Speaking to Post-Secular Society: The Aga Khan’s Public Discourse


[This is an amended version of a book chapter that was published in The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada edited by Nurjehan Aziz (Mawenzi House, 2015)].

Is there a place for religious discourse in secular society? Even though church and state are viewed as being separate in the public sphere, the statements of certain religious figures about the contemporary world are reported widely by journalists. The global media frequently cover the discourses of the Pope and occasionally those of the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In recent years, the Canadian media have  given His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Ismaili Imam of the Ismaili Muslims an increased amount of coverage. This paper examines how this Muslim leader engages discursively with the public sphere.

The Aga Khan frequently delivers speeches in “post-secular” [1] contexts on topics that include architecture, civil society, democracy, development, good governance, meritocracy, pluralism, public ethics, and Western-Muslim relations. In addressing non-Muslim audiences in North America and Europe, he speaks from a Muslim perspective but prominently expresses humanistic values that appeal to a broad audience. An excellent example of this approach is demonstrated in the following quotation from his 2006 speech at a Columbia University graduation ceremony:

“A passion for justice, the quest for equality, a respect for tolerance, a dedication to human dignity — these are universal human values which are broadly shared across divisions of class, race, language, faith and geography. They constitute what classical philosophers — in the East and West alike — have described as human ‘virtue’ — not merely the absence of negative restraints on individual freedom, but also a set of positive responsibilities, moral disciplines which prevent liberty from turning into license.” [2]

Writing in the introduction to a book of the Aga Khan’s public speeches, Adrienne Clarkson, a former Governor General of Canada, observed that the Ismaili Imam promotes the development of “a universal ethical sensibility.” [3]

2014-02-Aga Khan Parliament of Canada 2014 small
His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th Hereditary Imam of Ismaili Muslims, giving his address at the Parliament of Canada, 2014.

The Nizari Ismailis (henceforth referred to as Ismailis) are a branch of Shia Islam. Members of this group have migrated to Canada and other Western industrialized nations from various African countries, South Asia, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Tajikistan and some other locations. [4] The Aga Khan is accepted by his adherents as a descendant of Prophet Muhammad and the 49th Ismaili Imam in a lineage beginning with the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib. Canada and the USA are important destinations in his travels. Some 100,000 Nizari Ismailis are estimated to reside in Canada and the USA, respectively. The Aga Khan’s first official visit to his Canadian followers was in 1978 when he advised them to make Canada their home. Ismailis  have engaged with Western secular society while seeking to maintain their traditional values. A number of them have achieved a relatively high level of success in areas such as academia, business, journalism, literature, politics, the professions and public service. Ismaili communal institutions also have a significant degree of interaction with secular society.

The Ismaili leader has also established non-communal organizations such as the Aga Khan Foundation and Focus Humanitarian Assistance in several Western countries. The Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto also engage with various publics. The Aga Khan’s positioning of such institutions vis-à-vis secular society has been very deliberate as indicated in this quotation from a speech at the foundation ceremony of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat building:

“The Delegation in the city of Ottawa will serve a representational role for the Imamat and the non-denominational philanthropic and development agencies that constitute the Aga Khan Development Network. An open, secular facility, the Delegation will be a sanctuary for peaceful, quiet diplomacy, informed by the Imamat’s outlook of global convergence and the development of civil society.” [5]

In announcing the function of a structure named after the “Ismaili Imamat” as secular the Aga Khan indicated his active engagement with aspects of public life that are not usually considered to be preoccupations of religious leaders.


Before proceeding to discuss the Aga Khan’s discursive engagement with post-secular society, it is useful to consider ideas about secularity. Political thought in the last few centuries in Western states has favoured the separation of church and state. Such leanings towards the secular generally translate into neutrality towards religious belief. However, Richard Neuhaus, a prominent Canadian born Christian cleric and writer, complains that secularism has produced a “naked public square” in contemporary Western society because religion and religious values have been systematically excluded from consideration in public life. [6] It is important to point to a distinction between the terms “secular” and “secularism.” In some views, secular positions do not necessarily mean the elimination of religion from public life; on the other hand, secularism can stand for strong opposition towards religion. Aziz Esmail, a scholar at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, notes that “Secularism in the strong sense of the term has the characteristics of an ideology, treating religion as a rival to itself, and attempting to offer a total explanation of its own…” [7]

