Volunteering and the Aga Khan

Service is good Ummah


Ummah — community — helps define us as human beings.

Family, neighbourhood, the corporate-speak “tribe” — all are words we use referring to different conceptions of “community”. And I think the Prophet was aware of these differing concepts, too; there are hadiths obviously relating separately to families, neighbourhoods, and collections of like-minded people. However, the two most common groups to which both the Qur’an and Hadith apply are the ever-growing community of “believers” (those who give their hearts to their Creator), and the generalized community encompassing all of humanity.

It is interesting to note that although the Aga Khan is very clear his primary role is Protector (“Guide” and “Support” are interchangeable here, too) of the Faithful, meaning the worldwide community of Nizari Ismaili Muslims, he is committed to improving the lot of humanity as a whole. “As a community, our faith will always preserve our special identity, but there should be nothing exclusive in what you should do.” (Aga Khan, 23 January 1958, Karachi, Pakistan).

A modern school built in an impoverished community is built for Ismaili children, but is designed to help all the children in the neighborhood. “We have always recognized the principle of multi-racial education and today this practice is well established in all our institutions.” (Aga Khan, 13 May 1961, Mombasa, Kenya).

A nursing college built to educate Ismaili nurses extends medical education for everyone in the area. “I hope that the benefits of the Hospital, Nursing School and the Medical College [built by the Aga Khan Hospital and Medical College Foundation] will extend throughout the country.” (15 February 1981, Karachi, Pakistan).

A program to expand the success of Ismaili businesses encourages and nurtures the healthy growth of all business in the region. “You, who are successful members of the business and industrial community, have to see that the fruits of the advancement which the country is making are not gathered by the chosen few alone, but are fairly distributed over the whole nation” (Aga Khan, 28 January 1958, Karachi, Pakistan).

And the list goes on. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and its many subsidiaries is responsible for many thousands of projects around the world, ranging from things as simple but life-changing as clean water collection and storage for small communities to sprawling, state-of-the-art campuses. Projects are pursued many times under the direct supervision of Ismailis, but also include management and involvement of thousands of like-minded people from many faiths and backgrounds.

My parents used to lament that there was never a problem so big that government wouldn’t throw money at it — and I believe over the years the Aga Khan felt a very similar frustration, the perception money somehow will magically fix anything. “Money is not one-half, nor one-quarter, nor indeed one-eighth of that which is needed.” (Aga Khan, 16 November 1957, Mombasa, Kenya). “I am deeply convinced that money by itself will not solve our problems.” (19 October 1981, Beijing, China).

Volunteers — people who give freely of their time and expertise, serving a cause far beyond the timid limits of self-interest alone — are the ones who allow monetary gifts and support to have positive impact. “Many of our [programmes] depend on volunteers, even though the staff of the foundation are professionals. Indeed volunteers, displaying self-reliance and initiative, have always been the lifeblood of Aga Khan social institutions.” (21 November 1982, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania).

Why is service, or volunteerism, so vital?

I asked this question of a Muslim friend who organized volunteers to work at a Catholic charity.

“I think Christians and Muslims, and people of many faiths, feel very similar on this,” she said. “If we believe in God, it is a privilege to serve Him. And service to God is most easily expressed as service to those around us. As Muslims, volunteering is not something we go out of our way to do because it’s required — we volunteer because it’s part and parcel of who we are.”

Another friend, who ministers over a local Sunni congregation, gave me another perspective. “As Muslims we understand God to be beyond the need of physical form.  We do not imagine God as having hands — this helps us reflect that we, people who believe in God, must perhaps act as His hands. When we commit to our faith, when we offer our prayers sincerely, and when we listen to God through the medium of the Holy Spirit — when we truly desire to do God’s will, I would like to think that in our faith and humility our actions may very well be that which was needed, to answer the prayers of those in need.”

The Aga Khan speaks to this as well — “Also important is the propensity of voluntary efforts, sustained by both the Muslim and Christian ethic, to help the disadvantaged.” (Aga Khan, 21 October 1986, Nairobi, Kenya).

As the Prophet said, “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’ arms — all of these are charity prescribed for you. Your smile for your brother is charity.” This does not just apply to charity, but describes volunteerism in all its many expressions.

Volunteerism — giving freely of our time and abilities to those in need — brings out the very best of the volunteer. This weird drive we share as human beings shrinks our world, heals our communities and, among all our many differences, can unite us as a global society.

“We have all seen examples of God’s most wonderful creature, the person, whether in a government bureau, a business, or a private development agency, who is inspired to give generously of himself, to go beyond the mechanical requirements of a task. Such men and women, paid or unpaid, express the spirit of the volunteer, literally the will to make a product better, a school the best, a clinic more compassionate and effective. Their spirit, generating new ideas, resisting discouragement, and demanding results, animates the heart of every effective society.” (Aga Khan, 21 October 1986, Nairobi, Kenya, italics added).

Date posted: January 19, 2018.


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.

Please read the following pieces by Andrew Kosorok published on this website:


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The website, Barakah, is a special project by http://www.Simerg.com and is dedicated to the textual and visual celebration of His Highness the Aga Khan.


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