Interview of H.H. The Aga Khan by AlWatan, Syria - 2008-08-27
Emphasizing that Investment in Culture is Principle in Development,
Prince Karim Aga Khan, in an Exclusive Interview with ‘Al Watan’: My Visit to Syria is Very Special to Me
By Waddah Abed Rabo
Prince Karim Aga Khan, the Imam of the Ismaili Muslim, has accentuated the
importance of his visit to Syria for ‘it is very special’ to him. In an interview by ‘Al Watan’, he says: I have had the pleasure of visiting Syria on numerous occasions and Jam very happy to be here at the invitation of the Syrian Government - as you know, the Ismaili Imamat and community have been linked to Syria for many centuries.
As a founder of the Aga Khan Development Network, Prince Aga Khan spoke about it and about its activities in Syria. He further praised ‘Syria ‘s rich and pluralistic cultural heritage’ that ‘makes our projects here particularly interesting and encouraging ones.’
Prince Karim Aga Khan hoped to ‘launch several new initiatives in the fields of
culture, tourism, healthcare, education and micro finance with the kind support of the Syrian Government.’
Prince Karim Aga Khan suggested that ‘cultural revitalisation can provide a socioeconomic catalyst for the overall improvement of a district ‘ and that ‘the
improvements to the cultural heritage went hand in hand with the creation of
economic opportunities for local people and the improvement of social services such as health and education.’. He also added that ‘investing in cultures and value systems, and making them effective in the contemporary context is, I think, a major aspect of
1. What is the nature of Your Highness’ visit to Syria and what are the specific objectives of Your Highness’s visit to Syria?
I have had the pleasure of visiting Syria on numerous occasions and I am very happy to be here at the invitation of the Syrian Government, on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of my accession to the hereditary office of the Shia Ismaili Imamat. I met with President Al-Assad yesterday, and over the next few days, I will meet the Prime Minister and his various cabinet colleagues and leaders to review and discuss the work undertaken by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in Syria. We also hope to launch several new initiatives in the fields of culture, tourism, healthcare, education and microfinance with the kind support of the Syrian Government. The visit to Syria is a very special one for me as you know, the Ismaili Imamat and community have been linked to Syria for many centuries.
2. What can you tell us about the Park project?
We are exploring with the Governorate of Aleppo the scope for creating a major urban park on the edge of the old city (adjacent to the historic gateway of Bab Qinnesrine). A park project would focus on an improvement in the quality of life of the Old City’s residents and on the creation of high quality facilities for its visitors. Such a project would be part of an urban regeneration project in the nearby Qalat al-Sharif neighbourhood. A park could lead to the revitalisation of the area, much as similar programmes have already improved the quality of life in parts of Kabul and Cairo. Such projects are also under development in India, Zanzibar and Mali.
The Park builds on a programme that began in 2000, when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, in cooperation with the Syrian General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums, began work on the Citadels of Aleppo and Masyaf, and the Castle of Salah ad-Din. We are here to mark the completion of that work as well.
3. How long has AKDN been present in the country? What types of work has it undertaken?
AKDN involvement began in 1999, when the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities and Museums asked the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to provide technical assistance for the conservation and reuse of a number of historic citadel sites in the country. The Citadels of Aleppo and Masyaf and the Castle of Salah ad-Din were selected for this restoration work. These projects, as well as our many other activities -- in rural development, economic promotion, healthcare, education and microfinance, all form part of our multi-input strategy, and are undertaken within a Framework for Development Cooperation Agreement, between AKDN and the Government of Syria, which was ratified by the Syrian Parliament in 2002.
4. Why is restoration work such as what has been carried out on the Aleppo citadels, important?
We have found, in a number of settings in the Muslim world, that cultural revitalisation can provide a socio-economic catalyst for the overall improvement of a district. These historic sites are potential economic and social dynamos. They are not frozen, paralysed historic assets. They are assets that can actually contribute to the quality of life of the people who live in those contexts. We have seen this work in Cairo, where we built a park and restored a number of cultural monuments in one of the poorest areas of the City. We have seen this work when we restored the Gardens of Humayun’s tomb in Delhi. In both places, the improvements to the cultural heritage went hand in hand with the creation of economic opportunities for local people and the improvement of social services such as health and education. This has led to a general revitalisation of the area. Syria’s rich and pluralistic cultural heritage makes our projects here particularly interesting and encouraging ones.
