HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN'S RADIO INTERVIEW WITH BBC LONDON
AT AIGLEMONT, JULY 17th, 1997 (BY JOHN TIDMARSH)
J.T. Hello, and welcome. You have joined me today in France, for a special edition of
Outlook. We are just north of Paris at Chantilly, the elegant center of the French horse
racing industry. We are actually at the headquarters of the man who is celebrating 40 years
as the spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims: some
15 million people altogether. It was on July the 11th, 1957 that Prince Karim succeeded his
grandfather as the Aga Khan.
J.T. In fact Your Highness, you were chosen by him to take his place rather than your
father Prince Aly Khan or your uncle, although you were only 20. Why did he want
A.K. Well, he said in his will that he wanted a young man to succeed him, he had been
Imam for 72 years, so I think that his concern was for a younger generation to
fulfil the role of the Imam of the Ismaili Community.
J.T. It is the tradition of course that the Aga Khan chooses his successor, you are the
tracing your lineage back to Fatima, the Prophet's daughter.
A.K. That's correct. The authority descends in the family of Hazarat Aly, who was the
Prophet's son-in-law - cousin and son-in-law.
J.T. But, who exactly are the Ismaili Muslims?
A.K. The Ismaili Muslims are Shia Muslims, they are a branch, therefore, of the
tradition in Islam which recognized Hazrat Aly as having the authority to interpret
the faith as given to him by Prophet Mohammed.
J.T. Where is the Ismaili Community? How spread are they?
A.K. Well in simple terms in Central Asia, South Western Asia, Eastern Africa, North
America, Western Europe - about 28 different countries today.
J.T. Let's just hear from two members of the Ismaili Community, they both live in
as it happens, what it means to be an Ismaili. One of them is Mohamed Ahmed and
the other is Karim Mohammed.
Mohammed Ahmed:"Being an Ismaili is special in the sense that, we are part of a
Community and it is very much being part of a larger family of like-minded individuals. We are very much part of an international brotherhood. We practise our faith in
our daily lives, the ethics of self-help, ethics of generosity, under the guidance of His
Karim Mohammed:"The Imam is somebody who, according to our interpretation of
history, is being invested with the authority, the right, to interpret the faith. His guidance to the Community on how to live our lives is taken extremely seriously and it could be
on totally what appears to be totally secular issues. He may, for example, guide the
community to be cautious in how they lead their lives and not to live beyond their means
for example. On religious issues, yes also, there he guides the Community in the
importance of regularity in prayers, the importance of ethics in business. You know, one has to
live one's life ethically. As children grow up, I mean they don't regard the Imam as being
somebody who is very remote, they regard him very much as being, you know, a father
J.T. Two members of the Ismaili Community who live in Britain.
J.T. You were saying that it's very much an international Community, you yourself,
what about you, I mean you were born in Switzerland, you went to school there,
then you went to Harvard in the United States, your mother British, so was your
former wife, do you have a nationality?
A.K. I don't think of myself as a person with a nationality. I was brought up
since my youngest age as a Muslim. My university studies were in Islamic
studies. So that is if I have any sense of identification that would be it.
J.T. As an Islamic leader, how do you explain the rather abrasive relationship that
to exist between the Islamic world and the Western world?
A.K. Well I am not sure, I would call it a relationship. I think it's more realistic to look
at the Islamic world for what it is : very complex, very diverse, and to attribute to
that complex and diverse world, one relationship with the West, frankly I don't
think it's correct. I think there are areas of the Islamic world, which for non-theological reasons
find themselves, at certain times in conflict, with certain parts
of the Western world, but I would not want to extend that to, I don't mean to be
offensive, but rather simplistic notion of a Christian- Islamic conflictual
relationship --- no.
J.T. I wasn't thinking that in particular but, does the Islamic world, to some extent,
the intrusion of western culture, western ideas, the growing intrusion?
A.K. Yes, I think there are times when what I would call occidentalization, is a force
that the Islamic world would not welcome. The Islamic world and Islam itself
does not make that difference between the spiritual and material world in the same
terms as St. Augustine might have done in the Christian world. We have, I think
somewhat different ethical values. And they are, linked, strongly, to this, non-separation,
between the world of everyday and the world of the practice of the
J.T. I'd like to talk to you in a moment about western deceptions in particular and the
place of women in the Islamic world, but, let's just see first, one member of your
community, a very successful businesswoman in Kenya, her name is Norin
Kassam and she is talking to Martin Dawes.
N.K. You know, there is an entire Aga Khan infra-structure, that is within the
East African Community, there is schools, there is Hospitals, there is fund for economic
development, The Aga Khan Foundation, so there is definitely lot of work. Social and
economic work that is being done in Kenya, so in a sense of its presence in that type of
sense it's there. I think advise is, a universal type of advise. For example, your role
towards others. I am not talking about others in the Community, I am talking about
others at large. there is a duty,responsibility and obligation, to be able to do
something for the people who are less fortunate. That is a universal concept. And I think
the kind of guidance he gives, are universal concepts, that anyone in any country can
accept and very easily so.
M.D. As a business woman you'll see out there, in the world, and you are mixing
with people your dress is very western, it would not conform to what most peoples ideas,
of Islamic dress, or for use in Islamic woman. Now is that coming from the Aga Khan, or
is it coming from you?
N.K. The current Aga Khan's grandfather who was Aga Khan before him. He
was very strong in educating women and I think he used to say that if you have two
children, one boy and one girl and you can only afford to educate one of them, then
you should educate the girl, and then I think that the next statement is a statement that is used
to very, very commonly now, that if you educate a woman -- if you educate a man, you
educate an individual -- if you educate a woman, you educate a family. Now this was said
by the Aga Khan and again it's a very common and very popular saying now. You know
that sort of set the foundation for the type and the role of women, that the Ismaili
(Comments from NORIN KASSAM, A BUSINESS WOMAN IN KENYA.)
J.T. Contrast her life with a counterception of Muslim women, denied both education
sometimes and equal opportunity.
A.K. I think the message of Islam, is the dignity with which we must treat women in
society. Now, the notion of how that happens in practice, is very much a question
of interpretation. But the basic premise, is the dignity and equality of women in
society. And that goes right through the revelation of Islam, it goes to the
tradition and the life of the Prophet, and the Prophet's wife, Khatija, was a woman
who participated actively in daily life.
J.T. But one way that doesn't happen is if women are not given a proper education,
grandfather in particular was - was very keen on seeing that women were properly
A.K. Absolutely and that tradition is being maintained and we believe and I think it's
correct that education dignifies women.
J.T. Could I just ask you first of all, I don't mean to be impersonal, but how is great
wealth, how can you reconcile that being a spiritual leader.
A.K. I think you are reflecting precisely the point as said earlier. You are asking an
Augustinion question. Because you have been educated in the tradition that
practice, or that faith is divorced from the material world. Our tradition is, what
wealth God gives you, use it in His cause, which is what I seek to do and what my
institutions seek to do.
J.T. You concentrate a lot of this effort on the very poor members of your community?
A.K. Yes, simply because those are the areas of greatest need, we are dealing with in
countries, 70 to 75% of the population that is rural.
J.T. Some of the poorest members of your Community live in the former Soviet
Republic of Tajikistan, which is of course now an independent state, it's from
there we can now hear from Monica Whitlock on a rather poor telephone line, I
MONICA WHITLOCK REPORTING FROM TAJIKISTAN
"High in the Pamir mountains where the Hindu Kush rises to meet China, live the
lsmailis of Tajikistan. It's a land of extraordinary beauty, where the air is thin and color
seems somewhat brighter, lit by the intense white of the mountain peak. Huddled by snow
for most of the year, the Pamiris are truly a people set apart. Unlike most Tajiks, they are
often green-eyed and fair-haired, they speak their own ancient language,
incomprehensible to the outside world.
And here the man in the business suit, the Aga Khan, is revered as the Prophet
Mohamed's true descendant. It's understandable. Five years ago, when civil war tore
through Tajikistan, the mountain highway was cut and the Pamiris came close to
starving. If the Aga Khan Foundation hadn't rushed in emergency supplies, thousands
might have died. These days more than half the food in the Pamirs still comes from the
Foundation in convoys winding their way through treacherous mountain passes. But the
emphasis is changing. The Foundation has lately launched an experiment to enable the
Pamiris to break their dependency and feed themselves. So far the results have proved
spectacular. According to The Aga Khan Foundation, the Pamiris could even be self
sufficient in ten years time. An incredible achievement for one of the poorest
communities in the world. No wonder that every Ismaili household lends support to the
man the Pamiris believe has saved their lives."
