Two Absolutely Essential Messages in His Highness the Aga Khan’s Harvard Lecture: “The Cosmopolitan Ethic” and the Timeless Truth that “Humanity is Born of a Single Soul”

Ticket holders line up to listen to His Highness the Aga Khan at Harvard University on November 12, 2015. Photo: Azeem Maherali.

Ticket holders line up to listen to His Highness the Aga Khan at Harvard University on November 12, 2015. Photo: Azeem Maherali.

Editor’s note: Thematic excerpts from speeches made by His Highness the Aga Khan are highly popular with our readers, and we are pleased to present this feature once again for the recent Jodi lecture that was delivered by the 49th Ismaili Imam at Harvard University on Thursday, November 12, 2015. We begin with excerpts from introductory remarks made by Professor Ali Asani’s in welcoming His Highness to Harvard.



“Your Highness, I am one of those children who many years ago was a student attending Aga Khan schools in Kenya, and with your support and guidance, went on to study and teach here at Harvard. Thank you.”  — Dr. Ali Asani, November 12, 2015.

Professor Ali Asani introduces His Highness the Aga Khan before the 2015 Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture at Harvard University. Photo: Navyn Naran.

Professor Ali Asani introduces His Highness the Aga Khan before the 2015 Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture at Harvard University. Photo: Navyn Naran.

“It is my honour and privilege to be here today, and to introduce to you — and to welcome back to Harvard — our guest speaker, His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, Harvard class of 1959.

“For nearly six decades, the Aga Khan has been responsible for both the spiritual guidance and the material welfare of millions of Ismaili Muslims residing in over 25 countries, sometimes in contexts of conflict and poverty. Under his leadership, this multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual, and transnational community — or Jamat — has witnessed the greatest transformation in its history. He has guided the Ismailis through a dramatic metamorphosis that has impacted the lives of each and every member of his community.

“However, His Highness’s concerns have extended well beyond the communities of his followers to the larger societies in which they live….[He] has made it possible for hundreds of thousands of children of different religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds to study in Aga Khan kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, and academies located both in Africa and Asia. He has created two international universities and endowed professorships at major institutions of higher education — including Harvard.

Audience applauds as His Highness the Aga Khan is welcomed to Harvard by Professor Ali Asani. Photo: The Ismaili/Farhez Rayani

Audience applauds as His Highness the Aga Khan is welcomed to Harvard by Professor Ali Asani. Photo: The Ismaili/Farhez Rayani

“His Highness has made every sector and aspect of the human existence a part of his concern. His institutional efforts are deployed to meet the holistic and multiple needs of millions of people around the world, irrespective of their religion, race or nationality.

“According to a well-known saying attributed to the Aga Khan’s ancestor, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” In keeping with ancient Islamic traditions of nurturing the arts, His Highness has also enriched the lives of people around the world by giving the priceless gift of beauty.

“While some wanton elements in our world today are sadly intent on destroying humanity’s cultural heritage, the Aga Khan’s institutions have been restoring historic monuments, beautifying urban landscapes with magnificent gardens and stunning award-winning buildings, reviving traditions of music and promoting the role of the arts as bridges of cultural understanding.

“Today, we live in an increasingly polarised world in which people are unable to tolerate difference, let alone understand and engage with it. The lives of one-and-a-half billion Muslims, and perhaps everyone on this planet, have been changed by the machinations of powerful geopolitical forces.

“Your Highness, in our world of increasing division orchestrated by small cells of radical extremists, and often manipulated by powerful forces with consequences that reverberate in large parts of the world, we cherish and honour your lifetime commitment to pluralism and the betterment of society, and look forward to your thoughts on The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome His Highness the Aga Khan.”



His Highness the Aga Khan spoke on November 12, 2015 at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs on "The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World". Photo: AKDN / Farhez Rayani

His Highness the Aga Khan speaks on November 12, 2015 at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs on “The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World”. Photo: AKDN / Farhez Rayani



Thank you for your warm welcome. It is indeed a great pleasure for me to return to Harvard and this wonderful campus. I am honored as well, to be giving the Jodidi Lecture for 2015, and to join the distinguished list of those who have given this lecture over the past 60 years.

….in 1957 I was a junior when I became the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims — when my grandfather designated me to succeed him.

…What does it mean to become an Imam in the Ismaili tradition?…. it is an inherited role of spiritual leadership. As you may know, the Ismailis are the only Muslim community that has been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from Prophet Muhammad.

That spiritual role, however, does not imply a separation from practical responsibilities. In fact for Muslims the opposite is true: the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Leadership in the spiritual realm — for all Imams, whether they are Sunni or Shia — implies responsibility in worldly affairs; a calling to improve the quality of human life.



As I prepared for this new role in the late 1950s, Harvard was very helpful. The University allowed me — having prudently verified that I was a student “in good standing” — to take eighteen months away to meet the leaders of the Ismaili community in some 25 countries where most of the Ismailis then lived, and to speak with their government leaders.

I returned here after that experience with a solid sense of the issues I would have to address, especially the endemic poverty in which much of my community lived. And I also returned with a vivid sense of the new political realities that were shaping their lives, including the rise of African independence movements, the perilous relations between India and Pakistan and the sad fact that many Ismailis were locked behind the Iron Curtain and thus removed from regular contact with the Imamat.

When I returned to Harvard, it was not only to complete my degree, but I was fortunate to audit a number of courses that were highly relevant to my new responsibilities. So as an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to benefit from the complete spectrum of courses offered by this great university.

….Harvard has continued to be a highly valued partner for our Network since this time. The University played a key role in developing the blueprint thirty years ago for the Aga Khan University — working first in the fields of medicine and nursing education, and now offering a broad variety of degrees on three continents. Another close Harvard relationship has involved the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, launched here and at MIT in 1977.

Regularity in Class Attendance

Incidentally, I must have been the only Harvard undergraduate to have two secretaries and a personal assistant working with me. And I have always been very proud of the fact that I never sent any of them to take notes for me at my class!


Through all of these years, my objective has been to understand more thoroughly the developing countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and to prepare initiatives that will help them become countries of opportunity, for all of their peoples.

Concern For Islamic Architecture: Lack of Processes for its Renewal

My concern for the future of Islamic architecture grew out of my travels between 1957 and 1977 in countries with large Muslim populations. What I observed was a near total disconnect between the new built environment I encountered and Islam’s rich architectural legacy. There was no process of renewal, no teaching in architectural schools, no practices that were rooted in our own traditions. Except for the occasional minaret or dome, one of the world’s great cultural inheritances was largely confined to coffee-table books. It seemed to me that this state of affairs represented a monumental menace to our world’s cultural pluralism, as well as a dangerous loss of identity for Muslim communities.

The Aga Khan Programme for Islamic Architecture was one response to this situation, as was the creation of the Aga Khan architectural award, which also continues today. Bringing the art and architecture of the Islamic world to be understood and admired in the West, as it had been in the past, was a goal that also inspired the creation, just one year ago, of the Ismaili Centre and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto — the only museum in the western hemisphere devoted entirely to Islamic culture.

AKDN Objective in One Word, “Opportunity”, and Thus Hope for Future

Today, the Aga Khan Development Network embraces many facets and functions. But, if I were trying to sum up in a single word its central objective, I would focus on the word “opportunity”. For what the peoples of the developing world seek above all else is hope for a better future.

