One of the most difficult questions I ask and, and I’ve asked it I don’t know how many times, is simply “What is the definition of happiness for a peasant in Asia or Africa?” If we can’t answer that question we don’t know what are the elements that contribute and the priorities of those elements, we certainly will never be able to deal with the development issues in a manner which is going to be shared by the people who we are working with — taken over, and made, there….

Always remember whose needs are being fulfilled. Are they yours or are they the persons you are trying to help. In the Third World, where the need is the greatest, many organisations and governments throw in money. I throw in people — dedicated people to train, to educate and to encourage. I believe that there is no such thing as an underdeveloped country — only under-managed countries and for me the most important word is accountability. We must be accountable at all times to the organisations we serve and to the people we serve.

MAYBE INCOMPLETE: Although extensive portions from this interview are available below, they do not appear to, or may not, comprise the entire interview and we would be very grateful if any of our readers who may have the complete transcript would kindly share it with us. Please click here for information on making submissions to NanoWisdoms; we thank you for your assistance.

Interviewer: Roy Bonisteel in Aiglemont

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Hello I’m Roy Bonisteel. Tonight’s Man Alive begins its twentieth season. Over the years we’ve met many outstanding people. Spiritual leaders, to individuals with courage and endurance. I am about to meet one of the most glamorous and mysterious men in the world. He is his Highness the Aga Khan. We in the West know him only as a fabulously rich man, owner of the finest race horses in the world. Some race here at the famous Shanty E track near his estate in France.

Aiglemont outside Paris, the principle residence of his Highness the Aga Khan. This is the first time the Aga Khan as agreed to a personal interview on North American television. What most of us don’t knew is that for the past 30 years His Highness the Aga Khan has quietly and carefully constructed a multi-national financial and philanthropic empire along Islamic principles. For more than 15 million Muslins the Aga Khan in their spiritual leader — their living Imam. We are familiar with three generations of the Aga Khan’s family. We particularly remember the image of his grandfather being weighed in diamonds. What we don’t know is that the diamonds were rented for the occasion to symbolise the donations given to him by his followers. It was the Ismailis unique way of redistributing wealth. The money was not used to indulge his personal passions, but raiser to build hospitals and schools for some of the poorest in the world….

He was a student at Harvard when his grandfather died. At the age of 20, Prince Karim Aga Khan became the forty-ninth Imam of the Ismailis. Fifteen million followers spread throughout twenty-five countries believe that the Aga Khan is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He is responsible for the spiritual guidance and the well being of the Ismaili community. After thirty years in office he is the world’s most modern Muslim leader — a bridge between East and West.

Roy Bonisteel: You are called the living Imam, what exactly does that mean?

His Highness the Aga Khan: Well the Shia history has followed the same sort of historical developments all hereditary offices have followed, where there have been differences of opinion on who was the legitimate successor to the predecessor, whether it was a secular or religious office. In the case of the Shia Muslims, the Shia branch of Islam split and one branch of the Shia Muslims accepted the concept of the Imam in hiding, the invisible Imam, because the twelfth Imam disappeared as a very young child, and our branch of Shia Islam, in that particular generation of the family, accepted the legitimacy of the eldest son, Ismail, as being the appointed Imam to succeed and that is why they are known as Ismailis. And that branch of the family has continued today hereditarily and that is why there is a living Imam for the Ismaili Muslims.

RB: How do you see your responsibility as the living Imam?

AK: The Imam is first of all obviously responsible for the interpretation and practise of the faith and that is a role which my grandfather fulfilled which I fulfil today. Secondly, the Imam’s decisions with regards to matters of faith are binding obviously on members of the community.

RB: Is this a kind of divine authority?

You have to be very careful not to confuse the concept of religious authority with divinity.

AK: You have to be very careful not to confuse the concept of religious authority with divinity. The Prophet himself never claimed any miracle of any sort. The only miracle which you have in Islam is the Qur’an.

RB: You do not fit the image we have in the West of a Muslim leader. No beard, no turban, no flowing robes. You are considered to he the model of the modern Muslim.

