His Highness the Aga Khan’s Foresight and Wisdom at Age 20

A more recent photo of His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th Ismaili Imam and direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS)

Introduction

“I have dedicated my life to the uplift and progress of the Ismailis all over the world and I pray for all your happiness and success.”

These words of dedication were articulated by Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni, His Highness the Aga Khan IV, soon after he succeeded his grandfather, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, as the 49th Imam of Ismaili Muslims.

In his will, the late Aga Khan III had declared:

“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.”

July 12, 1957: The newly enthroned Imam, Shah Karim al-Hussaini, with Ismaili leaders at Villa Barakat.

The new Imam was none other than a youthful and vigorous twenty year old student at Harvard University. The Aga Khan took some time off from his studies to visit his followers in various parts of the world. Public ceremonial installation ceremonies (Takht Nashini) were held in East Africa and Southern Asia in the presence of both Ismailis and non-Ismailis. The following excerpts from his speeches reflect his foresight and sophistication. For the past 53 years, his acumen, understanding and wisdom have driven the spiritual and material well being of his followers. He has consistently maintained that education, unity, character and generosity, as well as the ethic of keeping a balance between the spiritual (din) and temporal (dunya) are the elements which keep a community vibrant and healthy and lead to enlightenment and dignity.

At the age of 73, the Ismaili Imam’s wisdom continues to create opportunities for his community, charting a path that will ensure that they are at the leading edge of  social and intellectual evolution. His engagement, grounded in the ethics of Islam, has also contributed to the improvement, well-being and dignity of millions of non-Ismailis in some of the world’s poorest, most deprived, and most diverse communities regardless of faith, origin or gender.

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Takht Nashini, Dar-es-Salaam, 19th October 1957

Today I believe education is more important than ever before. But remember that education does not stop at the school room; it continues through the newspapers, the radio, films and particularly television. One teacher can reach hundreds of thousands of children at the same moment through the television set.

Nuclear Enegy

My grandfather often reminded you that we are living in the atomic age. But what in fact do we mean when we say this? Certainly we mean more than the age of  ‘the red moon’. The most significant thing about the atomic age is the new and unbounded sources of energy which are released for the use of mankind. In Europe and America today, power stations are springing up which need no coal, nor oil, nor water power to run them. They feed themselves. This is close to the secret of perpetual motion.

In my life time, it is almost certain that such atomic power stations will be exported, very likely to countries like Tanganyika. From them will flow the energy which will create new towns, railways, factories and all the foundations of modern industrial progress. These things are still far off, but they will come. They will affect all your lives in the next half century. With this material progress will come many difficulties as well as many blessings. This will affect not only the Ismailis, but all who live in this territory and, perhaps, even the whole of Africa.

I shall devote my life to guiding the community in all the problems which these rapid changes will bring in their wake.

However, it should not be believed that material progress is all that counts. As so many advanced nations are finding to their cost, man’s mastery of physical forces has far outstripped his mastery of himself. His mind cannot grapple with the complexities his hands have created. That is why my grandfather attached so much importance to education in our community.

Today, I believe education is more important than ever before. But remember that education does not stop at the school room; it continues through the newspapers, the radio, films and particularly television. One teacher can reach hundreds of thousands of children at the same moment through the television set. Sooner or later the same thing will happen here in Tanganyika. The Ismaili community must prepare itself for changes of this magnitude. We must identify ourselves with Tanganyika and move forward with all the other communities in this rapidly advancing country.

I do not think that the great progress I have spoken about will make our lives any less happy than in the past. This faith by which we live is the only sure guarantee that our problems will be surmounted. The younger people among you must be especially aware of this.

Only the faith of your fathers will enable you to live in peace.

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Takht Nashini, Nairobi, 22nd October, 1957

The years of development and change which lie ahead are certain to throw up many new problems. We should not be afraid of these. You will surely surmount them if you stand by your faith and meet your difficulties in the spirit of humility and tolerance that your religion demands of us. This is specially important for the younger generations who will have to carry the future on their shoulders.

