In the long run, the question is what is the context in which human society will function and the Islamic community will function? And I think the whole notion of relevance is a massively important issue. It’s going across all faiths. Not just the Islamic faith. Not just the Islamic interpretation. It’s going across all faiths today. There is a clear search for ethical contexts. And my sense is that could be a little bit of a reaction to maybe some of excesses in the material context.

It’s clear that uncontrolled freedom becomes license. It’s an issue that keeps coming up all the time. And it’s one which needs very, very deep reflection. Very deep reflection. It’s probably the most challenging issue that I have to address today. More so since the life sciences have evolved, since communications have evolved.

Interviewer: Pranay Gupte in Aiglemont


Preface by NanoWisdoms

Between 1996 and 2003, Pranay Gupte published the following four articles all citing an interview with His Highness the Aga Khan:

  • 1 January 1996: Newsweek (United States; Source: www.pranaygupte.com).
  • 31 May 1999: Forbes Global, ‘Venture Capitalist to the Third World’ (United Kingdom; Source: www.forbes.com).
  • 21 June 1999: Earth Times News Service (Secondary source: ismaili.net).
  • 8 October 2003: The Daily Star (Lebanon; Secondary source: ismaili.net).

All of these appear to use the same interview, however given the Aga Khan’s age of 62, the interview was most likely done early in 1999, and it would appear the Newsweek date of 1996 is incorrect notwithstanding the Newsweek reference is on Gupte’s own website. Nevertheless, Earth Times eventually published the most complete transcript of this interview on April 22, 2000, and this is reproduced below. However, despite the length of the Earth Times transcript, Gupte states that still only excerpts from the interview are provided, and so additional material found only in Forbes Global is also reproduced below for ease of reference.

Excerpts from the Forbes Global article

As the Ismaili Shia Muslims’ 49th imam, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV has not only helped his people. He has also changed the face of global philanthropy. Now 62, he was early among experts in Third World development to grasp that government handouts and multilaterally funded mega-projects often foster dependence, not self-reliance, in the people they’re meant to help. To counter this danger, the Aga Khan has become a kind of venture capitalist to the Third World. Through his economic development institutions, he is increasingly taking equity positions in small-scale commercial enterprises. His goals: to reduce what he calls “aid dependence,” and to spur sustainable economic development and individual self-reliance at the grassroots level in countries such as Tanzania, Pakistan and Tajikistan that otherwise don’t have much hope of attracting high- profile foreign investors.

My sense is that people in developing countries want new ways to address the question of their economic and social well-being. What we’re saying through the Aga Khan Development Network is that the era of give-a-ways is gone. This is a time to enhance self-reliance, for grassroots groups to generate profits and use money for promoting social good.

Rejecting the one-ideology-fits-all strategies of collectivists and extreme laissez-faire types alike, the Aga Khan uses his resources to support and encourage communities and ventures across South and Central Asia and Africa:

In the context (he says) of their individual cultural, economic, and physical environments, to assume responsibility for actions which lead to long-term improvement in their health, their education, their incomes and their environment.

Earth Times Transcript

Prince Karim, Aga Khan IV, is the spiritual and temporal leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims. His grandfather named him to the Imamat in 1957 — when Karim was an undergraduate at Harvard University — passing over Karim’s father, Prince Aly Khan, and also Aly’s brother, Prince Sadruddin. Karim is among the world’s wealthiest men, with business investments strewn around the globe but particularly in Africa, Europe and Asia. Excerpts from a rare interview:

Pranay Gupte: What makes you tick?

His Highness the Aga Khan: The hope that I can have a positive impact on social and development issues — that I can try to build an environment in which people can live in peace and productively, live within an ethical context.

PG: When you look back at the time when you became the Imam — and when you look at yourself now — did you, in your wildest imagination, have thought of what you would have become now, especially the extent to which the sectarian has become the secular in your work?

I could not have conceived in 1957 of being the way I am in 1999. It was impossible. One had a sense of direction — one had a sense of aspirations and hopes, of course, about the basic issues of human society and development. But I would never have been able to predict specifics.

AK: When my grandfather died 42 years ago, I had no expectation of being in a position to fulfil his responsibilities, in addition to which the world was so totally different from what it is today. The context in which I was functioning was very much the short term and focused on religion. The short term was driven by short term political issues, decolonisation, the Cold War — those were the issues you were dealing with all the time. A lot of those issues are no longer there. There are different issues, but they’re no longer there. And probably the first time since 1957, I think across the majority of countries where the Ismaili community is present we can reasonably think about the medium term. So, the answer is I could not have conceived in 1957 of being the way I am in 1999. It was impossible. One had a sense of direction — one had a sense of aspirations and hopes, of course, about the basic issues of human society and development. But I would never have been able to predict specifics.

