God has favoured me with the blessing of Islam. I think that many religions find it difficult to adapt to or to live in an evolving world. Not so with a Muslim who believes in the omnipresence of God. In Islam, there is no dichotomy between the spiritual and the temporal. I have endeavoured all my life to live and work in accordance with this integrated philosophy. I think that many of us, Muslims who were educated in the West or have been imbued with Western ideas, forget that there are certain Christian traditions which go back to the teachings of Saint Augustine and which sharply separate the religious from the secular. These are not the traditions of Islam. Quite the contrary, Islam forbids the separation between the way you deal with people in society and that in which you discharge your religious duties. The meanings of life, its aims and ethics are part and parcel of the integrated unity of the Muslim environment in which I believe and through which I work.

Interviewer: Riad Naguib El-Rais

Riad Naguib El-Rais: People see a contradiction between the fact that you are a Muslim leader, the forty-ninth Imam of the Ismailis with an uninterrupted thousand year, and more, of Islamic history behind you and, on the other hand, the fact that you are a modern man who deals with the present time using its own instruments and concepts. Isn’t there a contradiction between the two persons?

His Highness the Aga Khan: God has favoured me with the blessing of Islam. I think that many religions find it difficult to adapt to or to live in an evolving world. Not so with a Muslim who believes in the omnipresence of God. In Islam, there is no dichotomy between the spiritual and the temporal. I have endeavoured all my life to live and work in accordance with this integrated philosophy. I think that many of us, Muslims who were educated in the West or have been imbued with Western ideas, forget that there are certain Christian traditions which go back to the teachings of Saint Augustine and which sharply separate the religious from the secular. These are not the traditions of Islam. Quite the contrary, Islam forbids the separation between the way you deal with people in society and that in which you discharge your religious duties. The meanings of life, its aims and ethics are part and parcel of the integrated unity of the Muslim environment in which I believe and through which I work.

RE: It’s strange, you speak here so vehemently of the unity between the spiritual and the temporal in Islam and claim that it is Islam which lends you this force, whereas there are those who accuse you of being too Westernised.

Apart from the fact that I live in the West, I fail to see how I can be qualified as Western. There are millions of Muslims who live in the West without being Westerners.

AK: Apart from the fact that I live in the West, I fail to see how I can be qualified as Western. There are millions of Muslims who live in the West without being Westerners. But if you mean my style of work, then you are right since I do adopt a Western style of work because I was educated in Western schools. Also, it is possible that the type of work I am doing requires that kind of style which is common in the West if it is to achieve effective results. This style includes, among other things, working under pressure and seeking a minimum standard of efficiency. It could be that all these things combined give such an impression of me.

RE: But why do you live in the West? What is the factor which determined this choice since you can afford to live anywhere you choose, particularly as Ismailis are mainly found in Asia and Africa?

I live in the West so that people may not think that the Imamat is an institution belonging to this or that state.

AK: In the first place, I live in the West so that people may not think that the Imamat is an institution belonging to this or that state. In this way, the Imamat will remain a world[ly], non-political institution. It is difficult for a Muslim today not to be associated in his public life with a given state, philosophy or position. In the second place, I am concerned about the effectiveness to which I aspire. In the countries of the developing world, obstacles still stand in the way of efficient work: difficulty of communication and transport, shortages of highly-qualified people, difficult work conditions. This would mean that any decision taken would necessarily be a compromise.

While it is true that there is no such thing as a perfect or an ideal decision and that a certain amount of compromise will be inevitable, our life in Europe has created this problem of interpretation and led people to ask what we are doing here. But if we were in any of the Third World countries, people would ask the same question: What are they doing there? On the other hand, if you ask people in India, Pakistan or East Africa: “What is the Aga Khan doing?” They will know the answer because I spend each day ninety-nine percent of my time trying to solve some of their problems.

