The Aga Khan Development Network: Bringing Social Conscience of Islam to Action

The engagement of the Imamat in development is guided by the ethics of Islam which bridge faith and society, a premise on which I established the Aga Khan Development Network. Its cultural, social and economic development agencies seek to improve opportunities and living conditions of the weakest in society, without regard to their origin, gender or faith.

The Aga Khan, Where Hope Takes Root: Democracy and pluralism in an Independent World, Vancouver, 2008.

The Aga Khan Development Network (1)

By Sujjawal Ahmad (Pakistan based writer. Sujjawal did his Masters degree in Molecular Biology from Quaid-i Azam University Pakistan. He writes on philosophical traditions of the world religions, more specifically on Ismaili Philosophy and Theology. Contact via email:

The community of believers need at all times and contexts an existential and spiritual map that provides lucid means to achieve highest goals of engaged surrender to God. In Islam that path is Sharia. Sharia in Arabic means ‘path’, a terminology that holds more significance than law or ‘fiqh’. During lifetime of the Prophet, that map was provided by the Prophet himself. In early years of Islam, the Sunna became frame of reference for the ideal of Islamic life and civilization, thus paving way to the development of shari‘a. A pluralistic culture of intellectual engagement that was formed by Muslim authorities in later centuries welcomed most advanced social as well as economic systems of their times. This lead to the development of erudite philosophical, moral and ethical traditions of an intellectually vibrant society of the Muslims.
Since with time context changes as historical and cultural location of the believers changes, there is thus a compelling need to reinterpret the existential vision in an innovative way that responds approximately to the changing historical, cultural and social horizons. Sunni Muslims have sought solution to this in the form of Ijtehād and Ijmā. But for Shia Muslims, as Azim Nanji notes:

“Among Ismaili groups that give allegiance to a living Imam, the Imam’s presence is considered necessary to contextualise Islam in changing times and circumstances and his teachings and interpretation continue to guide followers in their material as well as spiritual lives. An example is the role of the current Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, the Aga Khan who leads a worldwide community…..Among the Shi’a continuity with Muslim tradition and values thus remains tied to the continuing spiritual authority vested in the Imam or his representatives.”

The Islamic society of early years derived its inspiration from the Shari‘a as framework of problem solving methodology of governance. The role of the individual and the community was that of agents who invested in moral underpinnings of the message of the Prophet. It was only in 13th and 14th centuries when gate of reasoning ( ijtehad) was closed and the world of Islam became static to its effervescence to intellectual inquiry. Muslims of later periods seem to have incomplete understanding of the broad nature of Sharia. The broader purpose of Sharia to enhance life of the society lost its power, limiting it to a mere set of laws and modes of religious duties which very well equates it to fiqh.

The primary sources for the Shari’a are the Quranic revelation and the episodes of the Prophet’s life, his words and practice (Sunna). As in the example of Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him and his progeny), the system of governance that he established was underpinned by a moral order that valued kindness, forgiveness and mercy. The reforms that he brought in early Islamic state were informed by an inherent spirituality and supported by divine revelations. As demonstrated by deep concern of the Prophet for the elderly, the poor, the weak and the sick, the Sunna not only serves as a timeless pattern for daily life but it also reflects clear attention to improving the well-being of the Muslim society as a whole.

“The eternal values of Islam are such that whether the man lived a hundred years ago or lives a hundred years from now, he is always in his correct position. There is no conflict. So in terms of the humanistic, permanent values of a faith, I would say that obviously Islam puts an individual in a very privileged position.”

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, Pakistan Television Corporation Interview (Karachi, Pakistan), 12 November 1985

The Sunna serves as a paradigm of modes for establishing – what Mowlana Hazar Imam calls ‘an enabling environment’– where the needy should work to become self-reliant and others should assist them in achieving this. Shari‘a when defined through the framework set by the holy Prophet’s biography (sirat), provides a body of exemplary policies of governance that had nurtured the material as well as the spiritual enhancements of the habitat where Muslims formed communities in early periods.