PG: When you look at your own stewardship, what have been the benchmarks of your life — starting with the time that you ascended to the Imamat in 1957 to where you are now?

AK: I inherited the office 12 years after the Second World War. And much of what was happening in 1957 was in some way or the other, related to the Second World War, it was also related to the Cold War. And therefore, I was looking at a kaleidoscope of issues — institutional issues, social issue, economic issues — and the problem was that although my grandfather was the Imam, the institutional capacity around him was practically nonexistent because most institutions at that time were extremely fragile.

Since 1957, what’s really happened is that the office of the Imamat has developed the capacity to act in a number of areas — in areas of culture, in areas of economics, in areas of development. This gives the institution of the Imamat the capacity to act in a logical and positive manner. We have developed the capacity to re-harness institutions and people and communities who were part of our societies in the ’50s, and we want them to become again part of our society today to help us build. So the answer really is that there has been a process over 42 years now of building systems to cope with and manage the dramatic changes in the world around us.

PG: As you look at your extensive network, what is the thread that runs through all of them?

[Thirdly,] the capacity of those institutions and, indeed, the peoples for whom you’re working to make those institutions self-sustaining. Because ultimately sustainability of the process of development is what all of us are concerned about, frankly.

AK: I think the starting premise is what are the inputs that are required in the parts of the world in which we are working that can have a beneficial impact on the quality of life if the people in those areas. Secondly, are those inputs capable of being addressed by one institution or do you need a number of institutions the have specialised knowledge and that can work together? And the third one is the capacity of those institutions and, indeed, the peoples for whom you’re working to make those institutions self-sustaining. Because ultimately sustainability of the process of development is what all of us are concerned about, frankly. So, that’s the nature of the approach and as time has gone by, I have tried to effectively add new institutions by simplifying and rationalising the network.

Although we have technology in a number of areas, we do not have a little empires or organisations that cannot work together. And one of the things which I find really pleasing at the moment — in the work that’s being done — is that there is more and more an empathy around strategies for development. And this empathy goes amongst the institutions. It didn’t start that way. I want to be very frank, in the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, I was concerned about instability within a given area such as health care of education. Today, development is such a multiple process that you really can only be effective if the agencies work together — and that’s what’s happening.

PG: You’ve been characterised as a visionary, introducing such concepts as “Enabling Environment” into the global vocabulary of development. Does that give [you] a certain unique satisfaction — that in fact, your own thinking was a bit ahead of the curve?

Today, 12, 15 years later, there are new notions which to me are really important. The notion of pluralism, and the legitimacy of pluralism in human society is a massively important issue for us in development. The notion of regionalism where there is an attempt to optimise the use of resources for people in a way which goes past frontiers, and gives them the capacity to function more effectively in a wider context. That is another issue.

AK: Without wanting to be boastful about that sort of thing, certainly, the satisfaction I would gain from it is essentially that time has proven that those notions were correctly identified. I don’t think that in any way I was unique there, but I think that as society evolves notions themselves evolve. The notions that we discussed [when?] we last talked, the Enabling Environment, that is a notion that’s made its way. It is a fundamental premise for development.

Today, 12, 15 years later, there are new notions which to me are really important. The notion of pluralism, and the legitimacy of pluralism in human society is a massively important issue for us in development. The notion of regionalism where there is an attempt to optimise the use of resources for people in a way which goes past frontiers, and gives them the capacity to function more effectively in a wider context. That is another issue. Sustainability, something we’ve just discussed, is another fundamental issue because getting the process of development under way is one thing. But, then insuring that it continues under its own momentum with the people primarily involved leading and making decisions on their own destinies is really the goal. And I’m too young in the development process to be able to talk about sustainability — it goes well past 40 years — but, I think that as time has gone by, the notion of sustainability is, and has become a key issue. Like pluralism, I have to say, frankly, and I think pluralism deserves greater attention than it’s received.

PG: You mention all these concepts but it takes a certain kind of individual drive to get those concepts implemented. And, again it has been said of you that had it not been for that extra dimension that you provide, which goes well beyond your role as spiritual leader and therefore enhances and widens your appeal to a wider community, these changes would not have been effected. How do you assess the impact [they?] have as a transformational force in societies [that?] are so diverse around the world?