RE: What you have just said may be true of Asia and Africa where it seems most people know what the Aga Khan does. But in the Arab world many people know nothing about you. It is obvious that in spite of the far-reaching activities you undertake in many countries of the developing world, you do not have any significant activities in the Arab world as if you avoid being seen there. Is that an act of will on your part?

AK: Let me try to answer your questions generally first. For reasons of my own, I believe that an Imam in my position would not wish to be always in the limelight. There is a certain sense of humility in me which makes me avoid flagrant publicity. Secondly, as regards the projects which we undertake, it may be in the interest of their effectiveness and credibility not to be constantly exposed to the spotlight of publicity as this would inevitably raise discussion about them. I am not one of those who seeks debate for its own sake.

As to the part of your questions regarding the Arab world, there are a number of our activities which concern it, including for example the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Also, a branch of the Aga Khan Foundation will open in Egypt next month, where it will be possible to develop a number of economic and social projects in the field of rural and agricultural development. We also intend to intensify our activities in the Arab world within the competence and functions of the Foundation, i.e. in the development sector.

RE: Still, there are those who criticise the considerable attention you give to the Indian sub-continent and your intense activity there and the lesser attention you pay to the Arab world, in spite of the fact that you have followers there.

AK: This is because I am, by nature, a cautious man.

RE: After several years of dealing with the West, you represent a “success story” there. So much so that there are those who say that you “defeated them in their own game” whereas there are others who failed in their benevolent or commercial enterprises.

We have adopted a wise attitude in our development projects by keeping away from speculations.

AK: I do not think that I have “defeated them in their own game” as you say, in order to achieve success in the West. I was lucky to have received a good education which has enabled me to learn the art of dialoguing with people and has given me a true understanding of current affairs. Another factor in my success is that the Aga Khan Foundation has realised a great deal of serious credibility as regards the projects we have undertaken either in the Third World or in the West. We have adopted a wise attitude in our development projects by keeping away from speculations. When you deal with the industrialised world — which is a world keen on development issues, holds its own view of it, is against speculators and theoreticians and is a conservative and traditional world — you have to achieve a very high degree of credibility.

RE: Many people in the West consider you a businessman rather than a spiritual leader. Don’t you think that your success in the business field will diminish your prestige as Imam?

AK: It may be useful to emphasise two things. The first is that my activities in the field of private business was the result of mere chance. You may be interested to know for example that I had no choice in owning the horses I own. My father died in a car accident leaving behind him three children, two of whom did not want to continue to breed horses. It was left to me to say whether or not I wished to preserve a family tradition which had been passing from one generation to the next. I did not understand anything in horse-breeding; I thought it was a risk, but I invoked the force of God and I succeeded. The second thing I want to point out is the subject of my investment in tourism. Personally, I have invested a modest sum along with others in Sardinia in the mid-Mediterranean. Within twenty years, the project has developed into a big tourist enterprise in the industrialised world. At present we are building bridges between this private enterprise and another project: Tourism Promotion Services in the Third World, which requires that kind of economic activity. However, I was not born to be a businessman in the West. These were accidental enterprises which grew thanks to good management. Those around me have said, since these are successful projects, why not keep them going?

[T]he moment I feel there is any objection on the part of my community or the countries of the Third World where these [business] activities are being carried out, or that there is any contradiction between them and my status as Imam, I will give them up immediately.

But let me reassure you that the moment I feel there is any objection on the part of my community or the countries of the Third World where these activities are being carried out, or that there is any contradiction between them and my status as Imam, I will give them up immediately. They are not among my functions as Imam; they represent only a small fraction of my activities and as long as they do not exceed the limits allowed … why not? [sic] But I do repeat and affirm that I shall give them up the moment they become a burden.

RE: Between your status as a spiritual leader and the fact that you are a businessman, isn’t there a political ambition which lurks in your mind — especially that both your father and grandfather performed political roles in the course of their lives?

AK: The role entrusted to me does not, in the world of today, permit to cherish any political ambitions. This was appropriate and acceptable fifty years ago: my grandfather was President of the League of Nations, my father was Ambassador to the United Nations and my uncle was the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The roles of those members of my family were all international roles in the field of politics. They did not serve a specific country; they served a cause with international dimensions. Therefore any political ambition on my part must be in an international and not in a national framework.

