The dangerous combination of deep-rooted, perhaps unconscious, prejudice
and lack of knowledge lies at the heart of Anne Edwards' Throne of
Gold. (Skin colour is important as a motif to her: only European women
need dark glasses and parasols to protect themselves from the sun
in Saudi Arabia, for example). Edwards sets out to tell the story
of the present Aga Khan, his father and grandfather: the leaders of
the Ismaili sect of Muslims. In its scope, it has promise. All the
ingredients of exotica are present, including the court of Queen Victoria.
Edwards has written about figures like Vivien Leigh and Ronald Reagan;
perhaps she had a Hollywood script in mind when she undertook this
book. It is not to be relied on for accuracy: Sind, a major province
of Pakistan, is placed in Afghanistan; the birth dates of the main
characters are inaccurate, and so on.
The single impression that emerges of the senior Aga Khan is of a
dark-skinned male forever lusting after white-skinned women. His story
as one of the triumvirate who changed Muslim history in South Asia
and gave the community a sense of identity is not explored. Born in
1877, at about the same time as the other two figures, the Aga Khan'
s financial and political acumen combined with Iqbal's poetic vision
and Jinnah's leadership to form a major force in Indian politics.
Similarly, the central focus of the present Aga Khan's life is missed.
His rural development programmes in north Pakistan are the one glimmer
of hope in converting entire villages from poverty into self-respecting
self-sufficiency. His hospital in Karachi is the best run in Pakistan;
his patronage of Islamic architecture based in Harvard-MIT has generated
global interest. Most important, he has become a bridge between east
and west, between Muslims and non-Muslims, tradition and modernity.
Yet Edwards panders to the fantasy of the Aga Khan in popular mythology:
as an oriental despot of fabulous wealth, forever linked to fast horses
and fast women. She is a political innocent. Along the way she insults
- I suspect unwittingly - not only the Ismaili community and the larger
Muslim one but also revered national figures like Gandhi and Jinnah.
We come away with little idea of the spiritual needs and sociological
compulsions of the Ismailis. Why do they respond to the person of
the Aga Khan? What role does he fulfil for them, both spiritually
and materially, and how does their faith in him survive in this age
of secularism? Reading Edwards' book raises the question of how we
are to treat belief and tradition in an age dominated by a cynical
and irreverent media.
The best way to deal with "offensive" books by those who are sensitive
to them is either to ignore them or to refute the arguments through
debate. Burning them will simply raise their sales. The Ismailis appear
to have learnt this cardinal lesson. I am not an Ismaili, but I believe
that attacking a spiritual figure like the Aga Khan or a royal one
like the Prince of Wales is an unfair sport. They cannot respond.
As for the idea of free speech and expression, in our world of violent
ethnic conflict, it needs to be taught with respect for others, for
ordinary human feelings, for the diversity of plural societies and
Akbar Ahmed, Fellow of Selwyn College Cambridge, was chief consultant
for the BBC series "Living Islam"