Essentially the network has been people driven — not dogma driven, not driven by material return. The only thing the we are concerned within the network is improvement of the quality of life of people.

AK: I think that some of the programs that have been put in place have built their credibility. They have become case study situations — for instance, the rural support programme in Northern Pakistan, and the first private university in Pakistan. The resistance that I encountered way back, that higher education was in some way elitist or improper for populations in the developing world, this was a notion which I found really very dangerous and very damaging and yet it was dogma in the ’60s.

The key to resolving issues is to be a good listener. And if you are open to listening, and you can respond better to local concerns. Essentially the network has been people driven — not dogma driven, not driven by material return. The only thing the we are concerned within the network is improvement of the quality of life of people. And, insofar as those goals are achieved, then I think that our initiatives would be considered positive. Now, development is such a multiple process that others will have other approaches to this. The new area we’re looking at now is culture as an area of development. That’s another issue that’s been in the cards for some years. But, these are things which actually come from the field. They don’t come from bureaucrats sitting at headquarters and dreaming up projects.

PG: In the privacy of your mind, as you reflect on how development has evolved, are you a little concerned that the global institutions — whether they be public and multilateral or private — perhaps are a little too impressed by the nomenclature?

I am not convinced yet that the total free market approach is healthy for all of human society today as it is. I am not totally convinced that democracy without the understanding of the way and the precondition of democracy is a healthy exercise.

AK: It is a worry. It is a worry because I think certainly in my life, and in the work the institutions have done, we have been extremely sensitive to differences — differences between people, differences within countries, differences within economic levels. And the development process cannot — and it should not — ignore those differences. And I simply don’t believe that the development process can be replicated 100 percent in any part of the world. It is an ongoing running process. But you can replicate ideas, but you have to make sure that they will actually become the seed of development when you move them across the frontier or to other people.

And I’m a little bit worried that the stereotype solution is becoming very prominent. I am not convinced yet that the total free market approach is healthy for all of human society today as it is. I am not totally convinced that democracy without the understanding of the way and the precondition of democracy is a healthy exercise. I think probably it’s important to educate about democracy so that people can understand what are its goals. In countries of hundreds or millions of people that have never experienced democracy, I’m not sure how quickly that process can take place. I think it’s desirable, but I’m frankly cautious about the speed with which it can be achieved.

PG: And, in that context, how do you see your role? Is it a role of a seeder, if you will, of ideas? Is it a role of mentor? Is it a role of a secular spiritual guide in the world development?

I think [my] first role is that of keen observer. The second one involves the search to understand, because if there no observation, there is insufficient understanding — and then the premises of action are simply not there. So, the nature of my institution clearly starts with that.

AK: I think the first role is that of keen observer. The second one involves the search to understand, because if there no observation, there is insufficient understanding — and then the premises of action are simply not there. So, the nature of my institution clearly starts with that.

The next issue is the ethics within which society lives. And these ethical principles have got to move forward in time across societies, different languages, different backgrounds. But, society and institutions need to function within an ethical context. That is a very important issue in our lives. And, of course, it’s even more important when you see cultures meeting each other which never met before because their starting points are different. So, the answer to the question really is that I seek to observe and I seek to respond to what I see. Now, the response may not be everybody’s response, far from it. But I do seek to respond within nature of the office which I have, which is the Imamat.

PG: What nourished your own mind, in terms of the intellectual fertilisation process?

I have a number of very senior colleagues who are professionals in their own fields. And there the discussion very often is around the objectives. What is it that we want to achieve? This comes back to the issues we were discussing ahead, building solid institutions, trying to make sure that there is sustainability in those institutions and the capacity to grow.

AK: Well, first of all, as I said, I try to absorb as much information as I can every day, and from whatever source I get it in order to start the process of discussion. And secondly, I have a number of very senior colleagues who are professionals in their own fields. And there the discussion very often is around the objectives. What is it that we want to achieve? This comes back to the issues we were discussing ahead, building solid institutions, trying to make sure that there is sustainability in those institutions and the capacity to grow. Very often, particularly in the Western world, these notions are related to material issues — the capitalisation of a society, the endowment of a foundation. In our world, it’s much more a question of people. Where will you find the men and women who can move these institutions forward, who can articulate the programs, who can gel with the grassroots issues in village environments? Those are the people who make programs move forward. And, so, in looking at where we’re going, we’re all the time looking at these issues of institution building, setting goals, measuring results. And trying to achieve effective performance with the resources we have. I have to tell you very frankly, the problems are enormously complex. And very, very, often the inquiry process will take several years before you actually take a clear decision on what you want to do. So, I think that I would sum up by saying in the last 40 years it’s been learning, learning, learning and more learning.