RE: Are you prepared to undertake such a role?

AK: I have not thought of that nor has there been such an offer.

If you are called upon to undertake an international role, do you think you are qualified for it?
I think I am: if it is not a question of a permanent job; if there is a cause to be served or if it is something where I feel I can contribute anything of value, then I would accept the invitation.

RE: If you are called upon to undertake an international role, do you think you are qualified for it?

AK: I think I am: if it is not a question of a permanent job; if there is a cause to be served or if it is something where I feel I can contribute anything of value, then I would accept the invitation.

RE: Let us assume you are called upon to play the role of international mediator between two Islamic states which have been at war for years.

AK: Yes. Yes. If these two Islamic states said they wanted an independent international Muslim mediator with high credibility to help them reach a negotiated settlement, that they did not want to refer the matter to any other institution or organisation, then I would consider the matter and see whether or not I have the qualifications to undertake that role. If I find out that I am not qualified I will decline the offer with regret. In any case I shall not accept a permanent international role.

RE: Do you think that there is at present an Islamic awakening which drives us to reconsider our relations with the rest of the world?

AK: This is a question which is raised by many people and I believe that most Muslims all over the world insistently ask themselves questions of this kind: how do we live in this age? How do we interact with the materialism of the non-Muslim world? How do we deal with modern sciences? What is, in our daily life, the relationship between religion and the ever changing society around us? These are questions asked by all Muslims, Ismailis included. The Ismailis, who have responded traditionally and throughout the ages to these questions, cannot answer them alone even though they may have expressed them in their own way. The ability to search for answers to these questions is a quality which every Muslim has since a Muslim’s faith should lead him to deal with such problems.

RE: If this is so, how should Muslims deal with — or confront — the industrialised world?

AK: In the course of this dialogue, you have wondered about the way of life amidst the industrialised society in the West and the issues raised by such life for each Muslim. Take the Ismailis for example: more of them live in the industrialised world today than ever before throughout their history. I believe their numbers will continue to increase and that their Imam should consider these issues. Therefore, my life in the West would give me the experience of dealing with them and confronting them through constant research and dialogue with other Muslims living in the West. We are all confronted with the same problems.

RE: But this confrontation takes place at a time when the industrialised world sees nothing in Islam but liabilities and negative aspects. In the eyes of the West, Muslims are terrorists, revolutionaries or saboteurs. Do you see for the Ismailis, and for yourself in particular — as the Muslim leader who has lived longest in the West and has had the longest experience in dealing with the industrialised world — a role to play in correcting this image?

I believe that the first problem facing every Muslim living in the industrialised world, is that Muslim children will be born in the West for two or three generations to come. They will be young people having no personal contact with their family traditions, cultural background, or country of origin. Most likely, they will not speak their mother tongue: Arabic, Urdu or Persian for example. They will have no contact with their language, its culture or its civilisation.

AK: I believe that the first problem facing every Muslim living in the industrialised world, is that Muslim children will be born in the West for two or three generations to come. They will be young people having no personal contact with their family traditions, cultural background, or country of origin. Most likely, they will not speak their mother tongue: Arabic, Urdu or Persian for example. They will have no contact with their language, its culture or its civilisation. Here in particular there is a series of basic questions to be answered: how will these Muslims deal with their culture and traditional background? How will they deal and associate themselves with the industrial society in which they live, its culture, its civilisation, its language? All Muslims, be they Sunnites or Shiites, are confronted with this problem. From this viewpoint we should ask ourselves: how can we combine our Islamic traditions and culture with the traditions and culture of the industrial society without losing both?