AK: There has been an incomprehension of the essence of the faith in the sense that very often the industrialised world, the Western world, has looked at the quaint, the unusual and has tried to highlight, for what ever reason, those aspects of the Islamic world [inaudible] the way it presents itself. The Islamic world itself has not always clarified what it is about. It has found it difficult to express itself. I don’t want to appear to say that the incomprehensions that have occurred can be attributed unilaterally to one world rather than the other. I think what is important is that in learning about the Islamic world, the Western world should try to be better informed about the essence of the faith and not be too hypnotised by certain exterior forms which maybe limited in their geographic influence, they may be limited in time; things that are happening today, twenty years hence will appear to be of no consequence what-so-ever.

RB: Another image we have is of the Ayatollah and we associate Islam with terrorism. Is terrorism Islamic?

Unfortunately [terrorism] is a part of our modern life and in fact it is also part of our history. But it is prevalent in Western Europe, it is prevalent in South America. It takes religious expressions, it takes economic expressions…. [T]he I.R.A. can hardly be expressive of the Catholic Church and yet it calls itself a Catholic movement.

AK: It certainly isn’t. Unfortunately it is a part of our modern life and in fact it is also part of our history. But it is prevalent in Western Europe, it is prevalent in South America. It takes religious expressions, it takes economic expressions. I don’t think one should, in all honesty, look at terrorism as being an Islamic force. I don’t think it is in any way an Islamic force. It is an expression of other forces which may seek at times to use Islam as one of the binding ingredients. Just as I think other terrorists forms in Western Europe for example, do the same thing; the I.R.A. can hardly be expressive of the Catholic Church and yet it calls itself a Catholic movement. So I think we have to be careful not to attach to the term terrorism a religion connotation “par excellence.” That there are elements in those forces of terrorism which may seek legitimacy from a faith, is something which is worldwide not specific to the Islamic world.

In the harsh and complex world of international politics the Aga Khan works quietly in the background. He cleverly maintains a delicate balance between his role as a religious leader, philanthropist and statesman. There are over 50 thousand Ismailis living in Canada today. It was the Aga Khan who opened the first multi-racial schools in Africa. Yet under Idi Amin’s crazed racial and economic policies all Ismailis were expelled from Uganda in August ’72. In a matter of days, 15 thousand Ismailis, most of them successful professionals and business men and women, became refugees. Some 10 thousand found a new hone in Canada, with the Aga Khan’s assistance.

AK: I felt that it was part of the responsibility of the Imamat to assist this community to settle in other parts of the world. We have always, from my grandfather’s time and even before then, sought to act in a strong, a courageous manner. I didn’t feel that the Ismailis should be looked upon by any country that was going to receive them, as a potentially weak, unstable minority that would bring more problems than it would bring advantages. And I was able to use Imamat institutional support with the banking network in Canada, to provide specialised programs of support to the community in Canada, in Britain and elsewhere.

RB: That your leadership wasn’t just spiritual it was also financial support there too — tell me, does the community still tithe to you?

AK: There is, like in I think all faiths, a form of religious due which is voluntary, which is institutional income. It is given within the context of the link between the Imam of the Time and the individual, or the family, and I think that it is been a source of strength both to the community and to the institution so long as those resources are used in a manner which is appropriate to the role of the Imam as an institution and is understood as such.

A four hundred million dollar hospital in Pakistan built with international and Ismaili support. Like his grandfather in the symbolic gardens [sic], the Aga Khan redistributes community funds throughout the Third World. Schools, clinics and hospitals serve the local communities as well as the Ismailis. But all this development is driven by another vision — architecture which incorporates Islamic principles and emphasises the human scale.

RB: You are quite concerned about scale in your architectural design. Why is that?

I think a tendency in the industrialised world sometimes to build buildings for prestige and for high visibility.

AK: I think one of the issues in the Islamic faith is the relationship of man to his environment and not to become invading in attitude to that environment. Not becoming vain or seeking to overload others and there has been I think a tendency in the industrialised world sometimes to build buildings for prestige and for high visibility.

The Ismaili Centre in London, England. This elegant building reflects the theological principles of Islamic design. In Vancouver another Ismaili Centre. The Aga Khan’s expertise makes him one of the world’s most respected patrons of architecture. His international award is one of the most coveted architectural prises. Canadian Bruno Freschi was selected to build the Vancouver centre.

RB: Why him, why not an Islamic architect?

AK: Where we build in the industrialised world I’ve tried to use architects who were of that world who knew what the planning concerns might be, the productive concerns of contractors, and who had the sensitivity to be able to design in our culture and our idiom. Bruno Freschi, as I made the point at the time, is rather a remarkable man.