PG: You’ve been characterised variously as a “Renaissance Man” and “visionary.” Would you add other characteristics that would be needed for your successor?

Now some things are impossible to achieve, I well know that. And if that is the case, I simply have to try and move the issues forward as much as I can. The next Imam will then decide how he wishes to handle the issues. But, it is the continuum which is at the back of my mind, which in a sense, affects the way I look at things. And that’s why perhaps my time dimension appears different, than it might for other people. If I have to wait 12, 15, 20 years to achieve goals which I think are important, I will wait 12, 15, or 20 years.

AK: Well, that is very kind and very generous of the people who said those sorts of things. They often think that when you inherit an office, which is a life office, you are simply a link in the chain. And, yes, you therefore look at life somewhat differently than if you were, I suppose, a professional who moves around and is free to do what he wishes. In my case, my concern is, I inherited an office, I would like the next Imam to have a structure and a systems [sic] which enables him to be effective in the ethical and the human terminology of this institution. And that is the nature of what I seek. Now some things are impossible to achieve, I well know that. And if that is the case, I simply have to try and move the issues forward as much as I can. The next Imam will then decide how he wishes to handle the issues. But, it is the continuum which is at the back of my mind, which in a sense, affects the way I look at things. And that’s why perhaps my time dimension appears different, than it might for other people. If I have to wait 12, 15, 20 years to achieve goals which I think are important, I will wait 12, 15, or 20 years. That simply is the nature of the issues that we have to address.

PG: Very few people, particularly those on the world stage, have had the kind of opportunities that you’ve had to make an impact on a world as vast a scale as you have. What does that do to you? How much does that move you as you make your plans?

AK: If I feel the some of the work that has been done has been solid and has a permanency to it, and has become part of the way people think and live — then of course, that’s very pleasing. But that’s not always the case. And, I think that as a [sic] look ahead, one of my continuing questions is the nature pluralism. If you look around the world, today, some societies, some governments, some organisations, some people still challenge the notion of human pluralism. I think in the years ahead it’s important that this notion of pluralism should be seen as much as possible everywhere as a human asset, not as a human liability. If it’s a liability, then we are working in a very fragile situation. You put a foot wrong, something is going to break very, very quickly. And this notion of pluralism, the reality of pluralism, the potential of pluralism, the legitimacy of pluralism — these issues are very, very important to me and I really believe that that’s one of the things that I certainly would like to press in the years ahead.

Then there is this notion of societies sustaining themselves, in economic terms, in cultural terms, in social terms, and in institutional terms. Those things are important to me. So, I’m hoping that with others, that these notions can be developed. And, I think that they are in the process of being moved forward in a number of forums now. It’s not only here, far from it. And, that means that the Islamic movement and other institutions have partners we can work with. And the notion of partnership from within the developing world as well as outside, is one of new opportunities now.

PG: Your Highness, new constituencies are opening up for you even within the Islamic entity. People who for decades have been, in a sense, cut off from the main stream of Islamic thought and culture even. Some of these constituencies are demographically far bigger than the ones that have so far benefited by your ideas and by your vision. How do you plan to get them into the fold?

AK: That certainly sounds germane for places such as Tajikistan, whose nearly one-million-strong Ismaili population is only now being exposed to the outside world. (1)

Again, the first issue is listening and learning, understanding and trying to come to grips with the realities which they have lived with in the past decades. Then, secondly, I try to understand what are their priorities. Because their priorities are the ones that they perceive against their own historical horizons which are very different from the ones we might be perceiving. The third issue is to respond to those priorities. The economic environment is important to factor in, too.

Take Tajikistan. One of the things that I think one has to accept is the these historical, how would I call them, fractures, because this is a historical fracture when an empire like the Soviet Union collapses. You’re stepping into that fracture. And, you’re observing, and then you’re trying to address the issues by their priorities. So long as the people themselves have told you their priorities, rather than you trying to tell them what they should be, then I think you will build a relationship of empathy, of trust.

