THE DILEMMA THAT FACES THE ISMAILIS - 1965-12-01
Q- Am I right that the Ismaili Faith is an esoteric one, that's to say, only real scholars and experts have read all the crucial texts that enable them to understand the inner nature of your religion?
A- "Yes, this is so."
Q- Do you consider yourself expert in these?
A- "Certainly. I think my grandfather ensured that we had a thorough knowledge of the important books."
Q- Do you think if you hadn't become Aga Khan you might have made a successful engineer? Or businessman?
A- "Who can tell?"
Q- Do you feel happier here in the West, or in the East?
A- "I feel happier, personally, in the East. But I must stay here to retain a certain detachment from individual Ismaili communities."
Q- Do you sometimes feel pushed one way by your feelings as a modern Western educated man and another way by your religion?
Q- Which way do you choose?
A- "How can I generalize?"
Q- You've told me the ways in which your Faith makes it easier to come to terms with the modern world. Are there any ways in which it is more difficult?
A- "Islam is a way of life, much more than Christianity. That's an old, boring thing to say, but it's true. Now if we are to modernize our society we have to come into contact with totally different traditions.
A- :"Basically the Ismaili Muslims have a choice between the Communist East, which would prevent us teaching our children the Faith, and the West, which has a set of materialistic and religious standards which are often at variance with ours.
A- "Imagine our difficulties seeing a civilization which is at least twenty years ahead of us in roads, hospitals, and standards of living, but which if we imitate too closely will obliterate the reality of our Faith.
A- "Sometimes we are faced with the choice of either accepting habits and customs which have proved economically successful in the West, but go against what our Faith tells us to do, or continuing in our old ways, thus jeopardizing our economic development.
A- "I'll give you a simple example. One of our factories making jute, for instance, in East Pakistan. In a Western society a factory like that is working 24 hours a day, six days a week all year round.
A- "I think if it was, say a steel factory in a time of national emergency, of war or something like that, then I would advise them to work during Ramadan.
A- "If it were peace, and the production were not so vital, then I would advise them to observe Ramadan.
A- "But the real question is, where does one stop? If we are always importing from the West techniques to develop our economies, how can we stop importing alien ideas?
A- "You can imagine the problem. Every time we send our young men to Western universities seven out of ten of them come back with alien traditions and tendencies of which they may be unconscious."
Q- You were a young man who went to Western university. Did this happen to you?
A- "Yes, Perhaps. But I think I understand the difficulties and hope to have overcome them."
Q- In all Christian societies the Churches are having to cope with increasing scepticism, particularly among the young. Some are modifying their doctrines, some are becoming more authoritarian. What happened with the Ismailis?
A- "If one's faith is to be part of one's life then it has to come under questioning. The essential is that it should be understood, that's what would justify questioning.
Q- Never a moment of doubt?
A- "No, never a moment. In fact if anything, I think my faith has become stronger and stronger."
Q- It is on the subject of his personal life and interests that the Aga Khan is at times unforthcoming.
Why should he seek to justify what he wants to do personally, he argues, to curious Westerners who have no conception or understanding of his life and religion?
He doesn't seek publicity (this was his first interview for over two years), and he has absolutely no need to justify himself to the West.
But when I suggested to him that if -- none the less -- he should ever feel tempted to win ungrudging approval in Western countries he had chosen the wrong hobbies, the Aga Khan was quick to take the point.
The image-building personal projects an efficient Western public relations officer would persuade him to start would be, say, a hospital, an art gallery, a refrigerator factory and a charitable foundation.
Such institutions would, at one stroke, make people feel he was utterly serious, dedicated, and progressive.
On the other hand the two activities most calculated, in public relations terms, to win envy and perhaps hostility, were horse-racing and luxury tourism.
A- "There are seven stud farms in Ireland, five in France, a manager in Ireland, two managers in France, a trainer in France and more than 100 faithful staff, and between 280 and 290 horses.
A- "As a sport it was nothing to me. But I waited for six months and turned it over in my mind -- I was well aware what certain people would think if I carried it on and what others would think if the stables disappeared -- and in the end I decided I could reorganize my life to include horse-racing, that it was worth it."
Q- Doesn't such an institution run itself?
A- "No, one must follow that thing, thoroughly. For this reason I live in Paris for three months each year, in April, May and June -- really there for the horse-racing."
Q- I imagine you must meet many useful Western business contants at the race track?
A- "Certainly I do."
Q- At the Jockey Club in Paris and Newmarket?
A- "No I'm not a member either."
Q- Have you come to enjoy it?
A- "I certainly do."
"I'll tell you something, suppose by nature I love creation, and horse-racing is one of the most creative things a man can enjoy. Each year you are creating new race horses.