Prince Rahim Aga Khan: Pluralism Harnesses Human Creativity and Kindles the Very Spirit of the Knowledge Society

[DEFINITIONS: What is meant by the Knowledge Society? In a speech [1] delivered in Karachi, His Highness the Aga Khan, Mawlana Hazar Imam, said that “the key to intellectual progress will not lie in any single body of instruction, but in a spirit of openness to new expression and fresh insights.” He suggested that we were moving into a new epoch of history, a new condition of human life and added, “Many observers describe this new world as the Knowledge Society — contrasting it with the Industrial Societies or the Agricultural Societies of the past. In this new era, the predominant source of influence will stem from information, intelligence and insight rather than physical power or natural resources. This Knowledge Society will confront people everywhere with new challenges — and new opportunities.”

Abdul Waheed Khan (general sub-director of UNESCO for Communication and Information) said in an interview: “Whereas I see the concept of ‘information society’ as linked to the idea of ‘technological innovation’, the concept of ‘knowledge societies’ includes a dimension of social, cultural, economical, political and institutional transformation, and a more pluralistic and developmental perspective.” [2]


Prince Rahim Aga Khan
Prince Rahim Aga Khan

We are all aware that we live in a world where diversity is often evoked as a threat and, more particularly, where diversity in the interpretation of a faith can be seen as a sign of disloyalty. This phenomenon is sometimes perceived to apply principally to Muslims, but it also exists in other societies.

Absolutist, exclusivist, and rejectionist claims to the truth, especially to religious truth, are increasingly heard from all quarters.

Rather than seeing religion as a humble process of growth in faith, some people presume to claim that they have arrived at the end of that journey and can therefore speak with near-divine authority.

Unfortunately, in some parts of the Muslim world today, hostility to diverse interpretations of Islam, and lack of religious tolerance, have become chronic, and worsening, problems. Sometimes these attitudes have led to hatred and violence. At the root of the problem is an artificial notion amongst some Muslims, and other people, that there is, or could ever be, a restricted, monolithic reality called Islam.

Our Ismaili tradition, however, has always accepted the spirit of pluralism among schools of interpretation of the faith, and seen this not as a negative value, but as a true reflection of divine plenitude. Indeed, pluralism is seen as essential to the very survival of humanity….many Qur’anic verses and hadiths of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) acknowledge and extol the value of diversity within human societies….the hadith to the effect that differences of interpretation between Muslim traditions should be seen as a sign of the mercy of Allah.

It should also be clear to anyone who has studied Islamic history or literature, that Islam is, and has always been, a quest that has taken many forms. It has manifested itself in many ways — in different times, amongst different peoples, with changing and evolving emphases, responding to changing human needs, preoccupations, and aspirations.

Even during the early centuries of Islam, there was diversity of intellectual approaches among Muslims. Today, however — both outside the Islamic world and inside it — many people have lost sight of, or wish to be blind to, Islam’s diversity, and to its historical evolution in time and place along a multitude of paths. It befalls us, then, to help those outside the Muslim World to understand Islamic diversity, even as we provide an intellectual counterpoint to those within Islam who would reject it.

The untrue and unfair, but increasingly widespread equating of the words “Islam” and “Muslim” with “intolerance”, sometimes even with the word “terrorism”, could lead some Muslims to feel despair, indignation, or even shame.

To me, however, the current global focus on the Muslim world, and on Islam itself, presents a golden opportunity for us to educate and enlighten, while actively exemplifying the counterpoint I mentioned before.

To my eyes, it creates an opportunity, and an even-greater obligation for us to make a positive and visible impact on the world — on culture and art, science and philosophy, politics and ecology, among others.

In order to respond to this opportunity, it will be crucial to reverse another damaging consequence of intolerance, which has been the dissuasion of many Muslim populations from seeking access to what has been called the Knowledge Society. Without an acceptance of diversity, without the ability to harness the creativity that stems from pluralism, the very spirit of the Knowledge Society is stifled.

We must encourage that Muslims of all communities come together, working collaboratively to tap into the vast endowment of knowledge available today, and without which progress is, if not halted, at least deferred. This cannot be done in the absence of open-mindedness and tolerance.

Implicit in this approach is the need for humility, which is also a central Muslim value. We must all search for the answers to the challenges of our generation, within the ethical framework of our faith, and without pre-judging one another or arbitrarily limiting the scope of that search.

We must enthusiastically pursue knowledge on every hand, always ready to embrace a better understanding of Allah’s creation, and always ready to harness this knowledge in improving the quality of life of all peoples.

Intellectual pursuits should, wherever possible, seek to address the universal aspirations of humankind, both spiritual and concrete. Those aspirations, for our generation more than for any before, are intertwined in a single global community.

It can be overwhelming at times to ponder the vast array of new problems which seem to multiply in this globalised world. These include the implications of new technologies and new scientific insights, raising new ethical and legal questions. They include delicate and complex ecological issues, such as the great challenge of climate change. They include matters ranging from the widening gap between rich and poor, to issues of proper governance and effective, fair, and representative government, and to the spread of rampant consumerism and greed, at the expense of others, or of our environment.

In some communities, illiteracy and innumeracy are not only continuing problems but are even growing problems.

And our challenges also include the increasing difficulty of nurturing pluralism in the face of strong normative trends — finding ways to accommodate our differences — even as hugely differing peoples find themselves in much closer contact with one another.

Date posted: January 20, 2019.

Prince Rahim’s remarks have been adapted from a speech he delivered at the IIS Graduation Ceremony in London, England, on September 11, 2007. [3]

This website has an excellent array of thoughtful articles and beautiful photos of Mawlana Hazar Imam. Do not leave this website before checking out Barakah’s Table of Contents.


[1] Address by His Highness the Aga Khan at the AKU Convocation in Karachi, 2006
[2] Towards Knowledge Societies. An Interview with Abdul Waheed Khan
[3] Commencement Address by Prince Rahim

NOTE: By far the best as well as the most comprehensive and organized collection of speeches of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, and members of his family can be found at

Prince Rahim and Princess Salwa with their sons Prince Sinan and Prince Irfan. Photo: The Ismaili.Prince Rahim Aga Khan is the eldest son of the 49th Ismaili Imam, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan. Based at the Secretariat of His Highness at Aiglemont, north of Paris, France, Prince Rahim is an executive Director of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) — the economic development arm of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). He also serves as an Executive Director at the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance (AKAM). He is pictured with his wife, Princess Salwa, and their two sons Prince Sinan (b. January 2, 2017) and Prince Irfan (b. April 11, 2015).


See Table of Contents for Barakah’s beautiful, thoughtful and wonderful articles and photos.

Barakah welcomes your feedback. Please complete the LEAVE A REPLY form below or send your comment to Your letter may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation.

Please join/like Barakah at and also follow us at

This website, Barakah, is a special project by and is dedicated to the textual and visual celebration of His Highness the Aga Khan.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s