Religion is a basic (although not the only) source of most societies’ concepts of public ethics, morality and values. Fundamental notions underlying theories of good governance, justice and human rights are drawn from ideas developed in religious philosophy. Even though efforts are made to de-sacralise the secular state’s structures, a country’s culture cannot be completely separated from its spiritual heritage. Key elements in national constitutions and bodies of legislation come from ideas that originate in the religion of the majority. Official and unofficial symbols, public ceremonies, common linguistic phrases etc. are often based on religious culture. Even though the spiritual significance of Christmas and Easter may not be acknowledged in official government discourses, these events are commemorated as holidays in the national calendars of Western countries, where Sunday is also the weekly day of rest. This includes France, despite its rigorous application of the policy of laïcité. Although India is officially secular, its national days include several Hindu and Muslim festivals and Indian states with significant populations of Sikhs and Christians publicly mark their sacred commemorations.

Canadian governments at various levels have historically engaged with aspects of religion. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees “freedom of conscience and religion” as a fundamental right. [8] While the federal Charter gives all Canadians the right to hold their own respective beliefs, Christianity, the faith of the majority population, has historically been given a dominant status. The lyrics in French and bilingual versions of the national anthem, “O Canada,” proclaim “Il sait porter la croix” (“it is ready to carry the cross”) in a clear acknowledgement of the country’s Christian heritage. At the formation of the Canadian nation, the Constitution Act of 1867 provided for separate, religious-based schools. Roman Catholicism, the faith of most francophones, was given recognition within the Canadian state in addition to that accorded to the Church of England. By 1967, three other Christian denominations and the Jewish faith had been included in the federal government’s Order of Precedence, which determines the seating of individual persons — in this case, religious representatives — at official state ceremonies. In the early 1990s, the religious category in the Order was made inclusive of all religious groups, in acknowledgement of the broadening religious diversity of the population.

However, such entente between religion and state in Canada does not mean that they have not been in periodic conflict with each other. Given that aspects of the national culture are based on the norms of mainstream Christian denominations, the latter’s confrontations with the state appear to occur when these norms undergo change — as happened with the legalization of Sunday shopping, abortion and same sex marriage. Recent years have seen an increased discourse about religious identity in the public sphere, mostly due to the growing pluralism of Canadian society. Requests for accommodation have come from a variety of religious groups including Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Mormons and Mennonites. [9] This has provided for policy challenges at provincial and federal levels in the secular Canadian state.

Quebec’s debates on the prohibition of overt religious expression in public spaces were focused in 2014 around a proposed charter that would have strengthened secularism in that province. This tendency appears to draw from the conviction that holds secularism to be integral to modernity. In the middle of the twentieth century, there was a strong belief among social scientists that religion would cease to exist in public life. According to Daniel Lerner’s The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East (1958), an influential work of its time, tradition in the form of Muslim cultures and religion had to be surpassed. Modernization involved “…. the infusion of a rationalist and positivist spirit against which, scholars seem agreed, Islam is absolutely defenceless” (Lerner, 1958: 45). [10] The prominent political scientist Donald Eugene Smith speculated that secularism in its “humanistic-pragmatic” form would sweep through Muslim-majority countries. [11] Similar views were also embraced by leading Arab social scientists such as Hisham Sharabi, who wrote in 1966 that “in the contemporary Arab world Islam has simply been bypassed.” [12] Needless to say, such thinking has had to be significantly reassessed in the light of the last few decades’ developments.

The globally-renowned German philosopher Jürgen Habermas points to the increasing influence of churches and other religious organizations in shaping Western public opinion and public policy. [13] He also notes the impact on Europe of the contemporary intensification of religious discourse in majority-Muslim countries and the growing presence of non-Christian religious communities resulting from large-scale immigration. These developments, according to Habermas, have led to the emergence of “post-secular society” in which the Western Self has become a complex amalgam of secular and religious, indigenous and immigrant. No longer can the supporters of secularism take for granted that religious considerations will have no bearing on public life. Even though religious faith does not have the role that it did in Western societies some three hundred years ago, what has been called the “return of religion” has changed the socio-political dynamics of the contemporary public sphere. The idea of post-secular society is a new and evolving concept which is being shaped by influential academic, political, and religious actors.

The Aga Khan appears to be one of the individuals whose work and discourse are giving particular nuances to this concept.


