[I]t is striking to me how many modern thinkers are still disposed to link tolerance with secularism — and religion with intolerance. In their eyes — and often in the public eye I fear — religion is seen as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

There are reasons why this impression exists. Throughout history we find terrible chapters in which religious conflict brought frightening results. When people speak these days, about an inevitable “Clash of Civilisations” in our world, what they often mean, I fear, is an inevitable “Clash of Religions.” But I would use different terminology altogether. The essential problem, as I see it, in relations between the Muslim world and the West is “A Clash of Ignorance.” And what I would prescribe — as an essential first step on both sides of that divide — is a concentrated educational effort….

Tolerance which grows out of hope is more than a negative virtue — more than a convenient way to ease sectarian tensions — more than a sense of forbearance. Instead, seen not as a pallid religious compromise but as a sacred religious imperative, tolerance can become a powerful, positive force, one which allows all of us to expand our horizons — and enrich our lives.

Since I became Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims just fifty years ago, I have watched the world oscillate between promise and disappointment. In many cases, the disappointments can be attributed to the absence of a culture of tolerance.

My commitment to the principle of tolerance is based on spiritual understandings which are rooted in ancient teachings. I would mention two touchstones in particular. The first affirms the unity of the human race, as expressed in the Holy Qur’an where God, as revealed through the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, says the following:

“O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from the twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women.” (4:1)

This remarkable verse speaks both of the inherent diversity of mankind — the “multitude” — and of the unity of mankind — the “single soul created by a single Creator” — a spiritual legacy which distinguishes the human race from all other forms of life.

The second passage is from the first hereditary Imam of the Shia community, Hazrat Ali. the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, whose words have been particularly important for me in my role as the 49th Imam.

No belief is like modesty and patience, no attainment is like humility, no honour is like knowledge, no power is like forbearance, and no support is more reliable than consultation.

Hazrat Ali’s regard for knowledge reinforces the compatibility of faith and the world. And his respect for humility and consultation is, in my view, a basis for tolerant and open-hearted democratic processes.

These Islamic ideals, of course, have also been emphasised by other great religions. Despite the long history of religious conflict, there is a long counter-history of religious focus on tolerance as a central virtue — on welcoming the stranger and loving one’s neighbour.

But it is striking to me how many modern thinkers are still disposed to link tolerance with secularism — and religion with intolerance. In their eyes — and often in the public eye I fear — religion is seen as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

There are reasons why this impression exists. Throughout history we find terrible chapters in which religious conflict brought frightening results. When people speak these days, about an inevitable “Clash of Civilisations” in our world, what they often mean, I fear, is an inevitable “Clash of Religions.” But I would use different terminology altogether. The essential problem, as I see it, in relations between the Muslim world and the West is “A Clash of Ignorance.” And what I would prescribe — as an essential first step on both sides of that divide — is a concentrated educational effort.

Instead of shouting at one another, we must listen to one another — and learn from one another. As we do, one of our first lessons might well centre on those powerful but often neglected chapters in history when Islamic and European cultures interacted cooperatively to help realise some of civilisation’s peak achievements.

The spiritual roots of tolerance include, it seems to me, a respect for individual conscience — seen as a gift of God — as well as a posture of religious humility before the Divine.

The spiritual roots of tolerance include, it seems to me, a respect for individual conscience — seen as a gift of God — as well as a posture of religious humility before the Divine. It is by accepting our human limits that we can come to see “the other” as a fellow seeker of truth — and to find common ground in our common quest.

The challenges to tolerance today are manifold — as peoples who once lived across the world from one another, now live across the street. Societies which have grown more pluralistic in makeup, are not always growing more pluralistic in spirit. What is needed — all across the world — is a new “cosmopolitan ethic”– rooted in a strong culture of tolerance.

There is a human impulse it seems — fed by fear — to define “identity” in negative terms. We often determine “who we are”– by determining who we are against. This fragmenting impulse not only separates peoples from one another, it also subdivides communities — and then it subdivides the subdivisions. But the human inclination to divisiveness is accompanied, I deeply believe, by a profound human impulse to bridge divisions. And often the more secure we are in our own identities, the more effective we can be in reaching out to others.

If our animosities are born out of fear, then confident generosity is born out of hope…. [W]hen hope takes root, then a new level of tolerance is possible …

If our animosities are born out of fear, then confident generosity is born out of hope. One of the central lessons I have learned after a half century of working in the developing world is that the replacement of fear by hope is probably the single most powerful trampoline of progress. For when hope takes root, then a new level of tolerance is possible, though it may have been unknown for years, and years, and years.

Tolerance which grows out of hope is more than a negative virtue — more than a convenient way to ease sectarian tensions — more than a sense of forbearance. Instead, seen not as a pallid religious compromise but as a sacred religious imperative, tolerance can become a powerful, positive force, one which allows all of us to expand our horizons — and enrich our lives.

His Highness the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. He leads a community of 15 million Ismailis living in some 25 countries, mainly in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and North America. He is Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network — the world’s largest system of private development agencies. The [above] statement has been adapted from an acceptance speech made by the Aga Khan at the “Tolerance Awards” ceremony at Germany’s Evangelical Academy in Tutzing.

His Highness the Aga Khan IV

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