[O]ne of the questions to which I don’t have an answer, but I would like to find one, is, what is happiness — for rural population in the developing world? And unless the definition of happiness, the definition of a sense of purpose is clear to planners in the developing world, they are never going to be able to address the issues that affect the rural population. And what I have discovered — I think in working on these problems — is that the rural populations are remarkably articulate, remarkably hard­working, remarkably thoughtful. But you have got to [have] access to them, you have got to let them tell you, as a decision-maker, what are their concerns, what are their priorities and in that sense, I think that maybe the industrialised world doesn’t deal with the same problems.

Interviewer: Andrew Gardner in Chantilly, France

 

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Only one of the world’s least known famous men, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan. He invited me to his home for this, his first major television interview. He both lives and has his offices here in a glorious 200 acre estate near the town of Chantilly, Frances equivalent to New Market [?] and home of Europe’s best known race courses. Not surprising for a man with 600 racehorses of his own. He is reputed to be the world’s richest man, but perhaps most important, he is the spiritual leader of 20 million Ismaili Muslims.

ITV: Your Highness, if a complete stranger who had no idea who you were or what you were, came up to you and said, “What you do for a living?” What would be your reply?

His Highness the Aga Khan: I would say that my role is — I am the Imam — the hereditary Imam of a Shia Muslim community; the international Shia Muslim community.

ITV: And that your influence in the world is?

AK: I am responsible for guiding the interpretation of the faith for the Ismaili Muslims and advising them on issues of everyday life that they bring to me or that the Imamat as an institution has to decide upon.

ITV: May we for a moment go back in time to your boyhood in Kenya. What memories do you have of those days?

AK: Well, I was of course very young and it was during the war. But I remember the beauty of Kenya as a country. I remember Nairobi as being a town rather than a city with all that represented in terms of the sort of things that amuse a child the possibility of seeing wild life over the garden wall, and this sort of thing. Some of my early education which was to say the least, like a lot of other children, painful.

ITV: Were you a happy child?

AK: Yes, I think so. Obviously, during the war I didn’t see my parents a great deal.

ITV: Was there any thought ever in your mind at that time, of one day you might possibly become the Aga Khan.

AK: Absolutely not.

ITV: It didn’t even cross your mind?

AK: None whatsoever.

ITV: How well did you know your grandfather at that time when you were a boy? He played an important part in your young life.

AK: Yes, he did. He probably had one of the most widespread and enquiring intellects of any person I have ever met and he was the person who [after] half an hour with him, you were completely drained of all the information that you could give him. He asked an enormous number of questions on enormous number of subjects and in that sense this sort of intellectual stimulus which he provoked and which he was the centre of, was very very exciting indeed.

ITV: But he also gave advice?

AK: Oh yes — and as the head of family he was fairly clear that when he gave advice, it was to be respected.

ITV: You obviously had great deal of affection for him?

AK: Very much indeed.

ITV: Did you feel that you lacked parental love at that time?

AK: No, I don’t think so. I think what happened is obviously I went to a boarding school when I was just eight and that perhaps is young. But I saw my parents occasionally when I was at school and I saw my grandfather also when I was at school.

ITV: Let us take a leap forward in time to the United States, to Harvard University. How old were you when you went there and what did you study?

AK: I was 17 when I went to Harvard and I started in what I wanted to do was engineering studies, technical studies and then I switched to Islamic history.

ITV: Why didn’t you go to either Oxford or Cambridge because you are a British citizen?

AK: That was my grandfather’s decision and my father’s decision and both of them were agreed that they wanted me to go to an American university.

ITV: One day you were at Harvard and you heard that you were to be the next Imam, the Aga Khan. Can you remember what thoughts went through your mind that day, that moment: shock, disbelief or …

AK: It was actually in Geneva that I learnt because my grandfather’s will was read the day after he died and it was a long will covering many aspects of his life and his family, and the decision came as a shock …

You know, my grandfather was very much a Muslim family head. He did not discuss his decisions as far as I know with the family members and he could have chosen one of four possible successors there was — he had two sons and he had two grandsons. And that was his decision.

ITV: You had no idea before?

AK: You know, my grandfather was very much a Muslim family head. He did not discuss his decisions as far as I know with the family members and he could have chosen one of four possible successors there was — he had two sons and he had two grandsons. And that was his decision.

ITV: But why did he decide to skip a generation?.

AK: I just don’t know. He gave an explanation in his will which I think with the benefit of hindsight, is probably the thing that dominated his thinking. He had become Imam when he was eight and he had been therefore Imam for 72 years. I think he felt that during the 72 years so much had happened that he wanted the institution to be led by a much younger person than may be any of his two sons and I was just 20 years when I inherited the Imamat.

