Well, in what matters then do you specifically intervene? What is your influence and authority?

Long term, long term social programming, long term economic programming, educational development, health, housing, the direction for institutions to go in …

The role of the Imam is to listen — not to talk. There is a big difference in the sense that members of the community must inform me, must tell me what is of concern to them. I do not run a government.

Interviewer: Michael Charlton

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Michael Charlton: Your Highness, how did the Ismaili sect acquire its importance in the first place?

His Highness the Aga Khan: I think it has been a historical development, in the sense that the Ismaili sect has existed for many centuries. It has been a closely knit sect. It has been a sect which has had its own interpretation of Islam. It has produced states in the sense that Fatimid Egypt was Ismaili, and over centuries, I think that it’s a sect which has developed its influence through a number of areas: its approach to Islam, its philosophy. It has a philosophy which is very interesting, very different from other sects of Islam. The technicians call it esoteric, an esoteric interpretation.

I wouldn’t say [Ismailism is] non-conformist. I would say that there is a search to find a meaning in Islam which allows the individual a particularly intimate role of participation in the practice of the faith.

MC: How esoteric? Is it extremely non-conformist in comparison with the rest of Islam?

AK: I wouldn’t say it’s non-conformist. I would say that there is a search to find a meaning in Islam which allows the individual a particularly intimate role of participation in the practice of the faith.

MC: Islam is such a galaxy compared with, even with Christianity whose sects are multitudinous, and the turning-points in it seem to have come much earlier, would you agree, than they did in Christianity, that Christianity has a much slower rhythm of change. When did this turning-point as far as the Ismailis come and why was it necessary?

AK: It was the sixth generation after Ali where the Imam of the time, called Jaffar Sadiq, had four sons, Ismail was the eldest, and the Sevener Shia, and the Ismailis are Sevener Shia, followed the branch of the family led by Ismail, and that’s why they are called Ismailis.

MC: And which century is this in the Christian calendar?

AK: Oh, it must be; I find it difficult to work back, but it must have been around the…

MC: 8th century? AD?

AK: 8th, 8th, between the 8th and 9th century AD, that’s right.

MC: And when you speak of the Twelvers and the Seveners — basic divisions…

AK: May be I can explain this to you. At the time the Prophet died, the understanding of nationhood or state didn’t exist. It was an empire which had been created by Islam and there was a division amongst the Muslims as to what was to happen at the death of the Prophet. The Shia at that time maintained that the Prophet had nominated Ali to succeed him. The Sunni took a different point of view, and of course Abu Bakr became the first Caliph. The Shia thesis was that the Imamat, or religious leadership, which at the time was also the state leadership, was to continue within the Prophet’s family.

MC: And you own descent as head of the Ismailis is from…

AK: Is from Ismail.

MC: And where do you rank?

AK: 49th.

MC: You are the 49th Imam.

AK: Yes, Yes.

MC: What was the political context which dictated the appearance of a sect calling themselves Ismailis?

AK: The question was the Shia Muslims did not agree on who was to be the successor to Jaffar Sadiq, and that time they divided. And since then, there have been other divisions, of course; it is a practically normal historical thing.

I think that is not correct, in the sense that the Ismaili movement did not begin as a political movement. What may have begun, as a partial issue — and it’s extremely difficult to establish, because nothing was written at the time, the Qur’an itself was memorised — but at the time of the death of the Prophet, what was [sic] the ingredients of the division between the Shia and the Sunni is not really entirely clear …

MC: But was that itself a cloak and a mask for, in fact, war between nation-states in what was at this time the last empire, wasn’t it, of the ancient world: the great Arab empire?

AK: I think that is not correct, in the sense that the Ismaili movement did not begin as a political movement. What may have begun, as a partial issue — and it’s extremely difficult to establish, because nothing was written at the time, the Qur’an itself was memorised — but at the time of the death of the Prophet, what was the ingredients of the division between the Shia and the Sunni is not really entirely clear, because all we have today is literature which is based on repetition of what was said, the Hadith in a sense.

MC: And how relevant is that basic division to contemporary politics?

AK: Very relevant indeed, in the sense that the Twelver — there is I think there is only one Twelver Shia state as such which is Iran. Within the Islamic context, the relationship is about, I think, 80% Sunni and 20% Shia. Of countries which have large numbers of Shia, there are, of course, Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan. The Middle East had a substantial number of Shia, of course, at one time, Egypt, Yaman, etc.

MC: Why is the sect of which you are the 49th Imam — incidentally, what 10-15 million Muslims?

AK: Yes.

MC: … why is it so dispersed?

