COMPILED BY SALIM AND ZAHIDA RAHEMTULLA
Recently my father and I read through over 140 of the speeches of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, from the years 2000-2017. Immersing ourselves within his history of insights over the last two decades, we were charged with the difficult task of selecting a few quotes under categories ranging from education, ethics and media to architecture, Islam, and democracy. What you will find here are some of the gems we selected from this project, an endeavour which was deeply informative, rewarding, and eye-opening in terms of how much we learned about the scope, range, and impact of the 49th Ismaili Imam’s projects since the year 2000.
As Mawlana Hazar Imam continues to travel to different parts of the world, we will continue to update this post with more gems from the speeches he delivers during the coming months. At the same time, we invite readers to submit their own favourite quotes from the Imam’s speeches and we will work with the editor of this website to have another post created at a later date as “Readers’ Contribution.” Please send your quotes to Simerg@aol.com, under the subject title “Gems from the Aga Khan’s speeches.”
Gems from the 49th Ismaili Imam’s 21st century speeches
As you know, the Shi’a divided from the Sunni after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Hazrat Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, was, in Shi’a belief, named by the Prophet to be the Legitimate Authority for the interpretation of the faith. For the Shi’a today, all over the world, he is regarded as the first Imam.
I cite Hazrat Ali’s words so that you may understand the spirit in which I have attempted to fulfill the mandate left to me as the 49th hereditary [Ismaili] Imam after the death of my grandfather. I quote:
“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.” — Tutzing, Germany, May 20, 2006
THE ROLE OF THE IMAM
What does it mean to become an Imam in the Ismaili tradition? To begin with, it is an inherited role of spiritual leadership. As you may know, the Ismailis are the only Muslim community that has been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from Prophet Muhammad.
That spiritual role, however, does not imply a separation from practical responsibilities. In fact for Muslims the opposite is true: the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Leadership in the spiritual realm — for all Imams, whether they are Sunni or Shia — implies responsibility in worldly affairs; a calling to improve the quality of human life. And that is why so much of my energy over these years has been devoted to the work of the Aga Khan Development Network. — Cambridge, USA, November 12, 2015.
HUMANITY: BEST AND WORST ASSETS
Times of India: What is our most precious asset as human beings?
Aga Khan: A value system that is both time-resistant and time-adaptable.
Times of India: And the worst?
Aga Khan: Killing, indeed all violence. Going by the record of the last 50 years, this is what offends me most.” — New Delhi, India, Times of India, November 27, 2004.
PORTUGAL AND THE SEAT OF THE IMAMAT
I have always felt at home in Portugal, and now ever more so since the signing in 2015 of an historic Agreement between the Ismaili Imamat and Portuguese Republic to establish the Seat of the Ismaili Imamat in this country — an important milestone in the 1,400-year history of the Ismaili Imamat. It marks the culmination of our long and deep relationship here and one that will now deepen further. While we work in 30 countries, we hold an enduring affinity for Portugal and its institutions, its history and its people. And the historic Palacete Henrique Mendonca will become the most fitting host for the Seat. — Lisbon, Portugal, July 20, 2017.
Jean-Jacques Lafaye: ….Should all nations be allowed access to nuclear power for civilian purposes?
Aga Khan: It seems to me that rules of non-proliferation are now applied to all nuclear technology for both civilian and military purposes. In fact, the conditions for the sale of civilian nuclear energy is like some kind of technological colonization, insofar that the most advanced nations make a point of holding on to all the “keys.”
From this point of view, we are a long way from the democratization of nuclear energy. Maybe I’m naïve but I advocate another approach, which I call “positive proliferation.” I am in favour of the widespread distribution of civilian nuclear power. Of course, careful thought must be given to the conditions under which positive proliferation would operate. How to avoid environmental problems. How to prevent the misappropriation of civilian nuclear power for military purposes. As you know, I have studied history and it has never been possible to halt any globally significant scientific advance. The positive proliferation that I would dearly love to see happen is based on a simple principle: yes to energy, no to arms. — Politique Internationale, Spring 2010 Issue, # 127.
The most important thing we can learn — or teach — at any school — in a world of perpetual change — is the ability to go on learning. None of us have all the answers — quite often we don’t even know what questions to ask. Nor can we discern the road ahead by looking in a rear-view mirror. Past lessons must constantly be renewed and reapplied, as we adapt to new technologies and new expectations. — Nairobi, Kenya, July 27, 2011.
The years immediately ahead will be a time of breath-taking change for Africa — and for the field of media. I believe that Africa can emerge from this transformation as the home of some of the most capable, innovative, constructive and respected media enterprises in the world. — Nairobi, Kenya, July 27, 2011.
WATER AND THE OTTAWA RIVER
Water, after all, has been seen, down through the ages, as the great source of life. When scientists search the universe for signs of life, they begin by looking for water. Water restores and renews and refreshes. And opening ourselves and our lives to the water is to open ourselves and our lives to the future….the Ottawa River represents a powerful connection to other places, nearby and far away. It is not only a refreshing symbol, it is also a connecting symbol, connecting this site to the rest of Canada and the rest of the world. — Ottawa, Canada, May 16, 2017.
Someone has said that plugging into the media today can sometimes be like trying to drink water from a high-pressure fire hose! In such a world, effective communicators must truly be effective educators — providing background as well as foreground, the big picture as well as the close-up detail. And this will be true not only for journalists, but also for communication professionals in government, at NGO’s, in the business sector, at entertainment and cultural organisations — and with a host of civil society institutions. — Nairobi, Kenya, July 27, 2011.