Public discourse in most Western states tends dominantly to be secular. There is a general sense of a universal framework of speech that is non-religious and in which all members of society can potentially participate. Nevertheless, it takes for granted the religious heritage of Christianity and, by extension, the Jewish faith. The narratives of the Old and New Testaments underlie Western consciousness, as Canadian literary theorist Northrup Frye has demonstrated. [14] This does not necessarily imply a religious adherence, but usually a cultural one. Even those members of society who do not have a Christian or Jewish background are implicitly expected to understand some cultural allusions which originate in the Bible but have become interwoven into everyday language.

14988_Aga Khan_Tutzing
Tutzing Evangelical Academy, Germany, 2006

It seems to be such a discourse in which the Aga Khan appeared to participate in referring to the “the Good Samaritan” in a speech in Germany in 2006. The term is part of common parlance in many Western societies. However, the Aga Khan’s use of this term drew on both the public knowledge about this figure as well as its origins in the New Testament. The nature of the event — the ceremony of the awarding of the Tolerance Prize to the Aga Khan at the Tutzing Evangelical Academy — seemed to call for such a two-fold discursive approach. In the course of his acceptance speech, he spoke about Islamic ideals regarding the unity of the human race and their resonance in Biblical teachings.

“Despite the long history of religious conflict, there is a long counter-history of religious focus on tolerance as a central virtue — on welcoming the stranger and loving one’s neighbour, “Who is my neighbour?” one of the central Christian narratives asks. Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan — a foreigner, a representative of the Other, who reaches out sympathetically, across ethnic and cultural divides, to show mercy to the fallen stranger at the side of the road.” [15]

This discourse operated at two levels: in an interfaith context and a secular one that drew on the broader cultural familiarity with the figure of the Good Samaritan. Beyond the actual context of the religious education institution in which the address was delivered, its publication in a book of the Aga Khan’s speeches made it available to a wider readership. Its contents are understandable in Christian, secular, and post-secular settings.

In order to explain the dual nature of his office, the Ismaili Imam often refers to the dyadic Islamic concepts of din and dunya, which are variously translated as faith and world, religion and society, or spirit and matter.

“One of the central elements of the Islamic faith is the inseparable nature of faith and world. The two are so deeply intertwined that one cannot imagine their separation. They constitute a “way of life.” The role and responsibility of an Imam, therefore, is both to interpret the faith to the community and also to do all within his means to improve the quality and security of people’s daily lives.” [16]

Speaking from a position legitimized by Islamic tradition, the Ismaili Imam is able to deal with secular matters in a manner that would seem anomalous from the perspectives in which faith leaders do not involve themselves extensively in worldly affairs. Such a platform provides for a breadth, dynamism and flexibility through which matters such as culture, economics, institutional development and organizational management can be addressed at considerable depth by the Imam. The Aga Khan Development Network [17] includes organizations that work in areas such as aviation, banking, education, health, heritage conservation, infrastructure construction, industry, insurance, media, and rural development. This broad range of endeavours is explained by “the inseparable nature of faith and world.”

In speaking to various publics, the Aga Khan situates himself as a religious leader as well as the head of a conglomeration of transnational institutions which he has founded and has experience of leading for over 50 years. This provides for authoritativeness on two substantial grounds. For a Muslim leader who is not a head of state these bases afford a standing to speak with credibility to high-level government leaders, to whose gatherings he is frequently invited. He said in an address to the Canadian parliament in 2014:

“I will comment, as a faith leader, on the crisis of governance in so much of the world today, before concluding with some thoughts about the values that can assist countries of crisis to develop into countries of opportunity, and how Canada can help shape that process.” [18]

Viewed from the dominant views about the place of religious leaders in society, it would seem out of place for the head of a relatively small Muslim group to comment on international matters of governance to a G-8 government. Yet, audiences in Western and other countries seem keen to hear the Ismaili Imam’s insights.


A combination of several factors has enabled the Aga Khan to be in a position to conduct his public discourse. The close relationship with the British government fostered by the present Ismaili Imam’s predecessors provided for favourable conditions under colonial rule to build a transnational institutional network. [19] During his own Imamat, the current Aga Khan has developed an international presence through sustained engagement with a number of states and international organizations; these efforts have been complemented by those of Ismaili communities in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, and North America. A rigorous organization of Ismaili communal and “non-denominational” bodies along contemporary lines has provided for a measure of success that has raised the credibility of the Ismaili Imamat internationally. The growing presence of Muslims in Western countries and the emergence of the conditions of post-secular society have provided for a more welcoming environment for an Islamic leader like the Ismaili Imam. Additionally, the threat of militancy exhibited by certain Muslims has also made the Aga Khan’s discourses on pluralism and partnership more attractive.

