by His Highness the Aga Khan
Address by His Highness
the Aga Khan
to the Tutzing Evangelical Academy Upon Receiving the
"Tolerance" Award, 20 May 2006
Ladies and Gentlemen
Minister Steinmeier has been very generous in his remarks
-- for which I thank him most sincerely. And I would like
to take this occasion at the opening of these comments,
to tell him how much all the people who work with me around
the world appreciate the support and the partnership of
the people and Government of Germany in the work that
we are doing. You have brought imagination, you have brought
sophistication, you have brought flexibility to areas
of need, areas of intellectual activity, which we consider
unique, and I thank you for that.
these times of misunderstanding and mistrust, I applaud
the realistic outlook on international affairs that His
Excellency Minister of Foreign Affairs brings to his work.
I know that he views a constructive relationship between
the West and the Muslim world as critical to global peace
and stability, and I am grateful for his contributions
to that goal.
am also deeply grateful for your kind invitation and your
generous award. This honor takes on special distinction
for me because of the very high value I attach to the
award's purpose, that is to increase awareness and respect
between peoples and cultures through a discussion of political,
cultural and religious topics. It is to these subjects
that I will address my comments today.
doing so, I would like to draw on my personal experience,
as one who was educated in the West, but who has spent
nearly 50 years working largely in the developing world.
My particular preoccupation during this time has been
with the countries of South and Central Asia, Africa and
the Middle East, where the Ismaili community is concentrated.
I became Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, I have
watched my world -- or should I say the entire world?
-- oscillate between promise and disappointment. In many
cases, the disappointments can be attributed to the absence
of a culture of tolerance.
course my experience includes the religious faith in which
I have been nurtured. I was born into a Muslim family,
educated as a Muslim and spent many years studying the
history of the faith and its civilizations. My commitment
to the principle of tolerance also grows out of that commitment.
of the central elements of the Islamic faith is the inseparable
nature of faith and world. The two are so deeply intertwined
that one cannot imagine their separation. They constitute
a “Way of Life.” The role and responsibility
of an Imam, therefore, is both to interpret the faith
to the community, and also to do all within his means
to improve the quality, and security, of their daily lives.
am fascinated and somewhat frustrated when representatives
of the western world -- especially the western media --
try to describe the work of our Aga Khan Development Network
in fields like education, health, the economy, media,
and the building of social infrastructure.
a certain historical tendency of the West to separate
the secular from the religious, they often describe it
either as philanthropy or entrepreneurship. What is not
understood is that this work is for us a part of our institutional
responsibility -- it flows from the mandate of the office
of Imam to improve the quality of worldly life for the
spiritual understandings, like those of your Academy,
are rooted, of course, in ancient teachings. In the case
of Islam, there are two touchstones which I have long
treasured and sought to apply. The first affirms the unity
of the human race, as expressed in the Holy Qu'ran where
God, as revealed through the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may
peace be upon him, says the following:
mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord, Who
created you from a single soul and from it created its
mate and from the twain hath spread abroad a multitude
of men and women.” (4:1)
remarkable verse speaks both of the inherent diversity
of mankind -- the “multitude” -- and of the
unity of mankind -- the “single soul created by
a single Creator” -- a spiritual legacy which distinguishes
the human race from all other forms of life.
second passage I would cite today is from the first hereditary
Imam of the Shi'a community Hazrat Ali. As you know, the
Shi'a divided from the Sunni after the death of the Prophet
Muhammad. Hazrat Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the
Prophet, was, in Shi'a belief, named by the Prophet to
be the Legitimate Authority for the interpretation of
the faith. For the Shi'a today, all over the world, he
is regarded as the first Imam.
cite Hazrat Ali's words so that you may understand the
spirit in which I have attempted to fulfill the mandate
left to me as the 49th hereditary [Ismaili] Imam after
the death of my grandfather. I quote:
belief is like modesty and patience, no attainment is
like humility, no honour is like knowledge, no power is
like forbearance, and no support is more reliable than
Ali's regard for knowledge reinforces the compatibility
of faith and the world. And his respect for consultation
is, in my view, a commitment to tolerant and open-hearted
Islamic ideals, of course, have also been emphasized by
other great religions. Despite the long history of religious
conflict, there is a long counter-history of religious
focus on tolerance as a central virtue -- on welcoming
the stranger and loving one's neighbour.
is my Neighbor?” - one of the central Christian
narratives asks. Jesus responds by telling the story of
the Good Samaritan -- a foreigner, a representative of
the Other, who reaches out sympathetically, across ethnic
and cultural divides, to show mercy to the fallen stranger
at the side of the road.
know you will find nothing unusual in this discussion
given your own spiritual foundations. But it is striking
to me how many modern thinkers are still disposed to link
tolerance with secularism -- and religion with intolerance.
