How would you comment on the notion popularised by Western critics that scientific and technological progress is incompatible with the practice of Islam?

I think that’s one of the most offensive things that can be said about Islam and I take issue with it in every way. In the first place, to say that science in the modern age is incompatible is the same as saying that Islam is the faith of the past and that is totally unacceptable. In the second place. Islam’s message contains a central theme which is the total power of Allah and therefore my conviction is that the discoveries which the human mind can make are really simply a minute perception of Allah’s creation and I know no scientist in any domain who has been able to answer the ultimate question. So, from my point of view, Islam is a faith which cannot be relegated to the past. The message of Islam with regard to Allah’s power and His creation is essential to our faith. We have every day evidence of that and we must be thankful.

Interviewer: Aftab Ahmad Khan in Aiglemont

His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan — spiritual head of Ismaili community and world statesman admired and respected in both the East and the West for his broad human sympathies commands a special place in the esteem of the people of this region for his own contribution to progress and the heritage of his illustrious grandfather who played a memorable role in the freedom movement of South Asian Muslims. To mark the silver jubilee of his accession to the Imamat of his distinguished community, PAGE Resident Director for Europe, Aftab Ahmad Khan, flew to Paris for an exclusive interview. The questions and His Highness’s answers follow.

Aftab Ahmad Khan: Your Highness, on behalf of Pakistan & Gulf Economist. I wish to thank you for receiving me and providing this opportunity to ask you a few questions about your interests and activities which span so many fields. Next month you will be visiting Pakistan in connection with the celebrations of your Silver Jubilee. A highlight of that visit will be the inauguration of the Aga Khan University in Karachi. May I offer you our sincere congratulations and extend warm greetings on the occasion of your planned trip to Pakistan.

His Highness the Aga Khan: Thank you.

AAK: In 1957 your grandfather, His Highness Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, nominated you as his successor because he believed that the Ismaili Community should be led by “a young man who had been brought up in the midst of the new age”. How do you look upon the last twenty-five years which have witnessed fundamental political and economic changes?

We are, probably, today at the dawn of a major technological revolution which is likely to be substantially mere important than the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century in Western Europe. So I think, these would be the dominant themes of the last twenty-five years.

AK: I think the main conclusions underline two factors which are mutually interfacing: the first is a much greater knowledge of humanity and the world we live in. In other words, the situation which existed in the fifties, of great parts of the world not knowing was was happening in the other and not knowing what were the essential problems, is totally different today and obviously it provokes a whole number of consequences.

The second aspect is there is a much more mature understanding of the world problems than was the situation twenty years ago. Mature in the sense there are whole areas of the world and its problems, in economic terms, which are now known to a substantially large part of the world. I really am talking about the Third World understanding itself, the industrialised world understanding the Third World, and, perhaps understanding is too strong a word, knowing the Third World better than was the case twenty years ago.

The result of greater comprehension has provoked, in my view, greater awareness of aspirations, human friendships, linkages and associations which were unthinkable twenty-five or thirty-five years ago because people were not really aware of each other. This is creating a new balance and, at times, new imbalances. In very general terms, these would be my conclusions of the past. Now, you could add to that equation a new element which I think is important. We are, probably, today at the dawn of a major technological revolution which is likely to be substantially mere important than the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century in Western Europe. So I think, these would be the dominant themes of the last twenty-five years.

Ismaili Community

AAK: How would you assess the progress of Ismaili Community under your leadership and what would you consider as your major contribution?

AK: It is a very difficult question for me to answer. I can tell you what my objectives have been. Whether those objectives have actually been fulfilled is something which, I think, the Ismailis and the people who know and observe the community are better qualified to say.

One of my objectives was to help the Community adjust to increasingly rapid forces of modernisation and what I would call threats of extreme secularisation, the imbalances which one notes in certain parts of the world caused by the unequivocal search for material wealth, which passes the limits of reason.

One of my objectives was to help the community adjust to increasingly rapid forces of modernisation and what I would call threats of extreme secularisation, the imbalances which one notes in certain parts of the world caused by the unequivocal search for material wealth, which passes the limits of reason. I think that was a problem: not of one time but a continuing problem. A delicate balance had to be found between living in the twentieth century, with all that means in terms of technological knowledge, of aspirations for material well-being and at the same time, the actual turning into practice of the spirit of the Muslim brotherhood, the practice of one’s faith and the concern for the betterment of the people. That was one issue which I sought to deal with.