Too often however, true opportunity has been a distant hope — perhaps for some, not even more than a dream. Endemic poverty, in my view, remains the world’s single most important challenge. It is manifested in many ways, including persistent refugee crises of the sort we have recently seen in such an acute form. And of course confounding new challenges continue to mount, such as the looming threat of climate change. My interest in climate change has been sharpened by recent studies linking it to the threat of earthquakes. This could be an issue in the high mountain areas of South Asia for example, where so many Ismailis live and are concentrated.

Sixty years ago as I took up my responsibilities, the problems of the developing world, for many observers, seemed intractable. It was widely claimed that places like China and India were destined to remain among the world’s “basket cases” — incapable of feeding themselves let alone being able to industrialise or achieve economic self-sustainability. If this had been true, of course, then there would have been no way for the people of my community, in India and China and in many other places, to look for a better future.

Aga Khan Jodi Lecture Harvard

His Highness the Aga Khan spoke as part of the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture series, which provides for “the delivery of lectures by eminent and well-qualified persons for the promotion of tolerance, understanding and good will among nations, and the peace of the world. Photo: AKDN

Political realities presented further complications. Most of the poorest countries were living under distant colonial or protectorate or communist regimes. The monetary market was totally unpredictable. Volatile currencies were shifting constantly in value, making it almost impossible to plan ahead. And while I thought of all the Ismailis as part of one religious community, the realities of their daily lives were deeply distinctive and decidedly local.

Nor did most people yet see the full potential for addressing these problems through non-profit, private organisations — what we today call “civil society.”

And yet, it was also clear that stronger coordination across these lines of division could help open new doors of opportunity. We could see how renovated educational systems, based on best practices, could reach across frontiers of politics and language. We could see how global science could address changing medical challenges, including the growing threat of non-communicable disease. We could see, in sum, how a truly pluralistic outlook could leverage the best experiences of local communities through an effective international network.

But we also learned that the creation of effective international networks in a highly diversified environment can be a daunting matter. It took a great deal of considered effort to meld older values of continuity and local cohesion, with the promise of new cross-border integration.


Cosmopolitan Ethic

What was required — and is still required — was a readiness to work across frontiers of distinction and distance without trying to erase them. What we were looking for, even then, were ways of building an effective “cosmopolitan ethic in a fragmented world.”

This often meant working from the bottom up, learning to follow what was sometimes called “field logic.” Most of our initiatives began at a local, community level, and then grew into regional, national and international institutions.

Working in Partnerships

As we moved forward, we learned a number of important lessons. We learned that lifting health and education services to world class standards was a global promise that could inspire local support. We learned to attack poverty simultaneously with multiple inputs, on a variety of fronts. We learned to work with effective partners — including the not-for-profit institutions of civil society. We learned to see our role as one of supporting the public sector, not competing with it. And we learned the importance of measuring carefully the outcomes of our efforts, and then applying that knowledge.

All of these approaches were facilitated by a determination to overcome linguistic barriers through a language policy that promoted better use of the national language, and network-wide English as a strong connecting tool.

And so our Network grew. Today it embraces a group of agencies — non-governmental and non-denominational — operating in 35 countries. They work in fields ranging from education and medical care, to job creation and energy production; from transport and tourism, to media and technology; from the fine arts and cultural heritage, to banking and microfinance. But they are all working together toward a single overarching objective: improving the quality of human life.


Hope for International Cooperation

Meanwhile, in the Industrialised West, many things were happening that paralleled our AKDN experience. For one thing, an impulse for international cooperation was advancing in the late 1950s at an impressive pace. After half a century of violent confrontation, determined leaders talked hopefully about global integration. New international organisations and cross-border alliances blossomed. And Harvard University decisively expanded its own involvement in world affairs.

When the Jodidi Lectureship was established here in 1955, its explicit purpose (and I quote) was “the promotion of tolerance, understanding and good will among nations.” And that seemed to be the way history was moving. Surely, we thought, we had learned the terrible price of division and discord, and certainly the great technological revolutions of the 20th century would bring us more closely together.

Technological Promises and the New World Order

In looking back to my Harvard days, I recall how a powerful sense of technological promise was in the air — a faith that human invention would continue its ever-accelerating conquest of time and space. I recall too, how this confidence was accompanied by what was described as a “revolution of rising expectations” and the fall of colonial empires. And of course, this trend seemed to culminate some years later with the end of the Cold War and the “new world order” that it promised.



But even as old barriers crumbled and new connections expanded, a paradoxical trend set in, one that we see today at every hand. At the same time that the world was becoming more interconnected, it also become more fragmented.

We have been mesmerised on one hand by the explosive pace of what we call “globalisation,” a centripetal force putting us as closely in touch with people who live across the world as we are to those who live next to us. But at the same time, a set of centrifugal forces have been gaining on us, producing a growing sense — between and within societies — of disintegration.


Whether we are looking at a more fragile European Union, a more polarised United States, a more fervid Sunni-Shia conflict, intensified tribal rivalries in much of Africa and Asia, or other splintering threats in every corner of the planet, the word “fragmentation” seems to define our times.

Confrontation and Disconnection

Global promise, it can be said, has been matched by tribal wariness. We have more communication, but we also have more confrontation. Even as we exclaim about growing connectivity we seem to experience greater disconnection.

Perhaps what we did not see so clearly 60 years ago is the fact that technological advance does not necessarily mean human progress. Sometimes it can mean the reverse.


The more we communicate, the harder it can sometimes be to evaluate what we are saying. More information often means less context and more confusion. More than that, the increased pace of human interaction means that we encounter the stranger more often, and more directly. What is different is no longer abstract and distant. Even for the most tolerant among us, difference, more and more, can be up close and in your face.

Aga Khan Jodi Lecture Harvard 2

His Highness the Aga Khan speaks at Harvard University on November 12, 2015. Photo: AKDN.


The Terms Tolerance, Pluralism and Cosmopolitan

What all of this means is that the challenge of living well together — a challenge as old as the human-race — can seem more and more complicated. And so we ask ourselves, what are the resources that we might now draw upon to counter this trend? How can we go beyond our bold words and address the mystery of why our ideals still elude us?

In responding to that question, I would ask you to think with me about the term I have used in the title for this lecture: “The Cosmopolitan Ethic.”

For a very long time, as you know, the term most often used in describing the search for human understanding was the word “tolerance.” In fact, it was one of the words that was used in 1955 text to describe one of the objectives of this Jodidi Lecture.

In recent years our vocabulary in discussing this subject has evolved. One word that we have come to use more often in this regard is the word “pluralism.” And the other is the word “cosmopolitan.”

You may know that our AKDN Network, a decade ago, cooperated with the Government of Canada to create a new Global Centre for Pluralism based in Ottawa, designed to study more closely the conditions under which pluralist societies can thrive.

What is a Pluralist, Cosmopolitan Society?

A pluralist, cosmopolitan society is a society which not only accepts difference, but actively seeks to understand it and to learn from it. In this perspective, diversity is not a burden to be endured, but an opportunity to be welcomed.

A cosmopolitan society regards the distinctive threads of our particular identities as elements that bring beauty to the larger social fabric. A cosmopolitan ethic accepts our ultimate moral responsibility to the whole of humanity, rather than absolutising a presumably exceptional part.

Perhaps it is a natural condition of an insecure human race to seek security in a sense of superiority. But in a world where cultures increasingly interpenetrate one another, a more confident and a more generous outlook is needed.

Readiness to Dialog and to Listen to Everyone

What this means, perhaps above all else, is a readiness to participate in a true dialog with diversity, not only in our personal relationships, but in institutional and international relationships also. But that takes work, and it takes patience. Above all, it implies a readiness to listen.

What is needed, as the former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson has said, and I quote, is a readiness “to listen to your neighbour, even when you may not particularly like him.” Is that message clear? You listen to people you don’t like!

