I don’t think of myself as a person with a nationality. I was brought up since my youngest age as a Muslim. My university studies were in Islamic studies. So that is — if I have any sense of identification — that would be it.

Interviewer: John Tidmarsh in Aiglemont

Hello, and welcome. You have joined me today in France, for a special edition of Outlook. We are just north of Paris at Chantilly, the elegant centre of the French horse racing industry. We are actually at the headquarters of the man who is celebrating 40 years as the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims: some 15 million people altogether. It was on July the 11th, 1957 that Prince Karim succeeded his grandfather as the Aga Khan.

John Tidmarsh: In fact Your Highness, you were chosen by him to take his place rather than your father Prince Aly Khan or your uncle, although you were only 20. Why did he want you?

His Highness the Aga Khan: Well, he said in his will that he wanted a young man to succeed him, he had been Imam for 72 years, so I think that his concern was for a younger generation to fulfil the role of the Imam of the Ismaili Community.

JT: It is the tradition of course that the Aga Khan chooses his successor, you are the 49th tracing your lineage back to Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.

AK: That’s correct. The authority descends in the family of Hazrat Aly, who was the Prophet’s son-in-law — cousin and son-in-law.

JT: But, who exactly are the Ismaili Muslims?

AK: The Ismaili Muslims are Shia Muslims, they are a branch, therefore, of the tradition in Islam which recognised Hazrat Ali as having the authority to interpret the faith as given to him by Prophet Muhammad.

JT: Where is the Ismaili Community? How spread are they?

AK: Well in simple terms in Central Asia, South Western Asia, Eastern Africa, North America, Western Europe — about 28 different countries today.

Let’s just hear from two members of the Ismaili Community, they both live in Britain as it happens, what it means to be an Ismaili. One of them is Mohamed Ahmed and the other is Karim Mohammed….

JT: You were saying that it’s very much an international Community, you yourself, what about you, I mean you were born in Switzerland, you went to school there, then you went to Harvard in the United States, your mother British, so was your former wife, do you have a nationality?

AK: I don’t think of myself as a person with a nationality. I was brought up since my youngest age as a Muslim. My university studies were in Islamic studies. So that is — if I have any sense of identification — that would be it.

JT: As an Islamic leader, how do you explain the rather abrasive relationship that seem to exist between the Islamic world and the Western world?

AK: Well I am not sure, I would call it a relationship. I think it’s more realistic to look at the Islamic world for what it is: very complex, very diverse, and to attribute to that complex and diverse world, one relationship with the West, frankly I don’t think it’s correct. I think there are areas of the Islamic world, which for non-theological reasons find themselves, at certain times in conflict, with certain parts of the Western world, but I would not want to extend that to, I don’t mean to be offensive, but rather simplistic notion of a Christian-Islamic conflictual relationship — no.

JT: I wasn’t thinking that in particular but, does the Islamic world, to some extent, resent the intrusion of Western culture, Western ideas, the growing intrusion?

AK: Yes, I think there are times when what I would call occidentalisation, is a force that the Islamic world would not welcome. The Islamic world, and Islam itself, does not make that difference between the spiritual and material world in the same terms as St. Augustine might have done in the Christian world. We have, I think somewhat different ethical values. And they are, linked, strongly, to this, non-separation, between the world of everyday and the world of the practice of the faith.

JT: I’d like to talk to you in a moment about Western deceptions in particular and the place of women in the Islamic world, but, let’s just see first, one member of your community, a very successful businesswoman in Kenya, her name is Norin Kassam and she is talking to Martin Dawes….

Martin Dawes: As a business woman you’ll see out there, in the world, and you are mixing with people your dress is very Western, it would not conform to what most peoples ideas, of Islamic dress, or for use in Islamic woman. Now is that coming from the Aga Khan, or is it coming from you?

Norin Kassam: The current Aga Khan’s grandfather who was Aga Khan before him. He was very strong in educating women and I think he used to say that if you have two children, one boy and one girl and you can only afford to educate one of them, then you should educate the girl, and then I think that the next statement is a statement that is used to very, very commonly now, that if you educate a woman — if you educate a man, you educate an individual — if you educate a woman, you educate a family. Now this was said by the Aga Khan and again it’s a very common and very popular saying now. You know that sort of set the foundation for the type and the role of women, that the Ismaili Community has.

JT: Contrast her life with a counterception [sic] of Muslim women, denied both education sometimes and equal opportunity.

I think the message of Islam, is the dignity with which we must treat women in society. Now, the notion of how that happens in practice, is very much a question of interpretation.

AK: I think the message of Islam, is the dignity with which we must treat women in society. Now, the notion of how that happens in practice, is very much a question of interpretation. But the basic premise, is the dignity and equality of women in society. And that goes right through the revelation of Islam, it goes to the tradition and the life of the Prophet, and the Prophet’s wife, Khadija, was a woman who participated actively in daily life.

JT: But one way that doesn’t happen is if women are not given a proper education, your grandfather in particular was — was very keen on seeing that women were properly educated.

AK: Absolutely and that tradition is being maintained and we believe and I think it’s correct that education dignifies women.

