Compiled and prepared by MALIK MERCHANT
Prince Aly Khan (1911 – 1960) and his younger brother Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933 – 2003), respectively father and uncle of Mawlana Hazar Imam (His Highness the Aga Khan), Prince Amyn Mohamed and Princess Yasmin, both passed away on May 12, forty-three years apart. In fond remembrance of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s beloved family members, we present excerpts from two insightful speeches made by Prince Aly Khan as well as 2 thoughtful “Thank you Letters to Prince Sadruddin” by Vali Jamal and Mohezin Tejani.
1. Prince Aly Khan on the greatest contribution an individual can make to the community
(The following excerpts from a speech made by Prince Aly Khan appeared in Ismaili, India, February 2, 1941)
“Unity and self-effacement are the greatest contributions we can make individually to the rest of the community. By self-effacement, I mean the forgetting of oneself sometimes and making one’s personal interests subservient to those of the largest number. If self-effacement is achieved, the foundation of unity will have been well and truly laid. For, at present, it is the consciousness of one’s self-importance and dignity which is making people forget their duties and responsibilities, and indulge in petty squabbles and bitter trivialities.” — Prince Aly Khan
“The welfare of the Ismailis is so near and dear to my heart that I cannot light-heartedly bring myself to overlook the weak points of the community. It is by recognizing our own faults that we can hope to improve. Let us realize that in the matter of helping our brethren we have much to learn from our sister communities, and that if we ever hope to achieve what we have set out to, we must resolutely follow the principles of the faith, be guided by the lives of men like Hasan bin Sabah and Pir Sadar Din and concentrate on the two most important principles of life — namely, Unity and Service of the Imam-e-Zaman and Community.” — Prince Aly Khan
2. Prince Aly Khan on the fundamental beliefs of the Islamic peoples
(Excerpts from a speech made by Prince Aly Khan at the Council of Islamic Affairs, New York, on May 27th 1958, during his tenure as Pakistan’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations. The excerpts appeared in Ismaili Crescent dated June 14, 1970. The magazine was published weekly on Fridays in Dar es Salaam by the Ismailia Association for Tanzania.)
Mr. Chairman, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
….The Council of Islamic Affairs is doing a great service to the world by promoting a greater understanding in America of the rich heritage of the Islamic peoples and their hopes and aspirations for the future.
For centuries, the Moslem and Christian peoples have lived and moved in different worlds. Today the two worlds have become one. This fact alone, if no other, should compel them to get together to meet the challenge of a godless, totalitarian creed, which has proclaimed as its ultimate purpose the destruction of both.
Despite the ebb and flow of its fortunes, the vicissitudes and calamities of its history, Islam claims nearly four hundred million adherents from the Atlantic to the Far East. As a living force in the lives of one fifth of mankind, it is a political fact of great significance in the world of today.
Given a right understanding of the foundations of Islam and Christianity, and the spiritual values which they have proclaimed, it should not prove very difficult to build a bridge of mutual respect and co-operation between the two great religions. Unfortunately, it is a fact that the close similarity between the two remains largely unknown to the West.
Both Moslems and Christians believe in the Unity of God, in the revelations of his Divine Message through his chosen messengers — namely the great prophets, and in the spiritual and ethical foundations of a social order based on the principles of equality, liberty and universal brotherhood.
To bring out the closeness of our basic beliefs, let me quote to you from the Holy Qur’an which sets forth the basic doctrines of Islam:
First, the bedrock of faith — Divine Unity: “And your God is one God; there is no God but He,…there is none like unto Him.”
Second, the whole of humanity is one: their division into tribes and nations is but to facilitate human relations: “All peoples are a single Nation.”
Third, equality: “The White man is not above the Black, nor the Black above the Yellow, all men are equal before their Maker.”
Fourth, dignity of the human person based so often on pride of birth, is rejected.
Fifth, freedom of belief and conscience must be respected.
The Qur’an says: “There is no compulsion in religion. Wherefore, let him who will believe, and let him who will, disbelieve.”
These are the fundamental beliefs of the Islamic peoples. There is no need for me to emphasise the identical precepts to which the Christian world owes allegiance. Indeed, to a religion founded on love — love of God and love of one’s neighbour — such as Christianity, the excerpts that I have quoted from the Qur’an must sound as recitations from the Bible.
In the early centuries of Islam, the great schools of Islamic jurisprudence were built upon the above principles. Basic to all their legal systems they developed the doctrine that liberty is the fundamental basis of law.
The science of law was defined as: “The knowledge of rights and duties whereby man is enabled to observe right conduct in the world.”