Differences Between the Concept of Globalization vs Thoughtful Cosmopolitan Ethic

A thoughtful cosmopolitan ethic is something quite different from some attitudes that have become associated with the concept of globalisation in recent years. Too often, that term has been linked to an abstract universalism, perhaps well-meaning but often naïve. In emphasising all that the human race had in common, it was easy to depreciate the identities that differentiated us. We sometimes talked so much about how we are all alike that we neglected the wonderful ways in which we can be different.

One result of this superficial view of homogenised, global harmony, was an unhappy counter-reaction. Some took it to mean the spread of a popular, Americanised global culture — that was unfair and an assessment that was erroneous. Others feared that their individual, ethnic or religious identities might be washed away by a super-competitive economic order, or by some supranational political regime. And the frequent reaction was a fierce defense of older identities. If cooperation meant homogenisation, then a lot of people found themselves saying “No.”

But an either-or-choice between the global and the tribal — between the concept of universal belonging and the value of particular identities — was in fact a false choice. The road to a more cooperative world does not require us to erase our differences, but to understand them.

What is a Responsible, Thoughtful Process of Globalization?

A responsible, thoughtful process of globalisation, in my view, is one that is truly cosmopolitan, respecting both what we have in common and what makes us different.

It is perhaps in our nature to see life as a series of choices between sharply defined dualities, but in fact life is more often a matter of avoiding false dichotomies, which can lead to dangerous extremes. The truth of the matter is that we can address the dysfunctions of fragmentation without obscuring the values of diversity.


Sensitivity to Economic Insecurity

A cosmopolitan ethic will also be sensitive to the problem of economic insecurity in our world. It is an enormous contributing factor to the problems I have been discussing. Endemic poverty still corrodes any meaningful sense of opportunity for many millions. And even in less impoverished societies, a rising tide of economic anxiety can make it difficult for fearful people to respect, let alone embrace, that which is new or different.

Addressing Human Longevity

This problem has been compounded by the very advances that have long been the source of so much hope. I am thinking here for example about medical advances that have dramatically increased human longevity. People live longer, but they often find that they have outlived their resources.

The developing world is now facing a major challenge: how does it care for the elderly? Even in more developed societies, social changes have eroded some of the domestic support that once eased the burdens of the aging. How, we must all ask, will we manage the new challenges of longevity?

Leadership Responsibilities

All of these considerations will place special obligations on those who play leadership roles in our societies. Sadly, some would-be leaders all across the world have been tempted to exploit difference and magnify division. It is always easier to unite followers in a negative cause than a positive one. But the consequences can be a perilous polarisation.

Quality of Education in the Midst of Information Explosion

The information explosion itself has sometimes become an information glut, putting even more of a premium on being first and getting attention, rather than being right and earning respect. It is not easy to retain one’s faith in a healthy, cosmopolitan marketplace of ideas when the flow of information is increasingly trivialised.

One answer to these temptations will be found, I am convinced, in the quality of our education. It will lie with our universities at one end of the spectrum, and early childhood education at the other — a field to which our Development Network has been giving special attention.

Quality of Education to Overcome Clash of Ignorance

Let me mention one more specific issue where a sustained educational effort will be especially important. I refer to the debate — one that has involved many in this audience — about the prospect of some fundamental clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. In my view, the deeper problem behind any prospective “clash of civilisations” is a profound “clash of ignorances”. And in that struggle, education will be an indispensable weapon.


The Heart of the Islamic Message: Common Humanity

Finally, I would emphasise that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that resonates with the world’s great ethical and religious traditions.

A passage from the Holy Qur’an that has been central to my life is addressed to the whole of humanity. It says: “Oh Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women…”

At the very heart of the Islamic faith is a conviction that we are all born “of a single soul.” We are “spread abroad” to be sure in all of our diversity, but we share, in a most profound sense, a common humanity.

Outlook From Islamic History

This outlook has been central to the history of Islam. For many hundreds of years, the greatest Islamic societies were decidedly pluralistic, drawing strength from people of many religions and cultural backgrounds. My own ancestors, the Fatimid Caliphs, founded the city of Cairo, and the great Al Azhar University there, a thousand years ago in this same spirit.

That pluralistic outlook remains a central ideal for most Muslims today.

There are many, of course, some non-Muslims and some Muslims alike, who have perpetrated different impressions.

Hopes from the Voices of Islam

At the same time, institutions such as those that have welcomed me here today, have eloquently addressed these misimpressions. My hope is that the voices of Islam itself will continue to remind the world of a tradition that, over so many centuries, has so often advanced pluralistic outlooks and built some of the most remarkable societies in human history.


Let me repeat, in conclusion, that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that will honour both our common humanity and our distinctive Identities — each reinforcing the other as part of the same high moral calling.

The central lesson of my own personal journey — over many miles and many years — is the indispensability of such an ethic in our changing world, based on the timeless truth that we are — each of us and all of us — “born of a single soul.”

Date posted: November 18, 2015.


For a comprehensive video of the event, please click on the following image.

For speech transcripts, please visit and

Glimpses of His Highness the Aga Khan from Harvard, as he prepares to speak at the University on November 12th, 2015

His Highness the Aga Khan will deliver the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs on 12 November. Entitled “The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World”, his lecture is expected to cover the challenges to pluralism and cosmopolitanism. After the lecture there will be a conversation with Diana L. Eck

Although tickets for the lecture are no longer available, the entire event will be webcast live on starting at 4pm EST.

Please check this website again on Wednesday, November 18, 2015, for speech and interview excerpts as well as a fine selection of photographs related to the event.

His Highness the Aga Khan graduated from Harvard University in 1959 with a BA Honours in Islamic History. This is his portrait in a Harvard University blazer as he smiles with an armful of books, on the Harvard Campus, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1958. Copyright: Photo by Hank Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

His Highness the Aga Khan graduated from Harvard University in 1959 with a BA Honours in Islamic History. This is his portrait in a Harvard University blazer as he smiles with an armful of books, on the Harvard Campus, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1958. Copyright: Photo by Hank Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.


“The summer before his senior year, Prince Karim Khan ’58 received unexpected news. His grandfather, His Highness Aga Khan III, had died, and his will named Karim — fondly known by his classmates as ‘K’ — as his successor, making him Aga Khan IV. And so, at 20 years old, Karim became the leader of the Ismaili Muslims, a sect of Shia Islam with over 15 million followers who consider him a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

“Once Karim became the Aga Khan, the Islamic history concentrator no longer led a student’s life. 

“[Aga Khan III] plucked K right out of the College,” said David H. Rhinelander ’58, one of Karim’s freshman roommates in Wigglesworth Hall. “He moved to a hotel and had to begin to run his empire while he was a student.” — Excerpts from an article by Nini S Moorhead published in the Harvard Crimson, June 2008.



“The varsity soccer team opens its season this afternoon against Tufts and the game will be one of experimentation for Crimson coach Bruce Munro. He has had to revamp his lineup several times because of an alarming number of injured personnel, including Karim Aga Khan, the starting outside left. Larry Ekpebu will start for Khan at outside left, while Ken Marmar will open at outside right.” — Harvard Crimson, October 1, 1958.



“Karim Aga Khan ’59, who graduates with the Class of 1959 tomorrow, has established a ten-year program of scholarships for students attending Harvard from India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Persia, and East Africa.

“In a statement, the Aga Khan said that he will never regret his decision, after succeeding to his grandfather’s title, to return to Harvard to his studies. He added that he was ‘particularly impressed by the recent growth of facilities for the study of Middle Eastern and Asian affairs’.” — Harvard Crimson, June 10, 1959.



