BY NIZAR A. MOTANI, Ph.D
The Aga Khan receiving the symbolic sword of justice followed by the signet ring during his ceremonial enthronement ceremony held on October 22, 1957 in Nairobi, Kenya. Similar public ceremonies, known as takhnashinis, were held in Dar-es-Salaam, Kampala, Karachi, Dacca and Bombay. Photo: 25 Years in Pictures, The Silver Jubilee of the Imamat of His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, volume 1.
On December 13, 2016, His Highness Prince Karim al-Hussaini Aga Khan IV, henceforth the Aga Khan, celebrated his 80th birthday. Inshallah, his Ismaili Muslim followers, henceforth the Ismailis, will be joined by the Aga Khan’s many well-wishers across the world to commemorate his Diamond Jubilee starting July 11, 2017.
The purpose of this essay is to portray the Aga Khan as an exceptional, exemplary global leader as well as practically a head of states, as seen through the eyes of his non-Ismaili admirers and that of this writer.
Upon succeeding his illustrious grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III (1877-1957) on July 11, 1957, as the 49th hereditary Imam (Spiritual Leader) of the Ismailis, he immediately embarked on an extensive and intensive familiarization tour of the sub-Saharan and South Asian countries in which his followers lived in considerable numbers. He could not visit Afghanistan and Tajikistan or China and Russia, which also have large Ismaili communities.
During this multinational visit, the British Colonial establishment in East Africa gave him a princely welcome and also enabled him to hold the spectacular enthronement (as the Ismaili Imam) ceremonies. Interestingly, the hard-drinking District Officers were instructed to entertain the Aga Khan at the exclusive Europeans only clubs but not to serve any alcohol at their “garden” parties or sundowners!
The post-colonial African countries continued this precedent and received him with reverence and deference as a visiting religious dignitary of international standing. Subsequent visits much later culminated in the Silver and Golden Jubilee darbars (celebrations including audiences and religious ceremonies). Such official visits to African and South and Central Asian countries strengthened the Imamat’s relationships with successive governments and heads of state leading to more investments and projects to improve the livelihoods of their populations.
President John F. Kennedy meets with the Aga Khan at the Oval Office, White House, on March 14, 1961. The 49th Ismaili Imam had first met the President in France some six years earlier. He had also been invited to the White House by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1959. Photo: Robert L. Knudsen (Robert LeRoy), 1929-1989.
The Aga Khan and Tanzanian President Hassan Ali Mwinyi signing the Accord of Cooperation for Development at the State House in Dar-es-Salaam on July 12, 1991. The Accord stated Tanzania’s recognition of the Aga Khan Development Network’s long contribution to the development of the country and agreed that the Government would promote an enabling status to accelerate the economic, social and cultural development of Tanzania. Photo: The Ismaili USA, December 13, 1991.
The Prime Minister of India, Shri P. V. Nasarimha Rao hosted a lunch in New Delhi for the Aga Khan during his official visit to India in November 1992. They are pictured here sharing a light moment during their private meeting. The AKDN activities span numerous states across India and address a spectrum of development issues ranging from education, financial inclusion to healthcare, agriculture and environment to civil society strengthening. These initiatives include 28 schools and educational centres, a 162-bed multi-specialty acute care hospital in Mumbai, a rural support programme that has benefited over 1 million people in five Indian states and the restoration of a World Heritage site in New Delhi, the nation’s capital. Photo: The Ismaili Canada, March 1993.
The photograph shows former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s family, friends, colleagues, and official guests in attendance to observe his passing. His son, Justin, now the Prime Minister of Canada, rests his head on the casket of his father. In attendance next to the then Cuban President Fidel Castro are former Governor-General Romeo Leblanc, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who were all honorary pallbearers at the funeral. Other notables present at the ceremony not shown in this photograph include past Canadian Prime Ministers John Turner, Joseph Clark, Brian Mulroney, and Jean Chrétien. Photo: Copyright Jean-Marc Carisse.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes the occasion of the foundation ceremony of the Ismaili Centre, the Aga Khan Museum, Centre and their Park held in Toronto on May 30, 2010, to formally present the Aga Khan with the honorary citizenship of Canada. The Prime Minister said: “Welcome to our home and native land, your Highness. It is now and forever your home as well.” A motion introduced to the House to grant the Aga Khan with Honorary Citizenship, and passed unanimously by all parties on June 10, 2009, recognized the exquisite symmetry between the Aga Khan’s values and Canadian values, and noted Canada’s deep appreciation for the extraordinary contributions he was making to Canada and the world through the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, the Global Centre for Pluralism and the Aga Khan Museum. Photo: The Ismaili Canada, July 2010.
