The Aga Khan’s Perspectives: Pluralism and Acquisition of Knowledge

Chand Raat of Safar 1443 – 7th of September 2021

By: Sadruddin Noorani, Chicago, USA

His Highness the Aga Khan shares his wisdom with the Ummah and humanity at large through ideas, perspectives, and views on diverse subjects such as meritocracy, civil society, pluralism, ethic of inclusiveness, and the acquisition of knowledge through speeches and interviews. These ideas serve as windows to understand his vision for the future. One of his favorite themes is the concept of Pluralism.

Pluralism is defined as the co-existence, within a nation or society, of groups distinctive in ethnic origin, cultural patterns, belief & value system, and religion. Conscious effort is required by individuals, communities, societies and nations to preserve the plurality within the society in which we live.

His Highness’ vision on pluralism is best summarized in his speech made at the Canadian Museum of Civilization on 19th May 2004: “Pluralism means peoples of diverse backgrounds and interests, coming together in organizations of varying types and goals, for different kinds and forms of creative expression, which are valuable and deserving of support by government and society as a whole.”

In another speech at the inauguration of the conference entitled “Word of God, Art of Man” at the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) he said “The Noble Qur’an extends its principle of pluralism also to adherents of other faiths. It affirms that each has a direction and path to which they turn so that all should strive for good works.” The rejection of pluralism on the other hand, the Aga Khan says “…plays a significant role in breeding destructive conflicts. Examples are scattered across the world’s map: in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Europe, in the Americas. No continent has been spared from the tragedies of death, of misery and of the persecution of minorities.” The Leadership and Diversity Conference Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, 19th May 2004.

On the other hand, regarding acceptance of pluralism in our societies, he says, “I deeply believe that our collective conscience must accept that pluralism is no less important than human rights for ensuring peace, successful democracy and better quality of life.” Canada, 19th May 2004.

How do we achieve and strengthen the acceptance of pluralism? The Aga Khan’s advice on this is: “A secure pluralistic society requires communities that are educated and confident both in the identity and depth of their own traditions and in those of their neighbors.” Canada, 19th May 2004. His guidance is that “…differences must be resolved through tolerance, through understanding, through compassion, through dialogue, through forgiveness,  through generosity, all of which represent the ethics of Islam.” Salamieh, Syria, 10th November 2001.

Acquisition of Knowledge in Islam

Abu Hurairah (r.a.) (603-678) reported the Holy Prophet as saying: “Whoever takes a path upon which to obtain knowledge, Allah makes the path to Paradise easy for him.”

It was narrated from Anas ibn Malik (r.a.) (612-709) that the Messenger of Allah said: “Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim, and he who passes knowledge to those who do not deserve it, is like one who puts a necklace of jewels, pearls and gold around the neck of swines.”

Man has been endowed with intellect. Acquiring good education is one of the ways of nurturing that intellect. Applying this education for the benefit of others serves the spiritual purpose of our knowledge. In a speech made by Aga Khan at the opening session of ‘Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur’an and its Creative Expression‘ on 19th October 2003, he said: “The Qur’an itself acknowledges that people upon whom wisdom has been bestowed are the recipients of abundant good; they are the exalted ones. Hence Islam’s consistent encouragement to Muslim men and women to seek knowledge wherever it is to be found. We are all familiar that al-Kindi, even in the 9th century, saw no shame in acknowledging and assimilating the truth, whatever its source. He argues that truth never abases, but only ennobles its seeker.”

Source: 1001 Inventions (YouTube)

Historically, Muslim societies have reached the greatest heights in science, medicine, astronomy, arts, architecture, and philosophy, due to the constant endeavor amongst Muslim thinkers, philosophers, and scientists to acquire new knowledge. But this has not been the case for many centuries. Ignorance has spread darkness in societies that were once the torchbearers of knowledge. Referring to this state, in his speech made at the convocation of the AKU in 1985, the Aga Khan said: “…In certain educational institutions, respect for tradition has restricted academic study to the accomplishment of the past. However, our faith has never been restricted to one place or time. Ever since its revelation, the fundamental concepts of Islam have been its universality and the fact that this is the last revelation, constantly valid, and not petrified into one period of man’s history or confined to one area of the world.”

The Aga Khan wants Muslim societies to recognize that only education of young Muslim men and women will dispel this darkness. In his speech at the IIS’s 25th anniversary graduation ceremony, he said: “One of the challenges… is how education for Muslims can reclaim the inherent strengths that, at the height of their civilizations, equipped Muslim societies to excel in diverse areas of human endeavor. Clearly, the intellectual development of the Ummah, is, and should remain, a central goal to be pursued with urgency if we wish the Muslim world to regain its rightful place in the world civilization.” 

In 1983, at the charter ceremony of the Aga Khan University, Karachi, Aga Khan said: “My prayer is that the university we are now building will enable many generations of students to acquire both knowledge and the essential spiritual wisdom needed to balance that knowledge and enable their lives to attain the highest fulfillment.” In 1989, at the AKU convocation, Aga Khan further reinforced this notion by saying: “In Islamic belief, knowledge is two-fold. There is that revealed through the Holy Prophet (s.a.s.) and that which man discovers by virtue of his own intellect. Nor do these two involve any contradiction, provided man remembers that his own mind is itself the creation of God. Without this humility, no balance is possible. With it, there are no barriers.” 

Source: AKDN (YouTube)

The Ismaili Imamat institutions such as the Aga Khan University, University of Central Asia, and the network of Schools of Excellence exemplify the responses to the above issue of fostering intellectual and spiritual development that benefit the Ummah and human societies. Elaborating on the function of the Schools of Excellence in the speech made at the IIS, Aga Khan said: “As these young men and women grow into leadership positions in their own societies, including teaching future generations through their schools and universities, it is my hope that it will be these new generations of our intelligentsia, who, driven by their own knowledge and their own inspiration, will change their own societies and will gradually replace many of the external forces who today appear, and indeed sometimes seek, to control our destinies. These young men and women will become leaders in the institutions of civil society in their own countries, in international organizations, and in all those institutions, academic, economic and others, which cause positive change in our world.”

Underlining the ethical purpose of education, which has a service objective, the Aga Khan’s advice is to acquire knowledge to learn more about Allah’s creation and to then use it to serve Allah’s creation in the context of Islam’s teachings such as: generosity, humility, forgiveness, caring for the weak, etc.

To summarize: The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, is deeply concerned about improving the current situation in the Muslim societies. He is convinced that well-balanced education, coupled with respect for and practice of pluralism, can help uproot the evil of ignorance. (www.aku.edu)

Author: ismailimail

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

3 thoughts

  1. Very knowledgeable material. Reflects on Glorious days of Islam and Muslim Ummah and their contribution to modern civilization (Who refused to acknowledge,) BUT, the fact is our ancient/elders accomplished and contributed a lot to this civilization.

    Like

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