An Interview on Nasir Khusraw: Australian Broadcaster in Conversation with Alice Hunsberger

Rachael Kohn: Hello, this is “The Ark”, and I am Rachael Kohn. A thousand years ago a Persian poet defied the conventions of the day. His name was Nasir Khusraw, an Ismaili Muslim, a branch of Shi’a Islam. Instead of lavishing praise on the sultan or his horse, he praised learning and spiritual purity…..Click to read the Australian broadcaster’s interview with Nasir Khusraw specialist Alice Hunsberger

A statue of the famous Ismaili dai Nasir Khusraw in Badakhshan. Please click on image for interview.

A statue of the famous Ismaili dai Nasir Khusraw in Badakhshan. Please click on image for interview.

The Intellectual Tradition of Shia Ismaili Islam by Nadim Pabani

FATIMID APPROACHES TO KNOWLEDGE

Within the Islamic tradition, the pursuit of knowledge, the patronage of learning, the promotion of education, and the desire to seek out the truth in all its multifaceted forms was prevalent from the very earliest times. Within this milieu, the Shia Ismaili community of the Fatimid times excelled and achieved a level of literary output far beyond their relatively small size and minority status. According to Heinz Halm, the Fatimid period was “one of the most brilliant periods of Islamic history, both politically and in terms of its literary, economic, artistic, and scientific achievements.”

Please click on image to read article

Please click on image to read article

For the Ismailis, knowledge was not merely ancillary to their tradition but at the very heart of it — to the extent that their entire religio-political mission (the da’wa) revolved around the idea of knowledge as the single most important factor in their journey towards the knowledge of God in his absolute oneness (Tawhid). This paper explores the Fatimid approach to knowledge and demonstrates the courageous approach which the Ismaili thinkers like Abu Yaʿqub al-Sijistani took towards the new knowledge which was being encountered from Greek and Hellenistic traditions….Read more

Simerg’s Jamatkhana Series and the new Ismaili Centre in Toronto

As part of one of our previous annual anniversary series, we had asked our readers to tell us how a particular Jamatkahana has impacted their lives. Links to some of the reflections that we published are provided below. Ismailis and Toronto residents alike eagerly await and are excited about the opening of the new Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre in Toronto, along with the Aga Khan Museum and the Park, all located at one site. Thousands walk or drive by the magnificent buildings, and Simerg welcomes your thoughts and reflections on these projects which, Inshallah, will be opening soon. In this regard, readers will also wish to read Jim Bowie’s superb piece of the photos he had been taking of the construction site since its inception. Please click In the Making: The Aga Khan Museum, the Ismaili Centre and their Park. Alternatively, to download a PDF file (5mb) please click on the image below.

A MYSTICAL HALO (AND A GLITTERING STAR) AT THE SITE OF
THE NEW TORONTO ISMAILI CENTRE AND JAMATKHANA

Flashback - a  night scene at the Aga Khan Museum project site on November 29, 2010. Photo: Jim Bowie.

Flashback – a night scene at the Aga Khan Museum project site on November 29, 2010. Photo: Jim Bowie.

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 SIMERG’S JAMATKHANA SERIES

Learning and Sharing Knowledge About Ismaili Jamatkhanas Through Imamat Day Greeting Cards

Please click for post

Please click for post

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Dubai’s Jewel: The Ismaili Community’s Congregational Space

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Bagamoyo’s Historic Ismaili Jamatkhana Through Pictures, Poetry and Prose

Fond Memories of Salamieh, 51 Kensington Court, and Yakymour

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1953-1957: Ismailia Social and Residential Club and Jamatkhana
at 51 Kensington Court, London W8

Please click for article and photos

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At the Ismaili Centre

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"Happy Days in Hasanabad" by Dr. Aziz Kurwa. Simerg Special Series: Jamatkhana - A Place of Spiritual and Social Convergence.

Please click for article and photos

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Memories of Nairobi’s Majestic ‘Town Jamatkhana’,
formerly the ‘Darkhana’ of Kenya

Please click for article and photos.

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5 Palace Gate when it was a privilege to be in England

Please click on image for article.

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The Darkhana, Canada: A Building of Graceful Architecture and Spiritual Nobility

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 5 Palace Gate

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Remembering Kampala Jamatkhana: Special in so many ways

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A Jamatkhana in Tashkorgan, China

The Jamatkhana in Tashkorgan in Xinjiang Province, China. Please click for story and photographs.