A distinguishing feature of all future socio-economic and quality of life improvement endeavors, under the umbrella of what grew into the multifaceted Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), was a thorough study of local needs and peculiarities to ensure cost-effectiveness, relevance, and sustainability. The Aga Khan has often preached and practiced the importance of “continuing education”. This has been reflected through a pluralistic, inclusive and meritocratic approach in all his undertakings, employing the best brains wherever and whoever they may be. One might call this his “Fatimid Approach.”
This approach has endeared him and his network to a host of donors, philanthropists, foundations of various stripes, universities, aid agencies, other NGOs, and local, national and international organizations. They have become solid partners in his efforts to alleviate global poverty, create hope and provide opportunities to improve the livelihoods of marginalized and most vulnerable segments of the population.
“Service to the world community is a family tradition for His Highness”, declared the UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim as he welcomed the Aga Khan to the United Nations on December 11, 1980. The Aga Khan was provided a forum to share the first results of ongoing research for a contemporary new Muslim architecture at the Trusteeship Council Chambers which were crowded with UN diplomats, architects, journalists and others for the special event. Photo: Al noor magazine Portugal, March 1981.
Such partners have enabled AKDN to become an extraordinary, multinational, non-denominational, non-governmental organization with some 80,000 employees and many more volunteers active in 30 countries.
Why the Aga Khan created this phenomenal network is summarized in his own words at yet another exceptional honor bestowed upon him by the Canadian Parliament. In his February 28, 2014 speech, he explained that the Imamat’s dual mandate is to interpret Islam and to improve the quality of life of his Ismaili followers and of the populations among whom they live.
He then described the glorious Fatimid Period (909-1171) when his ancestors were Imam-Caliphs (rulers), but now his job was “apolitical; all Ismailis being primarily citizen(s) of the country of birth or adoption. The scope of the Imamat is however considerably higher than those early days, as now (it) operates in many parts of the world.” In essence AKDN spans over more territory than the Fatimid Empire did.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President Bill Clinton with His Highness the Aga Khan at the first White House conference on culture and diplomacy which was convened by President and Mrs. Clinton on November 28th, 2000. The Aga Khan was among the distinguished panelists invited to advise the president, and secretary of state on the role of culture in foreign policy. Photo: Official White House Photo.
He further clarified his role as the Imam who “does not govern any land” and that there is no separation between the spiritual and the material worlds in the practice of Islam. He continued by stating that “This Muslim belief in the fusion of Faith and World is why much of my attention has been committed to the work of the Aga Khan Development Network.” The writer sees this as “Islam in Action” projecting Islam’s best principles and practices such as pluralism, tolerance, inclusion, meritocracy and a host of such admirable true Islamic values. Consequently, many like-minded institutions have rewarded him with an impressive range of honors, elevating him to the status of a distinguished, globally respected visionary leader. And they have saluted him as a head of state on such occasions.
In November 1997 issue of Vanity Fair, he was featured as one of the 65 leaders “who shape and rule the world today.” Some of the other leaders included presidents (Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin), philanthropists (Bill Gates, Warren Buffet), monarchs (Queen Elizabeth, King Carlos of Spain, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia), the Dalai Lama, and Pope John Paul II.
The Aga Khan delivered the Baccalaureate Address at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, on May 26, 1996. On the following day, he was the recipient of Brown University’s Honourary Degree of Doctor of Laws for “service to Islam and to all of human kind.” In the photo, the Aga Khan is seen leading the Honorary Degree recipients in the Academic Procession, which also included Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman judge on the United States Supreme Court, and James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank. Photo: The Ismaili United Kingdom, July 1996.