The second issue was the adjustment of the community to new economic and political situations and that, of course, must also remain a continuing problem There is no doubt that the situation in Africa between 1957 and 1983 has changed very radically, the situation in the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent has changed, the situation in the Middle East has changed very rapidly, new communities have established themselves in the Western world and adjustments to these new political and economic realities have been of major concern to me.

A third area has been to build upon the institutional structure which my grandfather had created so that the members of the community and others would use these institutions which were not only responding to the existing problems but were sufficiently well managed to anticipate future requirements and to grow in such a way that they became strong pillars of support for the community in fields of education, health, housing and economic development.

Another element which has been of concern to me, has been to try to build bridges amongst the various “Tareeqhs” [Tariqahs] in Islam. I have felt that Islam must not be exposed to increasing polarisation and division — after all the consequence would only breed weakness. I have encouraged my community and through my own actions, tried to build unity. It does not mean that every Muslim is ever going to believe the same thing or practice his faith the same way, there will always be differences but ultimately when one is asked the question, “Are you a Muslim?” He will answer “Yes”.

AAK: What are the significant projects which you would wish to highlight?

AK: Funny enough, small projects often are as exciting to me, if not more exciting than major projects, but I think we try to identify priorities and find solutions according to those priorities. I think the area we are concentrating on most at the moment is something which is very important indeed. If you look at the history of the industrialised world, most decision making is done by the urban population on behalf of the nation. The demographies of the Western world are not as heavily concentrated in the rural areas as in Asia or Africa. My conclusion is that the developing world, I am talking about Asia and Africa, must be able to enhance the quality of life in the rural areas sufficiently rapidly and sufficiently completely so that the rural populations have a standard of living which is not too far below that of urban populations. The fundamental economic issues of the Third World will not be resolved unless we make sure that the rural population see their future in the rural areas of the countryside and that they do not all seek to become urbanised. What all that means in terms of socio-economic consequences is another area of endeavour that I want to talk about. To raise the quality of life in rural areas is something that is worth highlighting because to me it is fundamentally important.

Many of the Third World countries have adopted solutions for the large numbers in view of political requirements but I think the time has now come to start asking questions about the object in man’s life and the capability to measure performance not against national standards which are no standards at all, but against the performance of the international community…. [O]nce you lose a sense of relativity in performance everything slides down.

Another area which I think is extremely important for the developing countries is to find the correct balance between development in quantitative and development in qualitative terms. Many of the Third World countries have adopted solutions for the large numbers in view of political requirements but I think the time has now come to start asking questions about the object in man’s life and the capability to measure performance not against national standards which are no standards at all, but against the performance of the international community. Many poor countries would say “that is wishful thinking”. My answer would be better that it be wishful thinking than no thinking at all because once you lose a sense of relativity in performance everything slides down.

Muslim minorities

AAK: How do you assess the future of Muslim minorities in Western secular states?

[Muslim minorities in Western] will have to take a long term view of their position in their society with the deep conviction that they do not and should not forsake their traditional attitudes to their faith and the family…. I think it is going to take a very mature reflection and a sense of time which is a particular strength of Islam. Islam gives the [sic?] time a completely different meaning than what the industrialised world conceives.

AK: I think these communities in the industrialised world will need to deal with their problems with wisdom because they will be in the front line of exposure to industrial and substantially secularised societies. They will have to take a long term view of their position in their society with the deep conviction that they do not and should not forsake their traditional attitudes to their faith and the family. I say that for a very precise reason. The industrialised secular societies themselves are beginning to change and they are seeking to re-establish a better equilibrium. This is quite evident in the Western world. So rather than the short term integration into the secularised society, the contribution of Muslim minorities should be to assist the societies in finding a better equilibrium which strengthens the quality of life. However, I think it is going to take a very mature reflection and a sense of time which is a particular strength of Islam. Islam gives [the?] time a completely different meaning than what the industrialised world conceives.