Then, of course, the next issue is, is the response credible for those people? And if it is, then you have a new relationship between a people and an institution. And that starts building a notion of relationship, on an ongoing context. And that, I think, what is beginning to happen in Tajikistan, and I would hope the relationship would go further than just the Islamic community, because it’s got encompass the societies in which the dispossessed and underprivileged are living. Clearly the institution which I represent does not have indefinite resources. We cannot try to be more present than our resources enable us to be. But, certainly in the case of places such as Tajikistan, we have been able to respond. And, in fact, the programs now cover more than half the land area of the country.

PG: How do you modernise these emerging societies?

AK: These societies entered a system where the historic culture was replaced. Their culture — in a sense even their ethic, I suppose — was changed. The nature of the individual within society was changed. And that period of whatever it was — 50 or 70 years — has had a massive impact on these people. The interesting thing is that these people do not view it as entirely negative. But they do want to know what it was before. And, therefore, trying to revive, revitalise these pre-Soviet cultures is something of very great importance to these societies. And this is part of restoring an identity. Now, that comes back to the issue of the legitimacy of pluralism. The Turkish society versus the Persian society in central Asia do have different backgrounds. And we’re trying to move this forward not in the context of building difference, but in the context of building strength. The more pluralistic a society is, perhaps the more creative it will be.

PG: There seems to be a contradiction in terms of a public perception of you, sir, as one who is so actively engaged in transforming lives — and the same time in his own personal association with that transformation, some who is almost reluctant to take credit. Is that perception valid, and is it a conscious decision on your part to perhaps not be as much in the forefront of articulating those ideas, as others might wish you to be?

AK: Yes. I have sought not to be in the forefront of public communication on these issues, for a number of reasons. First of all, to me it’s more important that people observe institutions and the programs and the beneficiaries rather than the individual. And that is a strong belief in my life.

Secondly, I must say very frankly that the work load is very considerable and I’m not sure whether I would have the time to be in the forefront of communication. Thirdly, I think very often my institutions are better communicators than I would be. Because from institution to institution they do communicate quite a lot. But, I don’t think that I could be in a position to fulfil the role that I try to fulfil, if I was constantly trying to communicate about these ideas. I mean, I do meet people, we do talk about these things, but getting things done on a ongoing basis is a genuine priority in my life. We are not dealing, in most of the cases that concern the Imamat, with stable, wealthy countries with long tradition of good governments and strong institutions. We are dealing with situations which are still very, very fragile. And, because of their fragility, I think I must say I have to commit my time to trying to build strength in those environments rather than communicating on other issues. I know I am criticised for it, and I have to accept that criticism.

PG: What are your disappointments, in terms of both your own work and the work that is allied with that of yours?

AK: I would like to feel that there more stability in the future than I perceive at the moment, which would therefore, in a sense, enable me to be more confident of where we’re going. We are coming out of a historically extraordinary difficulty. The whole of the Cold War impacted development thinking all over Africa and Asia. And now, the Cold War’s gone. But what is it being replaced by? So one of my concerns is that.

The second one is the issue of continuation on course of sustainable human development of quality and integrity; many of these countries are still very fragile economically. Public ethic is not particularly strong in a number of situations. Therefore trying to sustain this is an ongoing problem. It worries everybody.

I worry about is the capacity to build the economic sustenance that we require. The industrialised world is not going to continue indefinitely to support the Third World. And I feel that time is running out for us. And I’m worried about that.

The third issue that I worry about is the capacity to build the economic sustenance that we require. The industrialised world is not going to continue indefinitely to support the Third World. And I feel that time is running out for us. And I’m worried about that. Because if the support is restricted to humanitarian support of simply delivering food or stepping into a conflict-ridden situation, I’m not sure that is one which is going to affect the whole spectrum of areas where we’re operating. So, I’m worried about that.

There are fragilities that worry me every day, frankly. And they do, from time to time, turn around and hit us in the face. The fragility can get worse, turn into a problem, and then you have to turn around and say, “What do we do about this?” And so these are issues we have to face all the time. I am far from a confident person in terms of the overall activity of what we are doing. I am well aware of the fragility. And, I’m worried. I say very frankly, if we fail to provide food, or if micro-credit is mismanaged, or medical ethics, these sorts of things are things that we’re dealing with. These are sorts of things that really, really worry me. And the bigger our network gets, the more societies it functions in, the more these issues have to be addressed. And so I would say very frankly, it’s not just the Aga Khan development network. The World Bank has these sorts of problems. National governments have these sorts of problems. And we are really talking about building capacity of societies so that [sic] govern themselves in a proper manner.

