aga Khan: Every day, every second.

LS: … You are a spiritual leader, a businessman, treated like a head of state. I think you were just with the prime minister yesterday. Which of those hats are most important to you?

AK: The institutional hat, which is the hat I inherited from my grandfather.

LS: As a spiritual leader?

AK: As the imam of the Ismaili community, by far.

… With the help of tithes from Ismailis, the Aga Khan presides over one of the world’s richest charitable organizations, although Ismailis don’t see it as charity. They see it as their moral duty. The Aga Khan Development Network, the AKDN, is huge. It operates around the world, but primarily in the poorest regions of Africa and Asia. The network has a simple mandate: to relieve disease, deprivation, and ignorance for the people they serve, no matter their faith. The same is true of the network’s many thousand employees, who come from all different faiths….

 
AK: (speaking before Canadian Parliament) Islam believes fundamentally that the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Faith is a force that should deepen our concern for our worldly habitat, for embracing its challenges, and for improving the quality of human life.

That is why the AKDN is at work in some of the poorest regions of the world, places, the Aga Khan says, that are ripe for violence and terrorism.

 
AK: Not only does it come from poverty, but frankly in many areas it’s predictable. The question is, when did that become explosive, and how do you stop it from becoming explosive?

LS: How do you?

The question is, when did that become explosive, and how do you stop it from becoming explosive? [by] preempting it. Changing the basics of the quality of life and giving people, replacing despair by hope. People are driven by hope.

AK: Preempting it. Changing the basics of the quality of life and giving people, replacing despair by hope. People are driven by hope.

And in his view, hope begins with education, one reason his network operates academies and schools for both boys and girls, like this one in Mombasa, [Kenya]….

The AKDN oversees projects ranging from a cardiac surgery and cancer centre in Nairobi and a hydropower plant in Uganda. The Ismailis are renowned for their contribution to the arts and Islamic culture, like the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, the first art museum in North America devoted to Islamic art and culture. Ruba Kana’an is the director of education and scholarly programs….

This navigational instrument, called an astrolabe, kind of like an ancient GPS, is an example that Islamic, Christian, and Jewish scholars worked on together.

Ruba Kana’an: For Muslims they needed this to find the directions for prayer towards Mecca and the times of prayer. What’s fascinating about this specific instrument is that it has on it inscriptions in both Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew.

The empires which functioned best, you had intellectual pluralism, not only ethnic pluralism. You had intellectual pluralism. That is, the best qualified people in society, in medicine, in law, in space sciences, whatever it may be, they came together for the benefit of the community.

 
AK: The empires which functioned best, you had intellectual pluralism, not only ethnic pluralism. You had intellectual pluralism. That is, the best qualified people in society, in medicine, in law, in space sciences, whatever it may be, they came together for the benefit of the community.

…. The Aga Khan says the ethics of his faith guides everything he does.

 
AK: Islam says that we as Muslims have to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it, when we were born. In other words, Allah has entrusted to the human race the duty to improve, work with His Creation. And that’s why the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is called a Trust, and that’s how the ethic of the faith comes into the way you work….

But there are those within Islam who do not revere the Aga Khan or the Ismailis.

Professor Ali Asani: (Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures and Director of Islamic Studies Program, Harvard University): During their history, the Ismailis suffered a great deal of persecution at the hands of the caliphs, but also those who hold other interpretations of Islam. Ismailis in Syria have been also attacked or have been surrounded by ISIS, on the one hand, and Al Qaeda on the other, because these are groups that generally don’t tolerate the Shia, but particularly the Ismailis. So this history of persecution continues today.

LS: Are you generally optimistic?

AK: No, frankly. No. I would hope that we would see a greater tolerance and greater acceptance of the divisions in society, because I think we are seeing forms of polarization which are very, very unhealthy, indeed.

That’s why the Aga Khan, who is 78 this year, travels the globe, doing his best to alleviate poverty and practice tolerance.

 

Additional interview excerpts published by PBS

Lucky Severson: How much are you guided by your faith? Is your faith everything?

His Highness the Aga Khan: Yes. I wouldn’t be guided by anything else. I wouldn’t understand that.

LS: So every minute of every day, you’re guided by your faith?

AK: Well, the faith has 1400 years of tradition. It has been exposed to so many different situations that there’s practically no human situation unknown to it, although science is changing things today.

LS: Can you give me an example or two of where your ethical framework is in play in some of your projects?

We used to have situations, particularly in isolated parts of the world, high mountain areas, where different communities were practising a different form of Islam from one village to the other. What we want to do is to have those villages work together …

AK: Absolutely. I think first of all, we are concerned about the quality of life, and therefore we have to be concerned with the poor. So one of the continuing objectives is to change or eliminate, as far as humanly possible, poverty — people who live in conditions which are not acceptable in terms of quality of life. That’s clear. The second one is having communities work together. We used to have situations, particularly in isolated parts of the world, high mountain areas, where different communities were practising a different form of Islam from one village to the other. What we want to do is to have those villages work together, accept that there are different interpretations. We always knew right from the time of revelation of the faith that there were going to be different interpretations. That’s not new. What’s important is that these different interpretations work together and apply the same ethical principles to the quality of life, and that’s happening. I have to tell you that there are parts of the world where that is happening, and it’s happening successfully.

LS: Give me an example.

AK: Central Asia, high mountain areas, communities who live in villages who have never gone from one village to the next. What you suddenly find that they will share a micro-credit program, they will share the distribution of grain, they will share the knowledge of new commercial activities. And it is inspiring to see how these people come together and work together to improve their quality of life.

I think in many parts of the Christian world, you’ve inherited the Augustinian attitudes towards division between faith and world. That’s in direct contradiction to Islam. We are required to act in our worldly lives in a way which is in keeping with the ethics and the premises of Islam, so we are not allowed to make that division. Indeed, if we tried or attempted to devote the totality of our lives either to one or the other, that in principle is not acceptable in Islam.

Generosity is part of our faith. So it’s an ethical principle for all of us, whether you’re Shia or Sunni or whatever it may be. So that’s intrinsic in the nature of faith for us. The basic premise for the wealthy is you use what you need to live in a dignified manner. What you don’t need, you share.

LS: If religious intolerance and ignorance is one of the reasons we have so much violence, is it up to religions to fix the problem?

AK: I wouldn’t say it’s only up to religion. It’s up to social conscience also. The person who doesn’t believe in any faith still has responsibility to society, so I don’t think it’s an issue of faith exclusively, frankly.

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