Aleppo, with its rich history, is an important site to preserve not only as a part of Syrian identity and culture, but as a part of the Worlds patrimony. One third of all World Heritage sites are in the Muslim world, but many of them are not properly maintained. I believe it is our duty to restore and preserve this heritage because it is part of our culture. If this culture is destroyed or altered in ways which are not compatible with peoples thinking, the way they live, you find all sorts of disjunctions and dysfunctions. Society becomes dysfunctional. So investing in cultures and value systems, and making them effective in the contemporary context is, I think, a major aspect of development. This is a view which is today increasingly embraced by governments, and civil society.
5. Your Highness’ name is associated with the name of the network that has been. working actively in over 25 countries around the world. What is the philosophy behind this network and its various activities?
Islam, as you know, is a way of life where Din and Duniya are equally important and neither of them is to be forsaken. Since the birth of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, there has been a tradition of leadership in which the Imam, whether Shia or Sunni, is responsible for the interpretation of the faith but also for the security and well being of the people. Consistent with this 1400-year tradition of Muslim leadership, as Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, I am to be concerned with the quality of life of the Community and those amongst whom it lives.
Over many centuries and decades, that responsibility of the Imamat has entailed the creation of institutions to address issues of the quality of life of the time, and it today includes a number of non-governmental organisations, foundations and economic development agencies. The vast majority of the community now lives in countries from Afghanistan, Western China and the newly emerging nations of Central Asia, through Iran and the Middle East, to sub Saharan Africa, with a recently established substantial presence in Europe and North America.
In these countries, the quality of life is determined by a number of different factors that are, in my view, not limited to the World Bank indicators on longevity, or health, or the economic welfare of an individual, or a community.
To the Imamat, the meaning of “quality of life” extends to the entire ethical and social context in which people live, and not only to their material well-being, measured generation after generation. Consequently, the Imamat’s is a holistic vision of development, as is prescribed by the faith of Islam. It is about investing in people, in their pluralism, in their intellectual pursuit, and search for new and useful knowledge, just as much as in material resources. But it is also about investing with a social conscience inspired by the ethics of Islam. It is work that benefits all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality or background.
About His Highness the Aga Khan
His Highness the Aga Khan became Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims on July 11, 1957 at the age of 20, succeeding his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan. He is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through his cousin and son in-law, Au, the first Imam, and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.
Son of Prince Aly Khan and Princess Tajuddawlah Aly Khan, the Aga Khan was born on
December 13, 1936, in Geneva. He spent his early childhood in Nairobi, Kenya, and then
attended Le Rosey School in Switzerland for nine years. He graduated from Harvard
University in 1959 with a BA Honors Degree in Islamic history.
Like his grandfather Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan before him, the Aga Khan has, since assuming the office of Imamat in 1957, been concerned about the well-being of all Muslims, particularly in the face of the challenges of rapid historical changes. Today, the Ismailis live in some 25 countries, mainly in West and Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as well as in North America and Western Europe. Over the four decades since the present Aga Khan became Imam, there have been major political and economic changes in most of these areas. He has adapted the complex system of administering the Ismaili community, pioneered by his grandfather during the colonial era, to a new world of nation-states, which has grown in size and complexity following the independence of the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union.
The Aga Khan has emphasised the view of Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith: one that teaches compassion and tolerance and that upholds the dignity of man, Allah’s noblest creation. In the Shia tradition of Islam, it is the mandate of the Imam of the time to safeguard the individual’s right to personal intellectual search and to give practical expression to the ethical vision of society that the Islamic message inspires. Addressing as Chairman, the International Conference on the Example (Seerat) of the Prophet Muhammad in Karachi in 1976, the Aga Khan said that the wisdom of Allah’s final Prophet in seeking new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, provides the inspiration for Muslims to conceive a truly modern and dynamic society, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam.