AK: The community has always been a mobile community. It’s also a community which has expanded in various parts of the world, particularly the Indian sub-continent. The Indians themselves have moved around and therefore, members of the community went to East Africa, for example.

MC: But that is an essentially, a modern development?

AK: That’s a modern development.

MC: What, due to commerce and the colonial powers and the….?

AK: And I think…

MC: … the 18th and the 19th century…

AK: Yes, and due to the fact that a lot of the Ismailis, for example, in India came from parts of India where it was difficult for people of Islam to survive at that time.

In the circumstances today, the Imamat as an Institution, I think, is freer to be effective in its work, based in a country which is not involved and nor potentially involved in turmoil and which is traditionally sympathetic to Islam.

MC: What explains the wanderings of the leader of this great sect? Why was the Imamat itself been peripatetic? Quite recently, it was in India, with your famous grandfather the Aga Khan, after that in Switzerland, now in France.

AK: Well, I think there again the Imam has always moved right from the time of Hazrat Ali in fact. In the circumstances today, the Imamat as an Institution, I think, is freer to be effective in its work, based in a country which is not involved and nor potentially involved in turmoil and which is traditionally sympathetic to Islam.

MC: The more unkind of your critics might suggest that perhaps it was the tax laws in Switzerland which persuaded you to move to France. Is there anything in that?

AK: No, well, I think that … (chuckles) that’s a strange way of looking at things, because although I live in France, I still pay taxes in Switzerland. It’s got nothing to do with taxes. What happened is that Switzerland went through a period where they found it very difficult to allow foreigners to work there. The Imamat as an institution, has got to have a large number of people from different parts of the world working. And it became difficult to be effective with an organisation where there just was not the freedom to draw upon the people that were needed.

MC: How is your institution organised, the Imamat of the Ismaili sect? For example, is your own property inseparable from the property of the Imamat itself?

AK: The Imamat revenue is given by the community to the Imam. He has a responsibility to manage the Imamat revenue. Now, in Shia Islam, and this is true of the Twelvers and of the Seveners, the Imams or the Ayatollahs, as it would be in Twelver Shi’ism, are allowed or authorised to retain certain percentage of the Imamat revenue.

MC: Can you tell me how much that is?

AK: In Ismaili tradition, because there is nothing which I have seen in writing, it is 10% at the present time, but the interesting thing is that, in effect, I would say easily 98% of those funds, and in fact at times much more than 98%, in fact probably of the order of 150%, goes back to the community. The reason for this is that …

MC: And just tell me …

AK: I just want to finish this … is that, it is extremely difficult for the Imamat to programme development the way it should be programmed. I will give you an example: the situation like the war between India and Pakistan, and the creation of Bangladesh, Uganda. Situations like that are extremely difficult to handle.

MC: What do, what do these people as individuals contribute? How much of their income? Is it, is it …

AK: I would not really be in a position to discuss that because what they contribute is entirely at their discretion, in effect you know.

MC: And what are the obligations placed upon you when it does come to redistribution? How do you interpret it, because as you realise too, in the contemporary world, you must seem to many people discreditably rich.

I think that if representing an institution which has an income and which manages that income in the interest of the people which it represents is discreditable, then I think practically every institution in the modern world is discredited, because there is no institution in the modern world which does not have its income. The question is, is that income used appropriately?

AK: I think that if representing an institution which has an income and which manages that income in the interest of the people which it represents is discreditable, then I think practically every institution in the modern world is discredited, because there is no institution in the modern world which does not have its income. The question is, is that income used appropriately? I think the Ismailis today would say that, if you look at the last twenty years of development, there has been more development than ever before. At the present time and in recent years, we have made an enormous effort in health, education, housing. There is a $300 million teaching hospital coming up in Karachi; there is a 5-6 million pound Ismaili Centre in London; there is a teaching college which we are envisaging in India, and in fact, as I said, the Imamat is spending on many occasions more than it actually has, and as I mentioned, the difficulty we have is actually planning the use of the funds because we are working in the developing world with its ups and downs and political problems, etc. Education is nationalised one year, and new government comes and it’s free; banks are nationalised one year, then the new government comes in and they also are free.

You know, you talk to me as though I had statistics and survey and this sort of thing. I don’t. Faith is not, is not something which you can quantify. People practice, they don’t practice. Sometimes they do, more in certain generations, less in others. It’s an extremely fluid situation.

MC: Have they maintained their loyalty to this institutional behaviour of the sect? You have already said how difficult it is and one can readily understand that. Your grandfather must have dealt only with the British power and that was worldwide at the time; one can see that that was very much simpler. And today there are 150 members of the United Nations and your sect, as we have said, is very widely dispersed. So how do you in fact keep it all together, and is it being in fact kept together?

