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“The revelation granted to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) opened new horizons and released new energies of mind and spirit,” said the Aga Khan. It was, he said, a message “still potent in the Muslim world today, although it is sometimes clouded over, distorted and deformed by political interests and by struggles for power over the minds and hearts of people.” “There are attempts,” he warned, “at transforming what are meant to be fluid, progressive, open-ended, intellectually informed and spiritually inspired traditions of thought, into hardened, monolithic, absolutist and obscurantist positions.”
In a keynote address at an international colloquium entitled “Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur’an and its Creative Expressions,” the Aga Khan underlined the Qur’an’s concern for salvation of the soul, but commensurately also with the ethical imperatives which sustain an equitable social order.” “The Qur’an’s is an inclusive vision of society that gives primacy to nobility of conduct,” he reminded his audience.
Taking as an example scholarship inspired by the Qur’anic message, the Aga Khan recalled the thought of the 11th century poet-philosopher, Nasir Khusraw for whom “true jihad is the war that must be waged against the perpetrators of bigotry, through spreading of knowledge that dispels the darkness of ignorance and nourishes the seed of peace that is innately embedded in the human soul.”
Later in the day, speaking to postgraduate students who had just completed an academic programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities, the Aga Khan described the intellectual development of the ummah as an urgent challenge. “In what voice or voices,” he asked, “can the Islamic heritage speak to us afresh -- a voice true to the historical experience of the Muslim world yet, at the same time, relevant to the technically advanced but morally turbulent and uncertain world of today?”
Presenting what he acknowledged was a grey picture of the ummah, the Aga Khan said that “unless we have the courage to face unpleasant reality, there is no way that we can aspire realistically to a better future.” He spoke of divides so readily perceived today. “On the opposite sides of the fissures,” he said, “are the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor, the Shia and the Sunni, the Arab and the non-Arab, the theocracies and the secular states, the search for normatisation versus the valuing of pluralism, those who search for and are keen to adopt modern, participatory forms of government versus those who wish to re-impose supposedly ancient forms of governance.” “What should have been brotherhood has become rivalry,” he continued, “generosity has been replaced by greed and ambition, the right to think is held to be the enemy of real faith, and anything we might hope to do to expand the frontiers of human knowledge through research is doomed to failure for, in most of the Muslim world, there are neither the structures nor the resources to develop meaningful intellectual leadership.”
“Yet,” said the Aga Khan, “there are many across the length and breadth of the Muslim world today, who care for their history and heritage, who are keenly sensitive to the radically altered conditions of the modern world.” “They are convinced,” he said, “that the idea that there is some inherent, permanent division between their heritage and the world of today is a profoundly mistaken idea; and that the choice it suggests between an Islamic identity on one hand and on the other hand, full participation in the global order of today is a false choice indeed.” The Aga Khan went on to describe a number of initiatives that he had launched in the areas of higher education to address the need to foster intellectual development in Muslim societies. These included the Aga Khan University with campuses in South Asia, East Africa and the United Kingdom and the University of Central Asia with campuses under development in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic.
Among the more significant new ventures he mentioned was an international network of schools that he had launched across Africa and Asia and that would provide education of the highest quality from the primary to the higher secondary levels on custom-designed campuses with the best facilities available. The purpose of this school system, he said, would be to provide a strong grounding in the humanities, exposure to modern information technologies and access to the most sophisticated knowledge bases. By having students and faculty move within the system, graduates would gain exposure to different social, ethnic and religious environments. More importantly, however, students attending these schools would have a strong grounding in the humanities and in particular, the cultures of the Muslim world. Their “beliefs, practices, ethics and social norms will be those of their own societies, and their own cultures, and their value systems will be rooted in their own histories, and their own arts.”
The Aga Khan also drew attention to a more generic problem. He noted that “as more and more nations develop increasingly multi-cultural rather than uniform or monolithic profiles and as the process of globalisation continues apace, educators are confronted by the challenge to provide to the mainstream population of their society, an informed understanding of the culture and history of minorities domiciled in their midst, as well as other major civilisations beyond their shores.” He decried, in particular, the lack, in systems of education in the West, of “a nuanced knowledge or appreciation of the traditions of the Muslim world.” The Aga Khan Development Network, he said, was seeking to address these concerns through a collaborative effort with North American universities and State educational authorities to develop more appropriate school curricula relating to Islam and through the establishment of a museum of Islamic heritage in Toronto.
The Aga Khan was in London to attend events marking the 25th anniversary of the establishment of The Institute of Ismaili Studies.
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