How beautiful your city is looking! The decorations along the streets and here on this ground are truly magnificent. I remember Nairobi as a boy and most of you know how much it has changed since the war. Yet, this is only a symbol of the still greater changes which are taking place throughout Kenya.

Never before in the history of man has there been such an age of technological progress. Only thirty years ago it was an adventure to fly in an aeroplane. Today there are machines that travel faster than sound. Before long, the oceans will be scattered with atomic powered ships travelling on and beneath the sea. New and undreamt of changes in the means of transport and communication lie in the future.

All of this will create new markets and new fields of enterprise for Africa. Fresh outlooks and unforeseen influences will follow in their train. It is most important for the future of this country that the various races face these changes together and with mutual understanding.

How do we Ismailis fit into this picture! Our faith keeps us a united community. This is essential to our spiritual welfare, but in every other way you must remember that you are citizens of Kenya. It is to this Government that you owe allegiance.

Although, as a community, the Ismailis will never be involved in politics, individually they may well play a constructive part in their country’s political developments. Some of your leaders here are doing this with great distinction. They should remember, above all, how important it is to encourage and promote good relations among the different races who live here together.

The Aga Khan Platinum Jubilee Hospital was built with funds raised by the Ismaili community, together with a contribution from the Kenya Government, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the installation of His Highness Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah as the Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili community.

Let me give you a practical example. Behind, you can see the structure of a great new hospital which is almost completed. It will be one of the best equipped hospitals in East Africa. Half of it has been paid for by the Ismaili community and half by the Government. It will be, like our schools, available for all races. I hope that this will be only one of many other ventures in which the spirit of partnership will always prevail.

The years of development and change which lie ahead are certain to throw up many new problems. We should not be afraid of these. You will surely surmount them if you stand by your Faith and meet your difficulties in the spirit of humility and tolerance that your religion demands of us. This is specially important for the younger generations who will have to carry the future on their shoulders.

Only the Faith of your fathers can sustain you and enable you to live in peace here, in this world, and the next.

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Takht Nashini, Kampala, 25th October, 1957

One event which I witnessed was a boxing match between two Ismaili boys- one African, one Asian. I saw a good fight and, at the end, I think each of them thought he had won. Perhaps both were right! To me this friendly contest reflected something of tremendous importance to our community. It reflected first the qualities of determination and endurance which are demanded by our Faith.

Today’s ceremony is of a very different nature. We are assembled on the holy grounds of the Jamatkhana for an installation, whose significance is entirely religious.

The position which I occupy as Imam of Shia lmami Ismailis here in Uganda, and in other countries all over the world beneath the flags of many nations, with widely different forms of government, is not and never will be a political one.

Yesterday, I visited the magnificent new Aga Khan educational institution. I was shown enough of its work to convince me that this school compared with the finest in the world.

One event which I witnessed was a boxing match between two Ismaili boys – one African, one Asian. I saw a good fight and, at the end, I think each of them thought he had won. Perhaps both were right! To me this friendly contest reflected something of tremendous importance to our community. It reflected first the qualities of determination and endurance which are demanded by our Faith. These qualities are also necessary to the future leaders of the community and for the country as a whole. At the end of this sporting event, the two boys shook hands and stood together to be photographed. To me this symbolised the partnership between different races which I am convinced is the only condition of peace and prosperity.

Uganda is a predominantly an African State and when it becomes autonomous, the Government will, I understand, be mainly African. If this is accepted by the other races, and provided they in their turn are given a legitimate role in the development of the country they seek to serve, Uganda will prosper as never before. If on the other hand, the different races fall out and quarrel, there will be no confidence, foreign capital will not be attracted, development will be slowed and the country’s progress impeded in every way. This is why I most strongly urge the Ismaili community to work hand in hand with all other citizens.

Finally I would like you to speak of your spiritual welfare. We think a great deal today of material advancement. In Uganda most of our community is prospering. This is a tribute to its skill and industries – particularly to the wise advice and guidance it received from my beloved grandfather. But wealth is not all that matters. Our religion teaches us that a spirit of humility and devotion is of first importance.

You must work together with mutual forbearance and with respect for each other. Only thus shall we achieve the harmony and happiness which is necessary for the true advancement of our faith.

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Takht Nashini, Karachi, 23rd January, 1958

I do not believe that we should fear material progress, nor should we condemn it. The danger is that it could become an obsession in our lives and that it could dominate our way of thinking. There is no reason why our traditions and our faith should stop us from moving with our times, nor in fact why we should not lead our fellowmen to new spheres of knowledge and learning.

A portrait of the late Aga Khan III (Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah), 48th Imam of Shia Ismaili Muslims. Photo by Walter Stoneman, 1930. Copyright. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Today, I am speaking to you in a city and in a country which have a particular meaning to my family and myself. On November 2, 1877, my beloved grandfather was born here in Karachi. Through 72 years of Imamat, he guided his spiritual children to happiness and prosperity and some 10 years ago, he saw a new Muslim State born. He believed strongly in Pakistan’s future, and a very great number of Ismailis are now happily settled here.

The progress which this country has made since my visit in 1954 is astonishing. It brings to mind what is perhaps the most fundamental change in world politics: the growing influence of the Asian nations. Millions upon millions of people have won the right to independence. Their influence in world counsels is becoming stronger every day; their voice is being listened to with increasing respect by older nations of the West.

Pakistan’s role among Muslim States and amongst Asian countries as a whole is of the greatest interest and importance. Here is a nation newly-born, unfettered by too many outworn traditions. She is free, therefore, to forge her own future, her own standard of living and her own set of normal principles. She is a Muslim country who must adapt herself to the fast changing world, but she has the potentialities for a great future and I pray that she may fulfil it. To adapt modern values and the pressures of a changing society to the basic ideals of Islam, to put modern democracy into Islamic form – here is her task. Not an easy one, but she will succeed.

Aga Khan IV arriving at Karachi enthronement, accompanied by Prime Minister Mirza

To my own community, I would say this: We may be relatively small in numbers, but our influence is great. It is your duty to use that influence, not simply for the advancement of yourselves as individuals nor even for the whole of the Ismailis: you must use it for the benefit of Pakistan. As a community, our Faith will always preserve our special identity, but there should be nothing exclusive in what you do. To partake more thoroughly in this country’s development, I hope to see my spiritual children spread out into all the walks of life. All the fields are open to you, it is for you to sow the seed and to reap the fruit.

I have spoken of the tremendous political advances made by the nations of Asia. It should not be forgotten, however, that in Europe, America and Russia there has been a simultaneous revolution in technology and industrial power. The huge new atomic power stations, the sputniks and the vast throbbing machines of modern industrial life are symbols of a fresh chapter in material progress.

1957: The Russian satellite, Sputnik, on the launch pad, strapped by 4 rockets

The end of the chapter is unforeseen and, in this sense, the gulf between ourselves and the older countries is still very wide. It is a forbidding void, but though it may and should make us hesitate, let it not make us turn away.

Of one thing I am quite certain: through a strong educational system sustained by Islam, our future prospects are happy ones. I do not believe that we should fear material progress, nor should we condemn it. The danger is that it could become an obsession in our lives and that it could dominate our way of thinking. There is no reason why our traditions and our faith should stop us from moving with our times, nor in fact why we should not lead our fellowmen to new spheres of knowledge and learning.

We can have confidence in our future—a confidence given to us by the certainty that our traditions and our religion will always inspire the creations of our hands and minds.

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Takht Nashini, Dacca, 12th February, 1958

The recent decision to make Islamic teaching compulsory in the schools will, I believe, prove a very wise one. But its benefits will not be fully experienced if that religious instruction is too hidebound by dogmas of the past. There is no need to discard the great traditions of our Faith. There is every need to adapt and invigorate them in the light of the quite altered circumstances of today.

The position which I hold has no political significance. The Ismailis are scattered all over the world, owing allegiance to many flags and serving beneath many different forms of government. In taking up my new duties, it has been a tremendous inspiration for me to experience the hospitality and personal kindness so readily offered by national leaders wherever I go. I know how much this kindness is due to the respect in which the world holds the memory of my beloved grandfather. I can only hope to justify the faith he placed in me.

The younger generation should think of your country as something more than a cradle in which to be born, to grow up, make money, marry, have children and die. No nation can prosper unless its people are alive to their civic responsibilities. Certainly no Muslim nation can endure unless its leaders, its teachers, its parents and its youth hold fast to the faith which should inspire their whole outlook. This has been said to you before – and by men who are more experienced and better qualified to speak than I.

The recent decision to make Islamic teaching compulsory in the schools will, I believe, prove a very wise one. But its benefits will not be fully experienced if that religious instruction is too hidebound by dogmas of the past. There is no need to discard the great traditions of our Faith. There is every need to adapt and invigorate them in the light of the quite altered circumstances of today.

We should not be afraid of material progress. The less advanced nations need its fruits desperately in their fight against poverty and disease. If Muslims will accept this need, and at the same time ensure that the living essence of their Faith infuses every field of human activity, you will rediscover the ancient glories of Islam.

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Takht Nashini, Bombay, 11th March, 1958

The Ismailis have always prided themselves on their highly developed social conscience. Our faith teaches us that we have obligations far beyond our own or even our family’s interests. If you remain united, work towards community progress, and respect your leaders, you will, I am sure, go far. As part of the nation of India, you must contribute your share to her advancement….it could be said that Bombay is the birthplace of our modern, world-wide community. I hope that the Ismailis who live here will remember this fact and their duty to set an example which other communities abroad will be proud to follow.

September 1, 1885: The 7-year-old Aga Khan III at his enthronement ceremony as 48th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Ismaili Muslims in Bombay. He is surrounded by community elders. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Copyright

Bombay, as you have been reminded, has very close associations with my family. It was here, and here alone, that my grandfather was acclaimed as 48th Imam of the Shia Imami Ismailis. That was 73 years ago, and at the time he was only eight years old. What tremendous changes have come about since those days! The Ismaili community has grown and prospered almost beyond recognition. Thanks to my grandfather’s guidance and wisdom, Ismaili families are to be found today all over the world, living peaceably beneath the flags of many nations, owing allegiance to a wide variety of Governments.

In some ways, therefore, it could be said that Bombay is the birthplace of our modern, world-wide community. I hope that the Ismailis who live here will remember this fact and their duty to set an example which other communities abroad will be proud to follow.

The Ismailis are a relatively small segment of the huge and complex tapestry we know as modern India. But I believe they will play a full and by no means unimportant part in the future development of this country.

To all Ismailis here today, I would say this: there is nothing exclusive about you. While your religious faith will always preserve a special identity, your secular loyalty is solely to India and to its elected Government. I urge my community to keep this constantly in their minds, but they should do more still. The Ismailis have always prided themselves on their highly developed social conscience. Our faith teaches us that we have obligations far beyond our own or even our family’s interests. If you remain united, work towards community progress, and respect your leaders, you will, I am sure, go far.

As part of the nation of India, you must contribute your share to her advancement.

With humility, tolerance and respect for each other, by honest work and straight dealings, you will earn the true friendship of your fellows. It does not matter whether you are wealthy or poor, whether you work with hands or brain, your spiritual obligations are equal. By the way you conduct your daily lives, by the compassion you show to your fellow men and women, and above all by your faith in God – you will ultimately be judged.

Article publication date: August 26, 2010

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The above speech excerpts are taken from Ilm, July-November 1982, Volume 8, Number 1, published by the Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the UK.

This article is part of a special series on H.H. The Aga Khan IV. Please also see Voices: “The Power of Wisdom” – His Highness the Aga Khan’s Interview with Politique Internationale

Please visit the Simerg Home page. For links to all articles posted on this Web site since its launch in March 2009, please click What’s New.

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