PG: You’re perceived, quite correctly, as a moderate liberal with a small “L,” a religious leader in the Islamic context. I understand the one of your concerns is that there isn’t enough attention being given to Islamic civilisations. What do you feel needs to be done to enhance that understanding of civilisations?

AK: Let me start with simply commenting on the nature of the Islamic faith. It is a faith which affects the individual in society in his everyday life, in his material life, in his family life, in his intellectual life, not only in the life of his soul and the life that he experiences in prayer. Therefore, the history of the Islamic world has been the history of a totality of civilisation of human life. Not simply the spiritual. And the result of that has been the development of cultures. And I refer to cultures because clearly Islam absorbed a number of cultures. And, therefore, the notion of Islam as being not just a faith but an environment in which the individual is created, is thoughtful, is hard-working — it is a context — [is a notion] in which I am a very, very strong believer.

That being the case, whether it’s this Imam or anyone else, I have to be concerned with the continuum of that cultural context, not just the continuance of the faith in terms of the strict theological issues. Because, as I said, Islam expresses itself in many, many different ways and this is where I am concerned about this because it’s quite clear that we are increasingly tending to be a world culture that’s driven by the fear of force of the dominant culture, in terms of its economics, its range of communications.

Now the whole process of globalisation seems to be in direct conflict with the recognition and enhancement of pluralism…. I’m not against a culture which is a powerful culture. I am, however, worried that others will feel that they have to follow that culture because otherwise they’re not part of the new world, or the wealthy world, or the creative world, or that sort of thing.

Now the whole process of globalisation seems to be in direct conflict with the recognition and enhancement of pluralism. That’s another force which is at play. And so I think that it is a part of my role — because this Ismaili community in itself is pluralistic — is to try to establish the fact that there are hundreds of reasons to legitimise and accept and enhance the plurality of human society. And I am worried about that. I’m not against a culture which is a powerful culture. I am, however, worried that others will feel that they have to follow that culture because otherwise they’re not part of the new world, or the wealthy world, or the creative world, or that sort of thing. So I’m worried about these issues and I’m also pleased that some of the things I’ve been trying to do are now resonating even in the major cultures of the world.

Some of the issues we’re dealing with certainly in the physical environment are issues which are not specific to the Islamic world. They’re specific practically everywhere where human society lives. So if we are effective with some solutions that we’re developing in parts of the Islamic world, or institutions or architectural firms, that will be an enormous asset for both societies. After all, if you look at the physical environment of the Western world, an enormous amount was learned from the Islamic world. So this criss-crossing of what I would call cultural talent is a very, very healthy exercise. And anything I can do to encourage that I will encourage.

PG: Now you have persuaded your children to join your enterprises. What is behind that thinking? Is it that you wish to pay [sic?] them the kind of abrupt learning on the job that you went through? Or is it that plus a sense that your own ideas have, in a sense, been actualised in such a vast way that it is better that the family be involved and be hands-on?

AK: When you’re 20 and in university, you don’t expect to find yourself overnight in the situation that I inherited in 1957. Insofar as any one of my children could be exposed to the future responsibility in the institution, and that will be the case. I would like the boys, but also my daughter, to be knowledgeable about what is happening. But there’s something much more important than that. You say I’m a young man. Actually I’m 62. I have been in this position for 42 years. Now I learn from the younger generation. They think in different terms than I do. They have different competencies than I do. They have a different vision of how new technologies can work for us. So bringing my children on board is a very intimate way of accessing the talents of younger people. And insofar as the Aga Khan network, it’s an ongoing institution, I would like to continue to be able to mobilise young people and benefit from their knowledge and competencies. So I don’t want to give the impression that this is simply an internal family issue. I have learned a lot and continue to learn. And I’m sure that will be the case in the future — learning from other young people not just my own children.

PG: How tolerant are you of your own children?

I can tell you I’m very tolerant [of my children] in the sense that because they have all have had a good education because they think clearly, I enjoy the process of dialogue. And most often, we come to a consensus view because we go through a rational process. And, that [sic] an infinite part of the sheer interpretation of Islam is the rational process. And I attach enormous importance to that because it’s a significant part of the way we live and work…. [T]his isn’t a corporate environment. It is an institution that seeks to function through consensus.

AK: I can tell you I’m very tolerant in the sense that because they have all have had a good education because they think clearly, I enjoy the process of dialogue. And most often, we come to a consensus view because we go through a rational process. And, [sic] that an infinite part of the sheer interpretation of Islam is the rational process. And I attach enormous importance to that because it’s a significant part of the way we live and work. So I encourage that.