A significant discursive approach of the Aga Khan is to draw on commonalities between Muslim and Western societies. He builds his arguments around the perceived universality of concepts such as ethics, democracy, human dignity, and pluralism. At the ceremony to mark the agreement between the Ismaili Imamat with the Canadian government to establish the Global Centre for Pluralism, he spoke of “This successful collaboration….. [which is] deeply rooted in a remarkable convergence of values.” [20] However, unlike the Aga Khan, a previous Parti Quebecois-led government of Quebec saw a strong divergence between the values derived from religious and secular societies when it proposed a charter to strengthen secularism. [21] In this environment, the Ismaili Imam’s discourse appears to provide strong support for the emergence of post-secular society in which values drawn from religious bases, including Islam, find a place in public debates.

2009june_canada_edmonton_aga khan_Univ of Alberta
University of Alberta, 2009.

The Aga Khan appears to have found the language of ethics to be one with which he can communicate his views to non-Muslim audiences. This is a topic that has a strong relationship with a religious outlook and is at the same time is firmly embedded in secular philosophy. In addressing students at a University of Alberta graduation ceremony, he gave illustrative examples from various walks of life to which a diverse audience could relate:

“When we talk about the ethical realm, when we attack corruption, we are inclined to think primarily about government and politics. I am one, however, who believes that corruption is just as acute, and perhaps even more damaging, when the ethics of the civil and private sectors deteriorate. We know from recent headlines about scoundrels from the American financial scene to the halls of European parliaments – and we can certainly do without either. But the problem extends into every area of human enterprise. When a construction company cheats on the quality of materials for a school or a bridge, when a teacher skimps on class work in order to sell his time privately, when a doctor recommends a drug because of incentives from a pharmaceutical company, when a bank loan is skewed by kickbacks, or a student paper is plagiarized from the internet – when the norms of fairness and decency are violated in any way, then the foundations of society are undermined. And the damage is felt most immediately in the most vulnerable societies, where fraud is often neither reported nor corrected, but simply accepted as an inevitable condition of life.” [22]

In speaking about these real-life situations he invokes the universal concern for the importance of ethics in society. The Islamic leader presents this discourse that is based on religious sensibilities but he does it without mentioning religion or quoting scripture.

Indeed, he has suggested that certain types of behaviour based on religious precepts can sometimes become an obstacle to the broader interests of humanity.

“There are several forms of proselytism and, in several religions, proselytism is demanded. Therefore, it is necessary to develop the principle of a cosmopolitan ethic, which is not an ethic oriented by faith, or for a society. I speak of an ethic under which all people can live within a same society, and not of a society that reflects the ethic of solely one faith. I would call that ethic, quality of life.

“I have serious doubts about the ecumenical discourse, and about what it can reach, but I do not have any doubts about cosmopolitan ethics. I believe that people share the same basic worries, joys, and sadness. If we can reach a consensus in terms of cosmopolitan ethics, we will have attained something, which is very important.” [23]

This is an intriguing statement by a religious leader: it seems to be promoting the idea in this context that people rise above particular religious interest to a universal cosmopolitanism that is of benefit to everyone.


Despite the Ismaili Imam’s vigorous engagement with secular ideas, his frequent references to the value of faith make it clear that he is not diminishing the place of religion in the public sphere. The Aga Khan asserts that even though he holds ideas such as democracy to be vital for contemporary society, that “as a Muslim, I am a democrat not because of Greek or French thought but primarily because of principles that go back 1,400 years, directly to the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).” [24] He ensures that his audiences know that he is “a faith leader.” [25] The Ismaili Imam frequently begins his speeches by reciting “Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim” (“In the name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful”), which is the first phrase of most Qur’anic chapters.

The Aga Khan’s two-fold discursive approach simultaneously addresses the spiritual and the worldly. He does not make direct religious references in many of his speeches, but ideas of the sacred underlie his discourses. The Islamic leader presents the concepts of ethics, democracy, development, meritocracy, pluralism and quality of life as some of the “bridges that unite” [26] ways of understanding that are religious and secular. He has been able to speak effectively to a post-secular society that is dealing with rapidly-changing local and global conditions. The apparent success of the Aga Khan’s model of inter-civilizational communication is especially significant given the often troubled relationship between Western and Muslim societies.

