Interview of H.H. The Aga Khan by P2, Portugal - 2008-07
The Western world should accept that Islam does not separate the world from
He considers himself a spiritual leader as opposed to a powerful
businessman. He is interested in fighting poverty by promoting
self-sufficiency to people and culture. He believes that calling upon faith
in conflict situations affects all religions. The Aga Khan, spiritual leader
of the Ismaili Muslims, 71 years of age, rarely gives interviews. During his
passage through Lisbon, some days ago, he spoke to P2.
*By António Marujo and Faranaz Keshavjee*
Courteous, ever smiling, those who are close to him say he is demanding.
That is what happens in the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of
agencies working in fields such as micro-finance, rural development or even
in lucrative sectors such as tourism, aviation, banking or industry. Shah
Karim Al-Husseini. Aga Khan IV, as he designated by the Ismailis, took on
the role of 49th hereditary Imam of the Time (since Prophet Muhammad), on
July 11th 1957.
He was in Portugal, some days ago, to mark the conclusion of his Golden
*PÚBLICO - Within the religious context, the term "your sanctity" is used
when addressing a religious leader. Such is the case of the Pope or the
Dalai Lama. In your case, Your Highness is...*
*AGA KHAN - *yes, it is a secular title...
*...you are invited by Governments, you have a diplomatic statute, and you
are known for your personal wealth...*
...from what people say about my personal wealth. I can assure you that they
do not have access to my accounts. I can also say that, if at any given
time, the banks would lend me money based on what the news reports say, I
would be very rich! (Laughs). However, I could not compete with Mr. [Bill]
Gates in this area, I can assure you.
*Are we looking at powerful businessman or a religious Muslim leader?*
No, I have nothing to do with entrepreneurship; in Islam, an Imam, whether
Shia or Suni, has responsibilities, firstly for the* *safety of the
community; secondly, he is responsible for the quality of material life, for
the daily lives. The nature of Imamat is, therefore, of becoming involved in
activities, which will have a direct impact on the quality of people's
If this work is undertaken under the name of Aga Khan it is undertaken in
the name of the Imamat and not under the Aga Khan's personal name. I have
undertaken some personal initiatives is several compa nies, but do not hold
anything which may have resulted from them, because I have other issues
which I am concerned with.
*Don't you really have anything?*
The only thing, which is still private, is a long tradition in the
organisation of horse racing and horse breeding, which my children have
given continuity to. But I am not, or ever will be, an entrepreneur.
I am the sole shareholder of the Aga Khan Development Network, but I never
withdraw dividends, because the objective is to serve from the resources,
and not to make them personal. The notion that an institution carrying the
name Aga Khan is personal is incorrect. Whether it is a University, a school
or a project in the field of micro-finance.
*In 1976, you mentioned that Prophet Muhammad understood the importance of
new solutions for the daily lives that would not affect the principles of
Islam. Does this motivate the undertakings of the AKDN?*
Definitely. Firstly, the notion of dealing with poverty. Islam has a group
of very strong orientations on how to help people, which is different (no
more or less better) from the Christian world. For example, in Islam, we do
not use the terms philanthropy or charity [as in Christianity].
Islam says that the best form of charity, to use the term, is by helping
people to become self-sufficient. It is to give in such a way that the
person becomes master of one's own destiny. This is a very clear affirmation
to all Muslims, and it underlies our health programmes, education...it is
helping people to help themselves. The same is applicable to micro-finance.
Whatever the need of the poor, one should help to resolve it. One does not
specify material poverty, disease, or divisions within the family.
*Does daily life carry the same importance as eternal life?*
In Islam, they are the same thing. One cannot separate faith from the world.
This is one of the greatest difficulties that the non-Muslim world has,
because20the Judaic Christian societies developed with that notion of
separation. For the Muslims, that separation is not possible. We are
expected to live our faith every day, in every hour.
One of the difficulties that we are facing in the Muslim and non-Muslim
worlds, is the articulation of the difference in values in a comprehensive
form. However, this does not mean that we are in conflict. They are just
*One of the differences is locality, debated in countries such as Portugal,
Turkey, and France. For many, faith should remain confined to a private
space. You mentioned that Islam doesn't separate faith from the world. How
do you perceive this notion?*
I would like the non-Muslim societies to accept the values of Islam. If
Islam says that we do not separate the world from faith, the Western world
should accept that. I would go further and say: it is a wonderful way to
live! It is an extraordinary blessing to be able to live our faith everyday!