I mean clearly everyone who works with me, whether it be colleagues at the top level, or my children, start from a different set of considerations and knowledge. But in the end, we have to try and work as an institution that achieves results. You can’t really do that if there is no consensus on where you’re going. And this isn’t a corporate environment. It is an institution that seeks to function through consensus. And the only way to do that is to give everybody the opportunity to express a view. It may be right or wrong and the decision-maker — for the moment — is me. Insofar as my children and I can discuss things, and do discuss things, I enjoy that.

PG: How would you be liked to be remembered as on four counts: First, as the Imam, what would you have done to this community? Secondly, as a father, what would you have done to shape the life and sensibilities of your children? Third, sir, what would you have done during your lifetime to have shaped the secular societies around you? And finally, what would you have done to put into effect the very things you emphasise — pluralism, secularism, peace, tolerance?

AK: As the Imam, I think it would be important to try to have been an interpreter of the faith which enabled people to continue to look to a spiritual world and a world of faith, which is not only a material world. I feel very, very strongly about that. So interpretative nature of the role of the direction it gives seems to me central to the nature of the office that I have.

With regard to the children, I would like them to feel if it were possible that they have a sense of direction in their lives which they can work with, whatever it may be. When my grandfather died, my father was alive, my uncle was alive, my brother was alive. The widow of my grandfather was alive. My mother was alive. So there’s the family context. And I would like that family context to remain strong.

With regard to let’s say some of the notions that I’ve tried to develop, it would be important that those notions should be validated by time. I would be uncomfortable if some of these notions turned out to have been fashionable short-term issues. I wouldn’t want that. By nature I am suspicious of fashion, of isms, of dogmas, because I think human society changes all the time. And the moment you get frozen into a mental prison, then things actually start becoming very damaging. But my sense is that at the present time there is increasing opportunity to achieve results. There are some very fundamental issues — very, very fundamental issues.

PG: What related issues are of concern to you?

AK: The issues of nuclear proliferation and risk of war, the indebtedness of the developing world, the centrifugal forces amongst and in societies. These are all things that we have to deal with, but I think that there is a new sense of wanting to address [them?]. These issues that I’m talking about are issues which affect enormous segments of the human race and in that sense, because they are recognised for that, they are likely to be addressed much more consistently with the larger spectrum of forces than was the past. So I am hopeful. But as I said, there are issues that will go well past my lifetime and, therefore I can’t say that I think everything is going to work out.

I mean if you look at a situation such Afghanistan and the horror of Afghanistan, it’s just a situation which has gone on and on and on and on. If you look at some of the situations in Africa, my sadness is that they were predictable. They didn’t have to go where they went. They were predictable. So in that sense, we are not yet functioning, not yet addressing potential crises situations. We are addressing some of them but not all of them. But I’m more hopeful than I was. When I inherited this office in 1957, the horizons were very bleak. Very, very bleak indeed.

PG: You’ve made notions of hands-on development relevant. You’ve made a personal engagement with the issues relevant. Is “relevancy” your theme for contemporary times?

[Relevancy is] certainly one of the things that has been most present in my attitudes, in my hopes. And basic reason for that is that because I have been very sensitive to the plurality of human society, I have been fearful of not being sensitive to that. And if you’re not sensitive to it, you make mistakes. And in order to try to predicate action on the found knowledge, I didn’t want to do it only on the basis of reading. I needed to see, I needed to listen — I needed to observe for myself.

AK: It’s certainly one of the things that has been most present in my attitudes, in my hopes. And basic reason for that is that because I have been very sensitive to the plurality of human society, I have been fearful of not being sensitive to that. And if you’re not sensitive to it, you make mistakes. And in order to try to predicate action on the found knowledge, I didn’t want to do it only on the basis of reading. I needed to see, I needed to listen — I needed to observe for myself. And in that sense, I think it’s just a way of looking at things. It’s just the way I feel is a right way for me to do them. Now other people have magnificent structures that function very well, so I’m not saying it’s the only way. I think the other issue here clearly is that if the Imam is directly involved, it brings the level of emphasis on issues, on objectives. People tend, I think, to coalesce — perhaps coalesce is the wrong word — but come together around a particular project, to drive it, if I’m personally engaged with issues. And that’s very hopeful.

PG: Of all your worries, what concerns you most?

