BY ANDREW KOSOROK, UTAH
(Artist, educator, bridge-builder and inter-faith chaplain)

As Imam for the NizaRi Ismailis, his responsibility and sacred calling is to provide for the security of his people, guide them in interpretation of the Faith, and do everything possible to ensure for them a worthwhile quality of life. Although these facets of leadership can be applied exclusively to the welfare of the worldwide Ismaili community, the Aga Khan sees his responsibility in a more expansive way.  If good can be done for the sake of the Ismaili family, that good is also extended to the areas within which the Ismailis are found — and by extension, to the world.

The New Prince Karim Aga Khan Iv In Switzerland After The Death Of The Aga Khan Iii. Portrait du prince Karim AGA KHAN IV devant une photographie de son grand-père l'AGA KAHN III. (Photo by Philippe Le Tellier/Paris Match via Getty Images)
Prince Karim Aga Khan pictured in Switzerland in front of a framed portrait of his grandfather whom he succeeded as the 49th hereditary Imam of the Ismaili Muslims on July 11, 1957 at the age of  19 while he was still at Harvard University. Photo: Philippe Le Tellier/Paris Match via Getty Images. Copyright.

Years ago, if I had been asked about the Aga Khan I would have immediately thought he was one of the plausible, vaguely threatening characters in a Bond film — perhaps from “The Living Daylights” or “From Russia with Love”. Honestly, the possibility he was a real person was not even on my radar.

Then 9/11 happened.

Over 3,000 people lost their lives and as a frightened public we were told precisely where to lay the blame. It was terrifying to learn that a full quarter of the world’s population was dedicated, in their religious fervor, to the utter destruction of myself and everyone around me.

Muslims became the new boogeymen.

And this despite the fact that many Muslims had also been victims of the terrorist attacks, including an unborn child!

Thankfully, the wisdom of my parents kicked in and I realized how horribly wrong it is to blame the actions of two dozen men on an entire religious tradition.

Education overcomes fear, so I began to learn about Islam.

I read the Qur’an and the hadith, I connected with local Muslim leaders and families, and I emailed every Muslim leader and scholar I could — asking questions and trying to find out what these people actually believed.

Islam, just like my own Christianity, is a faith seated firmly in Biblical tradition — the Qur’an was recited to the Prophet Muhammad by the same angel Gabriel who announced the conception of Jesus to Mary. Christians and Muslims are both monotheistic, both value a personal relationship with our Creator (in his last prayer, Jesus called to “Eloi”, the Aramaic pronunciation of Allah — we even pray to the same God), and like Christianity, Islam is expressed in a vast, multi-hued rainbow of spiritual traditions.

One of the first of my international correspondents to write back to me and share his faith with me was an Ismaili gentleman. From him I learned that the Aga Khan was not a James Bond character at all but a real man. An incredibly decent, thoughtful, and generous man. Although my studies should have prepared me for this, learning about Ismailis and the Aga Khan was a significant shock.

My own Christian tradition is one which arose from the American religious revival beginning shortly after the chaos of the Revolutionary War. As a member of a minority faith within the umbrella of a larger religious and political structure, I could identify with much of what I learned about Ismailis. There are about as many Ismailis around the world as members of my own faith tradition — perhaps 15 million — and they have received an unseemly amount of persecution and forced relocation, also shared in the history of my own faith. Surviving hardships like these lead to a number of mindsets common among the survivors.

A strong identity is formed with the group which is expressed as a tight, although greatly extended, familial bond. Members realize they may be the only sample of their faith with whom others will ever interact, so they make a conscious effort to set good examples and try to properly represent their beliefs. As a minority group, members are very conscious of their own faith’s guidance on coexisting with others as well as respecting, celebrating, and learning from differences. And members of the minority faith rally around and support a strong, capable leader who emphasizes and encourages these traits, and — in the very best of cases — a leader who brings to the world the very best the faith has to offer.

This man, the strong and capable leader who is a beacon to all the world for the very best Ismailis have to offer, is the Aga Khan or “Commander of the Faithful”.

agakhan_portrait_pixel_sampleThe closer you come, the more you will see him” is the title of this remarkable digital snapshot by Toronto’s Akbar Kanji that portrays the Aga Khan’s life and dedications through thumbnails. View the pixel strip further from the screen to see the facial features and move closer to the screen to see more of his dedications. The full facial portrait is made up of 1500 ‘digital mosaic’ pieces. Copyright. Akbar Kanji. Toronto.