Making ethic the way in which you live your daily life, and not only in
occasions such as death, a marriage or a birth.
I am not criticising anyone. I am saying that secular society, by the nature
of secularity and the demands of time, provokes in people the need to first
place the world and faith after. This is not a part of Islam.
*Upon receiving the Award for Tolerance from the Tutzing Evangelic Academy,
in Germany, you stated: "Instead of shouting at one another, we should
listen to each other and learn from each other". You said that "fear is the
source of intolerance". In spite of your words and those of several
religious leaders, many believers do not listen to this message. What is yet
to be done?*
There will always be limits in inter-religious dialogue, when religions, in
their essence, cannot attain a consensus above a common platform, when
proselytism is, therefore, worth more. There are several forms of
proselytism and, in several religions, proselytism is demanded. Therefore,
it is necessary to develop the principle of a cosmopolitan ethic, which is
not an ethic oriented by faith, or for a society. I speak of an ethic under
which all people can live within a same society, and not of20a society that
reflects the ethic of solely one faith. I would call that ethic, quality of
I have serious doubts about the ecumenical discourse, and about what it can
reach, but I do not have any doubts about cosmopolitan ethics. I believe
that people share the same basic worries, joys, and sadness. If we can reach
a consensus in terms of cosmopolitan ethics, we will have attained
something, which is very important.
The Qu'ran has a very important *ayat* [verse], in which God says: "I have
created you" - "you" means mankind - "male and female, from one sole, only
one soul". This is the most extraordinary expression on the unity of the
human race. It is within this context that we must work.
*In Lisbon, a couple of weeks ago, Rabi René Sirat suggested a sort of G8 of
religious leaders. Could this be a good idea, for the progress of
Inter-religious dialogue, yes, but I=2 0would prefer that it be based upon a
cosmopolitan ethic. It would have to include non-believers. Because I am
talking about human society and I cannot judge an individual's belief at any
given time, in his life or mine. My experience is that belief is not
necessarily constant; it varies according to age, to one's circumstances and
the family in which one was educated.
*In religions such as Islam or Christianity, torment and pain are parts of
faith. In Shiism and other Muslim groups, martyrdom has thus been viewed.
How must one live Islam?*
We should firstly look at the notion of martyrdom, which has been expressed,
in all religions, as an individual's effort to defend is faith. Martyrdom is
the response to an attack - here; you had the Inquisition, for example... I
do not believe that currently Islam is under attack. There are primarily
political and not theological issues, which were bred from political
conflict, and were afterwards connected to religious aspects. And that is
true for Northern Ireland or the Middle East.
Islam is different. If we are happy, as Muslims, we=2 0should thank God for
our happiness. God reflects his presence, not only through suffering in
human life, but also through happiness, through friendship. There is no
requisite that says a Muslim cannot be a happy person. One can find
expressions of happiness in the Qu'ran, we do not, in any way, face
happiness as unreligious.
*The Ismailis are known as a very generous community in material terms.
However, during these Golden Jubilee celebrations, you have introduced the
notion of Time and Knowledge. What is it about?*
In Shia Islam, intellect is a key component of faith. Intellect allows us to
understand the creation of God. We live in a world in which there is
increasingly more information that people can employ. The question is, how
we access it and how we employ it. In many countries in which we work, in
Africa and in Asia, there is a colonial history, and they are facing
difficulties in overcoming that history to the history of today and the
objectives for tomorrow.
One of the ways to solve the problem is through institutional and human
enablement, so that society can create its own knowledge base, through
universities, research, etc. Sharing time and knowledge is saying that I
will make available the knowledge that I have to those people who,
otherwise, would not have access to it. One would make it available in such
a form that this knowledge could be employed in building capacities for the
future, which can happen in many different forms: joint research, teachers
teaching in a school over a couple of years in order to increase the quality
in teaching mathematics, financial institutions that develop products for
*Do you restrict the concept to these fields?*
I would like to see the employment of time and knowledge in areas, which we
desperately need. One of these is government. The constitutionality of the
developing world is one of the fundamental weaknesses. We see this is
Africa, in Asia: the constitutions were built in such a way that they do not
correspond to the demographical structures or to the political structures of
these countries. And governments are suffering from increasing difficulties.