FAITH AND WORLD
The ethics of Islam bridge the realms of Faith and World — what we call Din and Dunya. Accordingly, my institutional responsibilities for interpreting the faith are accompanied by a strong engagement in issues relating to the quality of life, not only for the Ismaili community but also for those with whom they share their lives — locally, nationally and internationally. This principle of universality is expressed uniquely in the Holy Qur’an where it is written, ‘O Mankind, be careful of your duty to your Lord who created you from a single soul…..(and) joined your hearts in love so that by His grace ye became brethren’. — Ottawa, Canada, January 20, 2012.
Natural Blessings and Human Creativity are Divine gifts — and it is wrong to embrace one at the expense of the other. The best architecture teaches us to engage with Nature respectfully; not by conquering or subduing it, nor by isolating ourselves away from it. — Al Ain, UAE, November 6, 2016.
CIVIL SOCIETY AND HOPE
“Increasingly, I believe, the voices of Civil Society are voices for change, where change has been overdue. They have been voices of hope for people living in fear. They are voices that can help transform countries of crisis into countries of opportunity. There are too many societies where too many people live in a culture of fear, condemned to a life of poverty. Addressing that fear, and replacing it with hope, will be a major step to the elimination of poverty. And often the call for hope to replace fear will come from the voices of Civil Society.” — Ottawa, Canada, February 27, 2014.
MEDIA DISTORTIONS AND ISLAM
When the clashes of modern times have come, they have most often grown out of particular political circumstances, the twists and turns of power relationships and economic ambitions, rather than deep theological divides. Yet sadly, what is highly abnormal in the Islamic world gets mistaken for what is normal. Of course, media perceptions of our world in recent years have often been conveyed through a lens of war. But that is all the more reason to shape global conversation in a more informed direction. — Ottawa, Canada, February 27, 2014.
INCLUSIVENESS IN FORMER ISLAMIC EMPIRES
The complexity of the Ummah has a long history. Some of the most glorious chapters in Islamic history were purposefully built on the principle of inclusiveness — it was a matter of state policy to pursue excellence through pluralism. This was true from the time of the Abbasids in Baghdad and the Fatimids in Cairo over 1,000 years ago. It was true in Afghanistan and Timbuktu in Mali, and later with the Safavids in Iran, the Mughals in India, the Uzbeks in Bukhara, and Ottomans in Turkey. From the 8th to the 16th century, al-Andalus thrived on the Iberian Peninsula — under Muslim aegis — but also deeply welcoming to Christian and Jewish peoples.
Today, these Islamic traditions have been obscured in many places, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. — Ottawa, Canada, February 27, 2014.
IMPORTANCE OF UNDERSTANDING SHIAS AND SUNNIS
Perhaps the most important area of incomprehension, outside the Ummah, is the conflict between Sunni and Shia interpretations of Islam and the consequences for the Sunni and Shia peoples. It is important, therefore, for non-Muslims who are dealing with the Ummah to communicate with both Sunni and Shia voices. To be oblivious to this reality would be like ignoring over many centuries that there were differences between Catholics and Protestants, or trying to resolve the civil war in Northern Ireland without engaging both Christian communities. — Ottawa, Canada, February 27, 2014.
CULTURAL HERITAGE AND DEVELOPMENT
Cultural heritage can itself be a “trampoline” for social and economic development, in the same way that agriculture, water resources, power supplies or transportation systems have traditionally been perceived.
Even in settings of abject poverty, cultural legacies, though once dormant, can become powerful catalysts for change.
But it is not enough only to conserve an architectural treasure. Restoration projects can also serve as springboards — as trampolines — for broad social and economic development and poverty reduction. In that process, they can help create both the human constituency needed to sustain a project — and the flow of funding needed to maintain it. — Hangzhou, China, May 15, 2013.
PURPOSE BEHIND AKDN CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS
My attention to cultural legacies was triggered, over three decades ago, when I realized that the proud architectural heritage of the Islamic world was endangered. The art forms through which great Islamic cultures had expressed their identity and their ideals were deteriorating.
The result, for huge segments of the world’s population, was a fading of cultural memory. The world was threatened by an enormous cultural disaster.
Even worse, there were few resources for addressing this situation. Architectural thinking, globally, was dominated by western industrial models. Islamic architecture itself was abandoning its heritage in the face of an all-consuming modernity.
Our response to that situation began with the creation, in 1977, of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, dedicated to the renewal of this legacy. Soon afterward came the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and under its aegis, the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme. — Hangzhou, China, May 15, 2013.
JUSTICE SACH’S AND SOUTH AFRICA’S CONSTITUTION MAKING
He [Justice Sach] has been a heroic freedom fighter, an insightful legal scholar, a compelling author and for fifteen years a member of South Africa’s Constitutional Court….he was a chief architect of South Africa’s new, post-apartheid Constitution – one of the most admired Constitutions in the world. The creation of that Constitution is a story with continuing relevance as nations across the world look for better ways of governing themselves
Constitution-making requires a strong sense of idealism, married to a practical sense of realism. It requires a willingness to listen as competing priorities are expressed, and a readiness to negotiate as differences are reconciled. As the challenges of governance grow in complex and changing societies, a widely respected Constitution is essential to the preservation of peace and the pursuit of progress. — Toronto, Canada, May 19, 2016.
ARCHITECTURE AND SENSE OF PLACE
Is it not true that the quality of our lives is fundamentally shaped by the spaces in which we live, spaces that provide physical security, and spaces where we seek spiritual enrichment? They are spaces where we work, and where we pause from work; where we expand our minds and restore our health, places where we congregate and where we meditate; and they are places where we are born, as well as places of final rest.
People everywhere — independent of their particular background or educational level — almost instinctively understand the importance of place, and how the spaces of our lives are shaped and reshaped — for better or for worse. This universal sensitivity to changes in the built environment also helps explain the profound impact of architecture on the way we think about our lives. Few other forces, in my view, have such transformational potential. — Ottawa, Canada, November 27, 2013.