“The Aga Khan ’59, spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, joined the presidents of Harvard and MIT Friday to launch the world’s largest online resource for scholars of Islamic architecture.

“The resource, called ArchNet, contains over 600,000 images of Islamic architecture, tools for discussion and collaboration online among scholars and access to key journals of Islamic architecture. Harvard served as one of the primary collaborators in the creation of the site.

“Those speaking at Friday’s launch said they hoped the free site would provide architects, urban-planners and academics in resource-poor areas the tools they need to study, and give the Western public an opportunity to experience Islamic culture.

“In a brilliant way, [ArchNet] combines new technology and ancient culture to do something that is really quite important,” University President Lawrence H. Summers said in his remarks to the 150-person audience at MIT’s Media Laboratory.” — Harvard Crimson, September 30, 2002.



His Highness the Aga Khan receives an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Harvard University at commencement ceremonies June 5, 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo: AKDN.

His Highness the Aga Khan receives an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Harvard University at commencement ceremonies June 5, 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo: AKDN.



“The Aga Khan, world-famous leader of the Ismaili Community, a sect of the Moslem religion, has endowed a professorship of Iranian at the University, President Pusey announced yesterday.

“The chair, to be known as the Aga Khan Professorship of Iranian, will be devoted to the study of the history and civilization of Iran. Its purpose, according to the Khan, is “to preserve and transmit to future generations knowledge of the rich heritage of the Iranian past.”

“At the same time, Sadruddin Aga Khan, son of the Aga Khan, has established the Ismaili Community Fellowships for the study of the Middle East here.

“In announcing the gifts, Pusey said, ‘The sentiment of the Aga Khan and his son, Sadruddin, in thus fostering the growth of understanding between the East and the West is one we all deeply share. Certainly, all peoples around the world need to know and better understand the cultural heritage of those who are our neighbors in the modern age’.” — Excerpts from the Harvard Crimson, December 6, 1956

Date posted: November 11-12, 2015.


Please visit – the daily newspaper of Harvard

(1) His Highness the Aga Khan visits UNHCR and (2) UN material related to his uncle, Prince Sadruddin, whose name became synonymous with UNHCR

“We must do everything possible to prevent human suffering”

His Highness the Aga Khan with UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres at UNHCR Headquarters. Photo: The Ismaili.

His Highness the Aga Khan with UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres at UNHCR Headquarters. Photo: The Ismaili.

His Highness the Aga Khan visited the UNHCR headquarters on November 6, 2015 to meet UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, and discuss past and future cooperation in emergency operations around the world. His Highness is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and nephew of the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who was high commissioner for refugees from 1965-77, a pivotal period in the organization’s history.

His Highness was greeted by UNHCR staff before he held private talks with the High Commissioner  followed by a meeting with senior UNHCR officials on the long-standing partnership between the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and the UN refugee agency.

The two sides looked at ways of further strengthening their partnership in the Middle East, Asia and East Africa. They discussed possible new joint initiatives in areas such as contingency planning; pluralism and diverse societies; and country specific cooperation in areas where AKDN is active as well as global advocacy to bridge the humanitarian-development divide.

They also discussed the global political situation and the effects of extremism and sectarianism on previously tolerant and diverse societies.

“We must do everything possible to prevent human suffering,” said the Aga Khan. “But preempting humanitarian emergencies requires investments, equipment and the necessary resources to ensure the response system is already in place when the crisis hits.”

The High Commissioner agreed, noting that “UNHCR and the Aga Khan Development Network have a lot in common. It is partnerships like ours that can help broaden the way the international community responds to crises today through a stronger humanitarian-development link, and by promoting closer cooperation with actors from different cultural and geographical backgrounds.”


Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933 - 2003). Photo: UNesco Courier. Copyright

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1933 – 2003). Photo: Unesco Courier. Copyright

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, uncle of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, led the UN refugee agency during 12 years in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving an indelible print on UNHCR’s history. He led the agency through some of the most challenging moments, and his name became synonymous with UNHCR.

Prince Sadruddin became High Commissioner in January of 1966 at the age of 33 the youngest person ever to lead UNHCR. Prior to becoming High Commissioner, he served for three years as Deputy High Commissioner. He was at the helm of the UN refugee agency during one of its most difficult periods. This included the 1971 the Bangladesh crisis, which uprooted 10 million people, the 1972 exodus of hundreds of thousands of Hutus from Burundi to Tanzania and the Indochinese boat people tragedy of the mid-1970s. In 1972, Prince Sadruddin played a key role in finding new homes for tens of thousands of South Asians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin.

Prince Sadruddin’s entire adult life was devoted to humanitarian work. After leaving UNHCR at the end of 1977 at his own request, he served in various capacities, dealing with humanitarian situations in many parts of the world on behalf of the United Nations. These included Afghanistan and Iraq during the first Gulf war. He was also a trustee of a number of charity organisations. He published several books and received numerous national and international decorations, including the French Légion d’honneur and the United Nations Human Rights Award.

Simerg has come across many pieces of letters and documents on Prince Sadruddin in the UN archives, and we reproduce two below that serve as reminders of his priceless services to the United Nations.



“This extension…constitutes a new fixed term appointment on a $1 a year basis…” 

Please click on image for enlargement


Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan Extension of Appointment



“Prince Sadruddin was a statesman in the truest sense of the word. By focusing on the protection of refugees, he represented the moral and compassionate side of the international community…He worked on behalf of the poor and dispossessed, while celebrating humanity through culture and art…”

Please click on image for enlargement

Kofi Annan Message for Prince Sadruddin Aga KhanDate posted: Saturday, November 7, 2015.


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  1. Report of His Highness Aga Khan’s visit to UNHCR and Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan’s profile compiled and adapted from the website of
  2. United Nations Archives at

Please also see the following articles on Prince Sadruddin posted on this website:

His Highness the Aga Khan on Lake Sarez: Mitigating a Catastrophic Risk if the Lake’s Natural Dam Would Break


Please click on image for enlargement

Lake Sarez in the Pamirs of TajikistanLake Sarez, deep in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, was created 90 years ago when a strong earthquake triggered a massive landslide that, in turn, became a huge dam along the Murghob River, now called the Usoi Dam. The resulting lake is perched above surrounding drainages at an elevation greater than 3000m, and is part of the watershed that drains the towering Akademi Nauk Range (see the regional image, below). The lake is 61 km long and as deep as 500 m, and holds an estimated 17 cubic km of water. The area experiences considerable seismic activity, and scientists fear that part of the right bank may slump into the lake, creating a huge wave that will top over and possibly breach the natural dam. Such a wave would create a catastrophic flood downstream along the Bartang, Panj and Amu Darya Rivers, perhaps reaching all the way to the Aral Sea. Currently, central Asian governments, as well as the World Bank and the UN are monitoring the dam closely, and have proposed gradually lowering the lake level as a preventive measure. Image: NASA Earth Observatory; digital photograph  was taken in the spring of 2001 from Space Station Alpha and is provided by the Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory at Johnson Space Center.


“…From a global perspective, it is here, in Central Asia, that one of the most unusual water situations exists. I am referring to Lake Sarez. It is some 60 kilometres in length, containing some 17 cubic kilometres of water, is at 3200 meters altitude and has a natural dam of 550 meters, the highest of any dam in the world. For years it has been seen as a major hazard to millions of lives in this country [Tajkistan] and in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. It is clear that if the rock dam, caused by an enormous landslide following an earthquake in 1911, were to break as a result of another such event; or if another earthquake were to cause landslides to fall into the lake, raising the level of the water and causing a massive spill across the top of the dam, the consequence would be a major catastrophe. It is estimated that 5 million lives could be at risk. Fear of this happening has dominated the thinking of government officials and the population living in the area around and below Lake Sarez for years.