AK: I’m worried about continuity. And I’m worried about the efficacy of the institution in a continuum of time. Worried is perhaps not too strong a word. I think about that. I think about that. The institutions, I think, are aware of it. We are now working on 10-year programs. As I said, if you had asked me in 1957, can you work on the 10-year programme, I would have said, “It’s like walking barefoot on Mount Everest.” I mean you’re never going to get there. That horizon was an unreasonable horizon. Today that is a reasonable horizon.

PG: When you talk about worrying about continuity, beyond the temporal — since you’re both a temporal leader and a spiritual leader — does that really extend to the liturgy of Islam?

AK: Yes, it does because, first of all, of the plurality of tradition within Islam. Secondly, the processes of change, if they do occur, are very sensitive indeed. And they need to be very carefully thought through. It is an area where enormous wisdom, enormous knowledge, enormous sensitivity has got to be there. So that process is one of the issues that will go well past my lifetime. Well past my lifetime. And, it’s something which I inherited, that I have worked with — as you know, I have a degree in Islamic History and, therefore, I am comfortable in thinking about these issues. But they are highly sensitive.

In the long run, the question is what is the context in which human society will function and the Islamic community will function? And I think the whole notion of relevance is a massively important issue. It’s going across all faiths. Not just the Islamic faith. Not just the Islamic interpretation. It’s going across all faiths today. There is a clear search for ethical contexts. And my sense is that could be a little bit of a reaction to maybe some of excesses in the material context. It’s clear that uncontrolled freedom becomes license. It’s an issue that keeps coming up all the time. And it’s one which needs very, very deep reflection. Very deep reflection. It’s probably the most challenging issue that I have to address today. More so since the life sciences have evolved, since communications have evolved.

PG: And would you say that these issues increasingly affect the developed world?

AK: Well, I think it’s going to be worldwide because more and more the developing world is part of the rest of the global community. You know, the reach of the communication system is so massive today. Just about every society is — whether one wishes it or not — is involved. And finding the context which is the appropriate one is very complex indeed. Very complex. That’s true of every individual who has a responsibility within the faith. We are all addressing those problems.

PG: But even within the global context, wouldn’t you say that you hold a particularly unique position because it is not simply the sectarian faith but really the broader secularism of the Ismaili community?

[T]he role of the intellect in [the secularism of the Ismaili community] is a massively important issue. And I am looking at it. Many people are working with me on it. And I have to tell you that it’s an issue which is affecting us on a daily basis. I referred to it earlier as the ethical context. I think that is the context in which we will seek the solutions. In the ethical and the cultural contexts. Not only in the theological context.

AK: Yes, and insofar as Islam affects all aspects of an individual’s life, and particularly in our tradition, the role of the intellect in that whole context is a massively important issue. And I am looking at it. Many people are working with me on it. And I have to tell you that it’s an issue which is affecting us on a daily basis. I referred to it earlier as the ethical context. I think that is the context in which we will seek the solutions. In the ethical and the cultural contexts. Not only in the theological context. Our tendency would be to say the theological context is too restrictive. And, therefore, we have to look at it in the wider context of ethics and culture. And I think if we can look at it in that context, we have some opportunity of developing sound solutions without failing to recognise our history, our religious history, our cultural history. So that the contextualisation of these issues is a really central problem, a central issue which I daily have to address.

PG: Do you feel that you’ve begun to grapple with them in a way that suggests solutions?

AK: In the last 42 years, I would say a lot of work has been done and there is some clarity ahead. Whether that clarity will be validated by time, I don’t know. But what I can tell you is that I have a higher level of comfort today than I would have had four decades ago. Yes.

PG: How much of the work of Ismaili institutions bolsters your own sensibility?

AK: It is a resource which we draw from daily. And it is a resource whose limits we don’t know because it’s a discovery process for largely historical reasons. But it is a very significant and powerful resource that we can use. There the Imam is responsible for interpreting. But he will look back into history with others and see how certainly Islamic history was dealt with, how current issues were contextualised at the time. There are periods in our own history which are exemplars or case studies, where there is an enormous amount to be learned. So we’re not always trying to develop new solutions. We may be looking at methodologies which were used in the past, which were legitimised in history, which showed that they were good solutions. And which we can simply try to adapt to our times. So it’s not a process where there is a deliteralisation of the past. It’s a process, on the contrary, of learning and interpreting. That is a very, very important aspect of the work. But as I said, it’s not cast in stone. Research cannot be simply rooted in history; it needs to be future oriented, too.

NOTES

  1. Additional comments published in Forbes Global.

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