Interview: The ethic of Islam rests on generosity – Prince Karim Aga Khan

The following is a free translation of an interview that appeared in the French publication L’Express on 4 July 2007.

Article in French

Photo essay of 4 July 2007

Karim Aga Khan

The ethic of Islam rests on generosity

Interview conducted by Éric Chol and Christian Makarian

He is a secret man, a sacred figure. Descendent of the Prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law Ali, he is for 15 million Shia Ismailis the supreme Imam, the guardian of an orthodoxy sustained and transmitted by the same family for the past thirteen and a half centuries. With a smiling face, but firm in his faith, Karim Aga Khan speaks little, chooses his words and looks after the guidance of his followers by travelling to the most agitated regions of the world. Born in Geneva of an Indo-Italian father and an English mother, he is the image of a globalised prince and proponent of an Islam open to dialogue, oriented towards humanitarian action, engaged in sustainable development and the protection of minorities (see page 82).

He is also known for his horses and his considerable fortune, which make of him a mythic personality of international high society. On the eve of his Golden Jubilee,
Karim Aga Khan received L’Express exclusively at his residence of Aiglemont, north of Paris. He opened up with rare candour on Islam, the state of the world, his work for the less fortunate, and his notion of goodness.

— Amidst the intense agitation of the Muslim world, the Ismaili community seems to enjoy a certain peace. Is this due to your specific doctrine?

The Ismaili doctrine is a family within Shi’ism, because there are numerous forms of Shi’ism just as there exist several families among the Sunnis. And the commonality among the Shia is the role of Hazrat Ali [NDLR: the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad]. He was the great intellectual force of his time. Because of him, Shi’ism is an intellectual interpretation of Islam. The direct impact is the reduction of conflict between the spiritual and the temporal. The other fundamental element resides in the personal spiritual search. The individual is perhaps more important for us than among the different Sunni traditions. Finally, the notion of authority plays an essential role. In the Shia faith, it [authority] was given to Hazrat Ali by the Prophet who specified before his death that he wished it to remain in his family.

— How can one explain the tremendous opposition today between the Shias and the Sunnis, particularly in Iraq?

All of the ongoing world conflicts have a religious component, whether it is Islam, Christianity or another religion. In Iraq, a Sunni minority held power in a majority Shia country, which was itself surrounded by Sunni nations. This is a dominant model in Islam, the only reverse case being Syria, where a Shia minority governs a majority Sunni population. It was perfectly predictable that, from the moment Saddam Hussein was relieved in favour of a democratic consultation, there would be a new rebalancing between the two main branches of Islam. The external effect was even more predictable: once it was established that Iraq is a Shia majority, the surrounding countries would react in accordance with their affiliation, and not in accordance with the process of democratisation. Alas, none of this surprised nor astonished me. The case of Afghanistan had proven it already: as soon as a Sunni majority found itself in a situation of extreme tension, the Shias were in danger. This is the case with the Hazara in Afghanistan, who are targets of assassination and fatwas. What is terrible is that the West seems to have only just discovered this reality, while we frequently alerted the entire world of this imminent, predictable risk.

— What is surprising is that al-Qaeda which seemed to primarily target Westerners, has shown in the past months that the Shia constitute their main enemy.

This is also not a surprise to me. Well before the invasion of Iraq, the principal watchword of al-Qaeda was to normatise Islam according to one fundamentalist Sunni interpretation. The exclusivist attitude is a form of theological colonialism, and it has spread throughout the whole of the Islamic world.

— How do you explain the global rise of fundamentalism within the Muslim world?

I confess that I do not find myself very much at ease with the notion of [a single] “Muslim world.” Just as it is not possible to give a single face to the Christian or Jewish world, it is not possible to look at Islam as a single block. Muslims come from different cultures, regions and traditions. If you had to write the history of the Muslim people since 1948, what would you write? That the situation in the Middle East at the dawn of the third millennium is the result of a process born during the First World War, which succeeded in creating a theologically based state — that is the Jewish state.

Then you would say that decolonisation started in 1947 in the British Empire and it was offset by other problems, including that of Kashmir. Before adding that the Indian government confirmed that Muslims are a marginal community through the Sachar Committee report. You would be obligated to note that the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan from whence came the current tragedy of the country. And finally, two Western nations decided to attack Iraq without [a mandate] from the UN. Would you
conclude in writing this history that Muslim theological foundations were the determining factors? Honestly, I don’t think so. We need to establish a clear differentiation between the Muslim faith and the political developments that we are witnessing today throughout the Muslim countries. I am not saying that Islam is absolutely absent from international tensions, but as a Muslim, I find it extremely difficult to conclude that there is a direct theological implication in the current context.