Lake Sarez

“More recently the World Bank, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), USAID and the Swiss Government have expended time, thought and resources to develop a credible protective response that can alert downstream populations as quickly as possible. In simple terms, this is risk management. The question I wish to raise today is whether we are not perhaps also facing a question of opportunity management. Thousands of cubic meters of consumable water are trapped at high altitude. Is this not a situation which could be turned into a force for development, rather than a threat of tragedy? Studies are presently underway to test this idea, in particular in regard to the use of the Sarez Lake waters for hydro energy and irrigation for the area they now threaten, and probably much more. Any wisdom that this conference could bring to bear on these issues would be an extremely valuable outcome…” — Excerpts from a speech made by His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th hereditary Ismaili Imam, at the Dushanbe Fresh Water Forum (Dushanbe, Tajikistan), August 30, 2003.



In 2004, a special satellite equipment and early warning system for monitoring the situation around Lake Sarez was installed by a World Bank project working on risk mitigation in the area, a step to ensure early warning for the vulnerable population in the region.

According to an interview with IRIN (Humanitarian News and Analysis), Rustam Bobojonov, a coordinator of the project said that “the equipment is for monitoring the situation around Lake Sarez, the dam and the Bartang valley, including seismic activity, landslides, water, wind speed and so on. It is aimed at ensuring early warning for the Tajik government, including the emergency ministry, international community and the residents of all the villages in the Bartang Valley about the possible risk.”

The total cost of the project was at US$4.5 million out of which the Aga Khan Foundation contributed US$1, with the Swiss Government providing another US$2.9 million.


Background Article

“…Below the Usoi dam there are more than 30 small villages in the Bartang Valley, with a total population of about 7,000 mountain Ismaili people. Most villages (kishlaks) are sited on alluvial cones near to the river and use all available gently sloping land. Many of the villages are subject to floods, landslides, mudflows, and avalanches annually…”


Please click on map for enlargement.

FAO Map Tajikistan and Lake SarezPlease click on map for enlargement. This map has been adapted from the original map produced on the website of FAO.

(Map shown above and the following article have been adapted from the website of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, see link below)

Lake Sarez, high in the Pamir Mountains is close to 3,000 m above sea level and its location is one of the most remote in the world. It formed following a very large landslide, set off by an earthquake in the winter of 1911. The landslide, with a volume of some 2-3 km3 , plunged down a mountain side to form a dam between 500 and 600 metres in height and two kilometres wide to block the Murgab River. This river is a tributary of the Bartang River which, below the confluence with the Murgab, flows for 120 km through a gigantic mountain gorge to join the Pianj River, itself a tributary of the Amu Darya. The Amu Darya is one of the two major rivers that drains into the Aral Sea 2,000 km below the dam site. The Pianj and Amu Darya rivers form part of the frontier between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and further downstream their combined waters flow through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The fallen mass of rock and earth was named the Usoi Dam after the village that it completely annihilated. The dammed waters of the Murgab River produced Lake Sarez, named for a village that was submerged by the rising waters. Initially, the level of the lake rose at a rate of about 75 metres a year.

Today it is more than 60 km in length and has a maximum depth in excess of 500 metres. Its total volume is about 17 km3. The lake surface is close to 3,200 m above sea level and surrounded by peaks rising to more than 6,000 m. The Usoi dam is the highest dam, natural or man-made, in the world. Set in the heart of the Pamir Mountains, the lake itself and its surroundings form a magnificent mountain landscape.

It is also located in a region that has been central to major political and military tensions for more than 200 years. During the 19th and early 20th centuries the three rival empires, Czarist Russia, Great Britain, and China competed on a gigantic and heroic scale that became known, following the writing of Rudyard Kipling, as the ‘Great Game’. Much earlier a main branch of the Silk Road passed through the Pamir and carried Marco Polo and his uncles to the court of Kublai Khan. The present republics of Central Asia were moulded by Soviet Russia from a series of Khanates, together with territories of no clear political allegiance. Currently, with a massively disturbed Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and India, all virtually within walking distance, and with Iran, Iraq, and Turkey as neighbours with more than a passing interest, political instability may seem the order of the day. The Pamir Mountains, in general, represent one of the most active seismic regions on the world’s geophysical map.

Lake Sarez, therefore, is a focal point for a great amount of concern. A disaster of significant proportions could be triggered in several ways. A major earthquake could shatter the Usoi dam and send an enormous flood wave down the Bartang Valley and into the Pianj and Amu Darya rivers; the dam could collapse under the pressure of the water as the lake continues to rise; the piping of water through the dam, which is occurring today, could enlarge and cause the dam to collapse; or collapse could be induced by the continued rise of the lake level and eventually over-topping it. Finally, another large landslide, caused either by an earthquake, or the spontaneous failure of the mountain wall above the lake, could fall into the lake and generate a giant wave to over-top the dam. Even if the dam was not broken by such a wave, the wall of water rushing down the Bartang Valley could set off fast moving mudflows and trigger secondary landslides by under-cutting the talus slopes along the valley sides. This could be sufficient to eliminate all the thirty villages in the valley, and even more as the disturbance entered the Pianj Valley.

It has been estimated that, in the worst case, the lives of five million people could be affected. Furthermore, the torrential flood waters could extend as far downstream as the Aral Sea itself, with the additional danger of disturbing the toxic sediments that have been exposed as the sea has dried up.

The problem is rendered the more complex by a number of other factors. The vicinity of Lake Sarez is extremely remote and physical access along the Bartang Valley is a challenge. The final approach to the dam involves a difficult ascent on foot along steep mountain slopes, with a gain in altitude of more than 1,000 metres. This would render road construction, if heavy equipment would be needed, extremely expensive and technically difficult to maintain. The regional approach also constitutes a challenge; there are two main roads into the upper Pianj Valley and Khorog, the regional capital. One of these is very long and involves transit through a small part of the territories of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and a high altitude section (above 4,000 m) across the Pamir Plateau. The other, more direct, requires passage of the Pianj gorge, with very unstable slopes and a narrow road bed subject to rockfall, mudflow, landslide, and avalanche. Both roads are closed by heavy snow for several months of the year. The difficulty of access alone would appear to eliminate large-scale engineering solutions, such as reinforcing the dam artificially, or attempting a controlled partial drainage and lowering of the lake level.

Lake Sarea and the Usoi Dam

The naturally formed Usoi dam separates the Sarez (right) and Shadau (left) lakes. Photo: Wikipedia.

Below the Usoi dam there are more than 30 small villages in the Bartang Valley, with a total population of about 7,000 mountain Ismaili people. Most villages (kishlaks) are sited on alluvial cones near to the river and use all available gently sloping land. Many of the villages are subject to floods, landslides, mudflows, and avalanches annually; while these natural hazards are individually of small magnitude, compared to that posed by a potential failure of the Usoi dam, they are frequent in occurrence and constantly restrict access to the valley and would constrain any needed evacuation. Any landslide-induced flood wave capable of over-topping the dam would place all or most of the villages at risk. Soviet and Tajik scientists became aware of the threat posed by Lake Sarez some decades ago. Early warning and lake-level monitoring systems were established. The warning signals, however, were only directed to Moscow and Dushanbe. Thus, in the event of a medium- or large-scale flood, any secondary warning to reach the Bartang villages from either Moscow or Dushanbe would likely arrive after the event, if at all. With the collapse of the USSR even this approach to early warning and lake-level monitoring ended.

