[Translation] I confess that I am obsessed with time and each day I remind myself that my rare free moments must be devoted to preparing for the future. After all, life is fragile. God calls us whenever He sees fit. If I had to take stock of my life, my feeling would be that I have structured the Ismaili Imamat, for which I was given responsibility nearly 50 years ago, in such a way as to provide it with the institutional means to work for the good of Ismaili communities and the countries in which we are involved. However, there is still a great deal to do and in order to be both effective and reactive I try always to acquire new knowledge in all sorts of areas.

Interviewer: Caroline Pigozzi in India

Translation by ismaili.net — Click here for the original in French

The forty-ninth Imam of the Shia Muslim Ismaili community, His Highness the Aga Khan has, since 1957, been the spiritual and secular leader of 15 million believers, spread across 25 countries. Although in this capacity Muhammad’s descendant administers an immense fortune, it is not available to him for his personal use. These funds are wholly devoted to organisations and institutions operating in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and in several countries of the former Soviet Union. Resolutely modern, the prince inherited from his grandfather the colossal task of improving the lot of the Ismailis. It is a mission that leads him to put a great deal of effort into the future of the whole Islamic world. “We have to try to nip in the bud the most dramatic risks of conflict without provoking fresh ones,” he states.

Caroline Pigozzi: Your Royal Highness, you travel constantly around the world. What are your responsibilities?

His Highness the Aga Khan: I, as Imam of the Ismailis, have responsibility for and supreme authority over the community. This means taking the lead in the practice of the religion but also engaging in ongoing activities to improve the Ismailis’ quality of life and to help “every Ismaili in the world who is in difficulties”. It is true that today the role of the Aga Khan, 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, is to interpret Islam. But likewise he has to take the decisions necessary to support not only his communities in every country in which they are based, but also the other populations among whom they live. For example, when Ismailis transform agriculture in the north-west of Pakistan, all of the neighbouring populations benefit.

CP: To us, you remain a legendary character, a flamboyant prince from the Thousand and One Nights who every year is presented with his weight in gold. Is this myth or reality?

AK: That is quite an amusing question. In France, people still see the image of my grandfather’s symbolic gesture of receiving his weight in gold. The West saw that flamboyant and, in reality non-religious ceremony, as something spectacular and unusual. But in the India of Kipling’s day, this was a common and very widespread practice among many communities apart from our own, such as the Sikhs, for example. As a rule and according to their means, Ismailis pay a proportion of their annual income back to the community or else give of their time. In the past, the proceeds of this famous weighing ceremony enabled Ismaili, Sikh or other local dignitaries to ask their leader to help them implement philanthropic projects such as schools, hospitals and similar investments of a social nature, and to lend them support as they organised the redistribution of resources. India in those days was associated with an extraordinary, legendary series of images. It was that mythical period in which princes could hold on to their wealth and their jewels and adorn themselves with precious stones and pearls.

Living in a completely different context, [my] grandfather was the head of an Imamat which was not yet fully institutionalised and whose resources were very different from those of today…. The real question that Islam asks an individual is not whether he is rich but “If you have the resources, what are you doing with them?” And the answer lies not in what one owns but, according to the ethics of Islam, how one uses it.

Living in a completely different context, [my] grandfather was the head of an Imamat which was not yet fully institutionalised and whose resources were very different from those of today. He was president of the League of Nations at an extremely sensitive period; he witnessed the Cold War and the rift between the colonial world and the free world. At the time, many Ismaili communities lived behind the Iron Curtain. The situation varied a great deal from one country to another. What did British and French colonies really have in common with countries under the Soviet yoke? He also played a major political role in India, Afghanistan and Pakistan during the toughest period, the 1950s when decolonisation was beginning and preparations were underway for independence in India and African countries.

But let’s go back to your question about wealth. The real question that Islam asks an individual is not whether he is rich but “If you have the resources, what are you doing with them?” And the answer lies not in what one owns but, according to the ethics of Islam, how one uses it. The Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan (who died in July 2000) provided a worthy example. Having lived with great restraint throughout her life, my grandfather’s widow, who was French by birth, left all her assets to the Aga Khan Foundation when she died. She bequeathed to the organisation very considerable sums to be used in areas of most critical need, for example to support the most underprivileged populations.

In the West, there is a tendency to associate the idea of poverty with that of religious practice. This does not happen in Islam, because we are not supposed to separate material and spiritual existence. Furthermore, we must live the two lives together.

