One of the main causes we hear of the strife in Iran is that the Shah wants progress…. Many of the religious leaders in Iran are opposed to that. They think the conservative approach is best. You yourself are a modern man, Harvard educated, very much a Western oriented man in education and learning. So doesn’t that sort of put you and, in that sense, your people, against what seems to be a majority of feeling in Iran?

It might do. It might do. I think the main issue really is how the Mullahs or in my case the Imam, view the compatibility or the incompatibility of Islam with the modern world, and as far as my family is concerned, my community is concerned, we don’t run away from that. We are not prepared to say that there is a basic conflict between the modern world and our practice of Islam. I am not sure that this conflict is seen by all Ithnashri Muslims in Iran. I don’t think it is.

Interviewer: Norm Perry

 

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Norm Perry: As spiritual leader of the world’s 20 million Ismailis, the Aga Khan is a direct descendant of Muhammad. As a political and a social leader He is a man of enormous wealth and responsibility. The Aga Khan is a friend of the Shah of Iran. Many of his followers live there. I asked Him in Ottawa yesterday what someone in his situation might do when a country such as Iran is thrown into the turmoil and crisis.

The outcome [of the Iranian turmoil] can be vastly complex. It can destabilize a whole area and in destabilizing that area, can destabilize a substantial part of the Western world, Western economies, so I consider the crisis very serious.

His Highness the Aga Khan: I think the first thing one would ask oneself is the reasons for it. How the reasons fit or don’t fit together, and then ask yourself what the outcome could be. The outcome can be vastly complex. It can destabilize a whole area and in destabilizing that area, can destabilize a substantial part of the Western world, Western economies, so I consider the crisis very serious. The number of Ismaili Shia — rather than Ithanashri Shia — in Iran is very small so it’s not that the Ismailis will have any impact on the outcome in Iran.

NP: One of the main causes we hear of the strife in Iran is that the Shah wants progress. He wants to turn Iran into a modern, industrialised state. Many of the religious leaders in Iran are opposed to that. They think the conservative approach is best. You yourself are a modern man, Harvard educated, very much a Western oriented man in education and learning. So doesn’t that sort of put you and, in that sense, your people, against what seems to be a majority of feeling in Iran? That is what I am trying to get at basically.

[My family and my community] are not prepared to say that there is a basic conflict between the modern world and our practice of Islam. I am not sure that this conflict is seen by all Ithnashri Muslims in Iran.

AK: It might do. It might do. I think the main issue really is how the Mullahs or in my case the Imam, view the compatibility or the incompatibility of Islam with the modern world, and as far as my family is concerned, my community is concerned, we don’t run away from that. We are not prepared to say that there is a basic conflict between the modern world and our practice of Islam. I am not sure that this conflict is seen by all Ithnashri Muslims in Iran. I don’t think it is.

NP: The Middle East, generally, an area of terrible conflict, has been for centuries, I suppose. Many of your people, the Ismailis live in the Middle East of course and I suppose there are a lot of them in Lebanon. Are you involved in direct way in that country?

AK: No, we were more involved, are more involved in Syria than Lebanon. Lebanon is a country where there has been for many, many years a tremendous mix of communities, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Druz, Marronite Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians, it is a very complex situation and we are much more concerned in fact with Syria than we are with Lebanon.

NP: What about Syrians involved in Lebanon. I suppose I am asking a political question as well.

AK: These are political questions and I think one has to keep in mind that the Ismailis are a minority in Syria like they are a minority in Iran, like they are a minority in Lebanon. Therefore, in the overall equation, they are very, very small elements within these given countries. In other countries, they are much more substantial in number.

NP: How about the unfortunate situation in the Middle-East between the Arabs and Jews. Here you have what could very well be a religious question. Are you involved in that issue?

I am not prepared to say that a Jew and a Muslim cannot live side by side in different circumstances at peace with each other. In fact, the Qur’an and Islam as a faith, accept Judaism as a monotheistic faith.