ARCHITECTURE OF PLURALISM
The language of architecture speaks in different idioms, but it also provides powerful connections, resonating in landscapes both urban and rural, global and local, monumental and humble, secular and spiritual. An “Architecture of Pluralism” is one that will encourage all of us to listen to one another and to learn from one another, with a deep sense of humility and a realization that diversity itself is a gift of the Divine. — Ottawa, Canada, November 27, 2013.
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
I would note that the world will soon reach a tipping point, where a majority of the world’s population for the first time will live in urban rather than rural environments. And so we must ask ourselves some searching questions: how, for example, can depopulated rural areas provide sufficient food and water to support dense urban agglomerations? And how can we best transform sprawling, impoverished human encampments into city neighborhoods that enhance the quality of human life?
Interestingly, we have had and we have seen in our own urban restoration programmes, the potential for bridging the urban-rural divide, for reintroducing something of the rural into the heart of the city. Parks and other open spaces, new and restored, can revive something of the balance between human construction and natural space. And they are astonishingly popular, with people of all economic backgrounds, and with people of all ages.
In these, as in so many other cases, it is amazing, and deeply humbling to see what a difference the built environment can make, in enhancing the everyday moments of everyday life. — Lisbon, Portugal, September 06, 2013.
THE DAILY NATION
Our goal then [at time of founding of the newspaper] was to create a news medium that belonged to the whole of the nation of Kenya….Our additional central goal at the time was to create a news medium that would be truly independent: a place where the public could find a voice it could trust; an objective and thoughtful voice; a voice that would tell people what the facts are, as reliably as possible. Our goal was not to tell people what to think, but to give them reliable information so that they could think, more clearly, for themselves. — Nairobi, Kenya, March 17, 2016.
TOLERANCE AND UNDERSTANDING
Tolerance, openness and understanding towards other peoples’ cultures, values and faiths are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world. Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for development, it is essential for the functioning of civil society. Indeed, it is vital to our existence. — 2012, His Highness the Aga Khan: a life in the service of development.
VOLUNTEERISM IN CANADA
I have been impressed by recent studies showing the activity of voluntary institutions and not-for-profit organisations in Canada to be among the highest in the world. This Canadian spirit resonates with a cherished principle in Shia Ismaili culture — the importance of contributing one’s individual energies on a voluntary basis to improving the lives of others.
This is not a matter of philanthropy, but rather of self-fulfillment — enlightened self-fulfillment. — Ottawa, Canada, February 27, 2014.
AKDN’s development and humanitarian work in Syria began many years before the war. In the present situation, we have committed resources and efforts to ensure that Internally Displaced People receive humanitarian assistance, and are supported to sustain their livelihoods. We are taking two approaches:
First, we are supporting local community leaders, teachers, doctors, engineers and others to foster stability, protecting their families and their communities. We are thus building and strengthening civil society to take as much responsibility as possible for their own future.
Second, we are investing in communities, by supporting agriculture, income generation, early childhood education, schools, and hospitals. We also provide vocational training to create skills. Our goal is to sustain hope. — London, UK, February 4, 2016.
TIME AND KNOWLEDGE
During my Golden Jubilee — and this is important — six years ago Ismailis from around the world volunteered their gifts, not only of wealth, but most notably of time and knowledge, in support of our work. We established a Time and Knowledge framework, a structured process for engaging an immense pool of expertise involving tens of thousands of volunteers. Many of them traveled to developing countries as part of this outpouring of service — one third of those were Canadians. Their impact has been enormous in helping us to achieve best practice standards in our institutions and programmes, making us we hope an even better partner for Canada!” — Ottawa, Canada, February 27, 2014.
We often think about technological innovation as a great source of hope for the world.
Yes, the Information Revolution, for individuals and for communities, can be a great liberating influence. But it also carries some important risks.
More information at our fingertips can mean more knowledge and understanding. But it can also mean more fleeting attention-spans, more impulsive judgments, and more dependence on superficial snapshots of events. Communicating more often and more easily can bring people closer together, but it can also tempt us to live more of our lives inside smaller information bubbles, in more intense but often more isolated groupings.
We see more people everywhere these days, standing or sitting or walking alone, absorbed in their hand-held screens. But, I wonder whether, in some larger sense, they are really more “in touch?” Greater “connectivity” does not necessarily mean greater “connection.”
Information travels more quickly, in greater quantities these days. But the incalculable multiplication of information can also mean more error, more exaggeration, more misinformation, more disinformation, more propaganda. The world may be right there on our laptops, but the truth about the world may be further and further away. — Rhode Island, USA, March 10, 2014.
The world’s dominant foreign language, English, is viewed as a necessity in most areas — but not yet as an opportunity. For cultures in the developing world to be globally accessible, understood, respected and admired, and to be represented in electronic communications, they must ensure that their cultures find expression not only in the national language, but also in English. — Washington DC, USA, November 28, 2000.
NATURE OF DISEASE
It’s important to keep in mind that disease is changing in its nature. We are more and more confronted in modern society by non-communicable disease and therefore in the decades ahead we will be concentrating through the Aga Khan Health Network and other medical institutions in dealing with non-communicable diseases. And I refer to diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, mental and neurological illness, cancer and others. These are the areas where we must concentrate properly, to serve future generations of society. — Kampala, Uganda, December 17, 2015.
RISK OF KNOWLEDGE GAPS
Too often, as the world grows more complex, the temptation for some is to shield themselves from complexity, we seek the comfort of our own simplicities, our own specialities. As has often been said, we risk learning more and more, about less and less. And the result is that significant knowledge gaps can develop and persist.
The danger is that knowledge gaps so often run the risk of becoming empathy gaps. The struggle to remain empathetically open to the Other in a diversifying world is a continuing struggle of central importance for all of us. — Rhode Island, USA, March 10, 2014.
