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Event - 1957-11-25
Monday, 1957, November 25
Speeches Book I,(1958) pp. 20-36, Paigham-e-Imamat, pp. 58-68
1961-62 speech.jpg
Aga Khan IV (H.H. Prince Karim)

Mr President, Your Worship, Ladies and Gentlemen

I have been asked to speak to you about Harvard University and studies of the Middle East. This is a double-barrelled topic which would take many hours to exhaust, but I hope in my own small way to be able to point out how the research work done in today's most advanced universities has and, I believe, will continue to contribute to solving some of the area's thorniest problems.

There is no point in my giving definite boundaries to the region about which I am speaking, suffice it to say that it runs approximately from the western frontier of present-day Turkey up to the northern frontier of Afghanistan and Iran, right down the western coast of India and back towards Europe, touching the southern most point of Saudi Arabia.

This is a vast expanse of land which contains practically every land formation of which we know. More than this, it is an area where there are extreme climatic changes. It is, I believe, one of the most interesting regions of our earth.

An immense amount of factors have contributed to today's problems and I would like to trace some of them to their origins in the past ages.

It has often been pointed out, and I think correctly so, that the very layout of the land has formed many of the tendencies we observe at present. The harshness and inclement nature of the Saudi Arabian peninsula must have had its effect on the minds of those who lived there long before us. I do not believe that human relations are of sufficient interest, nor of sufficient permanence to keep a man happy all through his life. He must have something else to turn to. This need may express itself in the form of art, of scientific studies or mysticism, but more often it takes the form of a search for higher life.

It is understandable, therefore, that the three great monotheistic religions of today - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - have been born in this area where human existence was restricted to its barest forms. All the empires which covered these regions, whether they were Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim or Ottoman Turk, all have broken up. You will no doubt say that this is the fate of empires generally. But is it not over-expansion one of the causes for this? Over-expansion means the inclusion of remote peoples into the framework of a society whose ways of living and ideals are born, guided and sometimes dictated from a focal point, the capital. A concrete example of this is that during the life of the Khalifate, the poor agriculture and the lack of natural resources useable in those times of the focal point, Saudi Arabia, clashed with that which the Muslims found in the more fertile countries such as Persia and Spain. One of the major problems during the life of this empire was land-holding and the conquests of the great generals such as Khalid and Amr ibn al-As made this problem particularly acute.

The Khalifate was rapidly growing from a dry and sandy sub-peninsula into an empire, which embodied some of the most fertile parts of the earth. Once the armies had made their conquests, they did not want to return to Mecca or Medina - they preferred to set up their own farms elsewhere. The problem of soldiers becoming land-owners was prominent not only in Islamic times but also in the previous Byzantine days. It was a problem which owed its existence to the layout of the land.

Here, then, one can understand the strains which were put on the successive rulers of the area by all the varied forms of territory which they had to govern. Environment, the climate and the very formation of the soil have played an immense part in the creation of today's patterns of life in the Middle East. We still look for ways to solve the problems which nature puts to us.

Your incessant and drenching downpours in Tanganyika which you so happily call 'short rains' will no doubt give you similar worries. I only wish they did not strike everywhere I go. Life gets soggy. I have nicknamed my own private cloud, 'deluge'.

And now I turn to an over-digested picture of the area. It is from about the time of Justinian the Great that the east Mediterranean Basin became a separate entity, apart from the original Roman Empire. Those who have studied Byzantine history will know what an extraordinarily fertile period this was for engineering, art, architecture, philosophy, religion, literature and dialectic.

Though the Empire had one of the world's finest capitals it suffered from it greatly. Constantinople became the seat of the Emperors while Rome remained the seat of the ecclesiastical Pontiff, the Pope. There was naturally tension between the two which expressed itself in later years in the large number of Christian heresies which spread all over the Middle East. There were constant and vicious attacks between Pope and Emperor, sometime ending in mutual excommunication. These clashes usually resulted in the birth of a new heresy.

It was not long after the birth of the Empire that the Byzantines began to suffer from the perpetual attacks of their boundaries. These harassed the state all through its lifetime.