AAK: A number of professional people from the Islamic countries have settled down in Western countries. What should they do to help their own societies?

AK: I think these are people who are living in what sociologists call a cross-cultural situation. It is an unpleasant word but it says, I suppose, what it tries to say. My concern would be that these people who are exposed to this cross-cultural situation should use that exposure to strengthen their contribution to their own countries and to their own societies by drawing from the culture which is not theirs but which is beneficial and by not accepting without question a whole lot of attitudes and principles which come from a part of the world alien to us.

It would be foolish to think that people are not going to become increasingly mobile and what we have to do in the Third World is to ask how that mobility could serve to strengthen us, but to reverse it or stop it, you can’t. It is impossible.

These people who live in cross-cultural situation have a very important role to play; they can either be the sensors and ambassadors of wisdom, clear thinking and knowledge and can bring with them great strength, or they would be sources of weakness, division, confusion and misrepresentation. I would say that the developing countries can do a great deal to help these people by making them understand that they are sons of the soil and so long as their contribution is positive and constructive the developing countries will come out of their way to support these people and encourage them to contribute to the future of the developing countries. Sometimes that is not the case; the developing countries look upon these people with a lack of understanding and favour. I think this is a sociological phenomenon which [sic] irreversible. It would be foolish to think that people are not going to become increasingly mobile and what we have to do in the Third World is to ask how that mobility could serve to strengthen us, but to reverse it or stop it, you can’t. It is impossible.

Science and Islam

AAK: How would you comment on the notion popularised by Western critics that scientific and technological progress is incompatible with the practice of Islam?

AK: I think that’s one of the most offensive things that can be said about Islam and I take issue with it in every way. In the first place, to say that science in the modern age is incompatible is the same as saying that Islam is the faith of the past and that is totally unacceptable. In the second place. Islam’s message contains a central theme which is the total power of Allah and therefore my conviction is that the discoveries which the human mind can make are really simply a minute perception of Allah’s creation and I know no scientist in any domain who has been able to answer the ultimate question. So, from my point of view, Islam is a faith which cannot be relegated to the past. The message of Islam with regard to Allah’s power and His creation is essential to our faith. We have every day evidence of that and we must be thankful.

AAK: Some people are surprised that, as a spiritual leader, you are also involved in material and mundane matters of the world. What would you say?

My understanding of Islam is that it is a total faith, it does not only govern the way a man or a woman of the Muslim faith practises faith but it governs his relations with his family and with society. It has an all enveloping sense of direction. I think it would be completely wrong for me or frankly for any other Muslim leader, to restrict his effort and his endeavour simply to the spiritual aspects.

AK: The answer to question which is asked especially in the Western secular world is that as Muslims, we have to be very careful not to apply to our lives a philosophy which is not Islamic. The division between the spiritual and the material is a concept which I consider essentially of the Western world and substantially linked to the name of St Augustine. My understanding of Islam is that it is a total faith, it does not only govern the way a man or a woman of the Muslim faith practises faith but it governs his relations with his family and with society. It has an all enveloping sense of direction. It does not tell him you cannot have wealth but it does tell him you cannot be greedy. It does not tell him you cannot be active in business but it tells him to be ethical in business and, therefore, it has an extremely strong moral involvement in every aspect of man’s life. I think it would be completely wrong for me or frankly for any other Muslim leader, to restrict his effort and his endeavour simply to the spiritual aspects.

Future of the Islamic World

AAK: How do you visualise the political future of the Islamic world and how could it find a proper place in the international power balance?

AK: At the present time the Islamic world is exposed to a multitude of pressures, solicitations and, personally, I think that the Islamic world has got to set itself realistic, pragmatic objectives and to avoid linking the name of Islam continuously with matters which are not directly related to the practice of Islam. In a sense, Islam is a faith that governs people’s lives but I do not think that you can carry that interpretation to the point of saying that everything you do is necessarily Islamic, I would like to see a more pragmatic approach — pragmatic in the sense that we have got to come to grips with the realities we are dealing with and perhaps stop linking the name of Islam with every issue. A typical example is that the faith of Islam is not the cause of the demographic dispersal of Muslims throughout the world and Islam has not been the reason for economic imbalances within the world. I think we have to try to seek solutions within the spirit of Islam to all those problems but there is a tendency to associate the word ‘Islam’ with situations which have nothing to do with our faith as such. This is my first comment.