J.T. Monica Whitlock reporting from Tajikistan and talking about just one of the arms
a much larger Development Network.
A.K. Yes, that's correct, what I have tried to do is, to create a small number of agencies,
each one has a specialized purpose, and they can work independently, or all together,
or some together.
J.T. But the overriding motive of all this work is helping people to help themselves.
A.K. That's correct, its helping people to become independent.
J.T. Your daughter has a degree in Third World development. What part does she
A.K. Zahra graduated from Harvard in that field because, while she was studying she
wanted to become involved in development and for me it was a magnificent
opportunity to have my only daughter be able to become involved in the issues of
women's development, in issues of the very poor, in issues of the youth, the young
people and the problems that they have.
J.T. She is not here at your headquarters, at the moment, because she just got married.
A.K. Of course. That's correct, she just got married, she is on her honeymoon now.
J.T. This work that you do, through your Development Network, is it entirely focused
the 15 million or so lsmailis around the world?
A.K. No, not at all. The driving notion is to select areas of the world, which do not
have sufficient development support and we go in there with others and support
all the people living in that area whether they are Ismaili or non-Ismaili, whether
they are Muslim or non-Muslim.
J.T. That's a huge field to work in isn't it?
A.K. It is indeed. The hope is however, that as you move from one area to the other,
render communities more and more independent. So they don't need that support any
J.T. Let's just take a break for a moment to take a closer look at some of the projects of
your Development Network. Anne Kassam starts this report at a Nursery School
A.K. How lovely.
Anne : Toddlers of this London nursery are benefiting from a unique teaching
It's called High Scope and was pioneered with support from The Aga Khan Foundation. It's mainly aimed at children from poorer communities and encourages them to
feel more confident and independent.
What's your plan, what are you planning to do in the house?
Children as young as 2 get to plan their own days out and as the Deputy Manager
MONICA MATTHEWS explains, everything is arranged so that youngsters can look after
their own needs.
"The most important aspect, all the material aspects for the children and that really
furthers their independence, really gets them a feel of - oh! I can do this, which I think is
very important to enforce their self esteem."
FROM THE EDUCATION OF NURSERY CHILDREN IN ENGLAND TO THAT OF
UNIVERSITY STUDENTS IN PAKISTAN --- music ---
This music is what's heard every time the Aga Khan University meets for important
occasions such as graduation ceremonies ----- music -----
Founded more than 10 years ago, it became the first private University in Pakistan
and it trains Nurses, Teachers and Doctors.
"Aga Khan University is very different, the curriculum is very extensive and the good thing is, that, it taught me that, there is more to medicine than just sickness.
Medicine somehow relates to everyday life."
Sherbanu-din is a final young medical student, she says, one of the most important parts of her course, with her experience as a student doctor in the slums of Karachi:
"It was important to be there because, the problem, the sickness is different in a
slum area, there are more infectious diseases than you see in the main City and there's
more poverty-bred diseases and it was important because, we realize, how much we are
needed, in the slums of the area, and not just only in the Hospital."
Caring for the poor and sick is a tradition, which states back to the present Aga Khan's
grandfather, Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah. In 1897 he played a major role in stopping the
spread of bubonic plague in Bombay, which was affecting the poorest of the population.
(Voice of Sultan Mohamed Shah)
" Though not belonging to the class that was liable to infection, I have got
innocculated as an example and encouragement to the general public in Bombay and
He was immunized in front of a large crowd to show people, vaccinations are nothing
be afraid of. To this day, educating people about vaccination is an important part of the
work of The Aga Khan Health Services. Like this project taking place in villages in the
state of Gujarat in Western India, where there is a high rate of infant mortality .
DAVID PILE WITH AN INDEPENDENT OBSERVER, OF THE PROGRAM,
Which involved young Ismaili women.
"The young women would go to the community members, to the mothers, to the
households and encourage them to bring their children for immunization. They were
able to reach almost 90% of the children. This is a great step forward to protect them against
some of the common childhood illnesses."