From the Qur’anic perspective, the believers are encouraged to have strong social conscience, to uphold the dignity of human beings and to show compassion for all creatures. This forms what we call ‘Islamic Ethics’ and ultimately an approach to development. Since actions in material world are seen not separate from the context of faith, building a world, therefore, that is spiritually empty would do nothing good for its inhabitants. A harmony and balance between din and dunya is imperative in fostering a society based on Islamic principles laid in the life and teachings of the Prophet.

The Shari’a – when seen such as this, is more than a body of laws or legal norms which form only a part of it. The Sharia, when treated as a medium of organic and enabling resource to development, leads to good Quality of Life as well as spiritual renaissance in the society as we find its rich expression in the plenitude of virtually a millennium-and-a-half of historical experience.

Twentieth century, as Basheer M. Nafi notes, has witnessed intellectual changes of wider range that can be related to three aspects. Firstly it is related to Muslim’s views of the primary Islamic texts, the Qur’an and hadith, their role in addressing the challenges faced by world of Islam, and their relation to subsequent Islamic traditions; the second is related to understanding and evaluating the prevalent Islamic intellectual modes and their connotations to the living conditions of the Muslims; and finally it is related to defining the external, that is, the western challenge, the nature of this challenge and the search for possible intellectual avenues for an Islamic- Western composite. [2]

Shari‘a should guide every aspect of life, but at the same time it must be able to deal with the challenges faced by the new world in a realistic way. The idea of Ijtehad calls for reforms in interpreting Shari‘a responding to the circumstances of modern age. So there have been many calls over the last century to re-institute Ijtehad. The last part of nineteenth century seems to have witnessed some fundamental changes in Islamic thought. The Islamic intellectual arena of modern age has somehow its roots in the discussion of reform and revival that started in late nineteenth century.

Attempts to recalibrate and reconstruct Islamic thought for an emerging modern worldview, thus, not seems unabated in Islamic world. A construction that is in adherence to basic Islamic principles, a metamorphosis into a coherent worldview need to be addressed to meet the problems of Muslim adjustment to modernity.

A few states have, disseminated a comprehensive approach to influence interpretation of the Islamic practice of their citizens that aligns with the broader perspectives of the Sharia. The role of civil society remains plausible in this regard. ‘Civil society’ means private, non-state, non-economic zone having an empirical point of reference that define its goal. It includes non-state organizations that carry out activities to sustain and enhance the lives of individuals and the community. Overall, the role of civil society is a complimentary one, as it gives moral and practical support to states to accomplish needs of the public sphere. These non-state organizations when operate can enhance Islamic values in public sectors of health, education, housing and law. In this way it can help the Islamic world to find a chance to govern itself within an Islamic view of life.

In Shia Islam the primary ethical corpus is derived from the Quranic and prophetic direction as well as the guidance of designated Imams in the progeny of the Prophet:

Within Shi‘i Islam, it is the mandate of each hereditary Imam from the Prophet’s progeny, as the legatee of the Prophet’s authority, to seek to realise that paradigm through an institutional and social order which befits the circumstances of time and place. In the world of flux, the Imam gives leadership in the maintenance of balance between the spiritual and the material in the harmonious context of the ethics of the faith, of which he is the guardian. Amyn B. Sajoo, Muslim Ethics: Emerging Vistas

From the Ismaili Muslim perspective, it is of profound importance to engage with the horizontal relationship of man with his society in addition to their vertical relation with God. This has led Ismaili Imamat to initiate thousands of social and economic development projects – most of them are modest and grassroot efforts such as schools, healthcare campaigns, and environmental projects – around the world.

“In all interpretations of Islam, Imams are required to lead not only in interpreting the faith but also in improving the quality of life for the people who refer to them. This ethical premise is the foundation of the Aga Khan Development Network, which has long been serving the developing world without regard to ethnicity, gender or race.”

-Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, Address to the International Press Institute, 54th General Assembly, 22 May 2005

“Islam, therefore, guides man not only in his spiritual relationship with God, it also guides man in his relationship with his fellow men and his relationship with the material world around him.”

-Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, Speech at the Ismaili Centre Foundation Stone Ceremony (Burnaby, Canada), 26 July 1982

Present Ismaili Imam has been engaged with civil society work since when he became Imam in 1957. He has concerned himself in three broad avenues of cultural, economic and social development of Muslims and the developing world. He has extended multitude of programs and institutions to serve the Ismaili community. Ismaili Imamat has established a broad network of development agencies, generally referred to as Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).

The AKDN has adopted a wider position articulated in an international framework of largest array of agencies and institutions of the world where Muslims live in majority or in minority, and it helps the government’s structures for poverty alleviation and improving Quality of Life.

The Network spans mainly in South and Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, Europe and North America. An outline of these development agencies is depicted in the chart below:


The agencies operate at a transnational level in social, economic and cultural sectors. Operating in more than 30 countries of developing world, it employs more than 80,000 people. Its agencies are concerned with industrial promotion, tourism, finance, aviation, media in addition to its major role in education and health sector.

In area of higher education, initiatives of AKDN include the Aga Khan University, University of Central Asia, and Institute of Ismaili Studies.

The Ismaili Imam has also devoted his resources to promoting better understanding of Islam as a major world civilization. An institution founded in this regard is known as Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). The mandate of this institution covers preserving social, intellectual and cultural traditions of Muslims.

The Isma’ili principle is a good example in order to show that religious ethic can line up with modern, secular ethics of pluralism, tolerance, and equality. Isma’ilism is a model of Muslim religion that adapts and adjusts its basic ideas to modernity while maintaining its unique religious identity. This shows how the Eurocentric view on Islam often fails to recognize the complexities of Muslim communities by emphasizing on Islam ‟ as incompatible with” modernity.

The role of the Aga Khan IV in the Isma’ili Imamate ‘Authority without Territory’? Linda Hewit

The Islamic ideals of compassion and inclusiveness, and more importantly the ethical dimension when presented as the bridge between din and dunya, is manifested in Ismaili Imamat’s humanistic work.‘ One of the central elements of Islamic faith’, as the Aga Khan said before Evangelical audience on 20th May 2006, ‘is the inseparable nature of faith and world. The two are so deeply intertwined that one cannot imagine their separation. They constitute a “Way of Life”’.

“The engagement of the Imamat in development is guided by the ethics of Islam which bridge faith and society, a premise on which I established the Aga Khan Development Network. Its cultural, social and economic development agencies seek to improve opportunities and living conditions of the weakest in society, without regard to their origin, gender or faith.”

The Aga Khan, Where Hope Takes Root: Democracy and pluralism in an Independent World, Vancouver, 2008.

Improving the quality of life of people, as Ismaili Imam put it, in June 1985 in his interview to Independent Television London, “is a fundamental Islamic concept”. He said:

“Making them self-sufficient and helping weaker sections of a country or a community. That is fundamental, right from the revelation of Islam — the way Prophet Muhammad lived himself — it is a fundamental Islamic concept. ”

Ismaili Imamat is a supranational office, that transcends need to govern any state. For Ismaili Muslims, since Imam is the temporal and spiritual successor of Prophet Muhammad, he holds absolute interpretative authority (ta’lim) and exegetical-hermeneutical authority (tawil) to define the fundamental principles of Islam and adjust its traditions to conform to principles according to the changing contexts and needs of the Jamat. Although the charter of AKDN does not mention Shari’a, but it defines the network’s aim to ‘realise the social conscience of Islam through institutional action’.

“As Imam of the Ismaili sect, I am in a position to adapt the teachings of the Qur’an to the modern condition. On the question of modernity the issue is essentially whether one is affecting the fundamental moral fabric of society or whether one is affecting the fundamentals of religious practice. As long as these two aspects are safeguarded the rest can be subject to adjustment.”