Then followed the civil war of 1992-1997 when the problem of Lake Sarez was put aside. Over the last three years, the dangers posed by Lake Sarez have begun to be taken seriously. Various reconnaissance visits have been made to the lake and dam and to the Bartang Valley. Several high-level planning meetings have been held: in Dushanbe, Geneva, and Washington, DC. The involved Asian republics, and especially Tajikistan, appear to favour a development approach based on the assumption that the worst case scenario (total collapse of the Usoi dam) was credible. A major investigation was mounted during June 1999. This was financed primarily by the World Bank, with additional support from the UN disaster relief organization, Focus Humanitarian Assistance (one of the Aga Khan family of organizations), and the government of Tajikistan. An international group of engineers, geophysicists, geologists, and geographers visited Lake Sarez and examined all the approach routes. There was unanimous agreement that the prospect of a worst case scenario was sufficiently remote that it should be accorded a low level of priority. However, there was strong support for installation of monitoring and early warning systems. Unlike the earlier Soviet approach, the new approach would relate to all the villages in the Bartang Valley and ensure the direct input of the local people. Concurrently, it was recommended that computer mapping and simulation of the potential impacts of various levels of natural disaster be undertaken. It was also pointed out that further, and much more detailed, studies should be undertaken of the cultural and socioeconomic situation of the local people. Sites for safe havens should be located and equipped, and a full accounting made of the attitudes of the local people toward the various levels of possible danger. One additional, and very important point, is that steps should be taken to ensure that the likelihood of actual large-scale disaster (worst case scenario) not be over-stated, so that the risk of any government-ordered forced evacuation of the Bartang Valley could be avoided. By February 2000 it appeared that, under the leadership of the World Bank and with contributions from several major donors, the recommendations of the June 1999 reconnaissance team were to be acted upon (United Nations, 2000). A year later, at time of this writing, significant planning progress has been made. Thus, the case of Lake Sarez, while representing one of the largest ever potential disasters based upon a natural situation in a high mountain region, embraces many complex inter-relations between highlands and lowlands. Ultimately, the challenging task of seeking collaboration amongst several independent countries on the use and management of a large international river, the Amu Darya and its headstreams, will have to be faced. Given the international rivalries prevailing in the region, this might well be the single most difficult task. Nevertheless, while the magnitude of the problems emanating from the potential instability of Lake Sarez may be an order of magnitude, or more, higher than other mountain hazards in the same region, their identification, evaluation, and treatment should provide a formula for ways in which other hazardous situations could be approached.

Date posted: October 31, 2015.



  1. For complete speech of His Highness the Aga Khan, please visit
  2. Please visit for images of Lake Sarez
  3. For complete background article, please visit and enter Lake Sarez in the search box.

@Simergphotos: The Ismaili Centre in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Through the Lens of Canadian Photographer Muslim Harji

PLEASE CLICK: Dushanbe’s Ismaili Centre Through the Lens of Muslim Harji

Happy Children Faces at the Dushnabe Ismaili Centre. Please click on image for Muslim Harji's Photo Essay.

Happy young faces at the Dushanbe Ismaili Centre. Please click on image for Muslim Harji’s Photo Essay.

Please click on image for Muslim Harji's Photo Essay.

Please click on image for Muslim Harji’s Photo Essay.

Date posted: September 27, 2015.

His Highness the Aga Khan’s Visit to Los Alamos Lab On Thanksgiving Day 56 Years Ago Impressed Scientific Hosts, and Revealed He Was In Top Physical Condition

The 49th Ismaili Imam

“Friendly, smiling and interested in everything he saw, the Aga Khan impressed his scientific hosts on every phase of the medical research. He manifested particular interest in the Laboratory’s work in tissue culture and its potential for cancer research, in the genetic effects of both radiation and inbreeding in mouse colonies, the use of radioactive isotopes in diagnostic medicine, and the possibilities of using whole body counters for studying the problems of aging.

“The Moslem leader eagerly donned the required surgeon’s scrub suit to be measured in the Laboratory’s whole body counter and appeared gratified to learn that his high potassium content indicated top physical condition.” — Excerpt from “NASL Community News”


The Aga Khan, seen with Dr. Thomas Shipman, showing immense delight of gift of trinite presented to him during his visit to the Health Research Laboratory in Las Alamos, California, in November 1959

Official News Release of the Aga Khan's Visit to the Lab


The following is the transcript:

Los Alamo, New Mexico, November 27, 1959: A surprise Thanksgiving Day visit was paid to the health research center of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL) by Aga Khan IV, youthful spiritual leader of 20,000,000 Moslems in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

The 23-year-old Imam of the Shiah Moslem Ismalli sect is currently touring medical institutions throughout the United States with the purpose of raising money to support a surgical wing in a hospital which he established in Nairobi, Kenya, Africa last year. His trip to Los Alamos was an offshoot of a two-day visit to Dr. Randolph Lovelace, head of the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque.

Hosts of the Moslem dignitary for the Laboratory were Dr. Thomas L. Shipman and Dr. Wright Langham of the LASL health division. They greeted the Aga Khan at 9:20 am at the Los Alamos airstrip and spent two hours demonstrating to him the cancer research facilities of the biomedical building. The visitors returned by plane to Albuquerque at 11:00 am.

Accompanying the Aga Khan to Los Alamos were Dr. Lovelace; Dr. Thomas Rees, plastic surgeon associated with Cornell Medical School; Michael Curtis, a traveling companion; and Madame Buguel, private secretary.


A report of the visit appeared in “NASL Community News” on December 3, 1959, Volume 1 Number 24, under the heading “YOUNG AGA KHAN TOURS HEALTH LAB ON SURPRISE THANKSGIVING VISIT.” See below for images of the report, and click each image on this page for enlargement.

Aga Khan IV Los Alamos Lab Visit News Report page 1

continuation of above news report

Last updated: September 25, 2015.



1. About Los Alamos (from Wikipedia)

In a study conducted by American City Business Journals in 2004, Los Alamos County topped the list as the best place to live in America in terms of quality of life. This was attributed to the high levels of job stability, income and education of Los Alamos residents, many of whom are employed as scientists and engineers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The county has one of the highest number of PhDs per capita and the median household income of $78,993 per year is the fourth highest among all the counties in the US. In per capita income, Los Alamos County ranks 1st in New Mexico and 18th in the United States. Other factors contributing to Los Alamos’s high quality-of-life index were the access to affordable housing and short commuting times.

2. Source of article of the Aga Khan’s Visit:

(This piece had appeared on this website earlier – ed.)

A UCSF Video Introduction to His Highness the Aga Khan: “He Does Good Work and Moves Quickly”

“[the] Aga Khan and his network have done such remarkable development work across the world, especially in Asia and East Africa, and we’re delighted to play a part in spreading our knowledge throughout the world with partners like him.” — Sam Hawgood, School of Medicine, University of California San Francisco (UCSF)

PLEASE CLICK: The Aga Khan Visits UCSF to Strengthen Partnership to Advance Global Health

His Highness the Aga Khan: Democracy To Survive Across Planet Must Lead to Improvement in the Quality of Human Life and Give Genuine Hope for Future

His Highness the Aga Khan delivering the Keynote Address to the 2015 Athens Democracy Forum on September 15, 2015. Photo: AKDN / Gary Otte

His Highness the Aga Khan delivering the Keynote Address to the 2015 Athens Democracy Forum on September 15, 2015. Photo: AKDN / Gary Otte

The following are excerpts from remarks made by His Highness the Aga Khan on September 15, 2015, in a keynote address to the Athens Democracy Forum, an international gathering of diplomats, business leaders and opinion makers. The event was hosted by the International New York Times and the United Nations Democracy Fund.