Clearly, people in Europe find it very hard to understand the difference between Muslim and Christian religious institutions, since among Muslims, whether Sunni or Shia, the Imams play an active role in community life. We work on behalf of the people who come to us for help. We must all have income and use it first of all for the good of the institution and those who rely on us. In the West, there is a tendency to associate the idea of poverty with that of religious practice. This does not happen in Islam, because we are not supposed to separate material and spiritual existence. Furthermore, we must live the two lives together.

CP: So how do you spend the community’s money?

AK: Every religion has its resources. The Ismaili Imamat has its resources and allocates them to expenditure that falls within the strict framework of the institution’s objectives. Fortunately, the institution has the reputation of managing its resources very well, despite the fact that requests for assistance received by the Imamat far exceed our means. We help the developing world but in so doing we do not confine the benefits to Ismailis alone

At the institutional level, I take care of two essential areas. The first, the area of religion, requires an enormous amount of thought, since a large number of rapidly developing Muslim countries have Ismaili citizens of Arab origin, Tajik, Pakistani, Indian, Iranian, Afghan, etc. The second area consists of the institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of specialist agencies whose remit is to intervene in the fields of health, education and culture. They also work to create the right conditions for the development of rural areas and to promote all kinds of initiatives in a number of countries, such as the establishment of a University of Central Asia specialising in the education of people from mountain regions, with the aim of keeping them in the region and creating locally, a stable civil society. There are also development and rehabilitation projects, such as the al-Azhar Park in Cairo, the Timur Shah Mausoleum in Kabul, and the old city of Mostar, managed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Then there is Pakistan’s first private international university, which we set up in 1983 and which has made its mark internationally with the launch of its higher education programmes in Africa, the United Kingdom, Syria and Afghanistan. The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development was set up with the aim of improving the economic situation of poor countries that generally missed out on direct foreign investment. It oversees an extremely diverse range of activities, from micro-financing to the management of large national institutions. These activities embrace various organisations and programmes in Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Madagascar, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and East and West Africa.

Today, my role no longer bears much resemblance to the one I inherited in July 1957. My responsibilities have increased considerably … Our many activities and interventions that were formerly national are now regional (in the sense that they involve part of a continent) and international.

Today, my role no longer bears much resemblance to the one I inherited in July 1957. My responsibilities have increased considerably and often entail numerous projects in the developing world, carried out in conjunction with international institutions. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union we have become widely involved in Central Asia. Our many activities and interventions that were formerly national are now regional (in the sense that they involve part of a continent) and international.

So, for example, we operate micro-credits, a form of banking for poor populations that was virtually unknown twenty years ago. In the space of two decades it has developed into a wonderful way of fighting the desperate poverty suffered by people on the margins of society unable to gain access to the regular banking system. We, of course, operate on a non-profit basis. These people who live in deep poverty but who have a sense of honour — women pay a crucial role in this — pay us back 98%. Incidentally, 2005 is the UN’s Year of Micro-credit. Culture is another particularly important and effective means of penetration.

In an historic city like Cairo, founded by my Fatimid ancestors, through the Al-Azhar Park, which we have just finished building, we have a direct impact on the quality of life of 200,000 people, since this initiative will change the economy of this area of the Egyptian capital, with all that this implies.

Indeed, there is an increasing demand from the developing world, while aid from the developed world is still totally inadequate. Working through our networks we have to be very mobile and constantly flexible, because the situation following a civil war is quite unlike that of a nation trying after many years to liberalise its economy. We are present in states on the threshold of developing a real civil society, which in some cases are just at the construction stage. Maybe one day we shall even operate in China.

However, it must be made quite clear that the resources of the Ismaili Imamat as an institution should not be put in the same category as my family assets, in the same way that it would never occur to Catholics to confuse the wealth of the Church with that belonging to the Pope as an individual.

CP: As a pacifist religious leader, could you play a significant role in the current conflict in the Middle East?

If you are thinking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would not intervene in a problem that is essentially political. If, on the other hand, you are talking about building a future civil society in that region of the world or in any other, certainly …

AK: If you are thinking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would not intervene in a problem that is essentially political. If, on the other hand, you are talking about building a future civil society in that region of the world or in any other, certainly, because we have a significant presence in Egypt and Syria, and also in Pakistan, India and East and West Africa, as well as in Central Asia, which includes Afghanistan.

Let us never forget to underline that the causes of discord in the Muslim world occur in the main outside the framework of the Islamic faith. We should be aware, for example, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dates back to the First World War. But, above all, take care not to generalise about the Muslim world, because it is at least as pluralistic as the Christian world. So it is essential not to lump everything together under the banner of religion, because Islam is first and foremost a religion. Indeed, if I were to say that the conflicts in Ireland and Spain represented the Catholic faith, the immediate response would be that I am an ill-informed Muslim. Associating the name of a religion with a conflict really does not mean that the conflict represents the religion in question.