RB: But he said that you were such a great inspiration that I am wondering what did you instruct him or how did you inspire him in that way. You must have had long discussions about your ideas?

AK: Yes, I think I have always tried to share with people who work on architectural projects for the community and me, some explanation of what we are trying to get out of the building. It is not just the bricks and mortar.

The architect who worked most closely with him and shares his vision is Hasan Khan.

Hasan Khan: He has a dream, he has a vision of the future of where people may be fifty to one hundred years from now. Where people would be involved in making their own decisions where people will have a better quality of life.

Realising the Aga Khan’s dream is also a matter of of careful management and administration. The main offices of his unorthodox multi-national are at Aiglemont, his estate near Paris. Over 100 people of differing nationalities and faiths work here on everything from horse breeding to health care, education and financial planning. His chief financial man is an Australian, William Robinson.

RB: How do you make your decisions about investments — is it like any other business?

William Robinson: I would like to say this is but I don’t think that’s the truth. I think you can see our whole organisation, or the Aga Khan’s organisation, as almost being more akin to that of a government than a normal multi-national, if I can use that term. What the main differences are, I think, that the purpose behind the investments — there are a number of investments in the commercial side where profit is a factor — but that is not the only factor and we wouldn’t be making those investments for profit alone. In the Third World I think you really got to go back to the purpose of his activity whether it is in the health, the education, housing, social welfare side or if you look at the economic side it is basically there in the first instance to give material and economic support to his own community, but because his own community is very much — their own future — is very much tied up with the country in which they live, that programs that he has in those countries, whether they are in health or education or straight commercial investments, are targeted more at the country than the Ismaili community so overall I mean we’re not like a normal organisation. In the commercial investments we do look for profit but we take a much, much longer view.

RB: What is his Highness the Aga Khan like to work for?

William Robinson: Well as a person he is very, very different to one of the popular images which is or someone being fairly exotic. I mean nothing could be farther from the truth. He is actually a very, very hard working — perhaps almost driven sometimes, takes a very view of things which he is in a position to do because of his fairly unique position. By and large an excellent boss.

The ability to see results is I think a very important thing and I do pay attention to detail because I think ultimately one should address an issue once and try and get it right and not have to come back because you have been slip-shod or because you haven’t taken into account something which you could have foreseen.

AK: I think again it comes back to the motivation. I just don’t believe that people are entirely motivated by greed or power or that sort of thing. I think they give of the best of themselves if they contribute from all aspects of their being, their own aspirations. If they see that they are sharing things with people, which isn’t only material things, [but] the sharing of knowledge — the ability to see results is I think a very important thing. And I do pay attention to detail because I think ultimately one should address an issue once and try and get it right and not have to come back because you have been slip-shod or because you haven’t taken into account something which you could have foreseen. There’s so much that has to be done, it is better I think to try and do it once properly.

RB: As a business man what are your goals and ideals?

I do attach very great importance to the longevity and good management of community institutions.

AK: As an individual entrepreneur I am not particularly inspired by business. What I have inherited I have tried to manage appropriately, but I have no particular aspiration to be a major entrepreneur in my own right. I do attach very great importance to longevity and good management of community institutions.

RB: But you do want to make a profit?

AK: You want to make profits so those institutions can grow and serve an increasingly wide spectrum but you want to avoid greed, you want to avoid malpractice, you want to contribute to an environment which is an ethical environment but within the context of freedom of enterprise.

RB: You say you get no thrill out of being a businessman but that is what we know you mostly for in the West, your hotels, your horses, your resorts.

AK: Well, I sometimes wonder what one can do about it in the sense that you know I said we have no control over people, what people write and think. I think they tend to look at their own back garden first and therefore the Western media are more concerned with what is happening in the Western world than what is happening in the Developing World. I think that’s changing. What I would emphasise is that both the blood stock activities and the tourism activities are accidents in my life, in the sense that the blood stock activity has been a family tradition. When my father died the question was whether that would continue or not. It was a successful and I think a happy tradition and it seemed to me that there was no fundamental reason not to continue it as long as I could try and keep it at the appropriate level. Costa Smerlda started through a very small personal investment with about twenty other people in an island in the Mediterranean. And for historical reasons which are too long to go into here, it grew into an enterprise and from on enterprise it became quite a substantial commitment to tourism in the industrialised world. Now that probably one day will through its own momentum come to be an important prop for our development efforts in the Third World.