AK: You know, you talk to me as though I had statistics and survey and this sort of thing. I don’t. Faith is not, is not something which you can quantify. People practice, they don’t practice. Sometimes they do, more in certain generations, less in others. It’s an extremely fluid situation. But …

MC: But is the general willingness to contribute to the Imamat in the form of religious dues, however you describe them, falling off being affected by the turmoil in various parts of the world or not?

You know if people are fleeing for their lives, you can’t really expect them to participate in any form of activity other than to save their lives.

AK: Well, I think that is bound to happen according to what is happening in the world. You know if people are fleeing for their lives, you can’t really expect them to participate in any form of activity other than to save their lives. But you asked how the community is structured, in fact it’s a very decentralised structure.

MC: Well, in what matters then do you specifically intervene? What is your influence and authority?

AK: Long term, long term social programming, long term economic programming, educational development, health, housing, the direction for institutions to go in, that also.

Is there a central principle which has guided and informed your decisions would you say? First of all, we are Shia Muslims. Secondly, we believe in contributing, in participating in the development of the country we live in. We can’t, don’t seek to live in a little tiny nucleus of internally thinking people.

MC: Is there a central principle which has guided and informed your decisions would you say?

AK: First of all, we are Shia Muslims. Secondly, we believe in contributing, in participating in the development of the country we live in. We can’t, don’t seek to live in a little tiny nucleus of internally thinking people. Law and order, freedom of practice of the faith, these are all fundamental principles for us like for everybody else.

MC: How do you know what is going on?

AK: (Laughs) Oh well, there are all sorts of — all sorts of sources of information, as you can imagine.

MC: And are you well informed, would you say, about the scattered community living all over the earth’s surface really? You must have a …

AK: I think relatively well informed.

MC: You have …

AK: I have to be.

MC: Yes, you have almost a private intelligence network. I don’t wish to give that any connotation it mightn’t have, but would you say that you are very well informed.

AK: I think any religious institution is well informed because people talk within the privilege of the faith.

MC: It was said of the Shah, who you must have known very well, the Shah of Iran, that the entire tradition surrounding him accentuated his loneliness. Was what happened to him, in your view, foreshadowed, predestined?

AK: I think he himself was unhappy about the way events were going in Iran. And I think a number of people had forewarned him. I wouldn’t say that the speed with which events took place could have been foreseen by anybody, but that there was potentially an explosive situation was known.

It would be entirely wrong to say that anybody can actually predict what is going to happen in an explosive situation, because you can not say what is going to be that one event which is going to trigger the whole thing. What you can say is that there is a build-up of discontent …

MC: But it’s being argued with much recrimination in the United States now that the CIA, for example, got that wrong. I just wondered if you did?

AK: It would be entirely wrong to say that anybody can actually predict what is going to happen in an explosive situation, because you can not say what is going to be that one event which is going to trigger the whole thing. What you can say is that there is a build-up of discontent, or whatever it may be, in this particular case there was a build-up of discontent, on so many different fronts, which happened to be simultaneous, that, you know the results.

MC: To that question of how isolated and lonely in the Islamic world a leader with the authority of the Shah invested himself with, and was invested with, is, it was said, I think that no one dared to tell a lie to the Shah’s father, the old Shah, and no one dared to tell the truth to his son. I mean, you feel that there are lessons for you perhaps in that? I don’t mean to suggest that analogy is a very close one, but …

AK: The role of the Imam is to listen — not to talk. There is a big difference in the sense that members of the community must inform me, must tell me what is of concern to them. I do not run a government.

Well I encourage people to speak as much as I can get them to speak. And I like them to speak very frankly, and I have often told them now look, within the context of the faith, you’ve got to speak the truth.

MC: But are you a good listener, and what are you hearing?

AK: Well I encourage people to speak as much as I can get them to speak. And I like them to speak very frankly, and I have often told them now look, within the context of the faith, you’ve got to speak the truth.

MC: On that question of isolation, Curzon said of the Shah’s father how struck he was by the institutional loneliness of his position, that he was addressed even by more privileged, the higher subjects in the land, who had constant access to him, he was addressed as, “May I be your sacrifice,” “asylum of the universe,” a very elaborate form of address, and this cut him off from all sorts of advice and, and counsel. I wonder when you speak to the poor farmers of your Ismaili sect whether you are conscious of that as a difficulty, or whether you have adapted to it, and encouraged their adaptation to a different set of circumstances?