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Serenity in Central London: The Ismaili Centre

The Prince of Wales is greeted by the Aga Khan during a visit to the Ismaili Centre to join a reception to help celebrate its 25th anniversary. Photo: Press Association, Nottingham, UK. Please click for article

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Date posted: Thursday, July 31, 2014.

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We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please click on Leave a comment.

Imamat Day Mubarak: The House of Imran and the Progeny of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s)

Chapter 3 Surat al ʿIm'ran - The Family of Imran - 33 and 34

~~~~~~~~~Art work Nurin Merchant, Credit: Infinity design povray.org

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“We search for a union with the family of the Chosen (Prophet Muhammad). We search for the truth of son after son. We are totally obedient to his offspring, one of the other. There is no other thing we can add to this but itself. We endeavour in our faith so that we do not turn out to be faithless.”
Ismaili poet NIZAR QUHISTANI

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Aga Khan III

Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan III, is pictured above at his enthronement as 48th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Ismaili Muslims in Bombay at the age of seven. His reign lasted for 72 years. In his will, he proclaimed Prince Karim Aga Khan as the 49th Imam with the following words:

“Ever since the time of my first ancestor Ali, the first Imam, that is to say over a period of thirteen hundred years it has always been the tradition of our family that each Imam chooses his successor at his absolute and unfettered discretion from amongst any of his descendants whether they be sons or remoter male issue.

“In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years due to the great changes which have taken place including the discoveries of atomic science I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shia Moslem Ismailian Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office as Imam.

“I appoint my grandson Karim, the son of my son Aly Salomone Khan to succeed to the title of Aga Khan and to be the Imam and Pir of all my Shia Ismailian followers.”

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Aga Khan IV enthronement at Villa Barakat in Geneva

Through the special designation (or the Nass) of the late Imam, Shah Karim al-Hussaini became the 49th hereditary Imam of the Nizari Ismailis at the age of twenty.

Shortly after, the newly enthroned Imam met Ismaili leaders and representatives from around the world, and also made the following statement:

“My grandfather dedicated his life to the Imamat and Islam, both of which came first, and above all other considerations. While I was prepared that one day I might be designated the Aga Khan I did not expect it so soon. I follow a great man in a great responsibility and he could have given me no more appreciated honour than to bequeath me this spiritual leadership. My life, as his, will be dedicated to the service of my followers.”

Date posted: July 10, 2014, 23:26 EDT.

Simerg’s 5th Anniversary Series: Studying Ismaili History Through Objects

A special NEW series about objects that are linked to Ismaili history over the past 1400 years, from the dawn of Islam to the Imamat of the present forty-ninth Imam, Mawlana Shah Karim al Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan.

Simerg Special 5th Anniversary Series: Studying Ismaili History Through Objects

INTRODUCED BY ABDULMALIK J. MERCHANT
Publisher-Editor, Simerg and Simergphotos

In his widely acclaimed and engagingly written “A History of the World in 100 Objects” published in 2010, Neil MacGregor, the Director of The British Museum, tries to tell a history of the world “by deciphering the messages which objects communicate across time – messages about peoples and places, environments and interactions, about different moments in history and about our own time as we reflect upon it.” On the fifth anniversary of Simerg, Studying Ismaili History Through Objects is a new series being launched today that takes its inspiration from MacGregor’s splendid book.

Since 2009, Simerg has launched a special new series to mark each anniversary. Over the past years, the themes that have been published are I Wish I’d Been ThereThe Jamatkhana – A Place of Spiritual and Social ConvergenceThanking Ismaili Historical Figures and Stories of Ismaili Volunteers. These series have continued to endure over the past years.

Studying Ismaili History Through Objects is, as the title states, a series about objects that are linked to Ismaili history over the past 1400 years, from the dawn of Islam to the Imamat of the present and manifest forty-ninth Imam, Mawlana Shah Karim al Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan.

Studying Ismaili History Through Objects will focus on the material culture and heritage of the Ismailis. The object may be a small coin or a monumental building, it may be a single artefact of outstanding beauty and elaborate craftsmanship, or comprise a group of textile fragments or broken pottery shards. The object may be a mundane, ordinary thing created in a particular geographical space and historical setting, but that has taken on meanings that could never have been imagined at the outset. In other words, the object has become a document not just of the world for which it was made, but of the later periods which altered it.