Thus, Islamic jurisprudence was developed to respect and promote the rights of men. The contribution of Islam to history and modern civilization is the product of the efforts of peoples of many races and tongues which came to accept its way of life. It is not the contribution of any one single race or nation. Although in the early centuries of Islam, Arabic was the common vehicle of expression, such as Latin was in Europe in the Middle Ages, the Persians, Turks and other peoples, as well as the Arabs, contributed immensely to the flowering of the unique culture which for many centuries governed the lives of a large section of mankind.
It is not necessary to dwell on the political and social principles of Islam, to underline how close they also are in spirit to the concepts of human rights which govern the political and social systems of the West.
It is one of the paradoxes of history that the West and the Islamic world which have so many beliefs and values in common, should have lived in antagonism for centuries. When we consider the great contribution of the Islamic peoples to modern Western civilization, particularly in the realm of scientific enquiry, philosophic thought, and mysticism, wherein the religious spirit is lifted to the sublime, the paradox of conflict becomes all the more striking.
…..Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, I have taken much of your time. One thought more and I will conclude. On the plane of ideals and morals, we find in Islam and the Qur’an, a perennial source of inspiration and guidance. One of the basic teachings of this faith is Divine Unity and the oneness of humanity. The Qur’an says:
“And your God is one God.”
“This your community is one community.”
“All people are a single nation.”
If we, the people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan are to remain loyal and obedient to the commandments of our faith, we have no choice but to cast away all thoughts of East and West, of Asian, American or European and of all those barriers which alienate man from man, and people from people, so that we may join together to promote universal brotherhood under God. I thank you.
3. Vali Jamal’s Thank You Letter to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
(This piece by Dr. Vali Jamal originally appeared in Simerg’s special series “Thanking Ismaili Historical Figures.” Vali Jamal passed away on July 11, 2021, while still on his dedicated mission and commitment to completing a voluminous work on the Asians in Uganda. Please see our tribute to Dr Vali Jamal.)
May 23, 2012.
Dear Prince Sadruddin,
How I wish you could read this letter, but all life passes and yours was taken away at just 70 years. I like to think you will feel our prayers as people of all religions and races read this tribute letter to you.
To me as an Ismaili youth you were from the Noorani family, beloved of your father, our 48th Imam. We used to see pictures of you with Prince Aly Shah and princes Karim and Amyn, wearing the fez, your head slightly tilted, since you were taller than the others. We remember you at the Diamond Jubilee in Dar-es-Salaam, quite chubby at 7 years old, on your head a pagri with a feather on it. You were our Wahala Shahzada Sadruddin. Then you became our hero when you were appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1966. In your twelve years you turned the agency around from being Euro-centric to one concerned with refugees world-wide. In 1972 you became a personal hero to all Uganda Asians of all communities when you airlifted around 5,000 of us to refugee camps in Europe from Idi Amin’s Uganda.
It fell on me to write about that 1972 episode in our lives, our place in history. Idi Amin had that dream in which he believed divine instructions were given him to cleanse Uganda of the resident Asian community. We were but 60,000 people then, just 0.75 percent of the population, but goodness, we controlled nearly 75 percent of the non-food parts of the GDP. Amin couldn’t take it any longer. The deadline was ninety days, in some kind of bizarre reference to the 90-days pre-harvest credit Asian traders used to give to the farmers, and a concession as compared to the 90-hours notice Gaddafi, his new-found mentor when the coup-facilitators deserted him, had given to his Italian “blood-suckers.” The British conceded to accept 30,000 of their citizens; 2,000 were paroled in by the USA; 5,000 dispersed to European countries. Canada, under the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, opened the doors and eased the way for the settlement of 7000, the first time the country received such a large batch of non-White refugees. It is now known that your nephew and our Imam, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, a long time friend of Trudeau, played a major role in this when he picked up the phone during the crisis to ask the Prime Minister to make Canada a safe haven. We have never forgotten Canada’s open doors in our time of need.
We were keeping tabs from Kampala – and so were you in Geneva! Already on 22 September, you wrote to Mr George Ignatieff, Canada’s Ambassador to the UN:
“I wish to thank you for sending me the text of the statement made by the Prime Minister of Canada on the decision to offer assistance to the Uganda residents of Asian origin. Those who find their claim to Uganda citizenship invalidated, and are not recognized as citizens of any other country, might well become refugees under my mandate. I have thus very special reasons for watching this development very closely. I hope the example set by your country will be followed.”
On 24 October, just ten days to the deadline, the Secretary General designated you to assist Asians of “undetermined nationality” in obtaining travel documents and places of resettlement. Around 5,000 people were involved who had either not succeeded in securing residency visas, or who, although confirmed of their Uganda citizenship, were frightened off from any thoughts of staying by Amin’s threats of rusticating them to Karamoja and forcing them to “live like Africans.” Your agency along with the Red Cross and the European Migration agency in a heroic mission picked up 4,572 refugees in 40 flights in just ten days. The stuff of legends — except most of us were gone by then, wondering what all that white stuff on the ground was as the plane came in to land.