James Wolfenshon, the then President of the World Bank, applauded the Aga Khan as one of the great leaders of the past several decades and AKDN as probably the best organization to combat global poverty. His comments came after his lecture at Atlanta History Center, in March 2004, in response to this writer’s comment on the World Bank’s partnership with AKDN. Later, representatives of CARE, Carter Center, Emory University, and the British Consul-General herself introduced themselves and enthusiastically endorsed Wolfenshon’s sentiments as well as sought additional information about the Aga Khan.
The Aga Khan is conferred an honorary degree of laws during Harvard University’s commencement ceremonies on Thursday, June 5, 2008 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Aga Khan was a 20-year-old junior at Harvard when on July 11, 1957, he became the 49th Ismaili Imam, upon the death of his grandfather, Aga Khan III. He left Harvard in 1957, but returned a year later and graduated in 1959 with an honors degree in Islamic history. Photo: AKDN.
The June 5, 2008 Harvard University citation recognized, with an honorary doctorate, his “abundant works and eloquent words which create hope across ancient divides.” AKDN was declared “the planet’s most important private organization which has stimulated economic opportunities, enriched cultures and the built environment, and founded hundreds of innovative schools.” The Aga Khan is a “strong voice of reason in a quest for mutual understanding between the Islamic World and the West” and a forceful advocate of “pluralism and democratic values.” These are Islamic values which the Aga Khan has been espousing for decades through his TALK and his WALK.
Interestingly, in 2010, Professor Abdul Karim Bangura, a prolific author with some 60 books and articles to his name, published a collection of essays on Islamic topics titled KEYBOARD JIHAD: Attempts to Rectify Misconceptions and Misrepresentations of Islam. He lamented the absence of two powerful forces in Islam: first, the lack of an enlightened, bold Muslim leader who would choose to interpret the Qur’an and the Hadith according to “space and time;” the second, the need for some government or organization to establish an institution to promote the Islamic values of tolerance and pluralism, to show the world a true picture of Islam.
During the inaugural board meeting of the Global Centre for Pluralism in October 2010, His Highness the Aga Khan and the Board were hosted at Rideau Hall, the official Governor General’s residence in Ottawa. Shown in the picture are, from left to right, The Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, his wife, Mrs. Sharon Johnston, the Aga Khan, former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and the former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson. Photo: AKDN/Denis Drever.
Significantly, the Aga Khan has fulfilled both these roles! The Harvard citation mentioned earlier clearly recognized his bold, beneficial and bridging words and works, as a Muslim spiritual leader. And in 2006, by establishing the Global Centre for Pluralism (GCP), in Ottawa, Canada, in partnership with the Canadian Government, he fulfilled Professor Bangura’s – and probably the silent Muslim majority’s – second wish! Among the speakers at GCP’s Annual Lecture Series were former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and current U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Notably, these lectures were delivered at the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Building, which opened, also in Ottawa, in December 2008. The prominent location of this Imamat institution on Sussex Drive, besides other embassies, was the Canadian Government’s way of formalizing the head of state status that the Aga Khan had been enjoying since the 1970s.
On May 29, 2014 the then United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, who has now become the new UN Secretary General, delivered the 3rd Annual Global Centre for Pluralism Lecture at the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat located on Sussex Drive, Ottawa’s iconic ceremonial street. He was introduced by the Aga Khan, the founder and chairman of the Global Centre for Pluralism. Photo: The Global Centre for Pluralism.
Unfortunately, there is still much misunderstanding, misinterpretation and misrepresentation of Islam resulting in what the Aga Khan has termed a “Clash of Ignorance”. This has escalated in the Post 9/11 period, fuelled by what this writer has termed Tele-Mullahs, Radio-Sheikhs, Print Media Distortionists, and Fake-News Peddlers on both sides of the religious divide, at an alarming rate. However, the Aga Khan’s own enlightened, multipronged, peaceful counter-jihad continues to earn him recognition and powerful partners. His countless words of wisdom, and significant on-going innovative good deeds, make him probably the most qualified and effective international personality to counter extremism, in a peaceful yet revolutionary manner.