These are areas that we desperately need, in order to promote good gover
nance, the quality of medicine or education. During the 50's and 60's, we
faced a conflict of dogmas, between the Soviet empire's communism and the
West's capitalism. The debate about development was developed around
*As in, for example?*
One would ask: how many people had access to education or health services.
No one wondered whether the teaching was so bad that it became useless. Or
whether healthcare was so horrible that people were paying for treatments
they should never pay for. Or where the best minds were going, who was
leaving their country because there weren't institutions concerned with
quality. One of the things we want to do in AKDN is try to build quality in
our institutions [see P2 days 6, 8, 10, 21 July].
The late (Pakistani President) Zia ul-Haq, when delivering the letter for
the Aga Khan University, only demanded three conditions. One of them was:
"Give Pakistan a medical science faculty where the graduates obtain degrees
that are worldly recognised." A country with 140 million inhabitants had
courses in medicine that were not recognised an ywhere else.
*In Paris, during the month of June, you mentioned a notion of habitat from
a cultural point of view and in benefit of the poor. Is culture, as a
synthesis of all the dimensions in life, more important than the economy,
which has been attributed so much value?*
Culture has a very important impact in people's perception about the
legitimacy of pluralism. We can see that in many recent crises in Africa and
Asia, when there were conflicts amongst the communities, one of the main
targets were the cultural expressions of those communities...
*As in the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan...*
...culture is perceived as the property of a given community. If we protect
the pluralism of cultures, we are protecting the notion that pluralism is a
part of human society and of our history.
One of the first things th at the poor do, from the moment in which they can
save, even in small quantities, is to spend their savings in the betterment
of their habitat. They put metal roofs on African huts; they consolidate the
buildings in urban peripheries. The habitat's quality is an indicator of the
quality of life.
One of the major problems is knowing whether the progress in the quality of
the habitat is technically safe and intelligent. In many cases, it is
technically unsafe, because people do not understand how one progresses from
an unintelligent habitat to an intelligent one. You can observe this in the
coastal areas of Africa and Asia, or in the seismic regions of Asia.
Although habitats vary, they do not contemplate technical changes, as they
*So, culture is important?*
Yes, culture is important. People invest in their habitat as an example of
the quality of life. And, yes, there are enormous problems in changing the
habitat whilst quality of life. I am very frustrated: if I look at the map
of the Islamic world, there is a massive concentration of Muslims in the
most seismic regions in the world. But what do we learn? Can we make people
live differently? Can they build differently? Can they can move from
high-risk areas and valleys to low risk areas?
*In Professor Daftary's book about the history of the Ismailis [edited by
the Catholic University], he writes that Sunni Islam is responsible for the
notion that Islam is monotheistic. We know that Islam is plural, but what is
specific about Ismailism?*
It is part of the Shia tradition, and not Sunni. It also has a living Imam,
who is the Imam of the Time, as opposed to other Shia traditions, which
presently do not have a living Imam. Thirdly, it has a very international
community, with its own pluralism. We have traditions, which co-exist with
this time, but with different histories: that of Central Asia, of Pakistan,
and the Indian sub-continent, of Syria... Therefore, we have to bring them
together: we teach our faith in seven different languages because of this
However, in the Islamic world, as in the Christian world, there have existed
attempts of normativism - that is, the imposition of a unique perspective
within th e *ummah* [community of believers]. That has been rejected since
the time of the Prophet, because he himself acknowledged that, in his time,
diversity in the interpretation of faith already existed. If you read the *
hadith* [teachings of the Prophet], you will note that he was called upon
many times, by the members of the Muslim community, to interpret the Qu'ran
or a specific *ayat*.
*Then, there can be various interpretations?*
The diversity in interpretation is something that is inherent to human
society. The attempt to normativise has a very little chance to succeed and
it would be unethical to the essence of Islam. There is a very famous
*ayat*in the Qu'ran that says: "To yourself, your faith. To myself, my
There is a great debate about whether this *ayat* refers to the intra-Muslim
relationship or to the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. But the
*ayat* is there!
*In many occasions, the name of God is used for certain acts of violence.
Why don't religious leaders speak out about these situations?*
We do it. In societies where a particular vision is being imposed, we have
contributed for that not to occur. But we do act; we just don't mention that
we did this or that. We are a discreet community; it is one of our
The use of faith in a conflict situation unfortunately affects all
religions. In India there are Hindus fighting against Muslims, in Northern
Ireland there are Catholics fighting against Protestants, In Afghanistan,
Shias against Sunnis. Unfortunately, it is a part of faith; better yet, they
are emanations of faith. Personally, I would prefer it if pluralism was
valued, instead of fighting it.
*What can one do to overcome conflict?*
Where conflict exists, one must procure a mediated solution. Everything we
do should be in the sense of preventing situations from becoming conflicts.
However, there are cases where the forces in action are out of our control.
These forces are fear, insecurity, communities who think they are at risk
and therefore react, out of fear .
There is a second reason: the iniquity of society. There are desperately
poor isolated communities. They look for solutions, but always accuse those
who they understand as the reason for their despair. What we do, is
anticipate where these forces may become dangerous, by trying to overcome
the problem of extreme poverty and of despair. We have done it and, in some
cases, we have succeeded.
Faith is sometimes used to justify war, but in most cases faith is not the
cause, there are other forces, to which faith is added. When that happens,
it is much more difficult to overcome.
*In Islam, as in Christianity, the role of the female has been debated.
There are people who say that they would like to see your daughter, Princess
Zahra, as the next Imam. However, tradition claims it has to be the eldest
As far as I know, there is no Muslim community in history that has had a
woman as Imam.
*In that case, we can never see a woman as Imam?*
Absolutely not. However, women in our society are capable of developing a
leadership role. Zahra studied at Harvard, has worked in the sense of
helping to create capacities in various parts of the world. She is the first
woman in my family with a university education, and I would hope that the
future generations will refer both to men and women.
I do not want you to perceive that women are not valued. Women are very,
very valued. If you look at the history of Islam, Khadija, the Prophet's
first wife, had an extremely important role, both in his spiritual life, as
in his worldly life.
*How are the projects, which you have launched in Portugal? Can we expect to
have, in Lisbon, a school of excellence as part of your network of
Portugal is a very important country...
*Is that why you have come to celebrate your Golden Jubilee?*
I have been to several other places. But Portugal has very important
factors: in the Portuguese society, pluralism is a social construction which
functions and that is relevant in any society, whether it be industrial or
of any other kind. Secondly, there is a political wish to recognise the
structures of faith and to give them an appropriate role in society.
The third reason is that Portugal has an extraordinary history and the
country understands pluralism. The majority of Portuguese history has been
its involvement in pluralism over centuries; in your history there is an
acceptance of difference. What we now want to do with Portugal is to reflect
over issues, which we want to deal with in the future.
*And what are they?*
One of them is the relation between Europe, or the Western world, with the
rest o f the Muslim world, to do everything we can to work together and to
enable mutual understanding. An institution such as the Academy would bring
people together in a pluralistic education, with curricular contents that
would not necessarily be part of the standard education in Portugal.
Therefore, we work with the International Baccalaureate, to which other
contents, which we deem necessary, are added.
We also want to build bridges, from the Portuguese institutions, to build
civil society outside of Portugal. We have to look at the decades of
governing fragility in Asia and in Africa, and probably elsewhere. One of
the most creative forms of corresponding to this frailty is by building a
If you look towards Bangladesh today, the country has a very fragile
government, but has progressed because civil society institutions are
working. If you speak with Koffi Annan and ask him what are the resources
that he was able to mobilise in Kenya, to unite [the Prime Minister Raila]
Odinga and [President] Kibaki at the same table, he will tell you: civil
society was the most powerful force.
*And can Portugal help?*
The majority of developing countries cannot build civil society as rapidly
as would be desirable. Therefore, we have to get hold of it from everywhere
we can. Portugal has a solid civil society! You are humble with that
respect, but you shouldn't be.
We are very honoured and proud by the fact that the Portuguese government
and its institutions want to work with us. We will do everything that is
possible to establish this partnership. I believe it may even become a case
study for other countries. You are very creative in relation to your
perspectives for the future.
*That is a great responsibility.*
You know, that the smaller we are, the greater are our responsibilities. And
this is true for the communities; it is true for the countries...