AK: No, I think the relationship is very different. There is a very privileged relationship within the context of the faith. Very privileged. If a man is going to talk about his family, if he is going to talk about his personal problems, that relationship is very intimate. And this is what occurs.

MC: It is said there, isn’t it, that there is nothing more difficult in the politics than to carry out an orderly retreat from established practice. Would you say that that is what you are doing?

AK: No. Not at all.

MC: You don’t see it as a retreat, or in any direction…?

AK: No, I think the Ismailis have, at least insofar as my grandfather was concerned, and insofar as I am concerned, have always had this possibility and have been encouraged to speak absolutely openly and frankly on any issue which they choose.

MC: Where do you see Iran’s best hope lying now? After all, this is where your own sect is intimately involved.

AK: It’s extremely difficult. It’s extremely difficult because the relationship between authority is changing every day. Authority is being challenged in one area; it is being withdrawn from others; it’s being taken and then being refused. You know it depends entirely what day and what part of Iran you are talking about.

MC: Is there anything from Islamic history which might offer guidance as to what would happen there?

AK: I can’t think of any historical situation which is, which one could say, well, this is comparable. Really not. May be a national will, but it would have to focus around, around a leader, or around a cause.

MC: Yes. In these situations has normally led to an autocracy of some kind or another. Anarchy and disorder has been replaced by a much stronger form of leadership. Is that the general pattern?

AK: No, I would say it has been replaced by an individual or an idea and that individual doesn’t have to be autocratic, although he may be called upon to do certain things to restore national integrity or law and order.

I don’t think, you know, you can talk about Islamic government. If you go back to the Qur’an, there is no government mentioned in the Qur’an.

MC: Is there an ideal form of Islamic government?

AK: I don’t think, you know, you can talk about Islamic government. If you go back to the Qur’an, there is no government mentioned in the Qur’an.

MC: I know, you all say that. All Imams and all political leaders in Islam say that. On the other hand, it seems to me that those divisions between the religious and secular life in Islam are, in fact, the, at the heart of all development and they have to be addressed …

AK: They have got to be addressed, that is absolutely correct.

MC: Who wins? What comes out top, religion or the secular process?

AK: I couldn’t generalise on that. It depends entirely on the society of the land you are talking about. You know, I simply can not make a comparison between an Arab country in the Middle East and Indonesia, but they are there. We are talking about too…it’s too vast an Empire, you know, we are talking about hundreds and millions of people covering so many different races and languages.

MC: But is it a genuine revival of religion in your view? There [sic] consistency that appears to be against secularisation?

AK: You could interpret it that way. You could also interpret it as a desire of certain peoples within the Muslim world to return to a pre-colonial position.

MC: Well what ideas are being nourished by what has happened in Iran? Would you say that, generally, that the populations of Islam see, for example, the European supremacy as a purely temporary anomaly and it’s now time to go back to what existed before?

AK: It is not a question of supremacy. I think it is a question of society and conditions of life. Conditions of life in many parts of the Muslim world are extremely difficult and I think the feeling today in many parts of the world, and in fact the Third World generally, is that the Third World must be encouraged to achieve better results. Now, it may mean that it will affect the Western world, as it has done in the oil crisis. That is, the better management of the national assets.

MC: But in this conflict between the orthodox, who say that the Qur’anic teaching, like Khomeini appears to be saying in Iran, are immutable and even if the majority wishes them to be changed — they can not be changed because the teaching itself is unchanging and must not be changed — in that context, between those who think like that and those who think that Islam can not survive unless it adapts, where do you stand yourself?

The Qur’an is not a body of law … What is referred to today as Islamic law is a compilation of views expressed by law makers who lived well after the revelation of the Qur’an, well after the time of the Prophet…. [I]n the Qur’an, for example, a lot of the things which I would refer to as punishment, are punishment as deterrent…. The question is you have got to stop certain things from happening for the good of society. Now if that’s the starting point, then I would say a lot of things do not have to be done, which maybe being done today in the Muslim world. That is my position, because I will start from the Qur’an. I will not start from an interpretation made five or six generations after the life of the Prophet.

AK: I think the question is where you start from. Are you starting from the Qur’an? Are you starting from the Sharia? Are you starting from secular Christian law? Where are you starting from? The Qur’an is not a body of law, and that, I think, is a statement that every Muslim will make. What is referred to today as Islamic law is a compilation of views expressed by law makers who lived well after the revelation of the Qur’an, well after the time of the Prophet. The interesting thing is that in the Qu’ran, for example, a lot of the things which I would refer to as punishment, are punishment as deterrent. The punishment itself is not the issue at stake. The question is you have got to stop certain things from happening for the good of society. Now if that’s the starting point, then I would say a lot of things do not have to be done, which maybe being done today in the Muslim world. That is my position, because I will start from the Qur’an. I will not start from an interpretation made five or six generations after the life of the Prophet. If we’re talking about fundamentalism, lets start at the revelation of Islam.