Studying Ismaili History Through Objects will seek to provide a visually articulate approach and a direct link with the past in a tangible way that is both informative and profoundly moving. It is hoped that the contributions presented in this series will stimulate the imagination and provoke discussion. The objects presented may provide a meeting ground for official and formal versions of the past or a reflective personal experience. But they may also go beyond the level of history and personal memory. The objects will become tools towards understanding the importance of culture in the development of self-identity.

Studying Ismaili History Through Objects will also aim to provide an understanding and appreciation of the need to preserve Ismaili heritage and history. This point was emphasised by Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, at the opening of Baltit Fort in Pakistan in October 1996 when he said: “…what has been inherited over nearly eight hundred years of history in that building should be known and understood and recorded and so it should be in many of the other aspects of our history.”

Studying Ismaili History Through Objects invites contributions from all readers. Your contribution will encourage thoughts about the past but also create a deeper awareness of the present. Objects are ‘signals from the past’ for explorations and discoveries, and are catalysts that should be regarded as just the beginning of an adventure, not the whole story. Through your participation, the objects will promote the exploration of the relationship between histories and memories, between culture and community. Inshallah, the objects presented by readers will serve as a link to the future that recognises its roots in the past, and the series will become a unique reference point on Ismaili history and heritage.

Please send your contribution to: Simerg@aol.com

Date posted: Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

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An Introduction to My New Book “Qur’an and Ginan” (Qur’anic Teachings in the Ginan) by Kamaluddin Ali Muhammad

In this special piece for Simerg, erudite Ismaili missionary and scholar, Alwaez Kamaluddin of Pakistan, provides a short but very interesting insight on the subject of Qur’anic teachings in the Ginan, while highlighting the features of his most recent book published in English.

PLEASE CLICK: “Qur’an and Ginan” (Qur’anic Teachings in the Ginan)

Front cover of "Qur'an and Ginan" - Qur'anic Teachings in the Ginan - co-authored by Alwaez Kamaluddin and Alwaeza Zarina Kamaluddiin. Hardback, pp. 225, Kamalzar, 2014. Please click for article.

Front cover of “Qur’an and Ginan” – Qur’anic Teachings in the Ginan – co-authored by Alwaez Kamaluddin and Alwaeza Zarina Kamaluddin. Hardback, pp. 225, Kamalzar, 2014. Please click on image for article.

 

Toral Pradhan Expands and Publishes Fascinating Ismaili History Article as Dual English-Gujarati Booklet

One of the most popular history articles ever published on this bog has been expanded, revised and published as a 40 page dual-language booklet by its author, Toral Pradhan. The article which was first published in October 2013 (please click A Brief History of the Khoja Ismaili Community in Daman, India, from the Portuguese Period to the Present), was highly acclaimed by our readers, who submitted more than 30 comments.
History of Khoja Community in Daman by Toral Pradhan English CoverPradhan passionately set out to explore the history of the origins of the Daman Khoja Ismaili Jamat in order to pay her respects and tribute to the jamat as well as to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the opening of the jamatkhana in Daman in March 2014. She obtained the information for her lively small booklet from primary sources which included visits to the local archives in and around Daman. The town was formerly ruled by the Portuguese, before India took it over in 1961. The fusion of the two cultures and its impact on the small Ismaili community in Daman is strongly emphasized in the book, which includes dozens of small historical illustrations including a center fold of colourful photos of gowns and headgear.

The style and format of Pradhan’s book is like many publications in Canada where books are published in dual languages, English in the first half and French forming the other half (see the two images of the book on this post, which are the front and back of the book).

The benefit of Pradhan’s dual language book is that it can be shared among families with Gujarati and English readers.  The 40 page booklet is about 6.5″ x 4.5″ in size.

History of Khoja Community in Daman by Toral Pradhan Gujarati Cover

“Daman Khoja Samaj No Itihas”
(transliteration)

Simerg will be making this book available in the near future if there is a sufficient demand for it in North America. The cost including shipping to any North American address will be around US$6.00 – $7.00.

We invite readers interested in acquiring this booklet to send an email to Simerg@aol.com, Subject: Booklet – History of the Daman Jamat. No payment is required at this time. We will advise you when the book reaches us in Canada, and send you an invoice if you are still interested.

My Late Mother, Jean Kirk, and Her Collection of Rare Photos of His Highness the Aga Khan by Allison Wallace

VIEW PHOTOS OF HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN
AT SIMERG AND SIMERGPHOTOS