FROM VILLAGES IN WESTERN INDIA TO THE REMOTE PAMIR
MOUNTAINS IN TAJIKISTAN
As Monica Whitlock reported earlier, the Ismailis there, were sent food, with the help
the Aga Khan. But now they are less dependent on food aid, because they have also been
encouraged to try out a new method of farming. Shaikh Omar Mohamed who is an
independent farmer said, the results have been good and they are on their way to
(Translated from Tajik)
"Our people are farming now, we have got wheat, potatoes and other vegetables,
we are breeding animals. If we need wheat or diesel for farming, we get it from The
Helping to deal with the pressing problems of every day life, is a central concern of the
Aga Khan Development Network. But so is culture and art.
music--Malaika nakupenda malaika--
This was part of a ceremony to celebrate the renovation of a most beautiful building.
old dispensary in Zanzibar, which was built more than a 100 years ago, by a prominent
Ismaili and one of the richest man in East Africa.
The building was saved from dereliction and given a new use as a Culture Center.
Doctor Archie Wolves lead the project to restore the original character of the building,
while giving it a role in modern Zanzibar.
"There is no point in tying money into a building, if it's not going to have a
proper use. Here we have boutiques selling very colorful garments, cloth and local
paintings and other things. You have got to have the commercial element, to finance the
on-going maintenance, without it, this building will die."
J.T. I notice the delight on your face when you heard your grandfather there.
A.K. Yes, that's correct, I spent many extraordinary days, when I was with him and his
memory is very strong in my mind.
J.T. The last person we heard on that report from Anne Kassam is the architect Archie
Wolves and architecture seems to be one of your passions.
A.K. Yes, one of the things that characterizes Islamic societies, has been their ability
traditionally to express themselves in the physical environment in a unique
manner. That tradition was being lost, then it was my concern to try to encourage
that aspect of Islamic identity to be revived.
J.T. Are you concentrating on restoration or, renovation as we heard in that report?
A.K. No, I'm concentrating on trying to encourage Islamic societies to create, in their
traditions, but to create new.
J.T. One of your other passions I know and we are very conscious of it here in
Chantilly is racing. This was probably your greatest moment:
Radio Commentator : (Shergar ---- he is gone four, five, six, seven, eight lengths
here ------ two furlongs out ------- he is on his own, Shergar clear of his field,
Shergar wins the Derby.)
J.T. Your horse Shergar won an astounding win in the Epsom Derby in 1981. You
seem to be enjoying that all over again. Not as much as the commentator, who is
going quite mad.
A.K. Well, there is no doubt that was a very special day in my life and you probably
know I inherited the horses by accident, through my father's death and as a young
owner, to own and breed a Derby winner is an extraordinary thing and this horse
actually won the Derby by the biggest margin in history.
J.T. But then of course, was followed by a great tragedy.
J.T. Do we know who kidnapped the horse, have we any idea?
A.K. Oh, I think it was part of the I R A's fund raising exercise at the time and I think
they probably didn't understand that, apart from the fact that, it was unlikely they
were going to be paid the ransom, the horse was owned by a syndicate of owners.
I think he was destroyed probably three or four days after he was kidnapped.
J.T. When it became clear that, no money was going to be paid.
A.K. That's right.
J.T. Did it affect your interest in racing for a while?
A.K. Well, clearly, a Derby winner is a unique event in anyone's life, in addition to
he was from one of my grandfather's, his family's. So the breeding prospects were
important, I had shareholders, who had invested in the horse, so, it was a big, big loss
both personally and in terms of the breeding operation.
J.T. The love of racing is something that occurs in your heritage, if one could use of
word from your grandfather, unlike your title of AGA KHAN, it's not a title to which
one is elected. To whom are you accountable?
A.K. To the institution and the people who practise the Ismaili interpretation of Islam.
J.T. Ultimately, your turn will come to choose a successor, you have a daughter and
sons, could it be a daughter?
A.K. You know traditionally, historically it's been a man, the Imam keeps that choice to
J.T. We shan't be hearing that for a long time yet.
A.K. Well, I'm sixty.
J.T. That's very young.
J.T. Your Highness thank you very much for meeting us here today in Chantilly.
J.T You've been listening to the Special Edition of Outlook. From me, by John Tidmarsh, goodbye.