That story, respected High Commissioner, is told in my book through the stories of the “real” refugees who ended up in five European countries. How much gratitude they all show to you! Many of them met you personally at the centres. Here are some names that we cite in an honour roll-call: Vinod Kataria (from Traiskerchen camp (Austria) to Sweden); Thanki family (from Naples to Norway); Sherali Ahmed Kassam family (from Malta to Norway to UK), Chandulal Vyas family (Austria to Holland); Razia Ratansi (Naples to Canada); Nilesh Nathwani (Geneva HCR HQ to Vienna).
Here are two vignettes from Naples. You notice an African face among the admiring people thronging you. You ask: “What are you doing here?” And he says simply, “Sir, I am Ismaili.” His name: Pyaralli Virani. Three years later when you visit Vancouver, he comes forward to greet you and says he never wants to go back to “that” country. Also, you become attached to a Karim Hirji. He is bilingual with French. Karim is severely handicapped from two recent car accidents. He says he isn’t feeling too well and would like to miss the Eid prayers. You persuade him to come. You fix him up to be picked up by Denmark. A few weeks on, the family receive a cable that Karim has passed away.
Thank you Prince Sadruddin for being there for us in 1972. That year your agency had been appointed the lead agency for all UN humanitarian action. You were dealing with 10 million displaced persons from Bangladesh, half a million from south Sudan, and similar from Rwanda and Burundi, yet you cared so much for us? You are hero to not just the 4,572 people who ended up in your refugee centers, but to all Uganda Asians.
How wonderful life was When you and Uganda were in our world.
4. Mohezin Tejani’s Thank You Letter to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
(This piece by Mohezin Tejani originally appeared in Simerg’s special series “Thanking Ismaili Historical Figures.” Essayist and author Tejani passed away on January 1, 2013 in Thailand. Please read our tribute to Mohezin Tejani.)
Sunday, April 15, 2012.
As Ismaili children growing up in East Africa, we were taught by our parents and the Ismaili community at large that “seva,” our own Islamic version of volunteerism for the needy, was not only a worthwhile virtue to practice but an essential part of becoming a moral human being. As children, we saw our elders working as dedicated volunteers to help the elderly, provide home care for the sick, and cook free food at mosque functions – all as examples of human compassion.
For me, as a 10 year old boy growing up in Ismaili community in Kampala, Uganda, that translated into unconditional respect for my aging parents and making sure that all their comfort needs were taken care of at home and at crowded community functions such as Imamat Day, the Salgirah and Navroz. This contagious “seva syndrome” is also what prompted me at school to befriend an ostracized classmate who had a stuttering speech problem as my closest ally for the next ten years.
It is no wonder then that as an adult, after the Idi Amin expulsion of 80,000 Asian from Uganda, I ended up working in humanitarian work worldwide for the next twenty years.
In the early 1980’s, during the post Vietnam War era, while working as a refugee resettlement educator for hundreds of thousands of South East Asian refugees languishing in refugee camps, I recall reading about you as the philanthropic polyglot who, soon after graduating form Harvard with honors, dedicated his life to international humanitarian service. As the head of UNHCR from 1966-78, you were largely responsible for re-orientating the agency’s focus from helping refugees from Eastern Europe (as per its post 2nd world war mandate) to a broader mission of helping worldwide refugees, especially those caught up in war torn conflicts in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. You said:
“…It is true that around this time refugees began to appear in the Third World who did not benefit from United Nations aid. One such case was that of the Vietnamese who had fled from the north of their country after the battle of Dien Bien Phu. In Africa, the first refugees from Angola were entering Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville. Refugees from Algeria were flowing into Morocco and Tunisia. These were new situations for UNHCR, which had been originally created for refugees from Eastern Europe and was a kind of European club. Very early on, and perhaps this is the best thing I have done in my career, I tried to avoid all discrimination between European and Third World refugees.”
At that time, working hand in hand for five years with UNHCR staff on Vietnamese/Khmer Laotian refugee programs in refugee camps in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, I understood and felt first hand the full impact of your vision especially when UNHCR went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981 for its humanitarian work.
This is when you became a role model for me and my refugee work, having been one myself from Africa just less than a decade ago. A humongous thank you for being my inspiration to continue working in the humanitarian field when many of my friends and loved ones never really understood my work in wanting to help the less fortunate of our planet.
I lament the time that you were nominated and passed over twice for the post of UN Secretary-General. Although you won the 1981 vote, the Soviet Union considered you too Western and vetoed your election. When you were nominated again in 1991, the United States and Britain expressed their disagreement with your belief in a policy of boosting aid to Iraq.