CP: Are you very authoritarian?

No [I am not very authoritarian], but I am insofar as it is the Imam’s role to take decisions.

AK: No, but I am insofar as it is the Imam’s role to take decisions. It is up to him to assert himself and define the future of the institution and how it will proceed. But there is a constitutional structure in all “our” countries, a system of consultation still in force that was introduced by my grandfather, Aga Khan III, who was heir to a dynasty which until the 46th generation was still Iranian. Although he was born in Karachi, then in united India, now in Pakistan, Grandpa learnt Farsi before learning English, and his first wife was Persian.

CP: Your Royal Highness, you are now a long way away from the colonial empire. Here you are known as “the new prince of Chantilly”, a patron of the Arts, as the Prince de Condé once was.

AK: The crisis in the horse-racing industry in the early 90s and the planned closure of three racecourses including Chantilly prompted me to think about the future of the estate. This place is part of our family history and my childhood memories. My mother lived here for a long time, as did my sister and my brother. I myself have never left Chantilly, and when I inherited “Green Lodge”, my father’s training centre, I sold it to buy Aiglemont. It is in Gouvieux, still close to Chantilly, adjacent to Les Aigles, next to France Galop’s training centre. Here I have built my family home and set up the secretariat of the Ismaili Imamat. This is why, having the good fortune to live and work in such privileged surroundings which I am very fond of, I felt it was only natural to do my utmost to preserve the future of this region and the Chantilly estate including the park, the château and its vast stables, the forest and racetrack.

For the last few years I have been saying that I was prepared to help the state, the regional and local authorities, the Institut de France and France Galop, but on condition that the entire site with its cultural, tourist and economic components are preserved, and not just the racetrack. Given the longstanding and considerable difficulties in managing, maintaining and restoring the buildings — which obviously requires a huge investment to be able to act effectively — it means bringing on board private sponsors as well as public partners in order to meet the challenge of saving the former estate of the Prince de Condé. That is why I suggested setting up a Foundation recognised as being in the public interest over which I will preside. For the next twenty years, this Foundation will take charge of the restoration and management of the estate. It is the first example of France’s new legal measures that bring its law on foundations into line with the international practice.

CP: How will you juggle private sponsorship and public funding?

AK: I shall personally contribute 3 million euro per year for 10 years, which I will top up with another 10 million euro at the end. Taking into account public sector subsidies, the basic programme to restore Chantilly to its former glory has total investments of more than 70 million euro. Another ambitious challenge that I have set myself is to double the annual number of visitors from 250,000 to 500,000.

CP: Your Royal Highness, do you still manage to have time to yourself? You recently officially announced your divorce. How do you reconcile your private and public life?

AK: I do not usually mix the two. Besides, it’s a rule which, fortunately, is widely respected in France. I did indeed petition for divorce in France on 4 June 2004 and as my lawyer Mr. Chambaz explained:

Four months after the Prince filed for divorce, his wife filed for divorce in the United Kingdom. The British court stayed proceedings because of the prior filing in France and the French court issued an order deciding on the scope of its jurisdiction, notably stating that it has jurisdiction to decide on the divorce.

I can simply remind you that I was married on 30 May 1998 at Gouvieux to Gabriele zu Leiningen and we have a son, Aly, who is now nearly five.

But to reply more generally to your question about the way I arrange my life, I confess that I am obsessed with time and each day I remind myself that my rare free moments must be devoted to preparing for the future. After all, life is fragile. God calls us whenever He sees fit. If I had to take stock of my life, my feeling would be that I have structured the Ismaili Imamat, for which I was given responsibility nearly 50 years ago, in such a way as to provide it with the institutional means to work for the good of Ismaili communities and the countries in which we are involved. However, there is still a great deal to do and in order to be both effective and reactive I try always to acquire new knowledge in all sorts of areas.

The pressure is great, which is why my free time is more and more limited and precious. The people closest to me often reproach me on that score. Fortunately, my children Zahra, Rahim and Hussain work with me for the Aga Khan Development Network in the economic, social and cultural sectors. I think that the Imam who succeeds me will inherit an institution that will have developed considerably. It will become even more international than the present one in which expatriates from the Canadian, British and American communities already make up the fifth generation. The Imam is a transitory being, who forms a link between the past and the future. For this reason, ensuring the continuity of the institution and its ability to fulfil its role is what my life is all about.

Original in French

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SOURCES

  • Paris Match, 3 February 2005, pp. 69
  • Translation text: ismaili.net

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