Vanity Fair scored another interview in 2013 at the Aga Khan’s Secretariat, near Chantilly, France, which it described as “U.N. of the Aga Khan.” Regarding the Aga Khan’s extraordinary accomplishments, the interviewer wrote: “To be sure, few persons bridge so many divides – between the spiritual and the material; East and West; Muslim and Christian – as gracefully as he does.” For bridging the North – South divide, the Aga Khan received the prestigious North-South Prize in Portugal, the following year. As for AKDN, Vanity Fair was struck by how “staggeringly large and effective” an organization it was.
The AKDN has the unique honor amongst NGOs of enjoying diplomatic status almost everywhere it is active. As part of his Golden Jubilee (2007) Nazrana (gift and gratitude) from his followers, the Aga Khan asked for their TIME and KNOWLEDGE (TKN). Its purpose was to further accelerate and enhance AKDN’s global multidimensional undertakings. With thousands registering for and performing this voluntary and/or nominally-paid service, what emerged was an Ismaili domestic and foreign “Peace Corps!”
‘Blind today seeing tomorrow’ – US eye surgeon Dr. Badrudin Kurwa performed 98 surgeries in Chitral, Pakistan, on individuals blinded by cataracts as part of his Time and Knowledge nazrana service to the Aga Khan. Photo: Badrudin Kurwa Collection.
The Aga Khan’s approach to all his myriad socio-economic projects displays profound knowledge of them all, according to Bonnie Burnham, president of World Monuments Fund. Commenting on the Aga Khan’s unique cultural restoration efforts, Burnham stated: “They really are very broad based and visionary. There are not many institutions that have the capacity to do this. He is incredibly energetic. He really …has … his finger on the pulse of life in the global Islamic community embracing every sect and manifestation of culture and he’s interested in all of it.” (Apollo, Dec. 2007)
His Highness the Aga Khan speaking after receiving the inaugural Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship in Toronto, Canada, on 21 September 2016. The prize – seen beside the Aga Khan – recognises an individual who has, through thought and dialogue, encouraged approaches and strategies that strive to remove barriers, change attitudes, and reinforce the principles of tolerance and respect. Photo: AKDN/Lisa Sakulensky.
The Aga Khan’s Renaissance Man-encyclopedic-knowledge and erudition, explain his close to 100 keynote speeches at some of the world’s most important conferences and forums. This essay has already mentioned similar recognition of the Aga Khan’s depth and breadth of knowledge which has been devoted for the betterment of what he sees as a “frontierless brotherhood of mankind.” The most recent example of being recognized as a world figure was the unique honor of being the first recipient of the Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship, in Toronto, Canada, in 2016. This speaks volumes.
Amongst the various other awards, citations, honorary citizenships, degrees, decorations, medals, and prizes the Aga Khan has received, the writer would like to highlight just the following three: Hadrian Award (New York, 1996), Tolerance Award (Germany, 2006), The Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Honorary Degree (Toronto, 2016).
The Aga Khan is presented the World Monument Fund’s Hadrian Award on October 25, 1996 by David Rockefeller, a previous recipient of the award. In the keynote speech at the presentation ceremony, Cyrus Vance, former US Secretary of State, noted the Aga Khan’s lifelong labour to improve the lives of Islamic peoples throughout the world and his commitment to the preservation and renewal of societies. Photo: The Ismaili Canada, July 1997.
Dr. Friedemann Greiner, Director and Chairman of the Jury (left), presenting the Tolerance Award 2006 to His Highness the Aga Khan as Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs (right), looks on. The Tolerance Award was established by Germany’s Evangelische Akademie Tutzing in 2000 and is presented every second year to an individual whose life work is committed to building greater understanding and tolerance between different cultures and traditions. During his laudatory address, Dr Steinmeier described the Aga Khan as a “fortress for democratic progress, as someone wishing to bring about sustainable, pluralistic, civil societies…We honour an exceptional man, we honour a huge friend of humankind, we honour a courageous visionary and we honour a person building bridges between societies.” Photo: AKDN/Zahur Ramji.
The Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, the oldest humanities research institute in Canada, on May 20, 2016 conferred an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters upon His Highness the Aga Khan, in recognition of his work to advance, and advocate for, pluralistic societies across the globe. Richard Alway, Praeses of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies congratulates the Aga Khan upon conferring the honorary degree. Photo: AKDN/Zahur Ramji.