I have long admired – since my undergraduate days at Harvard – what the [New York] Times has meant to the pursuit of truth and justice in our world. And I have appreciated our opportunities to work together through our Diplomatic Academy in Paris for example, and also through the good counsel the Times provides for our media company in East Africa.


The topic of democracy and its challenges is one that I have followed closely for a long time, most intently in the developing world….where so many members of the Ismaili community live and where so much of our development work takes place.

I believe that the progress of democracy in our world is fundamentally linked to improving the quality of human life. The promise of democracy is that the people themselves best know how to achieve such progress. But if that promise is disappointed, then democracy is endangered. A UNDP survey of South American publics some years ago demonstrated that most people preferred an effective authoritarian government to an ineffective democratic one. Quality of life was the prime concern.

But what can we say then, about why democratic systems often fall short in their efforts to improve the quality of their constituents’ lives? Let me suggest four elements that could help strengthen democracy’s effectiveness in meeting this central challenge.

(I). Improved Constitutional Understanding

His Highness the Aga Khan speaking at the Stoa of Attalos in Athens where he delivered a Keynote Address at the Athens Democracy Forum on the International Day of Democracy. Photo: AKDN / Gary Otte

His Highness the Aga Khan speaking at the Stoa of Attalos in Athens where he delivered a Keynote Address at the Athens Democracy Forum on the International Day of Democracy. Photo: AKDN / Gary Otte

My first suggestion is that the current challenges to governance should be seen less as problems of democracy than as problems of constitutionality. There are more countries today than I can ever recollect before that are grappling with outdated constitutions – frameworks that seem unable to reconcile opposing factions, advance economic priorities, encourage civil society, or protect human rights.

But constitutional revision, especially in developing countries, is not easy. One problem is a poor understanding of comparative government systems. That subject is not part of most educational curricula, and in the countries I know best, the media rarely explain the logic or the options of constitutional change.

In some countries there actually is no clear constitutional means for constitutional change. Even when a referendum is held to validate such change, most people are neither prepared nor willing to express a considered judgment. The result is that governments in power often have an open field.

In my view then, a first step to better democratic governance is a better public understanding of constitutional principles.

It is easy for example, to say that we want government “of, by and for the people” – that governments should be servants of the people, and ultimately responsible to them. But that does not mean that most governmental decisions must be made by an enormous range of far-flung participants: by vast plebiscites, or popular referenda, or public opinion polling, or the number of hits on an internet blog. Such misapplied versions of democracy can produce irrational leadership choices and poorly informed policies. Sometimes, efforts to impose simplistic popular democracy can create voids of governance, which can be exploited to dangerous ends – and I have seen this in various countries in the developing world.

But then, who should make various governmental decisions? My response would emphasise the idea of balanced authority, including the concept of healthy federalism. For increasingly diverse societies, a constitution that divides and balances power is essential.

In discussing constitutional challenges, it is impossible to ignore the recent revival or creation of new theocratic political parties in the Islamic world. The question is how theocratic principles of governance can operate constitutionally in increasingly secular political environments. It seems essential to me that such principles should be regularly tested by the electoral process, if only so that the Muslim world can have a better understanding of the secularisation processes, which are inherent in western democracy. And democratic principles in turn, must respect the broad diversity of human faiths and cultures.

Finding the right constitutional balance is no easy matter, and we make a great mistake if we think that one size can somehow fit all. Effective constitutions must be adapted to a variety of cultural and demographic realities. But it can be done. One recent example is that of Tunisia, where after intense and arduous negotiation, a promising new constitution won broad public support. My central point, in sum, is that we cannot build better democratic performance over time without a better understanding of constitutional values.

(II). Independent and Pluralistic Media

His Highness the Aga Khan with Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, President, International at The New York Times and Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, op-ed columnist at the New York Times. Photo: AKDN / Gary Otte

His Highness the Aga Khan with Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, President, International at The New York Times and Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, op-ed columnist at the New York Times. Photo: AKDN / Gary Otte

A second key variable for enhancing democratic effectiveness is the critical role of competent and independent media voices. We often forget that ancient Greek democracy required a highly compact community living within the sound of a “crier’s voice,” as Aristotle said. Under such conditions, face-to-face dialogue could foster a sense of trust and political accommodation.

But these ideal conditions now obtain only rarely. Populations are much larger, more widely scattered, and more diverse. They can most easily be mobilised around vivid but superficial symbols and negative propositions. Often what counts most in our extended societies is not what one is for, but whom one is against.

In such circumstances, polarisation and impasse are constant risks.

Nor can we rely on advances in communication technologies to overcome the obstacles of distance and diversity. In fact, new media technologies have often made matters worse (and I don’t mean the New York Times!) From the development of written language to the invention of printing, to the development of electronic and digital media – quantitative advances in communication technology have not necessarily produced qualitative progress in mutual understanding.

To be sure, each improvement in communications technology has triggered new waves of political optimism. But sadly, if information can be shared more easily as technology advances, so can misinformation and disinformation. If truth can spread more quickly and more widely, then so can error and falsehood.

Throughout history, the same tools – the printing press, the telegraph, the microphone, the television camera, the cell phone, the internet – that promised to bring us together, have also been used to drive us apart.

The age-old promise of democracy is that social cohesion and public progress could be achieved by consensus rather than by coercion. But genuine democratic consent depends on dependable public information.

The danger in an age of mass media is that information also can be misused to manipulate the public. All around the world, authoritarian rulers increasingly use media to “coerce” the consent of the governed. Our hosts today, the International New York Times, recently published a remarkable description of this phenomenon under the headline, “The Velvet Glove.”

The power of a leader’s reasoning or the truth of his arguments, the report suggests, are often less important than his command of media influence. What results can be the illusion of democracy, but not its substance.

No, our technologies alone will not save us. But neither need they ruin us. It is not the power of our tools, but how we use them that will determine our future.

Among other things, this means prioritising the role of independent media, and indeed, of a multiplicity of independent voices. Demographic pluralism must be reflected in healthy media pluralism.

I mentioned earlier my own involvement in the African media scene – as founder of the Nation Media Group. It was launched at the time of Kenyan independence, and for nearly six decades media independence has been its watchword – a sine qua non for democratic health.

(III). Potential of Civil Society

His Highness the Aga Khan is received by the Mayor of Athens, Mr Giorgos Kaminis at a dinner he hosted for Forum participant at Athens City Hall. Photo: AKDN / Gary Otte

His Highness the Aga Khan is received by the Mayor of Athens, Mr Giorgos Kaminis at a dinner he hosted for Forum participant at Athens City Hall. Photo: AKDN / Gary Otte

This leads me to my third observation. Government, while critical, can only take us so far. At a time of democratic disappointment, we must re-emphasise the immense potential of those non-governmental institutions that we call “civil society.”

Too often, our thinking is trapped in a false dichotomy. We talk about the public sector and the private sector, but we often undervalue a third sector – that of civil society.

Civil society is powered by private energies, committed to the public good. It draws on the ancient, classical link between democracy and the publicly-committed citizen.

It includes institutions of education, health, science and research, embracing professional, commercial, labour, ethnic and arts organisations, and others devoted to religion, communication, and the environment.

It seeks consensus through genuine consent. It can experiment, adapt and accommodate diversity. It can in the fullest sense be “of, by and for the people.” It can in the fullest sense be a remarkable support – but only on condition that is it sustained, accepted and encouraged by government.