View Allison Wallaces’s rare and unique collection of His Highness the Aga Khan’s photos at Simerg or Simergphotos by clicking on the respective links or images shown below.  Simergphotos is richly suited for images, but readers will also enjoy an equally absorbing viewing experience here on Simerg. A visit to Simergphotos is a must for the fascinating photo essays published on the blog over the past 18 months!

“[My] mum trained as a teacher in London and was passionate about the importance of education, the communication of knowledge and the enhancement of the individual through such knowledge. During her time in Kenya, she held the position of Principal at the Aga Khan Primary School in Nairobi where His Highness the Aga Khan on at least one occasion, privileged her to host a visit.” — Allison Wallace

Please click here to view the Jean Kirk Aga Khan photo collection at Simerg Please click here to view the Jean Kirk Aga Khan photo collection at Simergphotos
 0459_001-s-nf-THUMB  0492_001s-nf-thumb

 

Shaheeds Khudabaksh Talib, Karmali Dahya and Lalji Ladha: An Account of their 1925 Tragic Accident in Tanganyika by Sadru Meghji

“This account of a Jamati tragedy that occurred almost ninety years ago, in 1925,  is based on an authentic Gujarati narrative that was prepared by an officer  of the Aga Khan Council in Dar-es-Salaam, just four days after the accident that took the lives of three Ismailis, namely Khudabaksh Talib, Karmali Dahya and Lalji Ladha, who were bestowed with the title of Shaheeds….” — Sadru Meghji

Please click: A True Account of How Three Ismaili “Shaheeds” Lost Their Lives in a Tragic Accident in 1925 Near Kilosa, Tanganyika

Portraits of the three Shahids, Karmali Dahya, Lalji Ladha and Missionary Khudabaksh Talib (right), who died when their lorry slid into a ditch near Kilosa in 1925. The photo was displayed in the lobbies of jamatkhanas around East Africa at the instruction of the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan (1877-1957). Photo: Anverali Talib Family Collection, Montreal, PQ, Canada.

Portraits of the three Shaheeds, Karmali Dahya, Lalji Ladha and Missionary Khudabaksh Talib (right), who died when their lorry slid into a ditch near Kilosa in 1925. The photo was displayed in the lobbies of jamatkhanas around East Africa at the instruction of the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan (1877-1957). Photo: Anverali Talib Family Collection, Montreal, PQ, Canada.

In Ogden Memorial Lecture, Ismaili Imam Speaks About the Communications Revolution and Its Risks, and Says Progress is Possible When Today’s Complex World Issues are Subject to Competent, Intelligent, Nuanced and Sophisticated Dogmatic Free Analysis, and Based Upon What He Describes as “Empathetic Knowledge”

Compiled and presented by Abdulmalik J. Merchant
Publisher-Editor, www.simerg.com

I. Excerpts from President Christina Paxson’s Introduction to His Highness the Aga Khan

A collection of thumbnails from His Highness the Aga Khan's visit to Brown University to deliver the Ogden lecture on the occasion of the University's 250th anniversary.

A collection of thumbnails from His Highness the Aga Khan’s visit to Brown University where delivered the Ogden lecture on the occasion of the University’s 250th anniversary. Photo: The Ismaili

Today we welcome His Highness the Aga Khan to the Brown campus — not as a newly arrived guest, but as a returning friend of the University and a Brown parent. In May 1996, Brown conferred the honorary Doctor of Law degree upon His Highness. At that time, President Vartan Gregorian said of him:

“He has become a major activist for civilised humanity and universal values. Not in words but in deeds. Not in one location but around the world. For he believes in the long tradition of Ismaili community values — that education, self-reliance, solidarity, and character are the elements which keep a community vibrant and healthy and lead to enlightenment and dignity.”

In the 18 years since, His Highness’s critically important work has intensified and expanded. As the 49th hereditary Imam — the spiritual leader — of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, His Highness has been productively engaged with the development of Asia and Africa, work he and his organisations have pursued for nearly 60 years. He is the founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, one of the world’s largest private development agencies, which has improved living conditions and opportunities for people in 30 countries through work in healthcare, education, architecture, rural development, the built environment, and the promotion of private-sector enterprise…About 80,000 people work for the Network.

Eighteen years ago, on May 26, 1996, His Highness the Aga Khan receives a standing ovation at the conclusion of the Baccalaureate Address at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Next to him is Vartan Gregorian who was then President of the University.

Eighteen years ago, on May 26, 1996, His Highness the Aga Khan receives a standing ovation at the conclusion of the Baccalaureate Address at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Next to him is Vartan Gregorian who was then President of the University.

The Network’s efforts range from small — the micro loans and financing that are so important to eager but resource-poor entrepreneurs — to two entire universities: The five campuses of the Aga Khan University, and the University of Central Asia, whose School of Professional and Continuing Education has served nearly 50,000 students in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. His Highness once made the following remark:

“Education has been important to my family for a long time. My forefathers founded Al-Azhar University in Cairo some 1,000 years ago… Discovery of knowledge was seen by those founders as an embodiment of religious faith — faith as reinforced by knowledge of workings of the Creator’s physical world. The form of universities has changed over those 1,000 years, but that reciprocity between faith and knowledge remains a source of strength.”

Whether for 250 years or a thousand, we at Brown recognise and celebrate the institutions and people throughout the world who champion fundamental values like the discovery of knowledge and the notion that knowledge is a globally shared source of strength.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming His Highness the Aga Khan.

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II. Excerpts from His Highness the Aga Khan’s Ogden Lecture Delivered on March 10, 2014

His Highness the Aga Khan visited Brown at the invitation of University President Christina Paxson. His Ogden Lecture was part of the school’s 250th anniversary celebrations. - Photo: AKDN / Farhez Rayani

His Highness the Aga Khan visited Brown at the invitation of University President Christina Paxson. His Ogden Lecture was part of the school’s 250th anniversary celebrations. – Photo: AKDN/Farhez Rayani

Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim

1. STEPHEN OGDEN, PRINCE RAHIM, AND
THE AGA KHAN DEVELOPMENT NETWORK

Thank you very much, Madame President, for your very kind introduction. It is a great honour for me to give the Ogden Lecture…and to pay tribute to the memory of Stephen Ogden.

I have long felt a close sense of belonging at Brown; my eldest son was a member of the Brown Class of 1995, and I treasure the fact that I received an honorary degree from Brown, and was privileged at that time to give the Baccalaureate Address.

My own education has blended Islamic and Western traditions. I was studying at Harvard some 56 years ago when I inherited the Ismaili Imamat. It is not a political role, as has been mentioned, but let me emphasise that Islamic belief sees the spiritual and material worlds as inextricably connected. Faith should deepen our concern for improving the quality of human life in all of its dimensions. That is the overarching objective of the Aga Khan Development Network, which President Paxson has described so well.

2. 1996 AND NOW 

It has been said that giving an effective university lecture requires the boldness to make some strong predictions about the future.

As I look back, over some 18 years now, to 1996, I think I actually under-estimated how many things would change in the years ahead. If you were a student at Brown 18 years ago, you would not have had any Facebook friends and you wouldn’t be following anyone on Twitter. And, even more sadly perhaps, no one would be following you!

There was no instant messaging at that time; indeed, as I recall, people actually used their telephones primarily for talking!

In fact, email itself was still quite a new thing in 1996. And those are only the most obvious examples of transformative change in our world.

What has been the impact of such changes? We often think about technological innovation as a great source of hope for the world. We hear about how the internet can reach out across boundaries, helping us all to stay in touch, and giving us access to information from every imaginable source.

3. COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGIES – FULFILLED HOPES AND DISAPPOINTMENTS

But it is worth remembering that the same affirmations have greeted new communication technologies for centuries, from the printing press to the telegraph to television and radio. Yet in each case, while many hopes were fulfilled, many were also disappointed. In the final analysis, the key to human cooperation and concord has not depended on advances in the technologies of communication, but rather on how human beings go about using – or abusing – their technological tools.

Yes, the Information Revolution, for individuals and for communities, can be a great liberating influence. But it also carries some important risks.

A. Risks: Fleeting attention spans, Impulsive Judgments and Isolation

More information at our fingertips can mean more knowledge and understanding. But it can also mean more fleeting attention-spans, more impulsive judgments, and more dependence on superficial snapshots of events. Communicating more often and more easily can bring people closer together, but it can also tempt us to live more of our lives inside smaller information bubbles, in more intense but often more isolated groupings.

B. Risk: Greater Connectivity # Greater Connection

We see more people everywhere these days, standing or sitting or walking alone, absorbed in their hand-held screens. But, I wonder whether, in some larger sense, they are really more “in touch?” Greater “connectivity” does not necessarily mean greater “connection.”

Information travels more quickly, in greater quantities these days. But the incalculable multiplication of information can also mean more error, more exaggeration, more misinformation, more disinformation, more propaganda. The world may be right there on our laptops, but the truth about the world may be further and further away.

C. Risk: Contribution to Fragmentation

