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The Harvard Remarks of the Aga Khan


His Highness the Aga Khan 
Photograph by Jon Chase/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

His Highness the Aga Khan 
Photograph by Jon Chase/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

During his Jodidi Lecture at Harvard’s Memorial Church, co-sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Prince Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program, on November 12, His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims (and a member of the College class of 1959), addressed an issue, already rising steadily in prominence, that in recent weeks has been caught in the heated extremes of American presidential campaign rhetoric.

Before the address, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures Ali Asani, the director of Harvard’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic studies program, spoke in a Weatherhead Center interview about addressing religious illiteracy and fostering pluralism. Asked about popular perceptions of Islam, he said:

We are witnessing an ideological competition, a battle between different interpretations of the faith, which profoundly impacts popular perceptions of the faith. His Highness the Aga Khan espouses a cosmopolitan vision of Islam which embraces religious, ethnic, and cultural diversities. Others interpretations of Islam are ahistorical and acultural in their approach, often defining it through negative or purely ideological terms.

Several such groups are opposed to the cultural arts and music. They go around destroying our shared human cultural heritage. They have their reasons for doing so, grounded in their context, but their highly ideological and polarizing vision of Islam contrasts starkly with the Aga Khan’s vision, which promotes the arts through various initiatives such as the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture, jointly administered by Harvard and MIT; the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which is engaged in restoring historic monuments in several cities in Africa and Asia; and the Aga Khan Music Initiative.

Asani put the Aga Khan’s work into perspective this way:

The Aga Khan talks about how the Qur’an itself embraces pluralism, diversity, and differences of opinion. For example, one verse [49:13] says, “We [God] have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another,” or to that effect depending on how one translates it.

The purpose of God creating difference in human society—whether it is gender difference, or ethnic, or any kind—is supposed to be an occasion for learning and knowledge. Through that knowledge, as we engage with “the other,” we see that we’re actually engaging with other viewpoints and in the process coming to know ourselves better. It’s not meant to eliminate difference. It’s used to celebrate difference and engage with it in a very positive way.

In his remarks, titled “The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World,” the Aga Khan recalled his personal experience as a student, and addressed the polarization and fear that have poisoned discourse and understanding among peoples of different faiths and traditions. Excerpts follow.

From Boyhood, as Student and Imam, to a Life Promoting Opportunity

Now, you may have been wondering just what I have been doing over these past six decades since I left the Harvard playing fields. Let me begin by saying a word about that topic.

As you know, I was born into a Muslim family, linked by heredity to the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him and his family). My education blended Islamic and Western traditions in my early years and at Harvard, where I majored in Islamic History. And in 1957 I was a junior when I became the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims—when my grandfather designated me to succeed him.

What does it mean to become an Imam in the Ismaili tradition? To begin with, it is an inherited role of spiritual leadership. As you may know, the Ismailis are the only Muslim community that has been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from Prophet Muhammad.

That spiritual role, however, does not imply a separation from practical responsibilities. In fact for Muslims the opposite is true: the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Leadership in the spiritual realm—for all Imams, whether they are Sunni or Shia—implies responsibility in worldly affairs; a calling to improve the quality of human life. And that is why so much of my energy over these years has been devoted to the work of the Aga Khan Development Network.

The AKDN, as we call it, centers its attention in the developing world. And it is from this developing world’s perspective, that I speak to you today. So what I will be referring to is knowledge that I have gained from the developing world of Africa, Asia, the Middle East. What I will be speaking about has little to do with the industrialized West.

Through all of these years, my objective has been to understand more thoroughly the developing countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and to prepare initiatives that will help them become countries of opportunity, for all of their peoples.

As I prepared for this new role in the late 1950s, Harvard was very helpful. The University allowed me—having prudently verified that I was a student “in good standing”—to take 18 months away to meet the leaders of the Ismaili community in some 25 countries where most of the Ismailis then lived, and to speak with their government leaders.

I returned here after that experience with a solid sense of the issues I would have to address, especially the endemic poverty in which much of my community lived. And I also returned with a vivid sense of the new political realities that were shaping their lives, including the rise of African independence movements, the perilous relations between India and Pakistan and the sad fact that many Ismailis were locked behind the Iron Curtain and thus removed from regular contact with the Imamat.

When I returned to Harvard, it was not only to complete my degree, but I was fortunate to audit a number of courses that were highly relevant to my new responsibilities. So as an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to benefit from the complete spectrum of courses offered by this great university.

Incidentally, I must have been the only Harvard undergraduate to have two secretaries and a personal assistant working with me. And I have always been very proud of the fact that I never sent any of them to take notes for me at my class!

…Today, the Aga Khan Development Network embraces many facets and functions. But, if I were trying to sum up in a single word its central objective, I would focus on the word “opportunity.” For what the peoples of the developing world seek above all else is hope for a better future.