Surely, one day soon, history will expose the folly of those power-hungry megalomaniacs who continue to carve up our gorgeous spinning globe into territories of greed and conquest.
Who knows? Perhaps your diplomatic trials may have had something to do with the quote below in a truthful speech that you made to your UNHCR staff in 1977:
“I would be personally extremely unhappy if I felt that this Office was becoming a memo-producing factory. Here again, I am prompted to think of our relationship with our work and with our objectives. Basically, while you may think that you can solve problems by drafting lengthy memos, sending long cables or even making very long telephone calls, the drafting of lengthy notes is something which sooner or later is affected by the law of diminishing returns. At some point, if you or I spend a great deal of time sending extremely sophisticated and lengthy instructions to colleagues at headquarters or in the field, you spend more time thinking about the style of the memo, its drafting, whether it’s good French or English, whether the argument is going to be persuasive enough, whether it’s going to leave room for any dialogue, and you begin to weigh every word and every sentence and every comma. The memo itself becomes more important than the subject matter. The refugee themselves are not going to be helped, I submit, by this kind of bureaucracy. Let notes for the file be brief and to the point.”
In this regard, the consequent history of the UN and its achievements over the next three decades speaks for itself.
Despite the overwhelming odds facing your humanitarian vision, as a global citizen (born in Paris, raised in Europe by a French mother and the 48th Imam of the Ismailis, was educated at Harvard and became fluent in numerous languages), you went on to promote various other planetary causes, close to my development work, in your later career.
As a champion of the environment, it was your vision that created the Geneva-based Bellerive Foundation “which promoted the conservation of the earth’s natural resources and protection of all life forms and the environment. In developing countries, the foundation encouraged tree conservation and tree-planting activities, reduction of fuel wood consumption through dissemination of fuel-saving domestic and institutional cooking systems, and education on tree and fuel wood conservation through children’s programs and women’s groups.” In recognition of this initiative, you received the World Ecology Medal from the International Center for Tropical Ecology of the University of Missouri-St. Louis at a ceremony in April 1993 in Washington D.C.
Yet, you are just as fondly renowned with conservationists the world over for the courageous successful campaign that you personally launched against the French industrialists to save the Madagasar monk seal from extinction.
Over the course of half a century, in your fervent desire to promote Art and Culture, you assembled one of the finest private collections of Islamic art in the world and became a knowledgeable and respected collector, accumulating a priceless collection of paintings, drawings, manuscripts and miniatures. Over the years, parts of your collection were exhibited in New York, London, and Zurich, including a touring show, “Princes, Poets and Paladins”, which was organized by the British Museum in 1998, and attended by several members of your family, including your nephew, Prince Karim. You will be thrilled to know that your full collection will soon be housed at the new Aga Khan museum being established by him in Toronto.
It comes as no surprise then that during your lifetime, numerous countries recognized your multiple achievements by honoring you with doctorates and national decorations from states as diverse as Pakistan, Poland and the Vatican, as well as presenting you with the United Nations Human Rights Award.
You continue to be a role model for the new generation of world communities as a man who, as summed up by Kofi Annan at a memorial ceremony in your honour, “combined respect for humankind with concern for our environment. He worked on behalf of the poor and dispossessed, while celebrating humanity through culture and art.”
Man of multiple visions, you still hold a special place in my heart not only for all your worldly achievements but even more so for your simple yet poignant philosophy (still relevant today) of understanding the downtrodden of our planet as summed by your quote:
“Let us show great humility towards the peoples we wish to help, for we have very little to teach them. I think we go wrong when we insist, as some have done since 1945, on using experts who are paid Western salaries, drive beautiful cars and live in air-conditioned houses to teach people in the Third World how to improve their living conditions.”
Know that your legacy lives on into the 21st century as we, as fellow Muslims living in a turbulent post 911 world, strive to present your life achievements as a shining example of a courageous individual who, in 1985, very articulately spelled out the relationship of Islam and the West from a historical perspective that remains as a legacy to the events and mass media coverage that have followed since.
Rest in peace, my gallant global troubadour.
Shantih, Mohezin Tejani
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Date posted: May 11, 2023.
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Thank you Malik for this and as I had already said before a timeless narrative incessant work done by our Noorani family members. They minced no words and without fear spoke frankly while being at the United Nations on the rights of refugees without any colour or creed. By their exemplary action ,truly show us the meaning of seva..
Malik, a very detailed presentation of the two prominent members of the Nurani Family with lifelong service to the Ismaili community and indeed to humanity, which will be remembered in history. I am certain that this amazing post will be very widely read across the world and our prayers that you enjoy good health and circumstances to continue with the great work. Ameen.