RB: There seems to be a contradiction here — with your jet-set hotels, horses and your concern for the environment in the Third World and yet you don’t really seek much publicity for the development work you do.

AK: I think it would be extremely unwise to spend ones time correcting images which are images of the Western world which is not primarily my area of concern. I think it’s much more productive, frankly, that I devote the time that I have to the Developing World, to the mandate which I have to try to complete the work that needs to be done. I think if you were to ask questions about what the Aga Khan does in India or Pakistan or East Africa, you’d get a totally different answer from what you would here. That must be my concern.

RB: There it not an aid agency chat I know, and we have talked to a lot of them, that does not respect your work in the Third World. Could this be this emphasis on management?

AK: Oh, I think there are many other factors that contribute to it also. I think one is that the motivation behind the exercises are very strongly shared by the people who work in them. In that sense there’s an integrity of approach which is not only based on the results, it’s based on the moral convictions of the people who are working in those activities. One of the most difficult questions I ask, and I’ve asked a hundred [?] times, is simple “What is the definition of happiness for a peasant in Asia or Africa?” If we can’t answer that question, we don’t know what are the elements that contribute and the priorities of those elements, we certainly will never be able to deal with the development issues in a manner which is going to be shared by the people we’re working with — taken over and made there.

RB: You talk about happiness in the Third World. What is happiness to you?

[Happiness is] also very much in terms of the way society is functioning, the way opportunity is created. That’s very important.

AK: I think happiness from my point of view would be seeing that some of the things one has sought to achieve, with the leadership in the community, the institutions in the community, people outside the community, are beginning to produce some results one was aspiring for. And that isn’t only in material terms, it’s also very much in terms of the way society is functioning, the way opportunity is created. That’s very important.

RB: We see you with heads of state and yet you are not a politician, you’re in business and yet you’re more than a businessman, and certainly a religious leader and yet more than that. How do you want to be remembered?

AK: (Laughs) Probably not in name or face. I far prefer that certain important things that occurred during my Imamat should continue: relations between the Ismaili community other parts of the Islamic Ummah; between the Islamic world and the non-Islamic world; certain concepts of the “Unity of Man” — that you don’t serve yourself best by being mean and inward looking and you do not serve your future generations that way.

“There are those who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot. Unless these unfortunates can be touched with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will only sink back into renewed apathy, depredation and despair. It is for us who are more fortunate to provide that spark…. A proper home can provide the bridge across that terrible gulf between utter poverty and the possibility of a better future.” (His Highness the Aga Khan, 19 January 1983, India)

Postscript — Excerpts from Roy Bonisteel’s speech to the Canadian Hospital Association Convention, October 1986.

Now I have spent the last ten days at the estate of the Aga Khan — this is the first interview he has given to North American television. He is the leader if some 15 million Ismaili Muslims who revere him as their 49th Imam…. The Aga Khan shuns publicity, but he is one the greatest and most effective philanthropist in the world. For the past 30 years, he has used his wealth, his influence and his business acumen to bring education and health care to much of the third world…. When we said goodbye, I told him I was coming out there to Edmonton today to the Canadian Hospital Association Convention, and I asked him if he had any words of wisdom I could pass along and he said and I quote:

Always remember whose needs are being fulfilled. Are they yours or are they the persons you are trying to help. In the Third World, where the need is the greatest, many organisations and governments throw in money. I throw in people — dedicated people to train, to educate and to encourage. I believe that there is no such thing as an underdeveloped country — only under-managed countries and for me the most important word is accountability. We must be accountable at all times to the organisations we serve and to the people we serve.

The Aga Khan Foundation employs over ten thousand people of all races, all creeds — he doesn’t care what your religion is, as long as you get the job done — hand picked, and the finest in their fields. I interviewed several of the people who work with him — people who have worked with the Ford Foundation, the United Nations. All sorts of high powered places and they all say that they have never worked so hard in their lives before as they are working now, but they also say that they never had the satisfaction of the job that they have now. They work quietly, without fanfare and with great love and effectiveness in the service of humanity.

SOURCES

  • Postscript: Ismaili.net
  • Audio: ismaili.net

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

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