I890200 - Interview of H.H. The Aga Khan IV

All - India TV-Radio
A Doordarshan Presentation

Conversations with Rajiv Mehrotra

February 1989

Q. Your Highness, you are the Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. It s a hereditary title. Have you ever felt burdened by being so, the 49th hereditary Imam? You are the direct descendent from the Prophet; you became the Imam at the age of 20. Did it ever come up for you where you were a reluctant Imam in any way?

A. You know, a hereditary office is a hereditary office and every member of the family has known that, so that concept of burden isn t there. The concept of opportunity, yes, and it is a very special opportunity to be able to serve the community, which I would define as an admirable community and widely spread internationally, and succeeding an Imam like my grandfather who was, I think, a unique leader.

Q. You work out of France, a half an hour from Paris. Where is a sense of home for you, where do you feel anchored?

A. Well, I have had a strange life, because my early childhood was in Kenya, then my education was in Switzerland and United States, then I returned to Switzerland after I finished my education, then I established myself in France. So, in terms of work, the work happens wherever I am, and as I travel a minimum of 4 months a year and probably more than that, the work is where I am. I suppose the children would consider France as their base. They spend more of their lives there than elsewhere. So in that sense yes, I suppose that would be home.

Q. Your interests are diverse, I think many of us are familiar with your initiatives in development support, but you also breed thoroughbreds, you have interests in tourism - a whole range of interests. Isn t that a sort of an unlikely profile for an Imam?

A. I think that may come from a non-Muslim perception rather than a Muslim perception. In Islam right from the time of Prophet Mohammed, there has been a compatibility between the faith and the world in which the faith is practiced at any given time. And I am not willing to make any compromise on that compatibility; I am not willing to accept that other notions of relationship between the world and faith should be imposed on a Muslim other than an Islamic interpretation. So, I have no discomfort. On the contrary, I have a very great conviction in it and I believe that most Muslims have that and believe in that compatibility indeed. Probably the most common statement about Islam is that, it is a way of life. It is not just a faith, it is a way of life. I inherited effectively things from my family which, for one reason or another, I have continued to carry on; such as thoroughbred activities, such as personal investments, but I have no discomfort with any perceived dichotomy, very much the contrary.

Q. Are you despairing of the turmoil that much of Islam seems to be in?

A. The world is very much influenced by the way a faith or a community communicates, and I think that there is a very, very great gap. The vast majority of Muslims today live in a rural environment. They do not communicate, they are peaceful people. The perceptions that one has of polarization, things of that sort are much more urban forces, urban expressions and if you were to ask me today whether the vast majority of the Muslims participated in any way in this polarization, I would answer probably not.

Q. Your efforts and initiatives in the area of development have been unique in the context of secularism in the sense that you employ people of all communities, nationalities, and many of your development initiatives reach out to people of all faiths and backgrounds. Where did the impetus for that world view come from for you?

A. Essentially in my belief in the message of Islam which is that you must not impede or damage or do anything to hurt the people amongst which you live. On the contrary, you seek to build relations with them and uphold their quality of life and indeed, you mentioned just now this issue of polarization. One of the ways to polarize society is to divide them; and I think that, on the contrary, anything that can be done to bring them together to develop common objectives in improving their quality of life is perfectly acceptable. That doesn t mean that individuals don t practice their faith. That is their right.

Q. There is a perception that sections of Islam are, let us say, intolerant of other faiths with which you talked about essentially secular approach and philosophy. What is the Islamic position on other faiths and relationships with other faiths? A Well I think we are experiencing a time of, in a sense, the search for a legitimacy in interpretation of Islam in relation to the modern world, in relation to modern society, in relation to non-Muslim societies and in that search there are all sorts of interpretations being put forward. I personally am very cautious about seeking a formalistic approach, because I think that one of the great risks, apart from the facts that it does tend to deny individuality which is, of course, something strongly upheld in the Islamic faith, is the fact that it tends to anchor a faith in one time and that is one aspect which, of my faith which I would never accept, I would never accept that the concept of Islam, the practice of Islam cannot be fulfilled in the modern world or in the world of tomorrow.

Q The other philosophical dimension that in Islamic world view must come up for you in some measure is in the development models that you might be seeking to encourage. I think so that Islam decrees a societal framework which may seem somewhat strained relationship to modern technology modern practices, structures, financial institutions. How would you reconcile those? A. Well I say this with deference that I am not entirely convinced that the faith itself has decreed any particular form rather that the people have interpreted it. And if my role is to interpret the faith in regard to modern society, I have to look at the basic issue which is, well, anything that we are doing is in conflict with the ethic of Islam. If it is not in conflict with the ethic of Islam then I must interpret it as being possible.

Q. Spirituality, or the religion or the faith is frequently threatened by technology. You have a passion and a great interest in technology. How have you managed to reconcile that?