IGNORANCE ABOUT ISLAMIC CONTRIBUTIONS
Down through many centuries, great Muslim cultures were built on the principle of inclusiveness. Some of the best minds and creative spirits from every corner of the world, independent of ethnic or religious identities, were brought together at great Muslim centres of learning. My own ancestors, the Fatimids, founded one of the world’s oldest universities, Al-Azhar in Cairo, over a thousand years ago. In fields of learning from mathematics to astronomy, from philosophy to medicine Muslim scholars sharpened the cutting edge of human knowledge. They were the equivalents of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, Galileo and Newton. Yet their names are scarcely known in the West today. How many would recognise the name al-Khwarizmi — the Persian mathematician who developed some 1,200 years ago the algorithm, which is the foundation of search engine technology? — Rhode Island, USA, March 10, 2014.
CLASH OF IGNORANCE
As I observe the world, I am struck by the insufficiency of well-informed debate, of richer dialogue, of deeper education in our quest to avoid human conflict. That insufficiency often plagues relations between the North and the South — and increasingly between the North and the Islamic world. Some have called this a clash of civilizations — I think it is, essentially, a clash of ignorances. — Lisbon, Portugal, June 12, 2014.
THE EDUCATION OF ISLAM IN THE WEST
What we are now witnessing is a clash of ignorance, an ignorance that is mutual, longstanding, and to which the West and the Islamic world have been blind for decades at their great peril.
For a number of years I have voiced my concern that the faith of a billion people is not part of the general education process in the West — ignored by school and college curricula in history, the sciences, philosophy and geography. An important goal of responsible education should be to ringfence the theologising of the image of the Muslim world by treating Muslims as it treats Christians and Jews, by going beyond a focus on theology to considering civil society, politics, and economics of particular countries and peoples at various points in their history. This will reveal the fundamental diversity and pluralism of Muslim peoples, cultures, histories, philosophies and legal systems. The Aga Khan University’s newly established Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations in London will address these issues directly, as have the programmes of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture with respect to the field of architecture, and more recently music. Repositioning theology with respect to the normal forces of human society will help develop the understanding that Muslims too live in the real world and have to contend with the same issues of life – of poverty, hunger, tragedy and civil conflict as all others in the developing world. — Houston, USA, June 23, 2002.
CLASH OF IGNORANCE (THE DANISH CARTOONS)
An important goal of quality education is to equip each generation to participate effectively in what has been called ”the great conversation” of our times. This means, on one hand, being unafraid of controversy. But it also means being sensitive to the values and outlooks of others.
This brings me back to the current headlines. For I must believe that it is ignorance which explains the publishing of those caricatures which have brought such pain to Islamic peoples. I note that the Danish journal where the controversy originated acknowledged, in a recent letter of apology, that it had never realized the sensitivities involved.
In this light, perhaps, the controversy can be described less as a clash of civilizations and more as a clash of ignorance. The alternative explanation would be that the offense was intended — in which case we would be confronted with evil of a different sort. But even to attribute the problem to ignorance is in no way to minimize its importance. In a pluralistic world, the consequences of ignorance can be profoundly damaging.
Perhaps, too, it is ignorance which has allowed so many participants in this discussion to confuse liberty with license — implying that the sheer absence of restraint on human impulse can constitute a sufficient moral framework. This is not to say that governments should censor offensive speech. Nor does the answer lie in violent words or violent actions. But I am suggesting that freedom of expression is an incomplete value unless it is used honorably, and that the obligations of citizenship in any society should include a commitment to informed and responsible expression. — Lisbon, Portugal, February 12, 2006.
Women’s participation in society is vital to ensure an improved quality of life. From education to health, participation in local governance to leadership in business, we have witnessed the potential for women and men to work alongside each other, while respecting the ethics of Islam, to build their communities. — London, UK, December 4, 2014.
MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY
If information can be shared more easily as technology advances, so can misinformation and disinformation. If truth can spread more quickly and more widely, then so can error and falsehood.
Throughout history, the same tools — the printing press, the telegraph, the microphone, the television camera, the cell phone, the internet — that promised to bring us together, have also been used to drive us apart.
The age-old promise of democracy is that social cohesion and public progress could be achieved by consensus rather than by coercion. But genuine democratic consent depends on dependable public information. — Athens, Greece, September 15, 2015.
QUALITY OF LIFE
One ultimate requirement for any effective democracy is the capacity to compromise. Social order rests in the end either on oppression or accommodation. But we can never find that balancing point — where the interests of all parties are recognised — unless competing leaders and their diverse followers alike, are committed to finding common ground.
That common ground, in my view, is the global aspiration for a better quality of life — from the reduction of poverty to quality longevity — built upon opportunities that will provide genuine hope for the future. — Athens, Greece, September 15, 2015.
TAKING LEAVE FROM HARVARD AFTER BECOMING IMAM
As I prepared for this new role in the late 1950s, Harvard was very helpful. The University allowed me — having prudently verified that I was a student “in good standing” — to take eighteen months away to meet the leaders of the Ismaili community in some 25 countries where most of the Ismailis then lived, and to speak with their government leaders.
I returned here after that experience with a solid sense of the issues I would have to address, especially the endemic poverty in which much of my community lived. And I also returned with a vivid sense of the new political realities that were shaping their lives, including the rise of African independence movements, the perilous relations between India and Pakistan and the sad fact that many Ismailis were locked behind the Iron Curtain and thus removed from regular contact with the Imamat. — Cambridge, USA, November 12, 2015.
THE AGA KHAN PROGRAMME FOR ISLAMIC ARCHITECTURE
My concern for the future of Islamic architecture grew out of my travels between 1957 and 1977 in countries with large Muslim populations. What I observed was a near total disconnect between the new built environment I encountered and Islam’s rich architectural legacy. There was no process of renewal, no teaching in architectural schools, no practices that were rooted in our own traditions. Except for the occasional minaret or dome, one of the world’s great cultural inheritances was largely confined to coffee-table books. It seemed to me that this state of affairs represented a monumental menace to our world’s cultural pluralism, as well as a dangerous loss of identity for Muslim communities.