Among the risks of our new communications world is its potential contribution to what I would call the growing “centrifugal forces” in our time – the forces of “fragmentation.” These forces, I believe, can threaten the coherence of democratic societies and the effectiveness of democratic institutions.

The problem of fragmentation in our world is not a problem of diversity. Diversity itself should be a source of enrichment. The problem comes when diverse elements spin-off on their own, when the bonds that connect us across our diversities begin to weaken.

D. Risk: Knowledge Gaps…Becoming Empathy Gaps

Too often, as the world grows more complex, the temptation for some is to shield themselves from complexity, we seek the comfort of our own simplicities, our own specialities. As has often been said, we risk learning more and more, about less and less. And the result is that significant knowledge gaps can develop and persist.

The danger is that knowledge gaps so often run the risk of becoming empathy gaps. The struggle to remain empathetically open to the Other in a diversifying world is a continuing struggle of central importance for all of us.

The danger of having knowledge gaps grow into empathy gaps – that was the theme of my address in 1996. I discussed then what was becoming an enormous knowledge gap, nearly an ignorance gap, between the worlds of Islam and the non-Muslim world. Since that time, to be sure, there have been moments of encouraging progress on this front, including academic-centred efforts here at Brown, with your wonderful Digital Islamic Humanities Project.

4. THE WORSENING KNOWLEDGE GAP, AND THE LOSS OF AN IMPORTANT ISLAMIC TRADITION

But in many ways, that knowledge gap has worsened.

We have heard predictions for some years now about some inevitable clash of the industrial West with the Muslim world. These multiplied, of course, in the wake of the 9/11 tragedies and other violent episodes. But most Muslims don’t think that way; only an extreme minority does. For most of us, there is singularly little in our theology that would clash with the other Abrahamic faiths, with Christianity and Judaism. And there is much more in harmony. What has happened to the Islamic tradition that says that our best friends will be from the other Abrahamic Faiths, known as the “People of the Book”, all of whose faith builds on monotheistic revelation?

Of course, much of what the West has seen about the Muslim world in recent years has been through a media lens of instability and confrontation. What is highly abnormal in the Islamic world thus often gets mistaken for what is normal. But that is all the more reason for us to work from all directions to replace fearful ignorance with empathetic knowledge.

5.  NON-RECOGNITION IN THE WEST OF MUSLIM CONTRIBUTIONS

Down through many centuries, great Muslim cultures were built on the principle of inclusiveness. Some of the best minds and creative spirits from every corner of the world, independent of ethnic or religious identities, were brought together at great Muslim centres of learning. My own ancestors, the Fatimids, founded one of the world’s oldest universities, Al-Azhar in Cairo, over a thousand years ago. In fields of learning from mathematics to astronomy, from philosophy to medicine Muslim scholars sharpened the cutting edge of human knowledge. They were the equivalents of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, Galileo and Newton. Yet their names are scarcely known in the West today. How many would recognise the name al-Khwarizmi – the Persian mathematician who developed some 1,200 years ago the algorithm, which is the foundation of search engine technology?

6. HOSTILITY BETWEEN AND WITHIN FAITHS

In the Muslim world itself, as is true outside of it, much of our history, culture and art, has been obscured, and with it a clear sense of Muslim diversity. Among other “in-comprehensions” is the increasing conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In places like Pakistan and Malaysia, Iraq and Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain, Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan, the Sunni-Shia conflict is becoming an absolute disaster.

The harsh truth is that religious hostility and intolerance, between as well as within religions, is contributing to violent crises and political impasse all across the world, in the Central African Republic, in South Sudan and Nigeria; in Myanmar, in the Philippines and in the Ukraine, and in many other places.

Such hostilities, of course, represent the most sinister side of what I have described as the centrifugal, fragmenting patterns of our times.

7. RESPONSES TO INTOLERANCE

A.  Recognition of Pluralism

How can we respond to such tendencies? The response, I would emphasise today is a thoughtful, renewed commitment to the concept of pluralism and to the closely related potential of civil society.

A pluralist commitment is rooted in the essential unity of the human race. Does the Holy Quran not say that mankind is descended from “a single soul?” In an increasingly cosmopolitan world, it is essential that we live by a “cosmopolitan ethic,” one that addresses the age-old need to balance the particular and the universal, to honour both human rights and social duties, to advance personal freedom and to accept human responsibility.

It is in that spirit that we can nurture bonds of confidence across different peoples and unique individuals, welcoming the growing diversity of our world, even in matters of faith, as a gift of the Divine. Difference, in this context, can become an opportunity – not a threat – a blessing rather than a burden.