Too often however, true opportunity has been a distant hope—perhaps for some, not even more than a dream. Endemic poverty, in my view, remains the world’s single most important challenge. It is manifested in many ways, including persistent refugee crises of the sort we have recently seen in such an acute form.….

Sixty years ago as I took up my responsibilities, the problems of the developing world, for many observers, seemed intractable. It was widely claimed that places like China and India were destined to remain among the world’s “basket cases”—incapable of feeding themselves let alone being able to industrialise or achieve economic self-sustainability. If this had been true, of course, then there would have been no way for the people of my community, in India and China and in many other places, to look for a better future.

Political realities presented further complications. Most of the poorest countries were living under distant colonial or protectorate or communist regimes. The monetary market was totally unpredictable. Volatile currencies were shifting constantly in value, making it almost impossible to plan ahead. And while I thought of all the Ismailis as part of one religious community, the realities of their daily lives were deeply distinctive and decidedly local.

Nor did most people yet see the full potential for addressing these problems through non-profit, private organizations—what we today call “civil society.”

And yet, it was also clear that stronger coordination across these lines of division could help open new doors of opportunity. We could see how renovated educational systems, based on best practices, could reach across frontiers of politics and language. We could see how global science could address changing medical challenges, including the growing threat of non-communicable disease. We could see, in sum, how a truly pluralistic outlook could leverage the best experiences of local communities through an effective international network.

But we also learned that the creation of effective international networks in a highly diversified environment can be a daunting matter. It took a great deal of considered effort to meld older values of continuity and local cohesion, with the promise of new cross-border integration.

What was required — and is still required—was a readiness to work across frontiers of distinction and distance without trying to erase them. What we were looking for, even then, were ways of building an effective “cosmopolitan ethic in a fragmented world.”

… Today [the AKDN] embraces a group of agencies—non-governmental and non-denominational—operating in 35 countries. They work in fields ranging from education and medical care, to job creation and energy production; from transport and tourism, to media and technology; from the fine arts and cultural heritage, to banking and microfinance. But they are all working together toward a single overarching objective: improving the quality of human life.

Opposing “Tribal Wariness” with a Vision of Diversity as an “ Opportunity To Be Welcomed”

When the Jodidi Lectureship was established here in 1955, its explicit purpose (and I quote) was “the promotion of tolerance, understanding and good will among nations.” And that seemed to be the way history was moving. Surely, we thought, we had learned the terrible price of division and discord, and certainly the great technological revolutions of the twentieth century would bring us more closely together.

In looking back to my Harvard days, I recall how a powerful sense of technological promise was in the air—a faith that human invention would continue its ever-accelerating conquest of time and space. I recall too, how this confidence was accompanied by what was described as a “revolution of rising expectations” and the fall of colonial empires. And of course, this trend seemed to culminate some years later with the end of the Cold War and the “new world order” that it promised.

But even as old barriers crumbled and new connections expanded, a paradoxical trend set in, one that we see today at every hand. At the same time that the world was becoming more interconnected, it also became more fragmented.

We have been mesmerized on one hand by the explosive pace of what we call “globalization,” a centripetal force putting us as closely in touch with people who live across the world as we are to those who live next to us. But at the same time, a set of centrifugal forces have been gaining on us, producing a growing sense—between and within societies—of disintegration.

Whether we are looking at a more fragile European Union, a more polarized United States, a more fervid Sunni-Shia conflict, intensified tribal rivalries in much of Africa and Asia, or other splintering threats in every corner of the planet, the word “fragmentation” seems to define our times.

Global promise, it can be said, has been matched by tribal wariness. We have more communication, but we also have more confrontation. Even as we exclaim about growing connectivity we seem to experience greater disconnection.

Perhaps what we did not see so clearly 60 years ago is the fact that technological advance does not necessarily mean human progress. Sometimes it can mean the reverse.

The more we communicate, the harder it can sometimes be to evaluate what we are saying. More information often means less context and more confusion. More than that, the increased pace of human interaction means that we encounter the stranger more often, and more directly. What is different is no longer abstract and distant. Even for the most tolerant among us, difference, more and more, can be up close and in your face.

What all of this means is that the challenge of living well together—a challenge as old as the human race—can seem more and more complicated. And so we ask ourselves, what are the resources that we might now draw upon to counter this trend? How can we go beyond our bold words and address the mystery of why our ideals still elude us?

In responding to that question, I would ask you to think with me about the term I have used in the title for this lecture: “The Cosmopolitan Ethic.”

For a very long time, as you know, the term most often used in describing the search for human understanding was the word “tolerance.” In fact, it was one of the words that was used in 1955 text to describe one of the objectives of this Jodidi Lecture.

In recent years our vocabulary in discussing this subject has evolved. One word that we have come to use more often in this regard is the word “pluralism.” And the other is the word “cosmopolitan.”

…A pluralist, cosmopolitan society is a society which not only accepts difference, but actively seeks to understand it and to learn from it. In this perspective, diversity is not a burden to be endured, but an opportunity to be welcomed.

