The Aga Khan IV, Imam to the world’s 20 million Ismaili Muslims, will be in Vancouver from May 5th to 7th for meetings with his followers.
The Aga Khan will likely not be giving interviews or engaging with the general public while in B.C. However, a Vancouver Ismaili lawyer and philosopher has put together an explanation, below, of the Aga Khan’s spiritual views.
Most Canadians will know the Aga Khan as a friend of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and, earlier, of Stephen Harper, as well as a global philanthropist. His full title is Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV. Forbes magazine describes him as one of the world’s ten richest royals. In Canada he will first visit with Ottawa politicians, followed by trips to Calgary and then Metro Vancouver (where there are roughly 16,000 Ismailis).
This essay about the Aga Khan’s worldview is by Vancouver lawyer and writer Ali Lakhani, who is the author of Faith and Ethics: The Vision of the Ismaili Imamat. The book describes how Shia Ismaili Muslims are unique in following for centuries a living, hereditary imam, whom they believe to be directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad.
Here is Lakhani’s essay:
Faith and Ethics: Understanding the Message of the Aga Khan
For many Canadians, Prince Karim Aga Khan is somewhat of an enigma. Admired widely but also misunderstood, he remains a paradox. A Muslim leader who challenges stereotypes of Islam while transcending divisions of East and West, he is an international leader without a country, a quasi ‘philosopher-king’ who respects secular rights and champions civil society, a globalist who warns against the dangers of globalism, and an advocate of multicultural identities who opposes its tribalist expressions.
His philosophy of integrating the material and spiritual dimensions of life is evident in his blend of entrepreneurial and humanitarian pursuits, modeled on the example of his forebear, the Holy Prophet Muhammad, from whom he is directly descended. For his Shia Ismaili followers, whom he is visiting in Western Canada as part of a worldwide tour to mark his Diamond Jubilee, he is their ‘Hazar Imam’ (living spiritual guide). On the occasion of his Jubilee (he became Imam 60 years ago, at the age of 21) it is opportune to reflect on some of his thinking.
His central idea, implied in the Koranic verse (4:1) that humanity is created from a ‘single soul’, is that metaphysical unity entails an ethical responsibility to converge as a ’common humanity.’ This convergence cannot, however, occur at the cost of eradicating the gift of our individuality. In His Highness’ words, ‘Diversification without disintegration … is the greatest challenge of our time.’ His response to this challenge is to promote a cosmopolitan ethic ‘where the unity of the human race becomes an ethical purpose for all faiths.’ He emphasizes that ‘such an ethic can grow with enormous power out of the spiritual dimensions of our lives. In acknowledging the immensity of the Divine, we will also come to acknowledge our human limitations, the incomplete nature of human understanding.’
In an increasingly polarized world, he is wary of reductive thinking, whether secularist or religious. While not opposed to secular ideals, he rejects ‘unilateral secularism where the notions of faith and ethics just disappear from society.’ Equally he rejects attitudes of ‘theological colonialism’ which distort faith, or of politicized ideologies ‘sheltering behind the façade of the faith,’ stressing instead the ideals of diversity and tolerance.
Noting that ignorance, arrogance, and insensitivity are attitudes that ‘rank high among the great public enemies of our time,’ he is a strong advocate of their antidotes: knowledge, empathy, and humility. Time and again, he has corrected mis-perceptions of Islam by stressing the nature of the faith and its ethos (that it is pluralistic and tolerant), its history (of convivencia, ‘a tradition of cultural exchange, tolerance and mutual understanding – even during conflictual situations such as the invasion by the Crusaders’) and its civilization (which is characterized not by a ‘clash of civilizations’, but of mutual ignorance and ‘historical amnesia’).
Though a promoter of pluralism (in 2006, he founded The Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa in partnership with the Canadian Government), he is critical of ‘unprincipled relativism,’ which can reduce tolerance to morally ambivalent latitudinarianism, noting that one must have ‘the courage to live by certain objectives, certain standards.’ This is especially so in an age of moral relativism. As he presciently observed in 1976,
‘I have observed in the Western world a deeply changing pattern of human relations. The anchors of moral behaviour appear to have dragged to such depths that they no longer hold firm the ship of life. What was once wrong is now simply unconventional, and for the sake of individual freedom must be tolerated. What is tolerated soon becomes accepted. Contrarily, what was once right is now viewed as outdated, old-fashioned and is often the target of ridicule.’
And so, in 2006, he posed a challenging question:
‘How, in an increasingly cynical time, can we inspire people to a new set of aspirations – reaching beyond rampant materialism, the new relativism, self-serving individualism, and resurgent tribalism?’
Responding to his question, he stated:
‘One answer is to augment our focus on personal prerogatives and individual rights, with an expanded concern for personal responsibilities and communal goals. 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.’
Undergirding these positive responsibilities and moral disciplines is a vision of the integrity and dignity of human life. We can live fulfilled lives by caring for one another. It is a message that the Ismaili Imam has publicly advocated for six decades, and one that informs the work of the Ismaili Imamat through the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of twelve cultural, social, and economic development agencies, engaged in improving the quality of human life in many parts of the world. It serves, in the Aga Khan’s words, ‘as a connector between “East” and “West” in terms of its cultural initiatives, and between “North” and “South,” as far as social and economic development projects are involved.’
Prince Karim does not view his work, or that of AKDN, as philanthropic or entrepreneurial, but as integral to the faith and ethos of Islam – as ‘enlightened self-fulfillment’, as he explained in a speech to the Canadian Parliament in 2014. AKDN reflects the social conscience of the Ismaili Muslims, of their faith in action, exemplified by the community’s ethic of volunteerism (illustrated by the community pledging to volunteer one million hours of service for Canada to commemorate the nation’s 150th anniversary – a pledge it fulfilled and exceeded in six months). Thus, at the very outset of his Imamat, before the creation of AKDN, he stated:
‘The Ismailis have always prided themselves on their highly developed social conscience. Our faith teaches us that we have obligations far beyond our own or even our family’s interests…. By the way you conduct your daily lives, by the compassion you show to your fellow men and women, and above all by your faith in God, you will ultimately be judged.’
When asked in a 1996 interview how he would wish to be remembered, His Highness replied:
‘Probably not in name or face. I far prefer that certain important things that occurred during my Imamat should continue: relations between the Ismaili community and other parts of the Islamic Ummah; between the Islamic world and the non-Islamic world; certain concepts of the “Unity of Man” — that you don’t serve yourself best by being mean and inward looking and you do not serve your future generations that way.’
It is a message much needed in our troubled world.
– Ali Lakhani, QC