The Aga Khan Programme for Islamic Architecture was one response to this situation, as was the creation of the Aga Khan architectural award, which also continues today.
Bringing the art and architecture of the Islamic world to be understood and admired in the West, as it had been in the past, was a goal that also inspired the creation, just one year ago, of the Ismaili Centre and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto — the only museum in the western hemisphere devoted entirely to Islamic culture. — Cambridge, USA, November 12, 2015.
DRIVING FORCES OF THE AKDN
Today the Aga Khan Development Network embraces many facets and functions. But, if I were trying to sum up in a single word its central objective, I would focus on the word “opportunity”. For what the peoples of the developing world seek above all else is hope for a better future.
Too often however, true opportunity has been a distant hope — perhaps for some, not even more than a dream. Endemic poverty, in my view, remains the world’s single most important challenge. — Cambridge, USA, November 12, 2015.
MEDIA AND THE COSMOPOLITAN ETHIC
A pluralist, cosmopolitan society is a society which not only accepts difference, but actively seeks to understand it and to learn from it. In this perspective, diversity is not a burden to be endured, but an opportunity to be welcomed.
A cosmopolitan society regards the distinctive threads of our particular identities as elements that bring beauty to the larger social fabric. A cosmopolitan ethic accepts our ultimate moral responsibility to the whole of humanity, rather than absolutising a presumably exceptional part.
Perhaps it is a natural condition of an insecure human race to seek security in a sense of superiority. But in a world where cultures increasingly interpenetrate one another, a more confident and a more generous outlook is needed. — Cambridge, USA, November 12, 2015.
A responsible, thoughtful process of globalisation, in my view, is one that is truly cosmopolitan, respecting both what we have in common and what makes us different.
All of these considerations will place special obligations on those who play leadership roles in our societies. Sadly, some would-be leaders all across the world have been tempted to exploit difference and magnify division. It is always easier to unite followers in a negative cause than a positive one. But the consequences can be a perilous polarisation. — Cambridge, USA, November 12, 2015.
To be sure, and to be realistic, serious challenges confront the African peoples. One example is the enormous problem of unemployment among the young — in countries with the highest percentage of youth in the world.
But the story of Africa’s progress and potential is also impressive — whether we talk about growing GDP and foreign direct investment, whether we look at economic diversification and national resiliency, whether we chart the role and the rise of a vital middle class — and the expansion of consumer spending — now breaking through the one trillion-dollar mark.
The experience of our Aga Khan Development Network supports this positive picture. We are now active in 13 African countries, in fields ranging from health and education, to travel and hospitality, from food and clothing companies to banking and finance, media and culture. — Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, September 21, 2016.
All over the world, the number of media voices is exploding – websites, bloggers and social media voices multiply every day. The result is often a wild mix of messages: good information and bad information, superficial impressions, fleeting images, and a good deal of confusion and conflict. And this is true all over the world.
On top of that, this is also a time when public emotions and political sentiments are intensifying and even polarising — again, all over the world.
The result, some people say, is that we live in a “post-fact” society. Yes, a post-fact society. It’s not just that everyone feels entitled to his or her own opinion — that’s a good thing. But the problem comes when people feel they are entitled to their own facts. What is true, too often, can then depend not on what actually happened, but on whose side you are. Our search for the truth can then become less important than our allegiance to a cause — an ideology, for example, or a political party, or a tribal or religious identity, or a pro-government or opposition outlook. And so publics all over the world can begin to fragment, and societies can drift into deadlock.
In such a world, it is absolutely critical — more than ever — that the public should have somewhere to turn for reliable, balanced, objective and accurate information, as best as it can be discovered. — Nairobi, Kenya, March 17, 2016.
EMPATHETIC RESPONSE TO DIFFERENCES
We often hear in discussions of Global Citizenship that people are basically alike. Under the skin, deep in our hearts, we are all brothers and sisters — we are told — and the secret to a harmonious world is to ignore our differences and to emphasize our similarities.
What worries me, however, is when some take that message to mean that our differences are trivial, that they can be ignored, and eventually erased. And that is not good advice. In fact, it is impossible. Yes, our understanding and our underlying humanity should motivate our quest for healthy pluralism. But such a quest must also be built on an empathetic response to our important differences.
Pretending that our differences are trivial will not persuade most people to embrace pluralistic attitudes. In fact, it might frighten them away. People know that differences can be challenging, that disagreements are inevitable, that our fellow-humans can sometimes be disagreeable. As Madame Clarkson has famously said, and I am quoting her here: “the secret to social harmony is learning to live with people you may not particularly like. — Toronto, Canada, May 19, 2016.
I am also worried about the process of warming. We are beginning to see, in many parts of the Muslim world — and if you look at the map, you can see quite clearly, there is a band of land — how warming is beginning to create situations where life is at risk, where it was not at risk before. We are seeing villages which are being wiped away by earthquakes, by landslides, by avalanches. We are seeing people moving to dangerous areas in mountain environments. And very often these populations do not have access to good knowledge about the way these environments are predicted to change over time. And they are therefore leaving areas of risk, but not really understanding that very often they are moving to other areas of risk. So public knowledge about change processes is something which I consider very important indeed. I would like to see that as part of general education. I would like to see that as part of secondary education, so that all young people have a better understanding, particularly in our world, in the Islamic world, of the spaces in which they live, how they can ensure the security of their habitat, how they can practice good construction in these areas. In the work that I do, I see these processes of change as being badly predicted and not really forecast in terms of the human and economic resources that are needed to underwrite good processes of change. — Dubai, UAE, November 5, 2016.