A cosmopolitan society regards the distinctive threads of our particular identities as elements that bring beauty to the larger social fabric. A cosmopolitan ethic accepts our ultimate moral responsibility to the whole of humanity, rather than absolutizing a presumably exceptional part.

Perhaps it is a natural condition of an insecure human race to seek security in a sense of superiority. But in a world where cultures increasingly interpenetrate one another, a more confident and a more generous outlook is needed.

What this means, perhaps above all else, is a readiness to participate in a true dialog with diversity, not only in our personal relationships, but in institutional and international relationships also. But that takes work, and it takes patience. Above all, it implies a readiness to listen.

What is needed, as the former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson has said, and I quote, is a readiness “to listen to your neighbor, even when you may not particularly like him.” Is that message clear? You listen to people you don’t like!

A thoughtful cosmopolitan ethic is something quite different from some attitudes that have become associated with the concept of globalization in recent years. Too often, that term has been linked to an abstract universalism, perhaps well-meaning but often naïve. In emphasizing all that the human race had in common, it was easy to depreciate the identities that differentiated us. We sometimes talked so much about how we are all alike that we neglected the wonderful ways in which we can be different.

One result of this superficial view of homogenized, global harmony, was an unhappy counter-reaction. Some took it to mean the spread of a popular, Americanized global culture—that was unfair and an assessment that was erroneous. Others feared that their individual, ethnic or religious identities might be washed away by a super-competitive economic order, or by some supranational political regime. And the frequent reaction was a fierce defense of older identities. If cooperation meant homogenization, then a lot of people found themselves saying “No.”

But an either-or-choice between the global and the tribal—between the concept of universal belonging and the value of particular identities—was in fact a false choice. The road to a more cooperative world does not require us to erase our differences, but to understand them.

A responsible, thoughtful process of globalization, in my view, is one that is truly cosmopolitan, respecting both what we have in common and what makes us different.

It is perhaps in our nature to see life as a series of choices between sharply defined dualities, but in fact life is more often a matter of avoiding false dichotomies, which can lead to dangerous extremes. The truth of the matter is that we can address the dysfunctions of fragmentation without obscuring the values of diversity.

A cosmopolitan ethic will also be sensitive to the problem of economic insecurity in our world. It is an enormous contributing factor to the problems I have been discussing. Endemic poverty still corrodes any meaningful sense of opportunity for many millions. And even in less impoverished societies, a rising tide of economic anxiety can make it difficult for fearful people to respect, let alone embrace, that which is new or different.…

All of these considerations will place special obligations on those who play leadership roles in our societies. Sadly, some would-be leaders all across the world have been tempted to exploit difference and magnify division. It is always easier to unite followers in a negative cause than a positive one. But the consequences can be a perilous polarization.

The information explosion itself has sometimes become an information glut, putting even more of a premium on being first and getting attention, rather than being right and earning respect. It is not easy to retain one’s faith in a healthy, cosmopolitan marketplace of ideas when the flow of information is increasingly trivialized.

One answer to these temptations will be found, I am convinced, in the quality of our education. It will lie with our universities at one end of the spectrum, and early childhood education at the other—a field to which our Development Network has been giving special attention.

Let me mention one more specific issue where a sustained educational effort will be especially important. I refer to the debate—one that has involved many in this audience—about the prospect of some fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. In my view, the deeper problem behind any prospective “clash of civilizations” is a profound “clash of ignorances.” And in that struggle, education will be an indispensable weapon.

Finally, I would emphasize that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that resonates with the world’s great ethical and religious traditions.

A passage from the Holy Quran that has been central to my life is addressed to the whole of humanity. It says: “Oh Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women…”

At the very heart of the Islamic faith is a conviction that we are all born “of a single soul.” We are “spread abroad” to be sure in all of our diversity, but we share, in a most profound sense, a common humanity.

This outlook has been central to the history of Islam. For many hundreds of years, the greatest Islamic societies were decidedly pluralistic, drawing strength from people of many religions and cultural backgrounds. My own ancestors, the Fatimid Caliphs, founded the city of Cairo, and the great Al Azhar University there, a thousand years ago in this same spirit.

That pluralistic outlook remains a central ideal for most Muslims today.

There are many, of course, some non-Muslims and some Muslims alike, who have perpetrated different impressions.

At the same time, institutions such as those that have welcomed me here today, have eloquently addressed these misimpressions. My hope is that the voices of Islam itself will continue to remind the world of a tradition that, over so many centuries, has so often advanced pluralistic outlooks and built some of the most remarkable societies in human history.

Let me repeat, in conclusion, that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that will honor both our common humanity and our distinctive identities—each reinforcing the other as part of the same high moral calling.

The central lesson of my own personal journey—over many miles and many years—is the indispensability of such an ethic in our changing world, based on the timeless truth that we are—each of us and all of us—“born of a single soul.”

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