Was there any unhappiness within the family that you become the Aga Khan?

Not that I am aware of. I think my father’s position was delicate. But he could not have been more loyal, more supportive, more understanding, and his integrity in responding to that decision was genuinely remarkable.

ITV: Was there any unhappiness within the family that you become the Aga Khan?

AK: Not that I am aware of. I think my father’s position was delicate. But he could not have been more loyal, more supportive, more understanding, and his integrity in responding to that decision was genuinely remarkable.

ITV: So one day you were a young man in Geneva without a career and suddenly here you have this very important duty in life. Was it a duty?

AK: It was a duty — it was above all a challenge.

I think I would hope the next Imam has a thorough and deep understanding of the faith which he has to represent and lead in its interpretation. I think he must have a good understanding of the issues which the Ismaili community and the countries in which they live will have to be addressed… He will have to have a good understanding of the forces that are at play and that are likely to be at play.

ITV: What do you think of are the qualities that you’ll look for when it is your turn to appoint your successor?

AK: I think I would hope the next Imam has a thorough and deep understanding of the faith which he has to represent and lead in its interpretation. I think he must have a good understanding of the issues which the Ismaili community and the countries in which they live will have to be addressed and that is essentially the countries of Asia and Africa. He will have to have a good understanding of the forces that are at play and that are likely to be at play. Therefore, he is going to have to be well equipped to deal with the leadership office.

ITV: The next Imam cannot be appointed during your lifetime?

AK: Oh, he is appointed during my lifetime in the sense that I am the person who knows who the next Imam would be, but only me. But he becomes Imam when I die.

One of the myths surrounding you is that some people in the West think of you as a living God. Not only is that not true, it is also blasphemous.

Absolutely. I mean as you know the faith of Islam was revealed at a time when the Arabian continent was idolatrous and idolatry, all forms of idolatry, are totally prohibited by Islam.

ITV: One of the myths surrounding you is that some people in the West think of you as a living God. Not only is that not true, it is also blasphemous.

AK: Absolutely. I mean as you know the faith of Islam was revealed at a time when the Arabian continent was idolatrous and idolatry, all forms of idolatry, are totally prohibited by Islam. It is certainly true to say that the Western world doesn’t necessarily understand the theology of Shi’ism nor indeed the theology of many mystical sects whether they are Shia or Sunni or Christian. Mysticism, in its, in its essence is difficult.

ITV: While we are on the subject of myths, it’s also not true that you are weighed in gold, precious stones, in platinum every year and the money dispensed to the poor?

AK: No. First of all, the Jubilees [are] a Western fantasy, developed [in audible] were only existed in my grandfather’s life-time in the form that took place. It was in fact, the community leadership that wanted to express public gratitude to the Imam for the leadership that he had provided, and they thought that the best way to do that was to contribute resources in a way, where they and the Imam could have a unique memory of this twenty-five years, or whatever the number of years was, and in fact these resources ended up in creating number of very important institutions which I still oversee today.

ITV: I know that the Islamic architecture is a particular passion of yours. Why is it so important to you?

AK: I think the Islamic world generally and a lot of Muslims are concerned about the relationship between the society, the economies we live in, the future and the faith of Islam and that concern [sic] taxes various forms. A search for legitimacy in law, a search for legitimacy in economic thinking. But I think that the faith of Islam is expressed itself in many other ways and one of the most potent forms that it has expressed itself in is architecture.

In the mid 1960’s, I was worried with what I felt was insufficient understanding of some of the key economic issues which were affecting the Ismaili community, so I started setting up systems whereby I could get — let’s say a quantified understanding of differences in economic standing, in healthcare, in education, between for example, the rural populations of Ismailis and the urban populations.

ITV: Foundation supports a wide range of activities — health, education, housing in Third World development. What is the fundamental objective, the fundamental thinking behind that?

AK: In the mid 1960’s, I was worried with what I felt was insufficient understanding of some of the key economic issues which were affecting the Ismaili community, so I started setting up systems whereby I could get — let’s say a quantified understanding of differences in economic standing, in healthcare, in education, between for example, the rural populations of Ismailis and the urban populations.

ITV: But some of the Third World problems are so vast, does the Ismaili contribution really make any difference?

AK: The question is what is the difference one wants to make? For example, in dealing with rural development, one of the questions to which I don’t have an answer, but I would like to find one, is, what is happiness — for rural population in the developing world? And unless the definition of happiness, the definition of a sense of purpose is clear to planners in the developing world, they are never going to be able to address the issues that affect the rural population. And what I have discovered — I think in working on these problems — is that the rural populations are remarkably articulate, remarkably hard­working, remarkably thoughtful. But you have got to [have] access to them, you have got to let them tell you, as a decision-maker, what are their concerns, what are their priorities and in that sense, I think that maybe the industrialised world doesn’t deal with the same problems.

