Q. Is your present visit in any way timed with the change in
A. No, on the other hand it is fortunate I was invited to the opening of the Sarojini House and it has given me an opportunity to talk to members of the new government. When a new government comes into force it has to take stock of economic situtation and the policies that it has to follow. This is important for us so that we can make the necessary reorientation in our social welfare programmes.
Q. What do you hope to achieve with your various programmes?
A. Our basic objective is to improve the living standards of my community and of the country in which they live. However, any work we do in the country is not limited to my community as such and this is so in all Third World countries we operate. We do not have unlimited material resources but what we do have is a high level of human resources which enables us to do a certain amount of work.
Q. As head of an Islamic sect, do you see Islam as an evangelistic religion?
A. To call Islam evangelistic, may be the result of some recent developments is some parts of the world. I really do not think there is enough justification in that alone to call Islam evangelistic. There may be a certain revival of Islamic practices and attitudes in a certain number of countries. Whether that is peculiar to Islam I am not sure. Even in the Western World, there is a turning to new criteria, new sources of inspiration which could be partially a reaction to the materialistic attitude. These attitudes may have been part of 50's and the 60's but may not be part of the 80's.
Q. As the Imam of the Islaimi community, do you see the fundamentalist revival which is going on in many Middle East countries as a threat to the identity of your community?
A. Well, I think if it means that a sect of Muslims seeks to impose its interpretation of Islam on other sects, it would be serious. For the moment I do not see this. On the contrary, in many of the countries where there is an Islamic revival, they are becoming more aware of the differences that exist and are seeking to make provisions, within the overall envelope of Islam, that each sect is free to practice its own interpretation of Islam.
Q. But what if there was a variance between your community and the majority of Muslims in any particular country?
A. I would have to look at the causes behind it, understand what its objectives are and then take whatever steps are appropriate. But as I said at the present time, that level of rigidity is not there.
Q. What about the case of Afghanistan where members of your community are faced with the rise of communism and threat to their religious beliefs? What would you advise them?
A. I think any Muslim who is faced with a decision of whether he will be in a position to practice his religion will have no alternative but to resist. This does not apply only to Muslims but to any other religion. You can see this in the Islamic conferences where there has been a monolithic reaction to this threat. When it is a question of politics, the response can be varied. But when it is a question of freedom of religious practice, that is something else.
Q. Do you see this danger growing in the world?
A. That would be very unwise because religious forces are growing all over the world and this does not only mean Islam. At present, in many parts of the world, religion is playing a role in seeking better balance especially in areas like human rights.
Q. As Imam of your sect, you are also an interpretor of the Quran for your followers, but on the other hand, you are a man with a modern education and background. How do you reconcile these two aspects on subject like women's rights, family planning and other related matters?
A. As Imam of the Ismaili sect, I am in a position to adapt the teachings of the Quran to the modern condition. On the question of modernity the issue is essentially whether one is affecting the fundamental moral fabric of society or whether one is affecting the fundamentals of religious practice. As long as these two aspects are safeguarded the rest can be subject to adjustment.
Q. Since your followers are dispersed all over the world, does it mean that on issues like family planning, your stand would vary from country to country?
A. We would have to accept the fact that this is not entirely under the control of the Imam. Since in many countries it is subject to legislation and if legislation is passed it has to be complied with.
Q. But in cases where you are free, where there is no legislation, would you offer any kind of guidance?
A. No, I would not issue a firman (order). But what I would hope, is that in all issues like that, it is the general understanding of the objectives which is of key importance. In India, you are faced with this problem and my interpretation is that it is an issue where you are more effective in directing yourself towards the minds of the people involved. After that individual will choose and he will choose within the laws of his land. Within the concept of morality and of practice. To issue a formal directive would be impossible internationally because that is one issue in which there have been contradictory views. My approach is to say basically, we are concerned about explaining to people the realities of society.
Q. You have extensive social welfare activities in India. How do you plan these?
A. We have a system of working in a five year plan framework. Every five years, we do a survey which looks at things like mortality rates, education levels and net disposable incomes for the Islaimi community in a country and compare it to the national averages. Then we try to forecast what we should do by setting targets and making plans of how to achieve them and later check our performance. For instance, we found in the Indian subcontinent a tremendous dichotomy between rural and urban standards. This is a serious problem and we plan to direct our projects towards this area. As a community we did not realize how deep this dichotomy was.
Q. But does this affect your community since most of them in India are urbanized, well educated middle class?
A. No. We have quite a number of people who aren't.
Q. Why is there such secrecy about the amount of money you spend on your projects?
A. Oh! It's not secrecy. We do not have figures in many cases. We don't centralize the information. The institutions who are involved have the information.
Q. Why do you function from Paris when most of your followers and activities are in Third World countries?
A. Well, I think it is important for all institutions to have a base. In my case, it is important for my base to be apolitical and by being there, I am in a position to be apolitical. Also, my father and grandfather lived there. I am not sure if I would be able to function as effectively if the head office was anywhere else.
Q. What is your nationality?
A. I am a British subject.
Q. You have the image of an international jet-setter; how do you reconcile that with your role as a religious leader?
A. Well, I think when you refer to me in those terms, they are essentially terms applied to be by the Western media. It is a distorted picture. It is distorted because in fact, in many cases it is a consequence of the desire to make money by producing salacious stories which are largely unsubstantiated by facts. These days Third World leaders visiting the Western World are heaped with innuendoes if not insults. And these days, it is the Arabs in particular who are subjected to this kind of treatment.
Q. But surely, there are libel laws under which you can take action?
A. Frankly, this so-called freedom of the press has reached a state of such licence that virutally anything can be printed.
Q. But projects like your exclusive tourist complex in Costa Smeralda in Sardinia and your owning some of the finest racehorses in the world lend credence to your jet-setting image?
A. Actually, both these involvements in the Western World were accidents for me. The horse racing activity I inherited on my father's death. But when he was killed I had a difficult decision to make which was to keep the tradition in the family or not. My brother was not interested. I thought about if for six months and decided to impose two criteria on myself. One, it had to be self-financing and second, it must not be allowed to confuse my priorities. I kept the horses and successfully applied these two conditions. As for Costs Smeralda, I became involved in there with a group which wanted me to participate in this tourist development. I agreed without ever setting foot there. The group had told me it would be a nice place to rest when I needed to rest. But when I went there, I found there was no water, electricity, sewage, telephone - it was like the Congolise jungle 50 years ago. I saw this could be developed with a tourism enterprise and we now recirculate the know-how picked up there for new tourist ventures in countries like Kenya and Pakistan.
Q. With your followers dispersed from Canada to Indonesia, you obviously have to continuously carefully balance on a political tight rope, have you ever thought of having a country for your 15 million followers?
A. No. That is something I exclude.
Q. Durng your time as Imam, would you push for more people to join your faith?
A. No. I set no targets for that. Those who believe, believe,
those who don't, don't.
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