JT: Could I just ask you first of all, I don’t mean to be impersonal, but how is great wealth, how can you reconcile that being a spiritual leader.

Our tradition is, what wealth God gives you, use it in His cause, which is what I seek to do and what my institutions seek to do.

AK: I think you are reflecting precisely the point as said earlier. You are asking an Augustinian question. Because you have been educated in the tradition that practice, or that faith is divorced from the material world. Our tradition is, what wealth God gives you, use it in His cause, which is what I seek to do and what my institutions seek to do.

JT: You concentrate a lot of this effort on the very poor members of your community?

AK: Yes, simply because those are the areas of greatest need, we are dealing with in most countries, 70 to 75% of the population that is rural.

JT: Some of the poorest members of your Community live in the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan, which is of course now an independent state, it’s from there we can now hear from Monica Whitlock on a rather poor telephone line, I am afraid.

Monica Whitlock reporting from Tajikistan:

High in the Pamir mountains where the Hindu Kush rises to meet China, live the Ismailis of Tajikistan. It’s a land of extraordinary beauty, where the air is thin and colour seems somewhat brighter, lit by the intense white of the mountain peak. Huddled by snow for most of the year, the Pamiris are truly a people set apart. Unlike most Tajiks, they are often green-eyed and fair-haired, they speak their own ancient language, incomprehensible to the outside world.

And here the man in the business suit, the Aga Khan, is revered as the Prophet Mohamed’s true descendant. It’s understandable. Five years ago, when civil war tore through Tajikistan, the mountain highway was cut and the Pamiris came close to starving. If the Aga Khan Foundation hadn’t rushed in emergency supplies, thousands might have died. These days more than half the food in the Pamirs still comes from the Foundation in convoys winding their way through treacherous mountain passes. But the emphasis is changing. The Foundation has lately launched an experiment to enable the Pamiris to break their dependency and feed themselves. So far the results have proved spectacular. According to The Aga Khan Foundation, the Pamiris could even be self sufficient in ten years time. An incredible achievement for one of the poorest communities in the world. No wonder that every Ismaili household lends support to the man the Pamiris believe has saved their lives.

JT: Monica Whitlock reporting from Tajikistan and talking about just one of the arms of a much larger Development Network.

AK: Yes, that’s correct, what I have tried to do is, to create a small number of agencies, each one has a specialised purpose, and they can work independently, or all together, or some together.

JT: But the overriding motive of all this work is helping people to help themselves.

AK: That’s correct, its helping people to become independent.

JT: Your daughter has a degree in Third World development. What part does she play?

AK: Zahra graduated from Harvard in that field because, while she was studying she wanted to become involved in development and for me it was a magnificent opportunity to have my only daughter be able to become involved in the issues of women’s development, in issues of the very poor, in issues of the youth, the young people and the problems that they have.

JT: She is not here at your headquarters, at the moment, because she just got married.

AK: Of course. That’s correct, she just got married, she is on her honeymoon now.

JT: This work that you do, through your Development Network, is it entirely focused on the 15 million or so Ismailis around the world?

AK: No, not at all. The driving notion is to select areas of the world, which do not have sufficient development support and we go in there with others and support all the people living in that area whether they are Ismaili or non-Ismaili, whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim.

JT: That’s a huge field to work in isn’t it?

AK: It is indeed. The hope is however, that as you move from one area to the other, you render communities more and more independent. So they don’t need that support any more.

JT: Let’s just take a break for a moment to take a closer look at some of the projects of your Development Network. Anne Kassam starts this report at a Nursery School in London.

AK: How lovely.

Toddlers of this London nursery are benefiting from a unique teaching approach. It’s called High Scope and was pioneered with support from The Aga Khan Foundation. It’s mainly aimed at children from poorer communities and encourages them to feel more confident and independent.

What’s your plan, what are you planning to do in the house?

Children as young as 2 get to plan their own days out and as the Deputy Manager Monica Matthews explains, everything is arranged so that youngsters can look after their own needs. “The most important aspect, all the material aspects for the children and that really furthers their independence, really gets them a feel of – oh! I can do this, which I think is very important to enforce their self esteem.”

(Transition from the education of nursery children in England to that of university students in Pakistan:) (Music) This music is what’s heard every time the Aga Khan University meets for important occasions such as graduation ceremonies. (Music) Founded more than 10 years ago, it became the first private University in Pakistan and it trains Nurses, Teachers and Doctors.

“[The] Aga Khan University is very different, the curriculum is very extensive and the good thing is, that, it taught me that, there is more to medicine than just sickness. Medicine somehow relates to everyday life.” Sherbanudin is a final young medical student, she says, one of the most important parts of her course, with her experience as a student doctor in the slums of Karachi. “It was important to be there because, the problem, the sickness is different in a slum area, there are more infectious diseases than you see in the main City and there’s more poverty-bred diseases and it was important because, we realise, how much we are needed, in the slums of the area, and not just only in the Hospital.”

Caring for the poor and sick is a tradition, which states back to the present Aga Khan’s grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah. In 1897 he played a major role in stopping the spread of bubonic plague in Bombay, which was affecting the poorest of the population.