ETHICS OF ISLAM
The ethics of Islam enjoin all believers, individually or through institutions such as the Ismaili Imamat, to assist the poor, the isolated, and the marginalised to improve their current circumstances and future prospects. — Paris, France, June 5, 2000.
It is critically important to tackle concrete development problems at the grassroots level while at the same time addressing policy issues. One without the other compromises the quality and sustainability of outcomes.
Third, every effort should be made to bring the best available science to the solution of problems at the grassroots. Building bridges and mediating between the research laboratory and the village is critical in identifying solutions that are relevant and durable.
Finally, no matter how poor or isolated the population, efforts to improve health and education standards are just as important as improvements in agricultural productivity and the economy of other sectors. — Paris, France, June 5, 2000.
LEARNING IN ISLAM
Many observers have expressed concern that the gap that has always existed between villagers and city dwellers will actually be exacerbated in the new globalising economy. Without a solid education at the primary and secondary level, young people will be deprived of any hope of choosing new futures. Where there is no hope, disenchantment and alienation often follow. If the PDC is successful, it should help schools in the Northern Areas close the gap for at least some of the young people of the region.
I need not remind this audience that Islam places special importance on the value of education. Learning is ennobling. Teaching is one of the most valued professions because it opens minds to greater self-awareness as well as to the knowledge that gives learners greater control over their destinies. — Paris, France, June 5, 2000.
THE VALUE OF EDUCATION
In the developing world, education offers the poor opportunities for new futures: women with higher status and new roles in their families and communities; migrants with an asset that is portable; and refugees with an asset that is both portable and secure. — Washington, D.C. USA, April 22, 2001.
Tourism, to the extent that it covers all parts of a country and is respectful of the differences that characterise them, be they natural, cultural, traditional or other, can act as a strong force for unity and peace while recognising, and indeed underlining and relying upon, diversity and pluralism. — Islamabad, Pakistan, March 11, 2002.
ISLAM AND ENVIRONMENT
Islam does not deal in dichotomies but in all encompassing unity. Spirit and body are one, man and nature are one. What is more, man is answerable to God for what man has created. Since all that we see and do resonates on the faith, the aesthetics of the environments we build and the quality of the interactions that take place within them reverberate on our spiritual lives.” — Houston, USA, June 23, 2002.
THE SHARED LEGACY OF ABRAHAMIC RELIGIONS
The shared destiny of the ethos of the Abrahamic tradition that unites Christians, Jews and Muslims is governed by the duty of loving care to help nurture each life that is born to its God-given potential.
Within the Islamic world there is work to do as well, starting with a better understanding and appreciation of the pluralism of cultures and interpretations among Muslims.
The legacy is rich, a source of strength, and needs to be encouraged and celebrated. It is also crucial that the Islamic world develops a creative and reasoned response to the impact of Western popular culture, which coupled with the dominance of modern electronic media by Western corporations, poses a serious threat to local and national identities and cultures, and their creative and sustainable evolution.” — Houston, USA, June 23, 2002.
POVERTY AND CULTURAL RESTORATION
It is striking in this regard that nearly one-third of internationally recognised World Heritage sites are in the Muslim world, but like most such sites in the developing world they are inhabited by some of the poorest people. Traditional approaches to cultural regeneration — often designed simply to create museums at such sites — fail to address the full potentials of such situations and often become unproductive burdens. The central objective of our work, therefore, is to leverage cultural opportunities in pursuit of poverty alleviation.
We have found that local populations can benefit from these efforts in many ways — they can be equipped to assist in the demanding tasks of historic restoration, finding productive new uses for historic buildings while then also taking on major responsibilities for maintaining cultural sites and accommodating a substantially increased flow of visitors. In the process, they can become the key custodians of their own proud cultural heritage. — Ottawa, Canada, January 20, 2012
Development is sustainable only if the beneficiaries become, in a gradual manner, the masters of the process. — Amsterdam, Holland, September 7, 2002.
Developing support for pluralism does not occur naturally in human society. It is a concept which must be nurtured every day, in every forum —- in large and small government and private institutions; in civil society organisations working in the arts, culture, and public affairs, in the media; in the law, and in justice — particularly in terms of social justice, such as health, social safety nets and education; and in economic justice, such as employment opportunities and access to financial services.
In addition each of us can help enhance pluralism in our own personal, professional and institutional domains. We could play our role in favour of pluralism as public opinion makers. We could participate in and support the efforts of groups and NGOs that promote that cause. We could volunteer our professional competences in a variety of fields, such as academic, technical or managerial. We could, also, serve the cause of pluralism simply through the conduct of tolerance, openness and understanding towards other peoples’ cultures, social structures, values and faiths, and thereby set an effective example in our own society.
My hope is that society as a whole will not only accept the fact of its plurality, but, as a consequence, will undertake, as a solemn responsibility, to preserve and enhance it as one of its fundamental values, and an inescapable condition for world peace and further human development. — Amsterdam, Holland, September 7, 2002.
VALUE OF THE PAST
Whether through neglect or willful destruction, the disappearance of physical traces of the past deprives us of more than memories. Spaces that embody historic realities remind us of the lessons of the past. They constitute valuable national assets but also represent the patrimony of mankind. — New Delhi, India, April 15, 2003.
PLURALISM AND EXISTENCE
In the troubled times in which we live, it is important to remember, and honour, a vision of a pluralistic society. Tolerance, openness and understanding towards other peoples’ cultures, social structures, values and faiths are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world. Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for progress and development, it is vital to our existence. Never perhaps more so than at the present time, must we renew with vigour our creative engagement in revitalising shared heritage through collaborative ventures such as the project we are inaugurating today. — New Delhi, India, April 15, 2003.