MC: That puts you fairly firmly in the minority in view of what appears to be happening in Iran and Pakistan.

AK: No. Not at all. Not at all. I think you have to be very careful in the West not to consider that the more rigid forms of Islam today are typical of the Muslim world. That is not the case. It’s very far from the case.

MC: What is this new relationship, that you see, between the Islamic world and the West? Do you believe it is one with which both can live, or is it one which is rather going to return us to the period after the Crusades? And I had asked you earlier about how what ideas are nourished; I mean do you think the Islamic world broadly sees the Europeans, the West generally, going back home? Whether what is happening now is going to add up to the expulsion of the infidel in the contemporary world, just as happened with the establishment of Islamic power at the end of the Crusades?

There are certain areas, certain countries of the Muslim world, who are relatively opposed to the West, but I’m not sure they are opposed to the West on religious grounds. My interpretation is that they are opposed to the West on completely different grounds. Which will cover social attitudes, will cover economic issues — but not the faith.

AK: No, I think that’s really not at all part of the attitude of the Muslim world today. There are certain areas, certain countries of the Muslim world, who are relatively opposed to the West, but I’m not sure they are opposed to the West on religious grounds. My interpretation is that they are opposed to the West on completely different grounds. Which will cover social attitudes, will cover economic issues — but not the faith. Remember that for the Muslims, the Christians are Ahl’al Kitab, “People of the Book”. They believe in One God. So I would not all accept the fact that — although the statement that fundamentalist Islam will oppose Christianity because of Christianity. That’s not the cause.

MC: Would you agree it’s almost inevitable that one sees Islam in terms of revolutionary Islam at the moment because it is that which is claiming the world’s attention, particularly in strategic areas like the Middle East? But is that portrait of ferment and turmoil, do you see that extending? Is that how one should see the logical development, or is it in a sense unrepresentative?

I think it is certainly the area, the areas in the Islamic world which are newsworthy in that sense. But to me it’s not representative. It’s a little bit as if I were to turn around and say, all right, in the Western world, where was the Fourth Republic in France, or democracy in Italy today — is that representative of democracy in the Western world?

AK: No, I don’t think it is, it is representative of the Muslim world today. I think it is certainly the area, the areas in the Islamic world which are newsworthy in that sense. But to me it’s not representative. It’s a little bit as if I were to turn around and say, all right, in the Western world, where was the Fourth Republic in France, or democracy in Italy today — is that representative of democracy in the Western world? It’s not, but at the same time it is a problem within a given area. I don’t think that the situation in Iran or in the Middle East today is symbolic of the totality of the Islamic world. I think that the situation that you have been referring to in the Middle East and in Iran is a maturing process. Any crisis is a maturing process, and in that sense I think that it is improbable that this ferment will extend throughout the Islamic world. I just don’t think you can generalise in those terms. Most of the Muslim leaders that I have met and talked to recently are well aware of the problem. Some issues which contribute to the problem, they control; others they don’t. It is a little bit like in the Western world.

MC: So the crucial factor which one saw in the Middle East, a militant lower middle class — to put it in class terms — linked to the mosque. You think that is a particular phenomenon appropriate only to one or two …

AK (Interrupting): Are you referring to Iran?

MC: Mm, and what might happen in Gulf States for example.

AK: You see, I don’t see that as being the principal cause of the situation in Iran. I think that the situation in Iran was caused by many, many other issues. Not only by the middle class being tied in with the clergy. I think the fundamental issue is a very, very simple problem: What happens to the net disposable income of the population in an expanding economy. That is a critical issue. You can talk about GNP as long as you want. You can give me any figures you want on growth in GNP, that means nothing in relation to what is the actual effective net disposable income of the individual living within that society. [Emphasis original]

MC: Well, for you to have that confidence that you express, or optimism that you express, the corollary must be that Islam itself is learning, in the process of learning the lessons of Iran. And adapting to them.

AK: Again, I think it’s a question of maturing. Few countries will ever be in that situation. Iran is a very special situation. And there are few countries that have had that explosion of wealth and, therefore, who could have got themselves into that position.

SOURCES

  • Interview recording linked above.

    [Text verified and/or corrected from this source by NanoWisdoms]

  • Text (secondary source): ismaili.net

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