During the course of history, the Ismailis have, under the guidance of their Imams, made major contributions to the growth of Islamic civilisation. The University of Al-Azhar and the Academy of Science, Dar al-Ilm, in Cairo and indeed the city of Cairo itself, exemplify their contributions to the cultural, religious and intellectual life of Muslims. Among the renowned philosophers, jurists, physicians, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists of the past who flourished under the patronage of Ismaili Imams are Qadi al-Numan, al-Kirmani, lbn alHaytham (al-Hazen), Nasir e-Khusraw and Nasir al-Din Tusi.
Achievements of the Fatimid Empire dominate accounts of the early period of Ismaili history, roughly from the beginnings of Islam through the 11th century. Named after the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, the Fatimid dynasty created a state that stimulated the development of art, science, and trade in the Mediterranean Near East over two centuries. Its centre was Cairo, founded by the Fatimids as their capital. Following the Fatimid period, the Ismaili Muslims’ geographical centre shifted from Egypt to Syria and Persia. After their centre Alamut (in Persia), fell to Mongol conquerors in the 13th century, Ismailis lived for several centuries in dispersed communities, mainly in Persia and Central Asia but also in Syria, India and elsewhere. In the 1 830s, Aga Hassanaly Shah, the 46th Ismaili Imam, was granted the honorary hereditary title of Aga Khan by the Shah of Persia. Tn 1 843, the first Aga Khan left Persia for India, which already had a large Ismaili community. Aga Khan TI died in 1885, only four years after assuming the Imamat. He was succeeded by the present Aga Khan’s grandfather, and predecessor as Imam, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan
In recent generations, the Aga Khan’s family has followed a tradition of service in international affairs. The Aga Khan’s grandfather was President of the League of Nations and his father, Prince Aly Khan, was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations. His uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, was the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations’ Coordinator for assistance to Afghanistan and United Nations’ Executive Delegate of Iraq-Turkey border areas.
The Aga Khan’s younger brother, Prince Amyn, served in the United Nations Secretariat’s
Department of Economic and Social Affairs from 1965 to 1968. He received his MA in
Comparative Literature from Harvard in 1963. He subsequently spent two years as a teaching
fellow and completed the oral and written examinations for a PhD, before leaving Harvard in
1964. Since 1968, Prince Amyn has been closely involved with the governance of the
principal development institutions of the Imamat. He is a Director of the Aga Khan
Foundation (AKF) and a member of the board of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic
Development (AKFED) and Chairman of its Executive Committee. In the 1960s, Prince
Amyn launched the Tourism Promotion Services (TPS). He is also a Director of the Aga
Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).
The Aga Khan’s eldest child and daughter, Princess Zahra, graduated from Harvard in 1994 with a BA (Honours) Degree in Development Studies, and is the Head of the Social Welfare Department (SWD) located within the Secretariat of the Aga Khan in France. She has policy and management responsibility for the health, education, and planning and building service companies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). She also plays a key policy role with respect to the other social development institutions of the Network.
His eldest son, Prince Rahirn, serves as Executive Director of the Aga Khan Fund for
Economic Development (AKFED) and has particular responsibility for the Fund’s activities in
West Africa. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Comparative Literature from Brown
University, Rhode Island, USA, and has attended an executive development programme in
Management and Administration at the University of Navarra IESE Business School in
The Aga Khan’s second son, Prince Hussain, graduated from Williams College (USA) with a
Bachelor of Arts degree and has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia’s
School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) where his main area of study was Economic
and Political Development with a regional focus on the Middle East and North Africa.
His youngest son Prince Aly Muhammad was born in 2000.
In consonance with this vision of Islam and a long-standing tradition of service to humanity, the Ismailis have elaborated a well-defined institutional framework to build capacity and improve the quality of life within the communities in which they live. Under the Aga Khan’s leadership, this framework expanded and evolved into the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of institutions working to improve living conditions and opportunities in specific regions of the developing world. In every country, these institutions work for the common good of all citizens regardless of their origin or religion. Their individual mandates range from architecture, education and health to the promotion of private sector enterprise, the enhancement of non-government organizations and rural development.
As part of the commemoration of His Highness the Aga Khan’s Golden Jubilee which began on 1 ith July 2007, he has been paying official visits to some 35 countries, using these occasions to recognize the friendship and longstanding support of leaders of state, government and other partners in the work of the Ismaili Imamat, and to set the direction for the future, including the launching and laying of foundations for major initiatives and programmes.