(Voice of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah:) “Though not belonging to the class that was liable to infection, I have got myself inoculated as an example and encouragement to the general public in Bombay and Western India.”

He was immunised in front of a large crowd to show people, vaccinations are nothing to be afraid of. To this day, educating people about vaccination is an important part of the work of The Aga Khan Health Services. Like this project taking place in villages in the state of Gujarat in Western India, where there is a high rate of infant mortality.

(Transition to David Pile with an independent observer of the programme, which involved young Ismaili women:) “The young women would go to the community members, to the mothers, to the households and encourage them to bring their children for immunisation. They were able to reach almost 90% of the children. This is a great step forward to protect them against some of the common childhood illnesses.”

(Transition from villages in Western India to the remote Pamir mountains in Tajikistan) As Monica Whitlock reported earlier, the Ismailis there, were sent food, with the help of the Aga Khan. But now they are less dependent on food aid, because they have also been encouraged to try out a new method of farming. Shaikh Omar Mohamed who is an independent farmer said, the results have been good and they are on their way to becoming self-sufficient.

(Translated from Tajik) “Our people are farming now, we have got wheat, potatoes and other vegetables, we are breeding animals. If we need wheat or diesel for farming, we get it from the Foundation.” Helping to deal with the pressing problems of every day life, is a central concern of the Aga Khan Development Network. But so is culture and art.

(Transition to Zanzibar:) This was part of a ceremony to celebrate the renovation of a most beautiful building. The old dispensary in Zanzibar, which was built more than a 100 years ago, by a prominent Ismaili and one of the richest man in East Africa. The building was saved from dereliction and given a new use as a Culture Centre. Doctor Archie Wolves lead the project to restore the original character of the building, while giving it a role in modern Zanzibar. “There is no point in tying money into a building, if it’s not going to have a proper use. Here we have boutiques selling very colourful garments, cloth and local paintings and other things. You have got to have the commercial element, to finance the on-going maintenance, without it, this building will die.”

JT: I notice the delight on your face when you heard your grandfather there.

AK: Yes, that’s correct, I spent many extraordinary days, when I was with him and his memory is very strong in my mind.

JT: The last person we heard on that report from Anne Kassam is the architect Archie Wolves and architecture seems to be one of your passions.

AK: Yes, one of the things that characterises Islamic societies, has been their ability traditionally to express themselves in the physical environment in a unique manner. That tradition was being lost, then it was my concern to try to encourage that aspect of Islamic identity to be revived.

I’m concentrating on trying to encourage Islamic societies to create, in their own traditions, but to create new.

JT: Are you concentrating on restoration or, renovation as we heard in that report?

AK: No, I’m concentrating on trying to encourage Islamic societies to create, in their own traditions, but to create new.

JT: One of your other passions I know and we are very conscious of it here in Chantilly is racing. This was probably your greatest moment:

Radio Commentator: “Shergar ….. he is gone four, five, six, seven, eight lengths here …….. two furlongs out …….. he is on his own, Shergar clear of his field, Shergar wins the Derby.”

JT: Your horse Shergar won an astounding win in the Epsom Derby in 1981. You seem to be enjoying that all over again. Not as much as the commentator, who is going quite mad.

AK: Well, there is no doubt that was a very special day in my life and you probably know I inherited the horses by accident, through my father’s death and as a young owner, to own and breed a Derby winner is an extraordinary thing and this horse actually won the Derby by the biggest margin in history.

JT: But then of course, was followed by a great tragedy.

AK: Yes.

JT: Do we know who kidnapped the horse, have we any idea?

AK: Oh, I think it was part of the IRA’s fund raising exercise at the time and I think they probably didn’t understand that, apart from the fact that, it was unlikely they were going to be paid the ransom, the horse was owned by a syndicate of owners. I think he was destroyed probably three or four days after he was kidnapped.

JT: When it became clear that, no money was going to be paid.

AK: That’s right.

JT: Did it affect your interest in racing for a while?

AK: Well, clearly, a Derby winner is a unique event in anyone’s life, in addition to which he was from one of my grandfather’s, his family’s. So the breeding prospects were important, I had shareholders, who had invested in the horse, so, it was a big, big loss both personally and in terms of the breeding operation.

To whom are you accountable? To the institution and the people who practise the Ismaili interpretation of Islam.

JT: The love of racing is something that occurs in your heritage, if one could use of that word from your grandfather, unlike your title of Aga Khan, it’s not a title to which one is elected. To whom are you accountable?

AK: To the institution and the people who practise the Ismaili interpretation of Islam.

JT: Ultimately, your turn will come to choose a successor, you have a daughter and two sons, could it be a daughter?

AK: You know traditionally, historically it’s been a man, the Imam keeps that choice to himself.

JT: We shan’t be hearing that for a long time yet.

AK: Well, I’m sixty.

JT: That’s very young.

JT: Your Highness thank you very much for meeting us here today in Chantilly.

You’ve been listening to the Special Edition of Outlook. From me, by John Tidmarsh, goodbye.

SOURCES

  • Text (secondary source): ismaili.net

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