A. Well, from the moment that I am not willing to say that the faith of Islam is of a particular time, when I have to search within Islam what are the elements which allow me to interpret within the modern world and my interpretation is that Allah s message and His power is not limited. And in fact that modern science simply allows us to discover more and more of the miracles that He has performed, perhaps continues to perform and we are blessed with the faculty of intelligence. And I cannot understand why we would be blessed with that faculty unless we were mandated to use it. Q I think there is an anxiety in many developing societies including India, that modernization is frequently meant westernization, that technology is meant a sense of alienation from the community, from one s immediate environment, the disintegration of the family etcetera, etcetera. When you go in with development strategies and development models, is there an overview of an ideal society that you seek to perpetuate or encourage?

A. No, there is no total view in my perception, simply because I view diversity as strength, and that may be a funny statement to make, but I think that in diversity there is great strength if it is understood that diversity must not be encouraged to become conflict. But the different cultures, different faiths, different languages, different traditions should be looking at common issues and starting from different standpoints but trying to resolve them collaboratively. That is a major force and it is only divisive if it is to turn into something divisive. Otherwise it s very powerful. I am personally concerned about a loss of cultural tradition and I would like to see cultural traditions enhanced but it doesn t have to be at the exclusion of others. What it means is that a cultural tradition is a human inheritance in a given society. Let that be continued and enhanced.

Q. I am still looking for an articulation of your relationship with other faiths and the philosophical premise of Islam in its relationship to other religions and communities. I accept unequivocally your own secular world views which is manifest in the initiatives and actions that you have taken.

A. Well you know, if you look at the premises of the Islamic environment; the physical environment, they are in no way conflictual or contradictory to other faiths and in fact, I think they are just as appreciated by other faiths as by our own. So, I have no discomfort there. On the contrary, I feel that if others share the appreciation that we have of the environment that is created, let that be. I am very happy.

Q. What would you say for the world community moving into the 21st century? What are the overriding concerns and problems that worry you?

A. A number of them, I think one of the biggest worries I have is how to encourage a sense of quality of life in the rural areas. To understand what rural populations are seeking, and to try and convince them that the development process is concerned about them and it will address their issues in their own language, in their own vocabulary, because I cannot visualize the massive rural populations of the developing world ever becoming urbanized without cataclysmic consequences. In western societies that s happened. The demography is stable or receding, so that is one of my concerns.

Another one of my concerns is the stabilization of the economies of the developing world, that is, economies which are basically dependent on one or two resources. How do you take steps to avoid the volatility of that situation because you cannot have a stable development process in a volatile environment and there are a large number of countries which are dependant on that.

The third area is clearly how to deal with new forms of disease: "Disease of the modern society", if you want to. That is something which is calling for enormous resources today. Developing countries don t have those sort of resources. How do they enable their population to access to that sort of care? That s another area. Obviously, there are political concerns and those sort of issues, but I am not a politician. But, in so far as there is the beginning of a cooling down of the conflictuality which existed between power blocs in the past, that I can only commend those who are making it happen, and wish and pray that should continue, because I think that will be a major force for improving the quality of life.

Q. You said you are not a politician. What kind of role do you see for yourself, beyond the context of being the Imam for your community?

A. Well, I would like to be able to convince people that they can work towards common objectives, no matter what backgrounds they come from in language, in faith, in society, that one doesn t have to give up one s heritage or one s individuality or one s faith. To set and achieve common goals so long as they are well determined and shared, and if that can happen in the developing world and certainly not through my input alone but to me, it would be a substantial achievement, because it would be convincing people from different backgrounds, different societies, that their differences are not weakness and they do not have to be translated into conflict. They can be translated into immense strength and benefit for everybody.

Q. Where might the impetus, the catalyst to change come from? One solution would be for there to be a lot many Aga Khans. But do you see hope in those kinds of initiatives? Are there many people like yourself who are doing that outside the formal structures of government?

A. Yes I am, I am reasonably confident. And I am reasonably confident for a number of hopes. I hope true, true causes. Think of the world of the late 50 s and the early 60 s. A number of countries were termed "basket-cases". A number of statements were made that developing countries could never feed themselves. A number of statements were made that democracy could not survive. I don't like these statements. And I think that they have been flawed in a number of areas of the world, not only have they been flawed but I suspect that as time evolves we will find that they have been definitively flawed. If that is the case, something has been achieved. It may have cost an immense amount, in difficulty, in resources, in objectives which have not been fulfilled, but some very real basic objectives have been fulfilled. So I am not willing to say that no progress has been made. What I do believe is that there is another force working for us today which is the force of communication.

People from around the world are dialoguing much more than ever before. And I have the impression that to articulate issues in a wider forum, share the difficulties of addressing them, is a major force for the good. Even if the solution isn't found today, the fact that the visualization of the problem is shared is already an immense step and when I look at the international agencies working in the developing field, in my language, they are infinitely better qualified in 1989 than they were in the 1950's. At least to understand, in the language of the developing world, what are its concerns and the rural support programme which I am involved with is doing exactly that at the microlevel. It is dialoguing with people.

Q. Forgive the irreverence of the question, but where do you get the funds for from your business, from your personal assets for the development initiatives that you have supported?

