H.H. The Aga Khan visited India on the occasion of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture ceremony.
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Interview of H.H. The Aga Khan by Rajiv Mehrotra of DD TV

Delhi, India

Transcribed without editing from video by the Heritage Staff.

"In Conversation"

November 27, 2004

RM: Your Highness, you are an inspiration to millions of Muslims around the world. We have traditionally associated religious leaders with austerity, with denials in a sense. You embody a fullness of life. What is the world view that circumscribes your work as an Imam?

AK: There is a very important point to make here which is that Islam doesn't make the division that you have just made between faith and world. We are required to live in both and to live properly in both. I think it is essentially the Christian world that has tended to make a division between leaders of the faith and worldly matters. In fact I would go further, I would say even that today is tending to disappear because it is clear that religious leaders have responsibilities that they fulfil, they have authority that they can use properly, they have institutional resources, so the point I would make very is that in the fullness of my responsibilities, it's the fullness of my life.

RM: But, sometimes do you find, that you know, when you run businesses, for example, that there is a greater potential for conflict, you know, we traditionally associate issues of business with not really being ethical, and not really, sort of, following moral framework and structures. So is that ever a conflict for you?

AK: No, I did have a period in my life when I had some direct personal entrepreneurial activities, that's 20 years ago. I've given everything up. The Aga Khan Development Network has got the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development which invests in economic activities, but specifically in the developing world. And the only personal activity that I have is the bloodstock activity which I inherited from my family. And that I have tried to maintain, as best I could, but otherwise I have practically no personal entrepreneurial activity whatsoever.

RM: You're a direct descendent from the Prophet. Is that something that you feel, sort of, constantly conscious of, is there a mystical dimension to it? How does that sort of, play out for you?

AK: I think one of the specifics of Islam is that you live your faith. And you are not one day in your faith and the next day out of your faith. It is a permanent presence. It is a presence which brings you happiness. It brings you objectives in life and therefore, I don't think that one can make this sort of dichotomy. It is a permanency of thought, of attitude, of ethics. So that's really what it is.

RM: But are there, sort of presumably, rituals and practices that go with it? Are you in that sense a practicing Muslim or is this a more philosophical framework?

AK: It is both. It is both.

RM: So how significant are the ritualistic practices that are involved?

AK: I think you have to be clear in both. It is as I said, you live the faith. It's not that if you are in a meeting on a given issue, that you forget that behind these decisions you are taking are the ethical principles of your faith. And they have to be there all the time. Whatever you do.

RM: There are obviously the sort of diverse interpretations of the faith. And you know, sort of, most of the fundamentalistic aspects of it, you know, don't take interest, in terms of loans, debts. Do you feel sort of compromised or, let's say, do other practitioners of the faith, other traditions, Islamic traditions feel that you are somewhat compromised in the understanding of Islam?

AK: Not at all. We have a number of agencies. The vast majority are not-for-profit agencies. And where they are for profit it is because they have a development purpose and it is very difficult, frankly, to carry out a development program if you don't renew your resources. So, you have to renew your resources. The important point I think is to give everybody a choice. It is actually the individual in society who must make the choice. It is he or she that makes that choice. As long as the choice is available I feel comfortable.

RM: In what ways do you feel that you have helped or you have contributed to the re-interpretation or the revitalization of Islam to make it more contemporary?

AK: I think there are issues in the Islamic world that have been difficult to deal with. One has been, for example, the physical environment and the expression of culture in architecture, in environmental work, in arts, music, etc. But there are other areas also. Governance, good governance, principles of public consultation. Democracy, after all, is a form of government is now becoming very prevalent. But it doesn't mean that it is necessarily good government. It doesn't mean that it is necessarily government which is effective for the people that it is supposed to serve. So, we are living at a time when there are a number of fragile democracies in our world. And not specifically in the Islamic world. But the bridge between the notion of a modern democracy and issues of public consultation, meritocracy, these are all issues which bridge Islamic ethics and modern governance. And that is a very important area which I have been working in. I have been working also in interpretation clearly, as you have said, there are a numerous interpretations in Islam. And there the issue is the acceptance of pluralism. The Ismaili community itself is pluralistic.

RM: We were talking about pluralism and accountability and governance in Islam, what are the elements, where in Islam does this derive from? It is a popular perception that democracy is a Greco-Roman concept. Where does it come from in Islam?