Those who seek to impose a political view on the Islamic World or a religious view are, in my opinion, really not working for the benefit of the Islamic World. There is no way that you can impose a single view on nine hundred million people in so many different countries of the world.

The second comment I would like to make is that there is great diversity within the Muslim populations of the world: they are from different ethnic backgrounds, different languages, different cultural heritage and so long as all segments of the Islamic world are healthy, lively and creative, that diversity is a source of strength and not weakness. Those who seek to impose a political view on the Islamic World or a religious view are, in my opinion, really not working for the benefit of the Islamic World. There is no way that you can impose a single view on nine hundred million people in so many different countries of the world.

Another point that I would make is that those people who practise the faith of Islam throughout the world must be supported within their own context, i.e. their own social, economic, demographic and ethnic background. That is what, to me, would make the future of the Muslim people strong. I am very open to a flexible response to these issues — I do not believe there is a monolithic response.

Third World Economies

AAK: As you have recently visited a number of countries in Africa and Asia, what impressions have you formed about their common problems in the current economic and political conditions?

AK: My first comment would be that the economic recession is much graver, much deeper, much more perilous than the industrialised world or the Western media are reflecting today. The continent of Africa is suffering substantially more than Asia in general terms. I think that this world recession has had, and is going to continue to have, a dangerously destabilising effect on the Third World. And, one of my concerns has been to identify the way in which the Third World is responding to this recession, whether it is developing the thought processes and the mechanisms to deal with the issues which are arising. If you had asked me that question two or three years ago, I would have said that I was not very hopeful because I did not perceive what I considered to be at that time healthy or mature responses. Now, I would tend to say that those responses are beginning to be perceptible today in political and economic decisions.

There is now a clear premium on performance and efficiency and the questions of political or economic theory have lost some of the fascination of the sixties. There is now a premium on people who achieve results and who can solve problems rationally.

Bitter though the situation is, I think the processes of refection on economic and political issues have matured very considerably. There is now a clear premium on performance and efficiency and the questions of political or economic theory have lost some of the fascination of the sixties. There is now a premium on people who achieve results and who can solve problems rationally. What makes me particularly happy is that the policy which began as a response towards economic issues, is now turning to cover the spectrum of nearly all aspects of national life. It is true of issues concerning education, health, housing and rural development. It is a very positive response because it means that there is a genuine understanding that at a time of recession every single individual capable of contributing to the national wealth has got to be harnessed in a way that he or she can be creative [sic] context. I sense that happening: it is a very healthy response and, God willing, it will prove not only to be a right response but perhaps a creation of [a] very sound foundation for future development. So, I sense a beginning of turn in the situation not necessarily to produce immediate results but developing mature and intelligent responses.

Public and Private sectors

AAK: How do you see a proper balance between public and private sectors in the economies of developing countries?

AK: I think it is, first of all, a question that needs to be answered on a case by case basis because when yon have a mono-cultural situation in a country whose economy is an agricultural economy, the failure or success of a major crop can absolutely change the face of the country’s future. So that is one extreme. The other extreme is a country whose natural wealth is diversified and where the fluctuations of a given product or source [do not?] have a major impact on the economy. So I cannot give a monolithic answer on what should be the balance between the public sector and the private sector. To me that depends very much on the particular elements of a national situation but there is one over-riding guiding principle which, I think, in a sense ties in with what I was saving earlier. Whereas some years ago there was the concept that the world economy would be ad infinitum an economy of expansion, the unpleasant reality of today’s world economy in recession is there for every-one to see.

Now, what that means is that no matter whether a given element in a national economy is in the private or the public sector, the critical question is, whether its management is sound, competent and capable. Whether it is a nationalised venture or a private sector venture, the relevant factor is: is it well run or is it losing money because of bad management. I think the question of efficiency of performance is now absolutely critical for the way and the speed with which the Third World comes out of this recession. The industrialised world itself is demonstrating that even with its wealth, it cannot carry independently public sector organisations which do nothing but eat into the national wealth. The performance criteria has got to be established throughout the national endeavour and not only in the economy but in the social services equally. I think that this performance orientation has got to be the guiding principle for years ahead and it has to be applied right across the spectrum of endeavour in all developing countries. You cannot combat a recession with inefficiency or incompetence.