Many prophets of the Bible recorded their prophetic lineage, just as Matthew and Luke in the New Testament stressed Jesus’s ancestry.  In similar vein, although only the fourth Aga Khan (the title was bestowed within the last couple hundred years), Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan, is the 49th Imam directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad.

He is a rarity among royalty, a Royal without a country — although each of his followers throughout the world would gladly make him welcome in their own home. He is also one of the wealthiest individuals on the planet which becomes something of another irony — he views himself as a caretaker of his family’s funds, redistributing almost everything back into Ismaili communities around the globe.

As a typical Westerner, when I began learning about this odd contradiction of a world leader I immediately began looking for ulterior motives. This is ridiculous, I thought, where are the scandals, the paparazzi revelations of unscrupulous behavior, the dirty back room deals, the absurd examples of self-indulgent excess?

The Aga Khan is odd indeed.

He is what he is. A world leader who takes his job, his heritage, his responsibility incredibly seriously.

His grandfather, the 48th Imam, groomed Prince Karim from early childhood to be his successor. Every action the young man took growing up seemed to be taken in light of this awareness of great responsibility. An Olympic athlete, he never smoked or drank; while his friends carried on and had fun at school he studied; when his friends were playing he worked. This drive expressed so firmly in his early years has borne serious fruit — at eighty years old this kind, thoughtful powerhouse of a man is still going strong.

Upon his grandfather’s passing, in 1957 the mantle of leadership skipped a generation and Prince Karim became the Aga Khan. His father, although passed over in the succession, traveled extensively and encouraged every Ismaili to support his son’s leadership. Friends noticed a remarkable transformation — overnight the serious student and athlete became a world leader, and felt the burden of his calling.

As Imam for the Nizari Ismailis, his responsibility and sacred calling is to provide for the security of his people, guide them in interpretation of the Faith, and do everything possible to ensure for them a worthwhile quality of life. Although these facets of leadership can be applied exclusively to the welfare of the worldwide Ismaili community, the Aga Khan sees his responsibility in a more expansive way.  If good can be done for the sake of the Ismaili family, that good is also extended to the areas within which the Ismailis are found — and by extension, to the world.

So the Aga Khan uses his resources and status to increase education and literacy; to revitalize entire communities; to rebuild historically significant Islamic structures and landmarks; and to encourage builders and thought-leaders in applying Islamic principles to the betterment of our global community.

The desperate poor receiving hope are not just Ismaili poor.

The neighborhoods rescued, the people educated, the monuments restored and history reclaimed are not just for Ismailis, but for all the world.

With all this, how can he possibly resist tooting his own horn?

Speaking with the Today Show in 2010, he shared a very telling observation: “I’ve always taken the attitude that the work should speak rather than the individual.” This strikes me because it so closely mirrors a statement from another of my personal heroes: “For the tree is known by his fruit.” (Matt 12:33).

The Aga Khan is welcomed by throngs of thousands, walks on red carpets, is accompanied by military honor guards, and has received awards, commendations, knighthoods, and honorary degrees from dozens of countries around the world. Yet he loathes discussing his personal accomplishments, and would rather turn the conversation to focus on what people can do to give hope for the future, build stronger families and communities, and draw closer together as a human family.

Al Azhar Park 1992 through to its inuaguration in 2005
In the 1980’s the Aga Khan turned his attention to a site in Cairo, where garbage had been dumped for more than 500 years and was nearly 25 feet deep. After more than 15 years of work masterminded by his Trust for Culture, his vision has transformed the derelict site into a sequence of formal gardens filled with groves of fruit and flowering trees, fountains and an artificial lake studded with a modern lakeside café and a central allee of royal palms lines a path that has views of Islamic Cairo’s minarets and domes. Atop the dump site sit three new sunken reservoirs that provide invisible succor and a children’s playground and other special features. Shown in the image are: the 1992 park site, Al Darassa municipal dump (top left);  on going work in shaping the Al-Azhar Park site in 1999 (top right); and the completed Al-Azhar Park which was inauguarted in 2005. Photos: Aga Khan Trust for Culture via Archnet. 

The Prophet Muhammad taught: “The doors of goodness are many…..enjoining good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one’s legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one’s arms — all these are charity prescribed for you. Your smile for your brother is charity.” And the Aga Khan has accepted this hadith as a personal job description.

In a media sea where all Muslims are labeled either as terrorists or terrorists-to-be, the Aga Khan and the Ismailis stand out profoundly. The Ismailis and the Aga Khan have been described by the media as representing “moderate Islam”. From my perspective, the media label “moderate” actually applies to the vast majority of Muslims around the world, but that editorial aside is a topic for an entirely different conversation.