In their eyes -- and often in the public's eyes I fear
-- religion is seen as part of the problem and not part
of the solution.
be sure, there are reasons why this impression exists.
Throughout history we find terrible chapters in which
religious conflict brought frightening results. Sometimes,
a part of the problem grew; it came from proselytizing
-- in which faith was not so much shared as imposed. Again
in our day, many ostensibly religious voices aggressively
affirm a single faith by denying or condemning others.
people speak these days, about an inevitable “Clash
of Civilizations” in our world, what they often
mean, I fear, is an inevitable “Clash of Religions.”
But I would use different terminology altogether. The
essential problem, as I see it, in relations between the
Muslim world and the West is “A Clash of Ignorance.”
And what I would prescribe -- as an essential first step
-- is a concentrated educational effort.
of shouting at one another, we must listen to one another
-- and learn from one another. As we do, one of our first
lessons might well center on those powerful but often
neglected chapters in history when Islamic and European
cultures interacted cooperatively -- constructively and
creatively -- to help realize some of civilization's peak
[I think] We must also understand the vast diversity that
exists within individual faiths and cultures, including
the diversity now at play within the Islamic world. And
we must acknowledge that while such pluralism can be healthy
and enriching -- it can also become destructive and deadly
as it did for the Christian community in Europe half a
millennium ago and it does in some parts of the Islamic
world at the start of this new millennium.
can thus result from one sort of presumably religious
attitude, but profound tolerance can also be a deeply
spiritual roots of tolerance include, it seems to me,
a respect for individual conscience -- seen as a Gift
of God -- as well as a posture of religious humility before
the Divine. It is by accepting our human limits that we
can come to see The Other as a fellow seeker of truth
-- and to find common ground in our common quest.
me emphasize again, however, that spirituality should
not become a way of escaping from the world but rather
a way of more actively engaging in it.
are a variety of ways in which we can work to build a
culture of tolerance in a turbulent time. Many of them
are reflected in the work of our Aga Khan Development
Network. One example is the new Global Centre for Pluralism
which we recently established in Ottawa -- in partnership
with the Canadian government. The Centre sees the minority
experience of the Ismaili community as a helpful resource
in the quest for a constructive pluralism -- along with
the pluralistic model of Canada itself.
challenges to tolerance are manifold -- in both the developed
and the developing world. The revolutionary impact of
globalization means that many who never met before now
intermingle continually -- through modern communications
media and through direct contact. The migration of populations
around the world is at record levels; peoples who once
lived across the world from one another, now live across
societies which have grown more pluralistic in makeup,
are not always growing more pluralistic in spirit. What
is needed -- all across the world -- is a new “cosmopolitan
ethic”-- rooted in a strong culture of tolerance.
recall a conversation I had some years ago with Jim Wolfensohn,
then President of the World Bank, about perceptions of
happiness in various societies -- and especially among
the very poor. We decided that we should 'listen to the
voices of the poor”-- and the World Bank commissioned
an important study on that topic. One of its conclusions
was that the emotion of “fear” was a central
factor holding these societies back. Such fear could have
many forms: fear of tyrants, fear of nature, fear of ill
health, fear of corruption, violence, scarcity and impoverishment.
And such fears inevitably became a source of intolerance.
is a human impulse it seems -- fed by fear -- to define
“identity” in negative terms. We often determine
“who we are”-- by determining who we are against.
This fragmenting impulse not only separates peoples from
one another, it also subdivides communities -- and then
it subdivides the subdivisions. It leads to what some
have called the “fraying” of society -- in
which communities come to resemble a worn out cloth --
as its tight weave separates into individual strands.
the human inclination to divisiveness is accompanied,
I deeply believe, by a profound human impulse to bridge
divisions. And often the more secure we are in our own
identities, the more effective we can be in reaching out
our animosities are born out of fear, then confident generosity
is born out of hope. One of the central lessons I have
learned after a half century of working in the developing
world is that the replacement of fear by hope is probably
the single most powerful trampoline of progress.
in the poorest and most isolated communities, we have
found that decades, if not centuries, of angry conflict
can be turned around by giving people reasons to work
together toward a better future -- in other words, by
giving them reasons to hope. And when hope takes root,
then a new level of tolerance is possible, though it may
have been unknown for years, and years, and years.
which grows out of hope is more than a negative virtue
-- more than a convenient way to ease sectarian tensions
or foster social stability -- more than a sense of forbearance
when the views of others clash with our own. Instead,
seen not as a pallid religious compromise but as a sacred
religious imperative, tolerance can become a powerful,
positive force, one which allows all of us to expand our
horizons -- and enrich our lives.
you for the honour of this Award.