AK: Right after the passing away of Prophet Muhammad, there were processes of determination of what governance would be after his lifetime. And there were two interpretations. One was a hereditary interpretation which is essentially the essence of Shia Islam. There was a consultational process amongst leaders of the community of the time to select what was believed to be the most appropriate, most competent leader. And, therefore, two principles, or three principles were established at the time. Heredity. Secondly, consultation. Thirdly, competence. If you look at modern states they are all there in one form or the other. So I think it is important to see how these forces which were logical, proper forces, that existed just after the time of Prophet Muhammad's death, they are still in the Islamic Ummah today, and indeed outside.

RM: You've talked about how you are anguished at the way Islam is perceived in much of the world and 9/11 and in the conflicts in the Middle East. And much of your work now has been directed to education, to sort of reinterpreting -looking at Islam afresh. So what kind of new look, what kind of new interpretation would you hope to bring about Islam?

AK: Let me go back to the basics of a modern world. If it is correct, as I think it is, that we would be living in the next ten, twenty years with a large number of young states, not very experienced in democracy, in good governance, etc. The sustenance of improvement in quality of life, I think will occur through civil society. I think it is civil society, and indeed India here is a case in point, where civil society institutions will be institutions through which people would refer for continuing improvement. That's really the area of my primary work. And therefore everything that affects civil society is of primary concern to me. Yes, we have been looking at new issues, we have been looking at issues, for example, of teaching on pluralism. We have been looking at issues of teaching on ethics, we have been looking at issues about teaching on the environment.

RM: But are these circumscribed by an Islamic world or are they in some ways a secular world view?

AK: No, no, they are value systems which are as appropriate and they are sourced in the Islamic world. I mean all these issues are referenced in many, many ways in the Islamic world. But they are global values. They are universal values.

RM: Would you say that the Ismaili community under your leadership, is this a process of reinterpreting Islam to make it relevant to the modern world or in some ways, perhaps, a lifting of the veils of traditional Islam which was always dynamic and unfolding?

AK: Yes. I don't see any conflict in the way I interpret Islam between the intellect and faith. And insofar as people's knowledge today is significantly different from what it was thirteen hundred years ago, we have to live in our time. And indeed I would vigorously oppose anybody who would claim that the faith of Islam cannot be of the twentieth or the twenty-first or the twenty-third, twenty-fifth century.

RM: What would you say to, sort of, your Islamic brothers such as, you know, Osama bin Laden and others, who sort of in the name of Islam, are wielding so much terror?

AK: I have to say, very frankly, that I don't accept the notion that the faith of Islam is associated with terrorism. I have to say very frankly that in my interpretation, just about every area where we have conflict, in the Islamic world and outside, is essentially driven by political issues. Either historic issues that we have inherited, problems which have not been solved, 1947 Partition in India, the Middle East, what is it? It is result of the First World War, decades ago. These are problems which we have inherited which have not been solved. And I think we need to give more time to solving those problems. And, secondly, predicting where things can go wrong. A lot of these issues are actually predictable, but they are not addressed in good time.

RM: So, how intense is your feeling of anguish with that much of, you know, the violence and the terror in the world is ascribed to Islam and 9/11 and thereafter in particular, has brought a great deal of prejudice and hostility to the faith and people who manifest that faith?

AK: As I said, I think that it is wrong to associate the totality of a highly pluralist faith in many parts of the world, many communities, many backgrounds, many languages with individual specificities. I will give you an example, I doubt that any educated person would have seen in Northern Ireland a representation of the Catholic faith or the Protestant faith. And yet what was it? It was a conflict of two communities. But it was pitched into the context of faith conflict. But to extrapolate from that one situation and say that one situation illustrates the whole of the attitude of these faiths would be totally wrong. Then if you apply that equity to the way you interpret the situation in Northern Ireland and in many others, then let's apply the same equity to the Islamic world.

RM: You have been initiating projects in much of the Islamic world. We are looking at traditional Islamic education - the Madrassas. So what is your striving in those kinds of initiatives - to use the Madrassas for change?