The early Roman Empire with its capital in Italy had many of its frontiers naturally guarded by water, as had the Islamic Khalifate with its capital at Mecca. Contrary to this, however, the Byzantines were pestered by the Serbs, the Hungarians, the Walachians and the Moldavians descending from the north. They suffered from the harsh western attacks of the Venetians and the Franks, and in its later days, the Empire suffered from the great Muslim push in the south. As the central authority declined, people turned to discussing the nature of Christ, the relationship that existed between the Emperor and Pope, and also the many problems relating to the Trinity. One heresy succeeded another at an extraordinary pace and, although the Church called numerous ecumenical councils, the difficulties remained unsolved. Here were born the Monophysites, the Duophysites, the Nestorians, the Albigentsians, the iconoclasts and many other such heresies.

It is not necessary to know what were the exact points under discussion, but I have mentioned these names to try to point out the background of those Christians who live in the Middle East today.

Constantinople fell in 1453, but the Byzantines were tottering before this. One can understand what the situation must have been when the southern part of the Empire with its land problems and its religious problems was swallowed up by the northward Muslim movement. The result becomes particularly complicated when one thinks that, at that very moment the Muslims themselves were splitting up into the Shia and Sunni groups which still exist today. All round the eastern Mediterranean coast, there were settlements of Christian outcasts who were mixing freely with the Muslims, and some of the key documents show that it was often difficult for the rulers to determine whom they could call their brothers and whom they called People of the Book. This intricate pattern of religion is still visible today.

It was the bad luck of the Ottoman Turks to overrun a dying Empire whose diseases were nearly incurable. The land-holding problem had got so far out of hand by the time Constantinople fell that it remained a major difficulty, even for the conquerors. No Empire can survive if the majority of the land is held by the army. If this is the case, the army controls the economy, and the ruler himself can do little but watch.

The last heretical movement in Christianity had divided the state in half on a horizontal line running through the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. As the new Ottoman Empire was solidified and the minor difficulties were ironed out, it became necessary to organize the various phases of community life. It was Selim I who first attempted to impose some form of unity on Islam by controlling the activities of the Ulema. It was a brave move towards pan-Islamism, but it was doomed to failure because of the deep-rooted social and theological splits that had existed under the previous rulers, the Byzantines. Only fifteen years before Selim's rule, the Sunni Turks had been attacked by Ismail Safavi, the ruler of Shia Persia. Again the theological splits were hampering the progress of the Empire.

While the Ottoman star was waning, Europe was striving ahead in all fields of knowledge, and it soon became evident that the Muslims would have to change many of their ways if they were to stay abreast of the great wave of progress.

I stop here at a point in history where the Ottomans begin their reforming process, and I turn to see what was happening in the Islamic Empire during this period.

The rift between Shia and Sunni which appeared all too soon after Prophet Muhammad’s death was not originally a religious quarrel. It was a discussion involving opposition parties who critised the succession to the Khalifate. Nevertheless, the Khalifate continued to expand at a tremendous speed and the problem grew with it.

The armies which set out from Saudi Arabia to conquer the various provinces such as Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Persia, North Africa and so forth took with them both the original political biases of Mecca and Medina and in many cases their own favourite leaders. It was difficult for the Khalifs to control the provinces which had been conquered by such armies as these tended to settle down most often in places with older cultures and better chances of agriculture, and the soldiers respected their own generals rather than the central authority.

Bit by bit, the provinces went their way, each battling for the maintenance of its economy, for the maintenances of its forces, and above all to be able to keep a strong word in the affairs of the state. As in the Byzantine Empire, the political movements gradually moved into theological channels. This was because the movements were of political origin, and the Khalifs, therefore, considered it their right to persecute the leaders. The heretics, however, simply persevered in their ways, becoming more and more intolerant and being driven, more and more underground. The Sufis and the Dervishes and the Shia sub-sects became ever more fanatical. The martyrdom of the Sufi mystic Al-Hallaj by his own brothers is one of the bloodiest accounts we have in Muslim history.
As the Khalifate disintegrated, the Ottomans did what they could to conquer or incorporate the seceding provinces of the Islamic Empire and to unify the Muslims. But this turned out to be almost impossible.

Here then is a very sketchy picture of the social and religious background which existed in the area I am speaking about, at the beginning of the first World War. It was an area in which practically every heretical sect of Christianity and Islam had lived. Islam, as a way of life, was in a critical position for it had either to adapt itself to the fast changing world or sink.

The Ottoman Empire was described as the “sick man of Europe” and foreign powers were circling above the death bed like vultures over a dying beast, ready to claw away the most they could.