Here we can, myself, the Ismailis and all Muslims, play a role through what I may call “humanistic infiltration” of the industrial society in such a way that Islam may be looked upon not only as a religion, but also as a way of life, as a history of rare intensity, as a tradition and as a total culture. They will then have to integrate one way or the other with the cultural stream and with the humanistic tradition that remains in this industrial society: they will have to penetrate its core and not remain in the margin. They will be able to do that because Muslims amount to eight hundred, nine hundred million people representing cultures with infinite variety and splendour which the world cannot afford to ignore, and because Muslims represent an infinite variety of traditions, ways of life and economic experience.

There remains the more important question: how can we manage to make these traditions an essential part of the industrial society?

RE: All these are good intentions which do not constitute a practical approach. How do you expect the industrial society to allow you to proceed with your humanistic infiltration?

If we manage to show Islam in its true light, I have no doubt whatsoever in our ability to infiltrate the industrial society.

AK: If we manage to show Islam in its true light, I have no doubt whatsoever in our ability to infiltrate the industrial society. However, such success will depend on Muslims in the West and Muslims outside the Western world. Both categories should present our traditions, cultures, philosophy and virtues in a way that would enable people to understand them and interact with them – in a way that would make people not only appreciate them but also seek to know more about them.

RE: But the West, by virtue of its imperialistic history and political philosophy, is hostile to us as Muslims and consequently cannot take a neutral stance and allow you to infiltrate it.

AK: By what you have said just now, you have put your finger on the crux of the matter: there must be a consensus representing the unity of purpose amongst Muslims — a consensus which so combines wisdom, honour, and greatness of objective as to drive Muslims to common action. If there are political or other differences or disagreements between Muslims we must not show them as representing Islam or Muslims. Of course, there is an amount of risk in that. No matter, since my firm belief is that there is no fundamental hostility between Islam and the other monotheistic religions.

RE: I must insist on my question: how can we translate this into practical language when we know that confronting three Muslims together would lead to the formation of four political parties?

The transposition of this idea into practice would begin with education and education begins with the pre-school child. It is through education that the message should be transmitted. We all know that all the main religions are taught in the schools of the West — all except Islam. It follows from that, that Westerners and non-Muslims have no knowledge of the world of Islam. This in itself is unbelievable…. This is one of our rights — a right which we must exercise through student movements and our representatives therein — only by the democratic means available to us.

AK: The transposition of this idea into practice would begin with education and education begins with the pre-school child. It is through education that the message should be transmitted. We all know that all the main religions are taught in the schools of the West — all except Islam. It follows from that, that Westerners and non-Muslims have no knowledge of the world of Islam. This in itself is unbelievable. It also follows that our humanistic traditions, our architecture, our literature are totally unknown in the West — except perhaps through colourful publicity catalogues. Thus we have failed in our task of showing our culture as a living, creative and reasoning culture. This is probably the main motive behind the establishment of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The magnificent monuments shown in such colourful publicity catalogues are great in themselves, but they are not the Islamic culture as it lives with us nowadays. Therefore I have endeavoured to transmit one integrated image of the world of Islam in its pluralism and variety, with its many languages and several interpretations of religion, with its numerous racial and geographical backgrounds.

RE: But how can we persuade the West to introduce the study of Islam in their school curricula?

AK: I shall be frank. This is one of our rights — a right which we must exercise through student movements and our representatives therein — only by the democratic means available to us. However, the way in which our cause is presented is more important. This should stress the fact that it is not our intention to act as missionaries in order to convert Christians to Islam. We should not do anything that could be interpreted as such. Our aim is to see Islamic traditions represented in the school curricula of the West on equal footing with other similar traditions.

RE: But it is inevitable that the West will resist our endeavours even though they represent the exercise of our democratic rights with the industrialised world.

AK: It may be true that there is traditionally in the West a hostile religious attitude towards Islam, and a corresponding political attitude going back to the Crusades. But this is the past and the Western world must abandon this mentality wherever it persists. The fear of the West is that the introduction of a new culture and a new religion into their curricula may have political objectives, rather than the fear of Islam as a threat to Christianity. What they fear is politics not religion, and that explains why they hesitate to open the door for us at a time when they are obliged to open similar doors for all other racial and religious minorities in their countries. Yet, frankly, it all depends on us, on our ability to present our case in a just and correct manner. We may not succeed everywhere, we may succeed here and fail there. But then the door will have been opened for us and time is on our side. The world of today can no longer afford to ignore the world of Islam. The wind of change has blown and our duty is to help change to move forward.

RE: Are you prepared to collaborate with other Muslim leaders, belonging to different countries and tendencies, in laying the foundations for the promotion of this idea?

I am ready to work with any Muslim leader willing to do so with an open mind and a cooperative spirit. I believe that our cause is in need of a common endeavour. The essential thing which we should demonstrate to the industrialised world is that we represent a common culture free from any political ambitions — in the sense that we do not aspire to changing the political situation of these countries.

AK: I have no hesitation whatsoever in this regard. I am ready to work with any Muslim leader willing to do so with an open mind and a cooperative spirit. I believe that our cause is in need of a common endeavour. The essential thing which we should demonstrate to the industrialised world is that we represent a common culture free from any political ambitions — in the sense that we do not aspire to changing the political situation of these countries. We must mark a dividing line between the political situation of the Western countries and the question of calling for the Islamic civilisation and thought to be introduced into the school curricula. We must allow the democratic game in the West to be played to the utmost and exercise our right through it by giving expression to all our views. We must also correct the image they have of Islam: it is neither a political instrument of change, nor is it a revolutionary means of conversion. We must restore balance to this image. The Muslim world does not see Christianity through, for example what the Irish Liberation Army represents — a political, pseudo-religious movement with political aims. Reciprocally the Europeans and the Americans should not see Islam through what similar movements represent.

How can you change this double image? By attacking on all fronts.

Are you prepared to carry out such an attack? Have you ever heard of a one-man army?

RE: How can you change this double image?

AK: By attacking on all fronts.

RE: Are you prepared to carry out such an attack?

AK: Have you ever heard of a one-man army?

RE: Do you mean that you are prepared to collaborate with other Muslim personalities to reach your objectives and subsequently to expand the activities of your institutions?

AK: In all honesty I say yes, because I am convinced that this is the only way for the Arab nation to recover its balance and to ensure its presence in the industrialised world.

RE: What are your conditions?

AK: It would be stupid to claim that a small minority of Muslims could alone bring about the required changes in the industrialised world. The situation requires the combined efforts of all Muslims. Therefore my only condition is that there should be consensus as to the cause and aims which we seek to serve. There should also be consensus as to the method or approach to be adopted. Lastly there should be consensus as to the means of implementation.

RE: Have you taken any steps in this direction?

AK: Frankly, we are still at a very early stage. The reasons for this are many: the Muslim world covers an immense area including the Arab world, Asia and Africa and today, the industrialised world as well. It has different traditions and a variety of methods of communication — which renders matters extremely complicated. Often, I fear that if I take the initiative, I will receive adverse responses. You know that the Muslim world and the Arab world are divided, politically, ideologically and economically. Therefore we must look for a common denominator which would represent a consensus on the long term objectives, methods and means. But I do not wish — if I take the initiative, to be a factor of division in the Muslim and the Arab world over and above already existing factors. On the other hand, if I can be an agent of conciliation, I am all ready to move in this direction immediately, In’sha’Allah.

With the pronunciation of the worlds In’sha’Allah, it was time for this long dialogue to take another direction and to go off-the-record. Afterwards, when I was about to take leave of the Aga Khan at the doorstep of Aiglemont in the midst of that forest of tall trees, I said to His Highness: while I appreciate the fact that you are a cautious man, I have also discovered that you are at the same time an optimistic man. How can you achieve a consensus of opinion in that nation even if it were a consensus on wisdom or a consensus on aspiration and hope?

The Aga Khan laughed while extending his hand towards mine and said: “Allah has power over all things”.

It began to rain. It was a cold winter day. I felt warm.

SOURCES

  • Text (secondary source): ismaili.net

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