(IV). Genuine Democratic Ethic

Finally, let me mention a fourth concern that underlies this entire discussion – the central importance of fostering a “democratic ethic.”

At the heart of a democratic ethic is a commitment to genuine dialogue to achieve a better quality of life, even across new barriers of distance and diversity. This means a readiness to give and take, to listen, to bridge the empathy gaps as well as the ignorance gaps that have so often impeded human progress. It implies a pluralistic readiness to welcome diversity and to see our differences not as difficult burdens but as potential blessings.

One ultimate requirement for any effective democracy is the capacity to compromise. Social order rests in the end either on oppression or accommodation. But we can never find that balancing point – where the interests of all parties are recognised – unless competing leaders and their diverse followers alike, are committed to finding common ground.

That common ground, in my view, is the global aspiration for a better quality of life – from the reduction of poverty to quality longevity – built upon opportunities that will provide genuine hope for the future.

Democracy can only survive if it demonstrates – across the years and across the planet – that it is the best way to achieve that goal.

Thank you.

Date posted: September 16, 2015.


Please click on for complete speech, video and photos.

Ottawa’s Iconic Magazine Stores, and Specialty Print Magazines, “Azure” and “Arts of Asia”, on the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre in Toronto


Simerg's Merchant

Simerg’s Merchant

By Abdulmalik Merchant

I have lived in Ottawa for almost thirty years, and as a lover of magazines and newspapers I have been a weekly visitor to two great and noteworthy magazine stores in the downtown area, “The Globe” in the Byward Market area and “Mags & Fags” on Elgin Street, as well as “Brittons” located in the dynamic and eclectic shopping district in the Glebe neighbourhood. Brittons  abruptly closed its doors earlier this year, with a notice posted on the door that stated, “Due to changing times our business is no longer economically viable.” Mathematically, these stores have been visited by me alone approximately 1300 times! I have seen Prime Ministers, Bank of Canada Governors, ambassadors, politicians of every party and famous writers at these stores. Also, I may add that the idea for Simerg’s highly acclaimed series I Wish I’d Been There was conceived from a special issue of American Heritage magazine that I had acquired at Mags & Fags during the 1980’s.

Mags & Fags on Elgin was my favourite all along, not because of (Cuban) cigars or anything like that, but for the sheer number of magazines and newspapers that it carried from around the world. During the 1980’s and early 1990’s the magazine store even kept provincial and regional newspapers from around Canada, various USA States, as well from Africa (Al-Ahram, Egypt), the Middle East (Kayhan, Iran) and South East Asia. Gradually, over the years with the advent of the internet, the demand for newspapers declined, as did their availability at Mags & Fags. However, it remained the preeminent magazine store in Ottawa.

Mags & Fags before the recent transformation. Now the magazine section is confined to the shelf area shown at left. Photo: Mags & Fags.

Mags & Fags before the recent transformation. Now the magazine section is confined to the shelf area shown at left. Photo: Mags & Fags.

The store has undergone a major transformation, and the entire magazine holding is now on one side of the wall, and not as dominant as it once was. Almost 80% of the shop is now dedicated to specialty cards and gift items. I lamented this change to one of the store managers on duty recently, who told me that sales of magazines and newspapers have declined substantially because of their on-line availability. The exceptions, though, are luxury and specialty magazines covering travel, fashion, history, as well as arts, culture and science. Some of these magazines are incredibly beautiful and bold and, because of demand, continue to generate adequate revenues, keeping the magazine section robust.

The Saturday Evening Post, one of my regular monthly investments for its great features as well as wonderful health gems.

The Saturday Evening Post, one of my regular monthly investments for its great features as well as wonderful health gems.

Among the specialty or luxury print magazines that I came across this weekend at Mags & Fags, is the current July-August issue of Hong Kong’s “Arts of Asia” which carries an elaborate piece on the Aga Khan Museum with a collection of fantastic photos from the museum’s Islamic Art collection (for on-line piece, please click on first image shown below, but note that the downloadable PDF file available via the second column of the “editorial” page is huge at 15MB).

Earlier, I had purchased the May 2015 issue of the Canadian “Azure” magazine dedicated to the City of Toronto, with a nice piece on the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre (for on-line article, please click on second image below).

While I am happy to provide readers with links to the on-line articles, on a personal note I would say that the on-line versions do not do justice to their print counterparts which are alluring, and a joy to turn and read from page to page, and cover to cover. The magazines I have listed should be available at good magazine stores or newsagents in your area, and I might add that Chapters-Indigo has expanded its magazine section considerably in the last few years. The cover price of Arts of Asia is US$20.00 (selling in Ottawa for C$21.00), and Azure is under $10.00.

My weekly rendezvous with magazines and newspapers at Mags & Fags, the Globe and Chapters-Indigo will continue, and I hope to provide readers with information on outstanding print magazines that carry fine pieces on the Aga Khan Development Network and its agencies, as well as the Ismaili Imamat and the admirable Ismaili community, of which I am a proud member. To familiarize yourself with the Ismailis and His Highness the Aga Khan, please visit the websites, and An outstanding resource and referral blog for all things Ismaili is, a private initiative.

Please click on image to visit Arts of Asia. Then click on link

Please click on image to visit Arts of Asia website. Then click on link July-August 2015 article “THE AGA KHAN MUSEUM OPENS IN TORONTO” on second column of Editorial section to download complete PDF article (15mb).


Please click on image for the Spectacular Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre

Please click on image for article “The Spectacular Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre.”

Date posted: August 8, 2015.
Last updated: August 9, 2015.


We welcome your feedback. Please click on Leave a comment. For articles posted on this blog since its founding, please click on Table of Contents (2009–2015).

A Unique Video of the Signing Ceremony Establishing “Seat of the Ismaili Imamat” in Portugal

Editor’s note: We are pleased to offer our readers a link to an extraordinary footage shown on Portuguese Cable News Channel, SIC Noticias,  of the signing ceremony that took place in Lisbon establishing the Seat of the Ismaili Imamat in Portugal. We also include two other short clips of remarks made by the Foreign Minister of Portugal and the Prime Minister of Portugal. The event in Lisbon on June 3, 2015 was a truly historic moment in the modern history of the Ismaili Imamat, and earlier this week we brought you the complete English text of the Agreement. Readers who haven’t read the text are invited to click on “Seat of the Ismaili Imamat” — Text of the Historic Agreement.


Please click on image below or “Video of the Signing of the Historic Agreement Establishing the Seat of the Ismaili Imamat in Portugal

His Highness the Aga Khan signing the historic document establishing the Seat of the Ismaili Imamat in Portugal. Please click on image to view the video.

His Highness the Aga Khan signing the historic document establishing the Seat of the Ismaili Imamat in Portugal. Please click on image to view the video.



Portugal's Minister of Foreign Affairs speaking at the signing of the Agreement  establishing the Seat of the Ismaili Imamat in Portugal. Please click on image to view a video clip of the remarks.

Portugal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs speaking at the signing of the Agreement establishing the Seat of the Ismaili Imamat in Portugal. Please click on image to view a video clip of the remarks.



Portugal's Prime Minister speaking at the signing of the Agreement establishing the Seat of the Ismaili Imamat in Portugal. Please click on image to view a video clip of the remarks.

Portugal’s Prime Minister speaking at the signing of the Agreement establishing the Seat of the Ismaili Imamat in Portugal. Please click on image to view a video clip of the remarks.

Date posted: August 6, 2015.

Full English text of agreement at “Seat of the Ismaili Imamat” — Text of the Historic Agreement Between the Ismaili Imamat and the Portuguese Republic.


This post is also reproduced at, Simerg’s photo blog.