A. Well, we have probably 4 types of resources: There are the institutional resources of the community which the community makes available to the Imam. There are the secular resources which the community institutions develop. There are external resources from grants which institutions give us, governments, development agencies etc. And then there are my own personal resources which I have from my family and which I use as I see appropriate; and so long as the principles of propriety are respected, those resources are all used.

Q. What has been your relationship indeed with the Government of India and the projects in India? You moved in here in the late 70's substantially?

A. Yes, well it has been one of a very great constructive collaboration. I would qualify it as exciting collaboration, because I think that India being a secular state, some of the difficulties that other societies have in dealing with a multicultural or multi-faith approach have been less acute and I think the Indian Government in the past and today, more and more, is looking at effectiveness, is seeking effectiveness, prizes effectiveness and if institutions with which I am connected can be effective, then our collaboration should grow.

Q. What has been the major initiatives that you have launched in India and plan in the immediate future?

A. Well, they have been, as you can imagine, in rural development, in primary health care, in preschool education. In other words, those aspects which affect isolated or poor communities. Now those communities occur in two circumstances. They occur the in rural areas but they also occur in the fairly urban areas, newly urbanized populations and those are programmes which we are working on.

The second area has been to enhance institutions whose vision of life maybe in the 50 s, needed encouraging and widening and that has occurred. And in resource mobilization and things like banking etcetera, we are working, because if that isn t a clear objective, the needs grow and the resources don t follow and that of course is something which nobody can govern.

Q. Have you come up against any sort of, against any resistance or obstacles not just in India, but in your work, the fact that you represent a faith in which you are an Imam?

A. Oh I am sure there are visions of "who I am" and "what I do" which are not always favourable, but I think there is one thing in leadership that every leader has to accept. There is never going to be consensus on leadership. There is always going to be differences of opinion and the concept of leadership by referendum is not necessarily the right decision. I think the role of leadership is to have the courage to live by certain objectives, certain standards. If they are challenged, let them be challenged.

Q. What is, sort of, the agenda for the rest of your life if that isn t too much of a question?

A. Perhaps, to leave a strengthened community in a more peaceful and happy environment and to contribute to establishing certain ways of doing things, because I had the good fortune of a good education and then I hope that that good fortune would be shared by more and more people. And after all everyone s life is a passage, and perhaps the most one can do is to have left something behind during that passage which contributes and assists people to look to their future with more confidence and more stability, more hope.

Q. Is there a conscious process in the grooming of your children in the tradition of service? Your grandfather was President of the League of Nations. You had an uncle who was an ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, your father was an ambassador to the United Nations. It has been a long tradition. Is there a conscious process?

A. Well, my daughter is 18, my eldest son is 17, the second son is 15. They are still in a formal educational process and at this point in their lives, I feel, it s appropriate that they should stay in that process. I hope they will be successful in their educational work and if they are, then later on they will hopefully be associated with various areas of my work, learn about it. They have indicated their interest. But I think at that young age, its probably premature to say to them, you must participate in a formalized training. It's probably not right.

Q. Are you aware, do you have any recollections of any sort of the elements that made up your own grooming? You did take over at the age of 20. You must have hit the ground running.

A. You know, in my case, my grandfather made his choice and it was communicated at the time of his death. So my interests did evolve between the time that I started my education and becoming the Imam. I suspect that will always happen, because being a hereditary office, the succeeding Imam does not know at what age he will inherit, what will be the state of the world in which he will live. Certainly, if he has been exposed to the activities that are there, he will be hopefully in a position to take on the work in an appropriate manner.

I was very fortunate in the sense that I was interested in two areas. As a person I was interested in science and therefore in the world around me, and I was interested in the history of Islam, therefore of my faith, and those were intrinsic to me. They were not passed forward or imposed in anyway by my family.

Q. Have you ever had trouble reconciling, sort of, with your western education and then you have talked about the upholding of democratic values, democracy and hereditary titles? Did that come up for you?

A. None whatsoever. It s never been a problem in the sense that this is a religious function. The premises in which it exists and has been established and legitimized are there, and I have no problems with it so long as the institution does not affect the secular freedom of the community and I don t think it - certainly in my lifetime, that should ever be the case.

Q. What is the premise of the hereditary title?

A. Well, as you know, the Prophet indicated that he wished Hazrat Ali to become the guide for the Muslims. This is not an interpretation shared by all, but it is the interpretation of the Shia Muslims. And from there, the succession has been established. So I don t think on that issue I have any qualms. I have been careful not to let the practice of the faith in any way affect or impede the secular rights of the community. And that s why, one of the reasons why, I have not wanted to accept any form of international commitment of any sort, because it would expose me to political pressures, to political involvement, and I don t think in today's world that would be compatible with my work, with my role.

Q. What future role do you see for the Imams in the changing world and in the generations to come? Do you see that changing in anyway?

A. Well, as you would have known, I have tried to continue the work that my grandfather did. He had a clear vision of his role in his time. I hope I have a clear vision of my role in my time and that vision will have to be defined by the Imam. That is in fact the premise of Imamat, in our interpretation. That is, that it is the Imam who interprets, in accordance with his time and that is his absolute prerogative, his right, his duty. So I wouldn t go further than that.