The Aga Khan’s honorary head of state status is further evident from invitations to address, or participate at, organizations such as EU, EAC (East African Community), British Commonwealth Conferences, landmark UAE events, UN agencies, NATO, World Bank and many, many more.
The government of India has long considered AKDN as “another government” and the Aga Khan “as another head of state.” This was stated by the Consul General of India, at a program featuring the restoration of Humayan’s Tomb, at Mercer University, in Atlanta, Georgia, in January 2017.
Through his inspiring words and innovative programs, the Aga Khan has meticulously laid the foundation of the seemingly insurmountable task of re-connecting Islam to its two elder Abrahamic siblings: Judaisim and Christianity, from which it has sadly become separated in the past decades.
The Aga Khan seen addressing at the House of Commons Chambers to both the houses of Canadian Parliament on Thursday, February 27, 2014. Photo: The Office of the Prime Minister of Canada.
In his address to the Canadian Parliament, he emphasized that these three Abrahamic religions had once co-operated and created flourishing communities which were pluralistic. “We find singularly little in our theological interpretations that would clash with the other Abrahamic faiths – with Christianity and Judaism.” He continued by saying “indeed, there is so much that is in profound harmony. Some of the most glorious chapters in Islamic history were purposefully built on the principle of inclusiveness and also deeply welcoming to Christian and Jewish peoples. Today, these Islamic traditions have been obscured in many places, from Muslim and non-Muslims alike.”
The Aga Khan went on to explain to the Canadian Parliamentarians that his interconnected cultural and architectural programs, and the soon to be opened Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, were designed to “revive the memory of this inclusive inheritance.”
Clearly, if any person or entity can restore Islam, the pariah member of the Abrahamic family, to its rightful place, it would be AKDN under the enlightened, visionary, and revolutionary, global leadership of the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and his successors.
The Aga Khan thanks the government of Portugal for inviting the Ismaili Imamat to establish a formal Seat of the Ismaili Imamat in Portugal. The Aga Khan signed the landmark agreement with Portugal’s Minister of State and Foreign Affairs Rui Machete. The Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho said that Portugal was honoured by the Imamat’s decision to establish its Seat in his country. Photos: The Ismaili/Gary Otte.
The Aga Khan has been called a “Prince without a Princedom,” yet he has been treated by dozens of nations as a “visiting head of state” with his red and green Imamat flag flying on his car and beside the host countries’ flags at official functions. The Portuguese Government,Church and civil society institutions have had a long, mutually beneficial relationships with the Aga Khan and AKDN. On June 3, 2015, these relationships were substantially upgraded by a historic, landmark treaty between the Government of Portugal and the Aga Khan, to establish the permanent Seat of the Ismaili Imamat in that country.
This process of ratification and approval having been completed, it formalized the hitherto informal head of state status accorded to the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims in Portugal. It follows another historic landmark agreement with the Government of Canada leading to the establishment of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa, Canada.
What remains is the most richly-deserved and long-earned Nobel Peace Prize. This would indeed be a truly fitting Nazrana by other global leaders to this global citizen!
Date published: Saturday, February 18, 2017.
Last updated: March 10, 2017.
Copyright: Nizar Motani. 2017.
About the Author: The author, Dr. Nizar A. Motani, Ph. D, was privileged to attend Aga Khan primary and secondary schools in Kampala, Uganda. He went on to the then University of East Africa, Nairobi Campus, for his bachelor’s degree and on to the University of London (SOAS) for his doctorate in African History, with specialization in British Colonial rule in East Africa.
His dream was to teach at Makerere University, in Kampala, Uganda, but Idi Amin’s expulsion of all Asians shattered that, in August, 1972. He was fortunate enough to receive a very timely offer of a Visiting Lectureship in African history at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine (1972-1978), followed by two years as an Assistant Professor at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
From 1980 to 1982, he served at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, UK, as its first Publications Officer. Upon returning to America he made a complete career switch, first living in Albany, Georgia (1982-1989) and then in Atlanta, Georgia, as a consultant in the financial sector. Among his publications is a monograph summarizing the central argument of his doctoral dissertation and several articles and chapters in books and scholarly journals, on the Ismailis, East African Asians, the Ugandan Civil Service, and the Makerere College. He has been a regular book reviewer for the Journal of Third World Studies on African and Middle Eastern subjects.
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