Students of world history remind us how Central Asia, a thousand years ago, “led the world” in trade and investment, in urban development, in cultural and intellectual achievement. This was the place that leading thinkers from around the known world would look to for leadership. What were the latest breakthroughs in astronomy or mathematics, in chemistry or medicine, in philosophy or music? This was the place to find out. This region is where algebra got its name, where the earth’s diameter was precisely calculated, where some of the world’s greatest poetry was penned. — Naryn, Kyrgyz Republic, October 19, 2016.
The passage of a millennium has not diminished Nasir Khusraw’s relevance nor dulled the lustre of his poetry. It continues to uplift and inspire, reminding us that we are the authors of our own destiny. As he has said, we can be like a poplar tree which chooses to remain barren, or we can let our path be lit by the candle of wisdom, for only ‘with intellect, we can seek out all the hows and whys. Without it, we are but trees without fruit.’
Another lesson that we learn from this great philosopher is that, in the ebb and flow of history, ‘knowledge is a shield against the blows of time’. It dispels ‘the torment of ignorance’ and nourishes ‘peace to blossom forth in the soul’. — Dushanbe, Tajikistan, August 30, 2003.
PRIVATE INITIATIVE AND DEVELOPMENT
The importance of private initiative has become clearly evident in economic development. In addition, the not-for-profit or non-commercial contribution is increasingly being recognised as indispensable in the face of the phenomenon of market failure, and the limits on what the state can provide by way of social services. A richly diverse yet purposefully united citizenry is capable of making a critical contribution to social development in the struggle against poverty. — Dushanbe, Tajikistan, August 30, 2003.
DEVELOPING EDUCATIONAL CAPACITY IN ASIA AND AFRICA
The citizens of Africa and Asia must have a deeper grasp of the cultures from which they spring. It is an enduring frustration for Asian students wishing to do advanced study, for example, in Urdu linguistics, or Ottoman bureaucracy, or Assyrian sculpture that they can only do this in Europe or North America. An African student wishing to study the history of the middle period of his continent will probably go to Paris or London. This is not in itself wrong, but it is an anachronistic absurdity. Asian and African scholars and researchers-anthropologists, archaeologists, art historians and musicologists — are gravely needed in enduring, productive concentrations to create the books and materials that will educate the children of Africa and Asia about their own cultural underpinnings. — Mombasa, Kenya, December 20, 2003.
Three concepts seem to me to be essential in creating, stabilizing and strengthening democracy around the world, including among the people of Africa and Asia with whom I have worked in the past. These concepts are meritocracy, pluralism and civil society. — Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, May 19, 2004.
We inhabit an overcrowded planet with shrinking resources, yet we share a common destiny. A weakness or pain in one corner has the tendency, rather rapidly, to transmit itself across the globe. Instability is infectious! But so is hope! It is for you — the leaders of today and tomorrow — to carry the torch of that hope and help to share the gift of pluralism. — Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, May 19, 2004.
THE AGA KHAN ACADEMIES
Fortunately, governments everywhere are now beginning to appreciate the contribution of not-for-profit private providers of social services to address the challenges of rising expectations that compound historically unmet needs. In this context, international partnerships in education are increasingly seen as vehicles for introducing best practices, tried and tested. Such partnerships also expand the pool of much needed resources to invest in quality, particularly at the secondary and tertiary levels, so that educational institutions are able to form the best minds in their own countries.
The conviction that home-grown intellectual leadership of exceptional calibre is the best driver of a society’s destiny, underpins the Ismaili Imamat’s endeavour to create catalytic centres of educational excellence. The first of these opened last December in Mombasa, Kenya. The Aga Khan Academy in Maputo will be the second in a planned network of what I hope will be residential schools of the highest international standards, from primary through higher secondary education. In due course other academies will be located not only in Kenya and Mozambique but also in Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mali — and India, Pakistan, Bangladesh — and Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — and Syria. — Maputo, Mozambique, June 25, 2004.
I would hope to see the day when the definition of an educated person in Judaeo-Christian culture would include an intelligent understanding of the Muslim world. — Berlin, Germany, September 6, 2004.
CHALLENGES OF AFRICAN JOURNALISM
For a start, we need to increase dialogue and communication among journalists and those they write about — politicians, civil servants, business and religious leaders, the voices of civil society. There are models for such exchange elsewhere in the world, including programmes which permit journalists to spend time working within the institutions they report about. I could be a bit mischievous here and suggest some possibilities that might result if all the media employees ran the government for a month or two and all government employees ran the media! But I will resist the temptation. My serious point is that the media and those it covers could do much more to build bridges of mutual understanding. On the media side, this ought to mean more rigorous research — what I call “anticipatory research” — at the start of the reporting and writing process. Cultivating knowledge is as important as cultivating sources. But the sources can also do more to help. Off-the-record background briefings, for example, are regular and routine in the West, but they are relatively rare in Africa. Some journalists have difficulty getting responses even to their direct requests. The habit of sharing information is a habit which Africa needs to hone. — Nairobi, Kenya, May 22, 2005.
I believe that the best journalists are not those who think they know everything, but those who are wise enough to know what they do not know. Excellence in journalism, it seems to me, stems not from arrogant judgementalism but from intellectual humility. As a wise judge once put it: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right. — Nairobi, Kenya, May 22, 2005.
HISTORIES OF THE DEVELOPING WORLD
For the developing world, the past half-century has been a time of recurring hope and frequent disappointment. Great waves of change have washed over the landscape – from the crumbling of colonial hegemonies in mid century to the recent collapse of communist empires. But too often, what rushed in to replace the old order were empty hopes — not only the false allure of state socialism, non-alignment, and single-party rule, but also the false glories of romantic nationalism and narrow tribalism, and the false dawn of runaway individualism.” — New York, USA, May 15, 2006.
Over these five decades, I have watched that world oscillate constantly, between hope and disappointment.