AK: What happened is that the Madrassa historically went through a lot of evolution. And in fact it went up to the great Madrassas of Central Asia which were in fact universities. So today what we are talking about is pre-primary education then right up practically to higher education. And my sense is that today the specificity of education needs to be consolidated into a global form of education. So that the individual can live in the real world today. And this divide that used to happen between education and faith and education and the real world is one which I think, we have to reconsider. And in fact many Muslim communities are doing that. And I think we have helped them to do that. That does not mean that you give up education and religion. What it means is that you complete it. So that if you enter the educational process, you enter into a complete stream rather than a split stream.

RM: There is the popular perception that the Madrassas in Pakistan, for example, and in several Muslim countries have been the training ground - the breeding ground for future militants. So isn't this a way of bringing reform into Islam, and then translating into society in some ways.

AK: I think many Muslim countries have already completed the reform in the Madrassa. In East Africa, for example, we have been significantly involved in that activity. In Pakistan there is a process of reformation of the Madrassa. And I think the aim is, as I said, (a) to round out the educational process. The second one is to introduce notions of quality because notions of quality have been uneven. The faculty that teach in Madrassas - teaching is a profession today. This needs to be done professionally.

RM: In talking about the quality of education you have spoken about the issues of plurality and again a popular perception of Islam is that it tends to be exclusive and not as tolerant in accepting of diversity. What are the elements in Islam for you that recommend pluralism, that recommend diversity?

AK: Probably I think the ethics themselves are very clear, that is, the society in which you live is the society which you care for. And there is not a great deal of distinction between whether you will care for this community or that community. What you seek is a quality of life for everybody, which is one which can be valued. So I think we have to be careful not to say that Islam is exclusive. It is not exclusive. Indeed it's probably the most inclusive of all the monotheistic faiths. If only because it was the last monotheistic faith revealed.

RM: Missing question...

AK:....because the Aga Khan Award for Architecture will be held here. And I am very, very happy because it has been a hope of everybody connected with the Award to hold this ceremony here.

RM: What is the significance of the Aga Khan giving an Award for architecture? Why architecture? What's the importance of that?

AK: I think what happened was I have been involved in building for many, many years. And I started asking myself what's happened to the great traditions of Islamic architecture? And there are many of them. I had the feeling this area of cultural activity had actually lost its momentum, lost its sense of direction. And I shared that query with many other Muslims and non-Muslims. And they all agreed. So then the question was how do you change cultural attitudes and revitalize them, give them new areas of knowledge? And that's the source of the Award was to try to create a new momentum. A new momentum not only looking backwards. Sometimes people say, well you can only be legitimate if you look backwards. That's not true. Let's look forwards. Let's design great architecture for the future. Protect the past, and inspire the future.

RM: In India, if you travel around and you see that there are such, sort of, conflicting architectural styles - in the sense that these sorts of architecture or presences has declined. Why is architecture - this largely is a philosophical question because you are contributing so much to its promotion - why is architecture important?

AK: Let me call it habitat first, not architecture. The Award is called the Award for Architecture, but it applies to the physical environment in which people live. And in countries like India and others, the rural environment is infinitely more important than the urban environment. And I mean, you have, whatever it is, more than 80% of the population of India lives in the rural environment. Therefore, we are looking at all aspects. And what we found, very early on, is that in the processes of change and improvement in quality of life, people invest in improving their habitat. And the question is, can we help them to do that in a more effective way, where they get better design, better quality of life from what they invest in the physical environment.

RM: If I could conclude on a personal question, What is, -- you radiate so much of happiness, you radiate a kind of glow, what is the prescription of happiness for you?

AK: The role I have is a remarkable privilege. It's to be able to help people, and in that sense, when I have a feeling that some of the things are being done, do actually cause change and positive change, that's a source of immense happiness.

RM: Is it sometimes personally difficult, is it constricting in any way, occasionally?

AK: It's demanding, because the world demands a great deal more than ever before. Because the range of the Imamat activities is greater than it's ever been. Because we are working in even more countries. Countries where there is an Ismaili community, countries where there is not an Ismaili community - we're looking at changes in governance, as I said, we've talked about democracy.

RM: But, personally, what's most difficult? The fact that you're under scrutiny all the time? Can you be humanly fallible?

AK: The most difficult is managing time. That's the most difficult aspect of my life.

RM: Your Highness, thank you very much for creating the time to be on this program, from your very busy schedule. It's been more than 15 years, but I hope we will talk again on this program soon. Thank you very much.

AK: Thank you.