The fact is, terror groups are terrified of Ismailis, the Aga Khan, and all they represent. In a world where girls are educated alongside boys, people use their education to build better lives for themselves and their neighbors, and the hopelessness of extreme poverty is realistically transforming into a memory, terror groups lose their strength and support.

Edmund Burke famously taught that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing; the fact so much good is done by the Aga Khan and the millions of people he inspires is a horrifying prospect for those whose lives and livelihoods depend on the victimization and destruction of others.

What is the vehicle by which all this good is done, under the direction and encouragement of Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan IV?

In addition to his guidance and encouragement through a number of media channels and networks, there is the happy monolith of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). This is an interrelated grouping of regional and international organizations, coordinated in their efforts to build a brighter future for mankind all around the globe.  With an estimated annual budget of about $925 million, the AKDN is able to do a remarkable, astounding amount of good. This impressive amount of funding comes from the Aga Khan’s personal fortune and tithes of the faithful from all walks of life around the world as well as financial resources provided by several Western countries.

Darb al-Ahmar CairoAdjoining the Al Azhar Park, was one of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods, Darb al Ahmar. Some 200,000 inhabitants had been living there for centuries amid the ruins of Cairo’s oldest buildings. The project quickly became a great archaeological adventure, uncovering and restoring ancient walls and gates, six historic mosques, and dozens of houses and palaces. Local residents were trained in restoration skills and some 200 are now permanently employed at the site. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Working primarily in the most desperately poor areas of Asia and Africa, the development agencies and institutions support efforts to revitalize neighborhoods struggling to survive, encourage conservation and respect for our environment, promote civil discourse and pluralism, and in general, improve the quality of life for every living thing on the planet.  Although the Aga Khan is the Head Honcho (not his official title) of this network of do-gooding organizations, he has help from 80,000 employees in thirty countries, and a potential pool of 15 million Ismaili volunteers — a countless army of hands anxiously waiting for excuses to make the world a better place.

He does not view this as “philanthropy”, but as a completely natural extension of the spiritual principles of Islam; in interviews and comments the Aga Khan even implies his confidence that other faith groups would happily follow suit, given the opportunity.

This is the thing that I admire about the Aga Khan and, to be honest, the thing which I found just a bit unnerving. Like his rare contemporaries on the world stage after the order of Mahandis Gandhi and Mother Theresa, the Aga Khan personifies the very best qualities which make us human — and assumes that, if given the chance, each of us would do the same.

This encouragement inspires me to want to live up to his assumption.

The Prophet said, “Charity does not decrease wealth, no one forgives another except that Allah increases his honor, and no one humbles himself for the sake of Allah except that Allah raises his status.”

If I sound like a fanboy, that’s because I am.

We are constantly bombarded with media “heroes” — people of dubious character whose claims to fame revolve around soundbites and sensationalism. A hero should be someone who saves the day, makes the world a brighter place, helps to build a better and more hopeful future for everyone with whom he or she comes in contact — with or without a cape.

The Aga Khan does all this, and inspires millions around the world to do the same.  And as Christian, I’m glad to have him as a hero.

Copyright: Andrew Kosorok/Simerg. 2017.

Date posted: May 9, 2017.
Last updated: May 10, 2017 (typos).

Other recent posts of interest:

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Andrew KosorokAndrew Kosorok is an artist, educator, and bridge-builder. A professional stained glass window-maker, stained glass sculptor, and university instructor, he is also an interfaith chaplain and a writer. Andrew examines the Christian/Muslim interface looking for opportunities to use art and the creative process to strengthen friendships, encourage exploration, and build community.  He writes: “Art is the language which communicates outside of words — it allows us to embrace our similarities and celebrate those wonderful elements which make each of us unique.  At the heart of every faith tradition is the knowledge we are all intentionally made different by a wisely governing Creator; understanding these differences is a fundamental part of building a wonderful future for humanity.” Andrew is the author of two forthcoming books Faith, Alchemy, and Stained Glass: Four Lessons for Grownups and Windows in the Cities of Heaven: An Artist’s Guide to World Peace.

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References:

The caption for the Al-Azhar Park photos was compiled and adapted from http://www.archnet.org and Zahid Sardar’s piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Garden City once again…” Please click:
http://www.sfchronicle.com/homeandgarden/article/Cairo-to-be-Garden-City-once-again-The-building-2724046.php.