The Ottoman Empire was indeed very ill and it needed a doctor and not the First World War to cure it of its many diseases. But oddly enough what was the death blow to the state was at the same time the spark for the new set of ideas which were to revive Islam. I cannot say where these ideas came from, nor why they stuck at this particular moment. It may perhaps have been the closer contact between Europe and the Middle East which was created by the war, or a new form of nationalism which taught one to defend one’s country, and this meant to defend Islam. Or it may even have been a flame which grew out of the hearts of the Muslims themselves. But whatever the case may have been, they began to look forward rather than backward. They turned to the past glorious days of the Umayyad and Abbasid Khalifates and they over-looked the decay which had been progressing in the immediate years.
The revivalist movement sought much of its inspiration in the history of the Muslims, but more important it looked towards the West for its progressiveness.
The Khalifates, as an institution had fallen, and though some of the leading Muslims of the time hoped to revive it, their hopes were founded in long gone days. The new idea was Pan-Islamism. It was widely cherished, and I think many still cherish it today. The people of the Quran were to put their heads together and pull their means, in an attempt to move forward rapidly and as a united body.

But three factors were to paralyze the new spirit. These were:
- The area’s historical background
- The internal revival within Islam
- Pan-Arabism
The past ways of the Ottoman Empire were too deep rooted to allow the Muslims to meet on a truly common footing. The ruling families in their various provinces all clung strongly to their respective genealogies and to their own backgrounds. Many of them claimed descent from the family of the Prophet and a number of them hoped to be the leaders of a new empire, if not to be able to revive the Khalifate itself.
It was impossible for there to be any definite or respected leadership and so the progress that could have been achieved never took place, or if it did, it was not according to plan.

The second factor which stood in the way of Pan-Islamism was one of the ideas which I mentioned as a possible source for the new flame. This was the internal movement within the religion itself. The close contacts between the Muslims and the West which were brought about by the war made many people think and analyse their faith. The more progressive Muslims asked for changes in their civil and criminal law, they asked for Western type laws of succession and Western codes, and they also found that many of their traditions could not be kept up, were they to move as rapidly as Europe. One of these traditions was the wearing of the veil and the sore question of giving secular education to women.

These problems may have been solved had there not been at least ten different forms of Islamic Law already in use. I sometimes doubt whether the solution would have been found even if there had only been one practiced code. But there were the four Sunni schools and there were the Shia schools and there were the Muslim schools that had been influenced by Greek and Byzantine tradition.
The Muslims were unable, simply because of the background in which they had lived to reach a common agreement.
The third factor which stood in the way of Pan-Islamism was Pan-Arabism.

Here again, the history of the area was to blame. Islam and the Quran itself had been given to the people in Arabic, the Hadith and the Sunna were in Arabic. The faith had come out of the Arabian Peninsula and had been spread by the Arabs. Even in the early years of the Khalifate, when Persia, North Africa and Spain were conquered, the Arab Muslims had kept a form of dominance over their non-Arab brothers. In many of the provinces this had created friction as the conquered, though being of the same faith, often had an older and more advanced form of culture than that which was imposed upon them.

For example, when Persia came under Muslim rule, it was difficult to control the art of the country and to keep it within the bound demand by Islam.
When the new movement within the religion was born, it was of primary importance to determine on what lines it was to progress. The Arabs had the historical right to claim the leadership, but they did not have the numerical right. Islam was not to remain an Arab religion. Too many non-Arabs were praying five times a day towards Mecca. Was the reforming literature and the reforming education to be in Arabic in all the Muslim countries? Or were these countries to pursue their education in the vernacular and simply adapt themselves to the new ideas within the religion? Were the sermons, that is the Khutba to be in Arabic as were the prayers? Or were they to be in the language of the country and the prayers to remain in the original language of Islam.

Unluckily all these questions went unanswered and a new movement grew up in the form of Pan-Arabism, a free form of association between the countries which spoke Arabic and whose inhabitants were Arabs by origin. Thus, it was that Pan-Arabism which stole some of the life of Pan-Islamism. I believe the strong affinity between Arab Muslim countries still exists today.

I have spoken about the history of the East Mediterranean basin at some length because I believe that without at least a bird’s eye view of the movements that were born there and whose remnants still exist today, it is difficult to understand what is going on at present and how the intellectual work carried out at Harvard, and such universities, fits into the picture.