AAK: What is your opinion on the choice between mass progress at slow speed and selective progress at high speed?

There have got to be institutions, programmes and endeavours which set standards and those standards have got to be compatible and competitive with international standards. Otherwise, the elite of a given country is just deprived of its potential and once it happens, the country tends to fall back to mediocrity or worse.

AK: As I said earlier, each country will obviously respond within its context but whereas in the fifties and the sixties many basic issues required to be solved and there was justification to look at mass progress at slow speed, such an approach meant an erosion of standards. To take a country out of the international performance criteria would in one sense mean that the country loses its position within the community of nations. Therefore. I think, that even countries with immense demographic problems are going to accept the principle that there have got to be issues of excellence for all aspects of endeavour, in education, in economy or whatever else may be the area. There have got to be institutions, programmes and endeavours which set standards and those standards have got to be compatible and competitive with international standards. Otherwise, the elite of a given country is just deprived of its potential and once it happens, the country tends to fall back to mediocrity or worse.

AAK: Have you any plans to sponsor any other educational institutions either connected with the Aga Khan Medical University in Karachi or as separate bodies which could be considered as institutions of excellence, like the Universities at Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard?

AK: What happened was that the President and the Government of Pakistan were concerned about the standards of education in medicine in Pakistan and the President’s first response was to seek from me an assurance that our Medical School should establish new and better standards for the teaching of medicine in the country. This meant that the institution had to be its own master and, therefore, it had to have the capability to govern itself. The President gave his agreement to give this institution the status of university and from that concept grew the idea that maybe Pakistan would be well served not only by a University with a Faculty of Health Sciences with high standard but maybe through an institution with wider scope.

Perhaps, we should be talking about an international university with a Pakistani charter beginning with a Faculty of Health Sciences in Pakistan but capable of developing other faculties in Pakistan or in other parts of the world, specialised in training people for problems that arise in the Islamic World and in the developing countries. Such an institution would seek in all its faculties to establish the highest levels of intellectual endeavour. This is the concept which is behind this institution today, but there is no doubt that the Health Sciences Faculty would be the first faculty to come into existence. There is an important development programme being worked out for the Aga Khan University to establish more faculties in Pakistan and other parts of the world in due course so that Pakistan has a major international university working for the good of the country, the good of the Islamic World and the good of the Third World in general.

Message to Pakistanis

AAK: It is well known that Pakistan is very close to your heart as your illustrious grandfather played a historic role in revitalising the Muslim League in India and your distinguished father represented Pakistan at the United Nations. Do you have any message for the people of Pakistan on the occasion of your Silver Jubilee?

Any divisions, conflicts and misunderstandings which are occurring outside Pakistan must not be allowed to divide the people of Pakistan. The second comment is that Pakistan has great human resources, both within and outside its frontiers, and particularly at a time of recession all those resources must he harnessed to the benefit of the country Playing on a theme that President Kennedy offered some years ago I would say that “People must stop asking what Pakistan can do for them but they must start ask what they can do for Pakistan”

AK: The first general comment I would make is that the political problems of the Islamic World should not he introduced under the clothing of religious issues into Pakistan. All Pakistanis who are citizens of the country are loyal to that country which was born in the name of Islam and not in the name of any particular sect or “Tareeqh” [Tariqah]. Any divisions, conflicts and misunderstandings which are occurring outside Pakistan must not be allowed to divide the people of Pakistan. The second comment is that Pakistan has great human resources, both within and outside its frontiers, and particularly at a time of recession all those resources must he harnessed to the benefit of the country Playing on a theme that President Kennedy offered some years ago I would say that “People must stop asking what Pakistan can do for them but they must start ask what they can do for Pakistan”

SOURCES

  • Pakistan Gulf and Economist, 12-18 March, 1983 (edited for paragraph breaks)

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

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