Date posted: May 21, 2018.
Last updated: June 9, 2018.


[1] Jürgen Habermas, “Notes on a post-secular society,” signandsight.com. 2008. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from http://www.signandsight.com/features/1714.html.
[2] Aga Khan, Where Hope Takes Root (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008), p. 120-21. [3] Adrienne Clarkson, “Introduction” in Aga Khan, Where Hope Takes Root (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008), p. 6.
[4] Karim H. Karim, “At the Interstices of Tradition, Modernity and Postmodernity: Ismaili Engagements with Contemporary Canadian Society,” in Farhad Daftary (ed.), A Modern History of the Ismailis. (London: IB Tauris, 2011), pp. 265-94.
[5] Where Hope Takes Root, p. 96.
[6] Neuhaus, Richard. The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1988).
[7] Hayat Salam (ed.). Expressions of Islam in Buildings (Geneva: Aga Khan Trust for Culture, 1991), p.24.
[8] Government of Canada, Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 1982).
[9] Karim H. Karim and Faiza Hirji, “Religion and State in a Pluralist Nation: Policy Challenges in Contemporary Canadian Society,” Diversity 6:1 (Winter 2008), 109-112; Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation (Quebec City, PQ: Government of Quebec, 2008).
[10] Daniel Lerner, The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East (Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1958), p. 45.
[11] Donald Eugene Smith, Religion and Political Development (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970), p. 14.
[12] Hisham Sharabi, “Islam and Modernization in the Arab World” in J.H. Thompson and R.D. Reischauer (eds.), Modernization of the Arab World (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1966), p. 26.
[13] Habermas.
[14] Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (University of Toronto Press, 2006).
[15] Where Hope Takes Root, p. 127.
[16] Ibid, pp. 125-26.
[17] Daryoush Mohammad Poor, Authority without Territory: The Aga Khan Development Network and the Ismaili Imamate (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); Jonah Steinberg, Ismaili Modern: Globalization and Identity in a Muslim Community (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and Karim H. Karim, “The Aga Khan Development Network: Shia Ismaili Islam,” in Stephen M. Cherry and Helen Rose Ebaugh (eds.), Global Religious Movements Across Borders (London: Ashgate Publishers, 2014), pp. 143-60.
[18] Aga Khan, “Address of His Highness the Aga Khan to both Houses of the Parliament of Canada in the House of Commons Chamber,” Ottawa, February 27, 2014. Aga Khan Development Network website. Retrieved April 21, 2014 from http://www.akdn.org/Content/1253/Address-of-His-Highness-the-Aga-Khan-to-both-Houses-of-the-Parliament-of-Canada-in-the-House-of-Commons-Chamber-Ottawa
[19] Marc Van Grondelle, The Ismailis in the Colonial Era: Modernity, Empire and Islam (London: Hurst Publishers, 2009).
[20] Where Hope Takes Root, p. 95.
[21] Government of Quebec, Bill n°60 : Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests (Quebec City, PQ: 2014).
[22] Aga Khan, “Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Graduation Ceremony of the University of Alberta,” Edmonton, Alberta. June 9, 2009. Aga Khan Development Network website. Retrieved September 19, 2012 from http://www.akdn.org/Content/767.
[23] Aga Khan, “Interview by António Marujo and Faranaz Keshavjee,” Paroquias de Portugal NanoWisdoms: Archiving Knowledge from the Imamat website. Retrieved July 23, 2008 from http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/8861/.
[24] Where Hope Takes Root, p. 61.
[25] “Address of His Highness the Aga Khan to both Houses of the Parliament.”
[26] Where Hope Takes Root, p. 95.


Karim H. KarimAbout the author: Karim H. Karim is the Director of the Carleton Centre for the Study of Islam and a Professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. He has also served as Director of the School and of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, England, and has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University. Earlier in his career, he worked as a journalist and as a senior policy analyst in the Canadian Government. Professor Karim has been a distinguished lecturer at venues in North America, Europe, and Asia. He won the inaugural Robinson Prize for his book Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence. His most recent publications are Diaspora and Media in Europe: Migration, Identity, and Integration; Re-Imagining the Other: Culture, Media and Western-Muslim Intersections and Engaging the Other: Public Policy and Western-Muslim Intersections. One of Dr. Karim’s articles is “Clash of Ignorance” and he is currently writing a book on this topic.


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