ITV: Let us get back to Ismaili organisation and the one that you lead. Worldwide it is devoted to good, there is no question about that, and you work hard, however, a cynical observer of that work might see you as the boss of a fairly ruthless, profit motivated business empire. What would be your counter to that?

I think it is important first of all to ask the question in Muslim terminology, not in Christian terminology. I think the industrialised world, which is world essentially Christian world, has been brought up to some extent at least with the concept that wealth is improper. I think the Islamic world and Islam itself totally rejects that concept. What it asks is what do you use your wealth for? In other words, the creation of wealth is not improper, the use of wealth might be improper.

AK: Well, I think it is important first of all to ask the question in Muslim terminology, not in Christian terminology. I think the industrialised world, which is world essentially Christian world, has been brought up to some extent at least with the concept that wealth is improper. I think the Islamic world and Islam itself totally rejects that concept. What it asks is what do you use your wealth for? In other words, the creation of wealth is not improper, the use of wealth might be improper. And in so far as the institution of Imamat is concerned, [they] are concerned with improving the quality of life, both philanthropically and for profit. I think we are responding to the questions that we have to respond to in the developing world.

ITV: We have already touched on the subject of self-sufficiency, particularly in rural areas. Is that part of the Ismaili and indeed your own philosophy?

AK: I think improving the quality of life, of people, is a fundamental Islamic concept.

ITV: Making them self-sufficient.

AK: Making them self-sufficient and helping weaker sections of a country or a community. That is fundamental, right from the revelation of Islam — the way Prophet Muhammad lived himself — it is a fundamental Islamic concept.

ITV: Showing the weak how to help themselves, not just picking them up.

AK: Charity and help — both. Charity — but not to the extent making them beggars.

ITV: Is that philanthropic?

AK: I think it is philanthropic to help them to become self-sufficient. Afterwards, there is no reason for it to be that way, and on the assumption that society will always have weak elements, those who are givers to that society have to continue to address themselves to the weaker sections of the society.

ITV: What makes the Ismailis different from the mainstream Shiite Islam?

AK: Probably that there is a living Imam who traces his family back to Hazrat Ali. The majority of the Shia today are known as the twelver Shia and they believe in the hidden Imam.

I think that one has to be very careful in the interpretation of Islam, not anchoring that interpretation at one time in history. If you make Islam a faith of the past, you in a sense make it impossible for the Muslim to practise his faith today and in the future. And as a Muslim I totally reject the concept that the message of Islam is tied to any given time after the revelation of the faith. And Islam must be practised by people today and in hundred years, two hundred years. And if Islam is a faith forever, then [the] leadership must be very careful not to harness it to concepts of a given time.

ITV: Do you have any sympathy with the more fundamentalist elements of Shi’ism with the leaders for example of Iran, Pakistan or Libya?

AK: I understand what are the pressures upon them, whether I necessarily share the reactions to those pressures is not necessarily true. I think that one has to be very careful in the interpretation of Islam, not anchoring that interpretation at one time in history. If you make Islam a faith of the past, you in a sense make it impossible for the Muslim to practise his faith today and in the future. And as a Muslim I totally reject the concept that the message of Islam is tied to any given time after the revelation of the faith. And Islam must be practised by people today and in hundred years, two hundred years. And if Islam is a faith forever, then [the] leadership must be very careful not to harness it to concepts of a given time.

ITV: How do you think your own approach to Islam is regarded by somebody like Ayatoullah Khomeini?

AK: I have never discussed that with the Ayatoullah, but I can imagine there is some areas on which we would differ, particularly with regard, maybe, to the rigid interpretation of certain parts maybe of tradition. But I think that the hope that the Islamic world will find a chance to govern itself within an Islamic view of life, is one which is shared by a very, very large number of people.

ITV: Are you a democrat?

AK: Insofar as a [sic] institution can be democratic, yes. There are areas where in the interpretation of faith, democracy cannot, cannot play. But in the choice of leadership, in consultation on decisions, I do seek to consult as widely as possible.

ITV: Without going into any specifics, there must be some leaders with whom you have to deal because they have Ismailis under their rule who are either dictators or very undemocratic in their ways. How do you cope with them?

I think the accusation of dictatorship is frankly sometimes too often used in the developing world. I think it is wrong to assume that the leaders in the developing world are all greedy, unprincipled, faithless people. I think a lot of them are knowledgeable… I feel myself at times some of these men and women deserve much greater defence and much greater credit than they get.