— Nevertheless, throughout the Muslim countries there exist specific tensions…

Fundamentalism is a massive issue of inherited politics that is not based on theological foundations, but rather on historic, social and political factors that affect all societies whether they are Muslim or not. What is true is that in the present day, these factors are heavily concentrated throughout certain Muslim societies, creating a profound sentiment of frustration. Wave after wave, given the state of the world, the dominating sentiment is of an immense lassitude, of a real irritation. And the invasion of Iraq probably constitutes the last wave.

— As the leader of the Ismaili community, you have always emphasized the development of social, economic and cultural activities not only for your followers, but for the benefit of all. What do you make of your development organization?

It needs to permanently adapt! The idea of development is comparable to a kaleidoscope: you twist it and see a new vision of the problems. It is up to you to draw conclusions for the short, medium or long term. That is why it is imperative that we adjust our network of agencies. These ones [agencies] are the result of fifty years of analysis of the material development needs. Far from being the fruits of different development theories, they are rather conceived to be navigated based on lessons learned on the ground. Nobody in the 1950s or 1960s was thinking of microcredit or culture. These activities are now part of our network, and I have no doubt that my successor will carry out [further] changes.

— Would you consider your network to be a non-governmental organisation?

No, we function very differently! We [are in it for the long run], whereas it is not rare to see an NGO start-up in a country and leave five days later. Second difference, we work in the frame of a complete network, theoretically capable of bringing about appropriate responses in the majority of situations.

Finally, we have placed culture at the heart of the development puzzle. Not long ago this idea might have sounded eccentric. In reality, culture is a remarkable engine for development, which we have already experimented with in Kabul, Cairo, Zanzibar and Delhi.

— Another difference with the the NGOs: you accept the idea of making profits…

Exactly, with the condition that we distinguish between non-profit projects with an objective of reaching a break-even point to become self-sustaining and therefore independent, and others which must be profitable. As for the dividends, they are systematically reinvested in the Development Network.

— This idea of profit-making is not normal in the world of development…

It’s true! Often non-profit activities are considered charity. And this is a word that we do not like. Islam has a very clear message about the different forms of generosity. There is that with regard to the poor, which takes the form of gifts. But the recipient remains poor. There exists a second form of generosity that contributes to growing the independence of the person. This concept, in which the goal is to make the person the master of their destiny, is the most beneficial in the eyes of Allah.

— What initiatives are you planning at the occasion of your jubilee?

With the leaders of the community, we are looking in two directions. First, to reinforce the institutions, whether these be Imamat or those of the Development Network. Then, to bring about a better balance in the distribution of our activities between different regions of the world and the communities. But for this we need to establish an exact diagnosis of poverty, a concept which is still poorly understood. Often this is analysed exclusively through the material angle. However we think it is comprised of a societal phenomenon, characterised by a lack of access to protection, to security, to healthcare or to education… If we establish the correct diagnosis — we are currently conducting an in depth study in five Asian countries — we will be able to put in place within two to three years a vast program to fight poverty which will not be limited to the Ismaili community. Why not for example, use new tools like micro-insurance, by extending it to fields as varied as security, education or health?

— What are you expecting from your followers?

A large part of the Ismaili community lives in the rural world, in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran and India. Another part is established in the cities of North America and Western Europe. However the idea of a gift is very much anchored throughout the community: I would like therefore to use this opportunity of the Golden Jubilee to encourage knowledge transfers, not only
gifts of money. We have already received a fantastic reaction from youth educated in the industrialised countries, who are ready to share their knowledge and to come and work throughout our institutions in the third-world for lengthier durations. These are fabulous gifts and they are also an act of faith. The ethic of Islam rests on this generosity.

— You are therefore betting on knowledge to overcome misery?

It is necessary to constantly consider the relationship between the Ummah and the knowledge society. One realises that countries that have succeeded in reconciling both develop most quickly. On the other hand, those that reject or limit access to the knowledge society get left behind. My concept of Islam is a faith for all time, not one [facing backwards in time]. In the Quran it is written that one must seek
education to know Allah better, and share knowledge for the betterment of society. That is to say that in Islam, the links between faith and knowledge are very strong and we are constantly encouraged to learn. This is an extraordinary message for humanity.

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Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

3 thoughts

  1. I Must “Salute” This Site. You are doing wonderful Job. I Read This Interview of Hazir Imam, and I must say I am very lucky to be An Ismaili and I am Proud of It. Please continues doing yours extraordinary job. I will forward your efforts to others, the people I know they should read this. Thank You Exteremly Much.


  2. itz great that we have now known some important things about our imam so thank you for this and keep going ya ali madad


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