By 1920, the Ottoman Empire had most of its limbs amputated, and individual states were rapidly being set up under the guidance of the colonial powers of the time.

It was no easy problem to administer these new-born states as they were made out of a mass of people with the most diverse backgrounds, religions and ideologies. The remains of the Byzantine heresies which I have mentioned earlier, were living side by side with Muslims of all schools of thought, the left-overs of the Ottoman government, the terrific desire to revive and adapt Islam to the modern ways of the West. All this muddled in with a little bit of nationalism, a fairly large dose of Pan-Islamism and a touch of Pan-Arabism to spice the dish. It was then decorated with Arabic tongue. The cooks who were responsible to see that this extraordinary platter did not get burned up or blow up, had to make sure of the ingredients which had been used, otherwise, they would not have known when to remove the thing from the oven.

The Americans amongst you, and probably many others, will now either be asleep or wondering whether I have simply forgotten that my talk was called “Harvard University and Studies of the Middle East”. May I interrupt your dreams.

It was immensely difficult for the various governments to weld together all these heterogeneous elements. They had to find out what I might call a lowest common denominator with which they could begin their work. But there was no mathematical process by which one could find it. In fact the first thing one had to do was to separate idea, ideal, and belief. Then one had to make sure which beliefs were held by which groups. It should not be forgotten at the same time that there was a major linguistic problem. It took the governing powers some ten years to find out on what basis they could weld these people together. And after much searching, they settled on faith.

It was decided that protection would be afforded not to racial or ethnological groups, but to groups who lived by their own religious laws. Thus the constitutions of such countries as Syria, Lebanon, Jordon, Iraq and Iran provide written safeguards for the citizens who live by other than that of the majority. In some of the Middle East constitutions, it is specifically stated, and if it is not so, it has become an accepted fact that the President will be Sunni, while the Prime Minister will be Shia. More than this, a certain number of seats in Parliament are reserved to the Christian elements whether they be Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Monophysites, Duophysites, Nastorians, or otherwise.

The great problem for the administrators was to find men who were sufficiently qualified in the history and languages of the Orient to be able to work without upsetting the existing social and religious patterns of life. Extremely little was known about Muslim law or Muslim theology or of the origins of the many other various peoples of the area until universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, the University of London, Harvard, Princeton and others, decided to set up faculties to train men for this form of service.

I have not mentioned the effects that the enormous amount of foreign capital sunk in oil fields and other enterprises have had in the Middle East.

One result, however, was to increase the demand for suitably qualified professional labour.
In the last four or five years, the faculty of Oriental Studies at Harvard has grown five times its original size. It has now become one of the best qualified fields of study and immense effort is being put into the department to bring it to still higher levels.

Because European and American Universities felt the need for development in this field, there is now a regular exchange of papers and professors between the institutions specializing in the Middle East. But what I find particularly encouraging is that the Western Universities are now accepting members of Eastern faculties as visiting lecturers. It is most important that the research carried out in the West should be kept in close contact with the developments which are being made ‘on the spot’. Harvard, Princeton and the University of London have all had visiting professors from the countries in question. And I was lucky myself to study with two of them from the American University in Beirut.

What I have left unsaid up to now, and yet what I feel is the major problems at present, is the fact that the Middle East is harbouring an enormous number of unmatched peoples. By unmatched, I mean peoples who are of different origins, different colours, different languages, different religions, and different ideologies.

The social problems are most important indeed and they must be solved if understanding is to rule. Unluckily, they may probably be the hardest to solve as we know so little about them. It is only by delving into the history of the area, by studying the anthropology, the philosophy, the language and the economics of the many people that live there. It is only by breaking into the very minds and intellects of the inhabitants that we will be able to understand the intricate patterns of life which we see today.

This great work is being carried out admirably by the universities I have mentioned. It is a particularly difficult task because of the lack of past research and the lack of original documents at the disposal of today’s professors. However, they are moving ahead steadily and rapidly every year and more and more information is being published.

The present political and economic set up of the Middle East is not very stable, but I believe that if we make good use of the material which is being put at our disposition, and if we make an honest effort to understand the past and present social problems of the peoples that live there, a happy and long term solution will be brought into focus.

Thank you.

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