Chicago Tribune
By Deborah Horan
Tribune staff reporter
Published June 6, 2003

Muslim sect to open door to its world Conference cites values of Ismailis

In the last two years, friends and acquaintances have asked Rafiq Ghaswala about the difference between the two main branches of Islam, the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the origins of the Koran, Islam's holy book. But few people have asked him about the Ismaili sect of Shiite Islam to which he belongs, a minority within a minority among the world's 1 billion Muslims. Few, in fact, have heard of Ismailis, or their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan.

"There is a curiosity about Islam," said Ghaswala, an activist in the Chicago Interfaith Youth Corps. "People ask questions. But people like the Aga Khan don't get a lot of media attention." At 66, the Aga Khan has spent much of his career funding charities and preaching tolerance and pluralism, ethics Ghaswala said are central to Islam and the Ismaili branch of the faith. Muhammad's birthday On Saturday, the Chicago area's Ismaili community plans to celebrate those values at the first Chicago conference held in honor of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, titled "Pluralism and the Islamic Mosaic."

The event, to be held at the Midwest Conference Center in west suburban Northlake, is part of a series of seminars being held in five American cities in May and June. The goal is to emphasize the teachings of the prophet that promote cultural understanding in a climate that many Muslims fear has become increasingly intolerant. "It will celebrate the prophet's life and his teachings relevant to pluralism, diversity, tolerance and respect for human life," said Zarif Badruddin, president of the Ismaili council for the Midwest.

To help spread the word, conference organizers have invited Christian and Jewish leaders from the Edgewater Community Religious Association, an interfaith organization on the Far North Side that Chicago's Ismaili community has participated in for years. "The Ismailis have been very open and eager to connect," said Peter Buttitta, pastoral associate at St. Gertrude Church in Edgewater, who plans to attend Saturday's conference. "They really feel like there is a blight on their religion, and they are eager to dispel it."

Followers say the Ismailis are an esoteric sect of Islam whose 15 million to 20 million adherents worldwide tend to emphasize spirituality over literal interpretations of the Koran. Since 1957 they have been led by Prince Karim Aga Khan, a Swiss-born spiritual leader who lives near Paris and who traces his ancestry to Muhammad. He has spent his life preaching about cultural diversity and volunteerism.

Ismailis settled in Chicago in the 1970s--mainly from Pakistan, India and east Africa--and now number about 5,000, with centers in Northlake and in Rogers Park. Saturday's conference will continue that work by focusing on the Hadith, or sayings of Muhammad that highlight values promoting peaceful coexistence, organizers said. 'Simple and universal' "The teachings of the prophet are very simple and very universal: beliving in harmony with others ... respecting others' rights and religious beliefs," Ghaswala said. Their emphasis on pluralism will also be directed toward other Muslims, participants said.

There is much to learn within the [Islamic] tradition about coming together," said Nargis Virani, a professor of Arabic language and literature at Washington University in St. Louis. Virani plans to speak Saturday about the 13th Century Muslim poet Jelaluddin Rumi, who wrote poems in five languages, as an example of pluralism within Islam. Founded in the 8th Century after a rift over who should lead the Shiite community following the death of the sixth imam, or spiritual leader, Ismailis have lived in central Asia ever since, but always in small numbers.

Often persecuted or just plain ignored by Sunnis and the larger Shiite branch of Islam that today rules Iran, Ismailis developed their own ways of worship, an acceptance of different paths toward God and an emphasis on charity.

Philanthropic acts Today, the Aga Khan is a wealthy philanthropist who chairs and funds the Aga Khan Development Network, a non-profit organization in Switzerland that works primarily in Asia and Africa, where most of the world's Ismailis live. The organization builds roads in Afghanistan, helps improve agriculture in Tajikistan and works to increase literacy in India, among other projects.

It is perhaps best known for helping to fund, through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble, which has been touring the old spice route through Central Asia since 2001. In April and May, the group toured the Asian republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic, home to many Ismailis, to promote music as a force that unites cultures. "That is what we stress: understanding each other and appreciating each other's culture," Ghaswala said. "Especially now I think it's important for the community at large to see what Muslims are about."

Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune