The happy period of your Imamate shall ever remain green in the history of the Ismaili world. Being the direct lineal descendant of the Great Prophet of Arabia, through his beloved Fatima and the first Imam Ali, Your Highness has been the most faithful torchbearer of all the marvelous teachings of your illustrious ancestor…(Excerpt from an address to Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, by his followers in South Africa)
Here there is bravery happily not on the battlefield, but in the faith in the higher destiny of mankind, no matter what be his colour or creed – that quality which makes man; that judgment of conscience. I am sure that that judgment of conscience, if firmly believed in and acted upon, will go far to solving South Africa’s problems….Isolated here – far from the roots of your history – it would be good and advantageous if everyone of my countrymen said to himself: How can I better my knowledge, my integrity and my ability to help my brother more today? (Excerpt from an address delivered by Aga Khan III to the Indian National Congress in Durban, Natal)
I. Ismaili Imam Addresses Artificial Barriers and Appeals for Human Understanding at Indian Congress Banquet
August 7, 1945 was a historic occasion for the Ismailis in South Africa as their 48th Imam, Hazrat Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, and the Begum Om Habiba, Mata Salamat, arrived in Johannesburg by train from Lourenco Marque’s (now Maputo) where they had earlier commenced their visit to Southern Africa on August 4th.
His visit to South Africa was marked by remarkable speeches and statements and this reading focuses on some of the key messages that he conveyed to South African Indians and Muslims.
Speaking at a banquet held by the Transvaal Indian Congress on the day of his arrival, the Aga Khan firmly asserted the Indians’ rights to be treated equally for the sake of their happiness. He said:
“May I sincerely and earnestly appeal to all citizens of this great country to permit the Indians to enjoy the benefits of peace and happiness. Is it possible to find a solution of the Indian problem on the basis of human understanding?
And may I also remind friends of India here tonight, that to make cultural, economic and social barriers artificially can never lead to what is your ideal—a union of all civilized people in this vast land. My Indian compatriots here are keen on education. Is it right that the gates of knowledge should be closed to them artificially?”
“Tonight’s banquet”, he noted, “shows that whatever may be the difficulties which exist, the human union is not absent.”
“Is there any danger to your supremacy? Is there any possibility of such a menace? Then, why not allow them to go along with you on the road of happiness. The world is big enough for all. Above all, South Africa is a big country. If an overcrowded country like India can show a readiness to open its doors to those who come from outside why cannot South Africa do the same thing?”
II. “This is Most Beautiful, Wonderful” – Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah in an Ismaili Council Function
On August 9th, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah and the Begum were given a reception by the South African Ismailia Provincial Council in Pretoria. In an emotional welcome to the Imam, the President, Vazir Keshavjee, said:
“We in South Africa have lived to this day. In an article your Highness once wrote, your Highness referred to the hour of prayer as your greatest hour. This hour – when we see you face to face, when we speak to you – is our greatest hour…We glory in your presence ; we pay our reverence to you.”
In another welcoming address, the organizing secretary of the function said:
“The happy period of your Imamate shall ever remain green in the history of the Ismaili world. Being the direct lineal descendant of the Great Prophet of Arabia, through his beloved Fatima, and the first Imam Ali, Your Highness has been the most faithful torchbearer of all the marvelous teachings of your illustrious ancestor.”
The entire stage and the surrounding areas were filled with a variety of high blooming flowers, beautiful greenery, and poinsettias that had transformed the hall to a “veritable fairyland.” The lighting effects had been so arranged that as the party of distinguished guests advanced into the auditorium, the illumination gradually dimmed and the beauty of the stage decorations stood out in bold and splendid radiance.
The Imam paused and looked around him and said:
“This is Most Beautiful, Wonderful.”
III. (a) On Political Unity and Division between Rich and Poor – Do not be divided on an economic issue… make friends on an intellectual basis
Do not allow Muslim or any other sectarian differences to divide your united front in South Africa. Believe me, there are great temptations, but whatever happens, do not disunite.
One of the highlights of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah’s visit was a remarkable address to the Transvaal Muslim League in the Johannesburg City Hall on August 12th, 1945. He began by saying:
“It is never a happy business to give advice to others.”
The Aga Khan asked the meeting to forgive him for lecturing them, but he felt that being very nearly seventy years of age and having had well over fifty years of experience in various activities, he would be failing in his duty if he did not offer them the advice which his years and experience permitted.
First of all he urged them to be politically united.
“Do not allow Muslim or any other sectarian differences to divide your united front in South Africa. Believe me, there are great temptations, but whatever happens, do not disunite.”
He also said to the Indians in South Africa that division between the rich and the poor should not be allowed to occur; it had no place in their national political movement. They were nationally exposed in the Union; they were 250,000 people in a vast country surrounded by people of many races and it was of the greatest importance that they should not be divided on an economic issue. Rather they should make friends on an intellectual basis. Truth and wisdom were unanswerable, because truth was always established by time in the long run.
Then he proceeded to give specific advice to his Muslim brethren.
III. (b) Alcohol and Tobacco
Alcohol ….Avoid it at all costs. Avoid it, I say, for in this country you cannot afford to lose one man…Tobacco….What would you think of a man who went about the streets burning up ten shilling notes
“The greatest danger,” said the Aga Khan, “to every Muslim citizen – I have not the least hesitation in saying it – is alcohol. Time has shown that it is an injury to you; an injury to your person; an injury to your health. It is forbidden because it carries greater evil than good. Believe me, in a community like yours, alcohol is a very grave danger. Once you got into the alcohol habit, I do not know where it would lead you. A handful, here and there, of the weak, or of the unhappy, find their way to this terrible poison. Avoid it at all costs. Avoid it, I say, for in this country you cannot afford to lose one man.”
Then the Aga Khan warned them about the dangers of tobacco. “It is not a religious question,” he said, “but it is a question of economy. What would you think of a man who went about the streets burning up ten shilling notes? You would call him a madman, wouldn’t you? But people go around buying cigarettes and burning them.
“Also, many doctors will tell you that tobacco smoking is bad for you. So although smoking is not forbidden, it is from my long experience of life that I strongly urge the young not to acquire the habit and the more mature to reduce it to the minimum. I assure you that the economic position will greatly improve.”
III. (c) Education – Institute Night Classes and Educate Muslim Girls and Women
…the girl’s function was the maintenance of home life and the bringing up of the children. Her influence in the family circle was enormous and the future of the generations depended upon her ability to lead the young along the right paths and instruct them in the rudiments of culture and civilization
Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah then turned to the question of education. There were, he said, many causes which hampered educational effort in South Africa, but it was his opinion that night classes, as they had done in other countries, might perform a great service in the Union.
“Night classes where there are a number of Muslims together using books on Muslim history and Muslim literature would bring you in through the Western door into the palaces of Eastern culture.”
Education for women was a thing which His Highness stressed. Without it there would inevitably result other great drawbacks for the Muslim community.
“Personally,” he said; “if I had two children, and one was a boy and the other a girl, and if I could afford to educate only one, I would have no hesitation in giving the higher education to the girl.”
The male, he said, could bend his energies to manual effort for reward, but the girl’s function was the maintenance of home life and the bringing up of the children. Her influence in the family circle was enormous and the future of the generations depended upon her ability to lead the young along the right paths and instruct them in the rudiments of culture and civilization.
The League should bear this in mind and arrange for the proper night classes for boys and men and lectures for girls and women.
The Aga Khan undertook to supply to every Muslim community with the necessary books which would further their cultural advance.
III. (d) Duties of Muslims and the Importance of Setting High Standards
He said that unfortunately since the fall of Spain and Baghdad, Muslims had forgotten science, and in this respect the leadership of Muslims had taken a back place.
“Even the Chinese have long since passed us,” said the Aga Khan. “The Hindus have long since passed us. It is not only by books but also by night classes that you will go far in preparing the way in which you should be brought up.”
The Aga Khan then spoke of the duties of Muslims. He noted that in East Africa a Muslim welfare society had been formed at last. Rich and poor alike were doing all in their power to help Islam. It involved, he said, a science in which every Muslim should participate for the welfare of the people. It required the observance and furtherance of hygiene, dietetics and social welfare. The rich had to help the poor in this important matter and the poor had to co-operate with their benefactors.
“The high standard upon which you insist for yourselves,” said His Highness, “will win for you the respect of all the other communities in South Africa.”
He ended his remarkable address by saying:
“Once more, forgive me for lecturing you, and for showing – to the best of my ability – where there is light and where there is darkness. I know that if it has some influence in your life in the future, then my time and your time has not been wasted..”
IV. Ride Bicycles, he urges his followers
On August 16, 1945, Ismailis had gathered at Rand airport to see their beloved Imam and Begum depart for Durban.
When they arrived at the airport they saw Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah on the tarmac swinging a golf club. The Imam turned to them and said, not without a twinkle in his eye, that they would do well to buy bicycles for not only would that be an economic proposition but also supply the necessary exercise. He advised them not to use their motor cars more than two or three times a week for pleasure, but to use them whenever required for business. As petrol rationing was in force at the time the advice was most timely.
V. (a) Asks Muslims and Hindus to Swim Together
In Durban, he addressed the Indian National Congress. After paying tribute to the pioneering efforts of Indians in South Africa, the Aga Khan said:
“..Forgive me if, after spending only a short time in your midst, I venture to give you a few words of advice. The onlooker often sees most of the game, and I have known and studied the case of the Indians in South Africa for a very long time.
First of all, and by far the most important, let there never be any question of Hindu and Muslim in South Africa. The Hindu and Muslim difficulties and squabbles and differences in India, are not articles for export. Here, once and for all, you are all in the same boat. You will sink or swim together and, for goodness sake, do not allow questions of religion or geography ever to disunite the Natal Indian Congress.”
V. (b) Educate to Overcome Artificial Barriers
To the Indians he said that while many artificial barriers were pressing against them, there were other fields in which they could make good.
“I implore you, with all my strength, to go in more for education,” His Highness said. “No one can stop you if you sincerely and honestly try to raise the standard of every Indian boy to that of the level of the European. Fortunately there are men of wealth among you, and bursaries could be provided so that the poor may achieve a standard of education which their own resources make difficult, if not impossible.
“If certain avenues are closed, there are many that are open. Boys could be sent to the highest educational centres in Britain or the United States, and even in South Africa there are opportunities at the Universities. In the long run this education will go further than any amount of other action in bringing about a better understanding of your qualities as citizens of South Africa. These doors are open. They must always be kept open, for the standard of material life will depend upon the standard of moral and cultural life.”
V. (c) Equality Between Men and Women
Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah insisted that in the standard of education, essentially there should be equality between both sexes. He pointed out that it was only when a nation could bring into its service both the men and the women to carry on the social and home life as well as its secular and economic activities and when both the men and the women contributed to the utmost that the greatest success and advantage could be gained.
“Could Great Britain have won the war without the contributions of the women?” asked the Aga Khan.
“Could the United States have reached her international status without her womenfolk? And we all know the tremendous contribution of the women in Russia since the Revolution in 1917. By constant effort if all these advantages are brought to our mothers and sisters and daughters, a great advance will have been made in achieving those principles of right and dealings of fair play.”
V. (d) Gandhi’s Teaching Should be the Guiding Star
Speaking of Mahatma Gandhi, he said:
“A higher standard of moral force, of sobriety, of honour and of integrity which must break down even the greatest of prejudices,” was Gandhi’s teaching.
“Brethren, let that standard of integrity, which the greatest of Indian sons preached here to the world at large, be your guiding star.
“‘How can I better my knowledge, my integrity and my ability to help my brother more to-day?’ Such a self-searching question will lead to a great increase in that moral strength to which Mahatma Gandhi attached such great importance. You may have fights politically here, but at least be of such a character that those, however reluctantly they may be your opponents, will ever and ever respect you and say: ‘Our Indian citizens are as good citizens as we are.’
“Here there is bravery, happily not on the battlefield, but in the faith in the higher destiny of mankind, no matter what be his colour or creed—that quality which makes man; that judgment of conscience. I am sure that judgment of conscience, if firmly believed in and acted upon, will go far to solving the problems of South Africa.”
The moment of departure took place at Durban Airport on August 17th, 1945 bringing an end to a visit by Hazrat Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah and Mata Salamat that had charmed the whole of South Africa.
Credit: This reading and accompanying images are adapted from “The Aga Khan and Africa – His Leadership and Inspiration,” a 200 page commemorative Souvenir published to celebrate Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s Diamond Jubilee as well as his visits to Lourenco Marques and South Africa. The book was compiled by Habib V. Keshavjee. The date of publication is not noted anywhere in the souvenir.
For a complete list of articles in the Aga Khan III series please click: Special Series: His Highness the Aga Khan III