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, India Today Interview (1st), Aroon Purie (India)

Although the mandate of AKDN in essence ascribes to the ‘social conscience of Islam’, but it serves to a wider interest to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The relief provided by this initiative, its charitable and educational activities have played an important role in development of the Ismaili community and areas where they live. Although religious teachings in relation to society at large must change to fit the needs of the times, there are certain fundamental moral and ethical teachings that are common to all “Earth’s great faiths”. The Aga Khan has, thus, urged modern society to adopt what he calls a “cosmopolitan ethic” which, he says, is “an ethic for all peoples.” The scope of the consensus for defining cosmopolitan ethic, however, should be limited to the ethical framework prescribed by those faiths, and in particular, in his case, Islam. Significantly, the Holy Prophet’s own life and the Quran provides the basic ethical framework which clearly outlines the mandate of AKDN:

  • Help people move beyond dependency and become self-reliant. improvement of the Quality of Life (QoL), which encompasses improvements in material standards of living, health and education and a set of values and norms which include pluralism and cultural tolerance, gender and social equity, civil society organisation and good governance.
  • Supporting robust civil society institutions founded on the ethics and values that drive progress and positive change of education, health, science and research, and culture that harness the private energies of citizens committed to the public good.
  • Bringing together a number of activities designed to address the problems of human habitat and climate adaptation, including safe housing design and earthquake-resistant construction, village planning and natural hazard mitigation, water supply and sanitation, and improved indoor living conditions, mainly in rural communities.
  • Building the capacities of individuals, groups, educational institutions and governments to promote indigenous approaches to pluralism in their own countries and communities. [3]

The mandate of the AKDN is NOT completely a charity work, since it is based on the idea to make people self-sufficient, to create, what Ismaili Imam would call “an enabling environment” that helps to improve social conditions of the people without respect to faith, caste, or color.

“What Muslim Society is to be in times to come? Earlier, in Pakistan, on March 12, 1976, in his presidential address to International Sirat Conference, the Aga Khan highlighted one aspect where Muslims can live in the years ahead in a greater peace, greater prosperity within an ‘Islamic ethos’ — and the sole way to it, in the words of Aga Khan, to be sought “in the Holy Qur’an and in the example of Allah’s last and final Prophet.”

As he said:

“The Holy Prophet’s life gives us every fundamental guideline that we require to resolve the problem as successfully as our human minds and intellects can visualize. His example of integrity, loyalty, honesty, generosity both of means and of time, his solicitude for the poor, the weak and the sick, his steadfastness in friendship, his humility in success, his magnanimity in victory, his simplicity, his wisdom in conceiving new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam, surely all these are foundations which, correctly understood and sincerely interpreted, must enable us to conceive what should be a truly modern and dynamic Islamic Society in the years ahead.”

What we see in the core of Prophet Muhammad’s mission of bringing social reform is certainly articulated in the Quranic message of achieving a moral order through a ‘mediating community’. 2:143 . One example of translating the ethics of ‘giving’ into a permanent trust, is reflected in what earlier Muslims established through an institutional framework a system of awqaf. The Quran and the Sunna both make it obligatory, through institutionalizing the duty of Zakat and other means, making a Muslim’s moral imperative to develop a social conscience and to share individual and communal resources with the less privileged of the society.

The Ismaili Imamat’s mandate thus appears to meet the end purpose of Shari’a, i.e., enhancing quality of life, helping weaker sections of the society to become self-sufficient, and all in all, sustaining and enhancing human existence.


  1. Azim Nanji, Islamic Ethics
  2. The Rise of the Islamic Reformist Thought and its Challenge to Traditional Islam Basheer M. Nafi, Islamic thought in the Twentieth Century, P29
  3. Visit official website of AKDN

Further Readings:

The Shari‘a: History, Ethics and Law by Dr Amyn Sajoo

Author: ismailimail

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

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