AK: I think there again, because I have a community in those countries perhaps my perception of the life of democracy is more acute than it would be in the industrialised world. I think the accusation of dictatorship is frankly sometimes too often used in the developing world. I think it is wrong to assume that the leaders in the developing world are all greedy, unprincipled, faithless people. I think a lot of them are knowledgeable. They evaluate the risks that they have to deal with. Their evaluations of the risks cannot necessarily be shared by the industrialised world, and I feel myself at times some of these men and women deserve much greater defence and much greater credit than they get.

ITV: You have immense wealth, both private and institutional. Where does all that wealth spring from?

AK: Well, the institutional wealth is that which comes from people who practise the faith. It comes from the institutions themselves which, if they are successful develop their own wealth in the economic field. Personal wealth I inherited from my father and my grandfather. And the institutional wealth is used exclusively for institutional development. And this I think has been demonstrated by a lot of what has been done in the recent years.

ITV: Would you be prepared to tell me what your personal wealth is?

AK: At this stage I don’t honestly know, but I can tell you, it is nowhere near what I am reputed to have (laughing).

ITV: One thing is certain to successfully control the wealth, as indeed you do, means controlling power. Does power interest you?

AK: Not in the least bit. It’s not a concept I find interesting or useful.

ITV: But you have the power to disinvest areas, people, countries?

AK: My concern is to help, not to destabilise. And I am permanently concerned with what can be done to improve peoples’ quality of life. There are certain situations which are imposed on you, but you don’t for that reason adopt that as a policy. Typical situation would be Uganda. You have got to stop all activities in a situation like the Ugandan situation.

ITV: What about your very successful bloodstock? How did you come by that wondrous stable?

AK: You know, I never imagined that I might one day be a thoroughbred owner. When my grandfather died, my father was the person who owned and ran all the bloodstock operation. On his death none of his children wanted to continue. My grandfather’s widow and the younger son did not want to continue and the question really was whether the family tradition should go on. And I hesitated for quite a long time; I knew nothing about the activity; I wasn’t interested in it; it wasn’t part of my mandate and in the end I decided it had been a successful family tradition. I asked whether I had any chances of keeping it a successful tradition. And I had good people to help me.

ITV: But now the Sport of King’s gives you a [pleasure?] ?

AK: I enjoy it. I must say that it has become a very big industry. It’s perhaps following the trend of industrialisation, like most big sports today. It’s no longer the amateur sport that it was maybe in my grandfather’s time.

ITV: But at the personal level, leading in a winner on the Derby day …

AK: It’s a very special thrill, without any doubt.

ITV: Talking of Derby day, many people in Britain of course associate you with that poor horse, Shergar. Do you have your own personal theory as to what happened to that unfortunate animal?.

AK: Yes, I think that all the information I have and continue to get is that this was an IRA kidnapping. It was part of a strategy to raise money through kidnapping and this was a high profile attempt to affect public opinion because you remember that kidnapping was followed by the kidnapping of a number of people.

ITV: And there way no way, as far as you were concerned, that sort of kidnapping would ever be successful?

AK: No, none whatsoever. And in fact, I don’t even think that the IRA necessarily understood what a stallion syndicate was or how it functioned or why they clearly kidnapped the wrong type of asset.

ITV: Does personal security worry you and that of your family?

AK: In certain parts of the world at certain times, yes.

ITV: Outside your religious duties, the foundation, the business, how do you relax? What gives you pleasure and satisfaction?

AK: Strange enough, work satisfaction is by far the highest one that I have. Otherwise, I enjoy sport. I like watching the horses perform successfully, when they do perform successfully. I enjoy skiing because I can get on lot of fresh air, relax. I enjoy running in the woods here. Otherwise, it’s essentially the happiness one gets from one’s work.

ITV: But you are a workaholic.

AK: (Laughing) People accuse me of that.

[W]hen you travel around the world, as you do frequently, what do you see: a vision of hope or a vision of despair? Funnily enough more than hope than I can remember since 1957…. I think there is an increasing comprehension, funnily enough, of the issues that exist in the developing world. I am not saying their method of resolution, but at least the comprehension of what they represent and as the Americans say, if you ask the right question, that’s more than half of the answer. [Emphasis original]

ITV: Finally, Your Highness, when you travel around the world, as you do frequently, what do you see: a vision of hope or a vision of despair?

AK: Funnily enough more than hope than I can remember since 1957. I think that [the] world recession has forced rethinking on a number of issues which were handled rather dogmatically in the past — in economic thinking, in social thinking. I think there is an increasing comprehension, funnily enough, of the issues that exist in the developing world. I am not saying their method of resolution, but at least the comprehension of what they represent. And as the Americans say, if you ask the right question, that’s more than half of the answer. [Emphasis original]

ITV: Your Highness, Thanks you very much indeed for talking personally.

AK: Thank you.

SOURCES

  • Audio: ismaili.net

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

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