Too often, disappointment has been the dominant story. And too often the dominant response to disappointment has been to embrace false hopes – from dogmatic socialism to romantic nationalism, from irrational tribalism to runaway individualism.
Another response has been to revisit past glories — contrasting them with contemporary setbacks. Many Muslims in particular, recall a time when Islamic civilizations were on the cutting edge of world progress. They dream of renewing that heritage. But they are not sure how to do so.
For some, renewal means recovering old forms of the faith – while for others it means rejecting faith itself. For some, recovering glory means opposition to the West, its cultures and its economic systems — while for others it means partnering with non-Islamic societies. — Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2006.
KNOWLEDGE SOCIETY AND HUMILITY BEFORE THE DIVINE
The spirit of the Knowledge Society is the spirit of Pluralism—a readiness to accept the other, indeed to learn from him, to see difference as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Such a spirit must be rooted, I believe, in a sense of humility before the Divine, realizing that none of us have all the answers, and respecting the broad variety of God’s creation and the diversity of the Human Family.” — Karachi, Pakistan, December 6, 2006.
The term “Enabling Environment” has two implications which I would underscore today. First, it reminds us that the conditions which enable progress can be extremely complex, that an entire “environment” of interacting forces must come together if development is truly to take root — and to take off.
Second — the term recognizes that even the right environment is still only an enabling condition — not a sufficient one. Our conference title does not talk about an environment which “solves” or “cures” or “progresses” or “prevails” – but rather about an environment which “enables”. In the end, human progress must grow out of the human heart and soul. The environment enables — but it is the human spirit, guided and supported by the Divine Will, which eventually triumphs. — Kabul, Afghanistan, June 4, 2007.
THE THREE A’s OF MODERN LEARNING
We must rise above the antiquated approaches of earlier days and instead infuse our students with what I would call three “A’s” of modern learning – the spirit of anticipation, the spirit of adaptation and the spirit of adventure. This will happen best in learning environments which are both serious and focused on the one hand, but which are also joyous and inspiring places, operating on the cutting edge of pedagogy and knowledge. — Mombasa, Kenya, August 14, 2007.
EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION
But we sometimes give too little attention to the schools which prepare young children for life itself — in all of its holistic dimensions. And yet the evidence accumulates steadily showing that an investment made in the earliest, pre-school years can bring enormous dividends as a child proceeds from one level of education to another. — Mombasa, Kenya, August 14, 2007.
THE POWER AND MYSTERY OF ALLAH
The more we discover, the more we know, the more we penetrate just below the surface of our normal lives — the more our imagination staggers. Just think for example what might lie below the surfaces of celestial bodies all across the far flung reaches of our universe. What we feel, even as we learn, is an ever-renewed sense of wonder, indeed, a powerful sense of awe – and of Divine inspiration.
Using rock crystal’s irridescent mystery as an inspiration for this building [Delagation of the Ismaili Imamat], does indeed provide an appropriate symbol of the Timelessness, the Power and the Mystery of Allah as the Lord of Creation. What we celebrate today can thus be seen as a new creative link between the spiritual dimensions of Islam and the cultures of the West. Even more particularly, it represents another new bridge between the peoples of Islam and the peoples of Canada. — Ottawa, Canada, December 6, 2008.
In today’s community of nations, a country’s standing is no longer recognized simply by what it can achieve for itself, but just as much by what it can do for others. In this context, Canada has become a world “power” in the best sense of that word. — Edmonton, Canada, June 9, 2009.
IDENTITY, MEMORY AND PLURALISM
The marginalization of peoples can then become a malignant process, as people define themselves by what they are against. The question of “who am I?” is quickly transformed into “who is my enemy?”
Some would address this problem through a willful act of historical amnesia — but suppressing animosity can often produce future explosions.
On the other hand, the value of confronting memory lies in catharsis, an emotional healing process. As we know, the Truth and Reconciliation Process has helped South Africans address deep social divisions, as has Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago.
As societies come to think in pluralistic ways, I believe they can learn another lesson from the Canadian experience, the importance of resisting both assimilation and homogenization — the subordination and dilution of minority cultures on the one hand, or an attempt to create some new, transcendent blend of identities, on the other.
What the Canadian experience suggests to me is that identity itself can be pluralistic. Honouring one’s own identity need not mean rejecting others. — Toronto, Canada, October 15, 2010.
STRENGTHS OF A GLOBAL CITIZEN
A short list might include these strengths: a vital sense of balance, an abundant capacity for compromise, more than a little sense of patience, an appropriate degree of humility, a good measure of forgiveness, and, of course, a genuine welcoming of human difference. It will mean hard work. — Toronto, Canada, September 21, 2016.
HAZRAT ALI AND KNOWLEDGE
In his teachings, Hazrat Ali emphasized that “No honour is like knowledge.” And then he added that “No belief is like modesty and patience, no attainment is like humility, no power is like forbearance, and no support is more reliable than consultation.
Notice that the virtues endorsed by Hazrat Ali are qualities which subordinate the self and emphasize others – modesty, patience, humility, forbearance and consultation. What he thus is telling us, is that we find knowledge best by admitting first what it is we do not know, and by opening our minds to what others can teach us. — Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2006.
Date posted: October 7, 2017.
Zahida Rahemtulla, who with her father Salim prepared this post, is a graduate of New York University (2015), where she studied Middle Eastern Studies, Literature, and Arabic. She completed her senior honours thesis on the modernisation and identity of the Ismaili community under Aga Khan III and IV. She currently works in the refugee and immigrant nonprofit sector with Pacific Immigrant Resources Society in Vancouver.
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Also see “The Power of Wisdom” – His Highness the Aga Khan’s Interview with Politique Internationale published in our literary website http://www.simerg.com where the Aga Khan speaks about nuclear energy.