B. Good Governance: The Example of America’s First President, George Washington

This brings us to the challenges for governance in our time. How do we organise our complex societies to achieve harmony and perhaps some progress, even at this time of growing diversity? These have always been difficult questions and they are not getting any easier. As you know, they were particularly difficult questions for the United States back in this university’s earliest years, as 13 former colonies tried to write a new national constitution.

George Washington, who had presided over the Constitutional Convention, came to this campus in 1790, after just one year as President, when Brown itself was only a quarter of a century old. He travelled to Providence to mark the recent adoption of the new US Constitution by the state of Rhode Island – the last of the original 13 states to do so.

The colossal face of  George Washington as photographed from the Presidential Trail at the Rushmore Memorial. George Washington (1732 - 1799), America's first President is considered the father of the country and is therefore the most prominent figure on the mountain. Photo: Malik Merchant. © Simerg.com

The colossal face of George Washington as photographed from the Presidential Trail at the Rushmore Memorial. George Washington (1732 – 1799), America’s first President is considered the father of the country and is therefore the most prominent figure on the mountain. Photo: Malik Merchant. © Simerg.com

Washington’s visit in Providence marked a moment of historic constitutional significance. And the questions we have raised today, balancing centrifugal, fragmenting realities on the one hand with the imperatives of national bonding and governing on the other, were central concerns for Washington at that moment and throughout his career. After eight years of coping with these issues as the first American president, he made them the major theme of his famous Farewell Address.

He was worried, principally, he said then, about what he called the spirit of “faction” and its ability to undermine a sense of democratic nationhood. He described faction as a spirit, that “kindles the animosity of one part against another,” creating a “fatal tendency to elevate a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community” against the whole. It threatened, he said, “a frightful despotism”, one that could “render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together…”

C. New Government Frameworks and Constitutions Honouring Human Rights:  Kenya and Tunisia

Such threats to bonding, and thus to balance, have long presented a central governance challenge, here and elsewhere. And these issues are now being addressed with new intensity all across the world.

Amazing as it may seem, fully 37 countries have been writing or rewriting their constitutions in the last ten years, with another 12 countries recently embarking on this path….And nearly half of these 49 countries have majority Muslim populations.

Clearly, many Muslim societies are seeking new ways to organise themselves. And there can be no “one size fits all”. The outcomes obviously are going to be many and varied. The process will challenge the creativity of the world’s best political and legal thinkers. Especially in the developing world, such matters will increasingly be in the hands of younger, more educated men and women, provided the system allows them to come to the forefront.

These governance issues are frankly today, of global concern. And I believe that the great universities of the world and Brown University in particular, can also play an especially creative role in responding to them.

The challenge, as we have said, will be one of balancing values and interests, honouring the importance of religious and ethical traditions, for example, while also respecting the free will of individual human beings; accommodating both the role of central governments and regional demands, reconciling the urban and the rural; providing for democratic change, and institutional continuity.

Creating new governance frameworks is obviously not an easy task. But it can be accomplished. In Kenya just three and a half years ago, for example, a new constitution ratified by two-thirds of the voters, redistributed power dramatically from the central level to 47 county governments. In Tunisia, just a few weeks ago, a new “consensus” constitution with 94 per cent approval from the elected Constituent Assembly reaffirmed the Islamic identity of the Tunisian state, while also protecting the human rights of religious and ethnic minorities.

D. Good and Quality Civil Society: Vital to Democratic Governance

In these cases, and in other places such as Bangladesh, one of the fundamental constructive forces at work has been the strength of civil society, it is a topic that is worth serious attention.

By civil society I mean an array of institutions that operate on a private, voluntary basis, but are motivated by high public purposes. They include institutions devoted to culture, to science and to research; to commercial, labour, ethnic and religious concerns; as well as a variety of professional societies. They include institutions of the media and education.

I think the conclusion is the success of democratic societies will depend in the end on more than democratic governments. The scale and the quality of civil society will become a factor, I believe, of enormous importance.