AK: Not particularly, in the sense that I don’t see it as a conflict of faith. I see it as a strictly territorial conflict. I am not prepared to say that a Jew and a Muslim cannot live side by side in different circumstances at peace with each other. In fact, the Qur’an and Islam as a faith, accept Judaism as a monotheistic faith. In fact, they refer to like the Christians, as “Aal-al-Kitab” – “People of the Book”

NP: In the West, I have been reading several of stories that have been printed about you, almost every story I have seen about you talks first about your wealth, how wealthy you are and how your grandfather would be weighed against diamonds and pearls and things to give him money. Then it talks about your sister Yasmin’s friendship with Margaret Trudeau and about your father, Aly Khan’s marriage to Rita Hayworth and later on, you get the stuff you are spiritual leader and has a lot to do with the Ismailis. Doesn’t it bother you when you see stories like that, all that basically gossip stuff that comes on the top in the West?

I don’t think that living in the West one can ignore the fact that the West has a tradition of a certain type of press which it’s accepted, it lives with. I don’t think it attaches much seriousness to that press …

AK: I don’t think that living in the West one can ignore the fact that the West has a tradition of a certain type of press which it’s accepted, it lives with. I don’t think it attaches much seriousness to that press and as far as I am concerned, my work is what counts, my people is what counts and I am not prepared to discuss that sort of — really material with any of that media.

NP: You are the man with a background in the East and you are educated in the West. You speak like a Westerner, if you will forgive me, you look like a Westerner. Is there not a contradiction between what you represent, who you are as a spiritual leader and the life style you live?

AK: No, I see no contradiction whatsoever. I think you have to be very careful not to apply to Islam what I would call Western terminology. You are accustomed in the West, to seeing men of the Church, so to speak, take a certain attitude to everyday life, dress in a certain manner, in fact, I think you are used to a certain dichotomy between men of the Church, so to speak, and men who are living everyday lives. In Islam, that is not the case at all. The Prophet was married, was a businessman, had on-going business activities, led armies, and yet that didn’t stop the Prophet from being a Prophet, from leading the prayers and I think that one has to really correct that image or that understanding, because it is a misunderstanding in the West. In a sense, what you are saying is that the modern world cannot live with peace — with faith.

NP: Many of your people came to Canada as a result of what I suppose many people consider an atrocity in Uganda. How did you deal with it when Idi Amin said,”Out, we don’t want you here.” What did you do?

[W]e knew perfectly well right at the time of independence that if there was a crisis which affected Ugandans, we would be involved in a completely different manner from those who had kept British citizenship. This is a decision that has been a part of the community’s life for many years, not only in Uganda, but everywhere else. We seek to become citizens of countries where we live…. Therefore, you think the problem out before it hits you in the face, if you can …

AK: Well, I think the history is really what is of some importance. When Britain gave independence to Uganda, she offered to the non-indigenous communities the choice between British citizenship and Ugandan citizenship. Some of the immigrant communities opted for British citizenship, we opted for Ugandan citizenship. Therefore, we knew perfectly well right at the time of independence that if there was a crisis which affected Ugandans, we would be involved in a completely different manner from those who had kept British citizenship. This is a decision that has been a part of the community’s life for many years, not only in Uganda, but everywhere else. We seek to become citizens of countries where we live. Therefore, it was known that it could be a difficult situation. Knowing that it could be a difficult situation, one had to make the best arrangements that one could, to help these people in the event of the sort of situation one that arose in Uganda. Therefore, you think the problem out before it hits you in the face, if you can, and a number of countries and a number of international agencies came to the assistance of the Asians and the Asian-Ugandans. Britain came to the assistance of the Asians-British and Canada very substantially took Asian-Ugandans.

NP: Was there any problem getting the people of your sect into Canada?

AK: No, you know the Canadian Government extended a level of co-operation, understanding, help that was absolutely remarkable.

NP: How many Ismailis are there in Canada now?

AK: You know I wouldn’t be able to give you a precise figure, but I would think something in the order of 20,000 today or something like that.

NP: And is your purpose in Canada now basically to visit that community?

AK: To visit the community, to see how they have established themselves, to be with them, to complete a certain number of religious ceremonies that must be completed.

NP: That’s part of the job as a spiritual leader?

AK: That’s part of my job.

NP: What have you learned so far about the people who came to Canada.

AK: Well, first that they are a changed community psychologically. Which is understandable, but very palpable, I would say, if one can use that word, there is a sense of peace and “equanimity” which is really very visible. There is a sense of challenge. It is a new country that they are getting to learn about and that they are very attached to. They view Canada as a country with great prospects, completely different from what they have know up to now. So it is very exciting.

NP: Thank you very much Your Highness.

SOURCES

  • Text (secondary source): ismaili.net
  • Audio: ismaili.net

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