How do you explain your faith to people who do not share your truth claims and who find your sacred practices foreign?
As a minority within a minority within a minority in the West – a Muslim, a Shia, an Ismaili – I have long struggled with that question.
When I was a child and I had to explain why I was fasting from food and drink on a certain day, or why I wore an Arabic symbol for God on a chain around my neck, I would put my head down and mutter: “My mom makes me do it.”
In a world where people from different faith backgrounds are in constant contact with one another, and there are forces who actively seek to sow division between diverse people, we need better ways to build understanding. We need what I call a ‘public language’ of faith, a language which highlights the history of our traditions, and the good works they are doing for the broader world.
Every tradition has a history, and while yours might be different from mine, I expect that you will have more understanding for who I am and how I practice faith if I tell you a little about where I come from. And every tradition has a core which seeks to serve others. And if I tell you about how the people, institutions and leader of my faith are helping people live more peaceful and prosperous lives, I think that you will have deeper respect – perhaps even admiration – for my tradition.
Today, on one of the holiest days of my life, I want to use this public language of faith, in the hopes that it will provide a window of understanding into my tradition and community.
I am an Ismaili Muslim, one of 15 million members of a Shia Muslim community spread across 25 countries. Ismailis, like all Muslims, affirm the Shahada – that there is no god but God and Muhammad is God’s messenger. Like all Shia, we believe that the Prophet Muhammad appointed his cousin and son-in-law Ali to lead the Muslim community after his death. Ali was known as the first Imam (this is not to be confused with the small ‘i’ imam, as in the person who leads Muslim congregational prayers), a designation that carried with it the unique ability to interpret the meaning and application of the Holy Qur’an in changing times. The Imam, according to Shia tradition, chooses his successor from within the Ahl al-Bayt, or the family of the Prophet. Over the course of history, disputes arose over the appointment of certain Imams, and the Shia split into multiple communities.
Today, the Ismailis are the only Shia community with a living and present Imam. The current Aga Khan is the 49th in the line of Imams recognized by Ismailis. Previous Imams have played a significant role within the Muslim ummah and the wider world. Ali was not only the first Shia Imam, he was also the fourth Caliph of the entire Muslim community. Ismaili Imams laid the foundation for the modern city of Cairo in the 10th century, and built there one of the world’s most ancient universities, Al Azhar. This Imam’s immediate predecessor, Sultan Muhammad Shah, served as the President of the League of Nations and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
As an Ismaili, I look to the Aga Khan for religious guidance. But one does not need to have a spiritual allegiance to the Aga Khan to admire the work of his institutions. As the Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – an innovative and highly effective association of health, education, cultural and economic development institutions – he has helped literally millions of people in forgotten parts of the developing world live more peaceful, prosperous and dignified lives.
Consider these concrete examples:
-There are 300 Aga Khan schools in the world, educating 62,000 students and employing nearly 5000 staff.
– There are over 200 Aga Khan health centers in the world, caring for nearly two million and employing nearly 10,000 staff.
– The AKDN is currently building the University of Central Asia, whose purpose is to foster the human and social capital for democracy, pluralism and prosperity in a region that gets far too little attention.
– When a tragic earthquake struck Kashmir in 2005, AKDN helicopters were amongst the first to arrive on the scene.
Two particularly distinctive aspects of the AKDN is its understanding that culture – architecture, poetry, music, calligraphy – is a crucial part of human existence, and its commitment to nurturing effective private enterprise in developing countries. On the culture front, the AKDN built Al Azhar park in Cairo and restored Humayan’s Tomb in India. It has supported everything from indigenous music in Tajikistan to Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. Regarding effective private enterprise, Roshan, a mobile phone company that the AKDN owns a 51% share in, is the single largest private employer in Afghanistan.
A substantial amount of this work is funded by the private resources of the Aga Khan and the Ismaili community. (I serve on the National Committee of the Aga Khan Foundation in the USA, which raises money and awareness for AKDN programs around the world, especially through the Partnership Walk). But all of it – the hospitals and schools, the private companies and university courses – is non-sectarian. In fact, these programs are specifically designed to nurture pluralism. As the Aga Khan once said, “Tolerance, openness and understanding toward other peoples’ cultures, social structures, values and faiths are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world. Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for progress and development, it is vital to our existence.”
There is a guiding philosophy, an animating ethos, behind the AKDN – Islam. Over and over again, the Aga Khan has emphasized that his work for mercy, compassion and dignity emerge directly from his commitment to Islam.
So while many people call the Aga Khan a leading philanthropist, I believe that term captures neither his inspiration nor his vision.
He is the Imam of the Ismaili community. He is a Muslim.