A quality civil society has three critical underpinnings: a commitment to pluralism, an open door to meritocracy, and a full embrace of what I described earlier as a cosmopolitan ethic.

The voices of civil society will reflect and express the growing complexity of society, not as autonomous fragments, but as diversified institutions seeking the common good. And I believe that the voices of civil society can be among the most powerful forces in our time. Where change has been overdue, they can be voices for change. Where people live in fear, they can be voices of hope.

 8. ATTRIBUTES OF A GOOD CIVIL SOCIETY

A. Talent and Voluntary Service

One of the energizing forces that makes a quality civil society possible, of course, is the readiness of its citizens to contribute their talents and energies to the social good. What is required is a profound spirit of voluntary service, a principle cherished in Shia Ismaili culture, and honoured, I know, here at Brown.

B. Diversified Input

Progress is possible when the multiple, diversified needs of any society can be matched by multiple, diversified inputs; that is also what civil society is all about. This is why great universities, with their broad, diversified programmes, can be a resource of importance in the development of quality civil society, in their own countries but also around the world. And again, Brown offers a powerful example.

C. Predictability and Sophisticated Analysis

Perhaps the biggest quandary we face in our economic and social development programmes is the problem of “predictability”; knowing what changes are going to arise, and then deciding what is more or less likely to work in a given situation. But again, progress is possible when complex issues are subjected to competent, intelligent, nuanced and sophisticated analysis, free from dogmatism, and based upon what I would describe as “empathetic knowledge.” This happens best in open, meritocratic societies, where people’s responsibilities are based on their competence. It also happens best when the intellectual resources of the world’s great universities, like Brown, are brought into play.

D. Well-Informed Leaders with Broad Outlooks

A quality civil society, in any setting, will require well-informed leaders who are sensitive to a wide array of disciplines, and outlooks and cultures. It will require people with the ability to continue their learning in response to new knowledge. I know these are central concerns for Brown University, articulated so well in its new Strategic Plan and its call for “Building on Distinction.”

E. Diversity Without Fragmentation

As we look ahead, in sum, we face a world in which centrifugal and fragmenting influences are of growing importance, presenting new governance challenges all across the planet, and especially in fragile societies. In such a world, the voices of pluralistic civil society can help ensure that diversity does not lead to disintegration, and that a broad variety of energies and talents can be enlisted in the quest for human progress. Diversification without disintegration, this is the greatest challenge of our time.

9. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE HUMAN INTELLECT IN THE SHIA ISMAILI TRADITION AND THE ROLE OF IMAMAT INSTITUTIONS

His Highness the Aga Khan meets with Ismaili students at Brown University.

His Highness the Aga Khan meets with Ismaili students at Brown University. Photo: The Ismaili/Aly Z. Ramji

One of the important values of the Shia Ismaili tradition is the transformative power of the human intellect – that conviction underscores AKDN’s strong commitment to education, at all levels, wherever we are present. These activities include the Aga Khan University – now thirty years old – our newer University of Central Asia, our Aga Khan Academies at the primary and secondary levels, and our major commitment to the potential of Early Childhood Development.

The Aga Khan University in Karachi and East Africa is in the process today of creating a new Liberal Arts faculty, while also establishing eight new post-graduate schools. I would emphasise both these initiatives. Professional education is sorely needed in the developing world, but equally important is the capacity to integrate knowledge, to nurture critical thinking and ethical sensitivity and to advance interdisciplinary teaching and research.

10. FINAL REMARKS: SPEAKING FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

His Highness the Aga Khan delivers an Ogden lecture titled "Modern governance in a more complex world: Challenges and responses" at Brown University. - Photo: AKDN / Aly Z. Ramji

His Highness the Aga Khan delivers an Ogden lecture titled “Modern governance in a more complex world: Challenges and responses” at Brown University. – Photo: AKDN / Aly Z. Ramji

Over the past six decades I have been immersed in the problems of developing societies, grappling with ways to assist their populations, despite both natural hazards and human errors. It is my conviction that a strong, high-quality, ethical and competent civil society is one of the greatest forces we can work with to underwrite such progress. And, if this is correct, then the role of great universities has never been more important.

I am convinced that Brown will be among the greatest universities stepping up to this challenge, as it finishes its first 250 years, and embarks on its next quarter of a millennium!

Date posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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