Compiled and presented by Abdulmalik J. Merchant
An early portrait of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, with a framed photo of his grandfather, the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah (1877-1957) in the background. Photo by Philippe Le Tellier/Paris Match via Getty Images. Copyright.
His Highness the Aga Khan is the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s) and also the current 49th Imam of a religious office, the Imamat, that he has inherited and which has its origins in the earliest history of Islam. He will be addressing both the Houses of the Canadian Parliament on Thursday, February 27, 2014 at the invitation of the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. As a precursor to this week’s historical event, the aim of this piece is to introduce readers to the Imamat and to highlight its vision and precious work under the leadership of His Highness. This is done with the assistance of short excerpts from articles as well as speeches and interviews given by the Ismaili Imam.
(Please also see His Highness the Aga Khan to Become 5th Muslim Since 1939 to Address Joint Session of Canadian Parliament on February 27, 2014: The ABC’s of the Event Including Past Distinguished Speakers)
By Azim Nanji
The last in the line of the Abrahamic family of revealed traditions, Islam emerged in the early decades of the seventh century. Its message, addressed in perpetuity, calls upon people to seek in their daily life, in the very diversity of humankind, signs that point to the Creator and Sustainer of all creation. Revealed to Prophet Muhammad in Arabia, Islam’s influence spread rapidly, bringing into its fold, within just over a century of its birth, the inhabitants of the lands stretching from the central regions of Asia to the Iberian Peninsula in Europe.
During his lifetime, Prophet Muhammad was both the recipient and the expounder of Divine revelation. His death marked the conclusion of the line of prophecy, and the beginning of the critical debate on the question of the rightful leadership to continue his mission for the future generations. In essence, the position of the group that eventually coalesced into the majority, the Sunni branch, which comprises several different juridical schools, was that the Prophet had not nominated a successor, as the revelation contained in the Qur’an was sufficient guidance for the community.
The Party of Ali
The Shi‘at ‘Ali or the ‘party’ of ‘Ali, already in existence during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad, maintained that while the revelation ceased at his death, the need for spiritual and moral guidance of the community, through an ongoing interpretation of the Islamic message, continued. For them, the legacy of Prophet Muhammad could only be entrusted to a member of his own family, in whom the Prophet had invested his authority through designation. That person was ‘Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, and the husband of his daughter and only surviving child, Fatima. ‘Ali was also the Prophet’s first supporter who devoutly championed the cause of Islam.
In common with all major Shi‘a groups, the Ismailis believe that the Imamate is a divinely sanctioned and guided institution, through whose agency Muslims are enabled to contextualize the practice of their faith and to understand fully the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of the Qur’an. The Imamate exists to complement prophethood and to ensure that the divine purpose is fulfilled on earth at all times and in all places. — Background Excerpts, Azim Nanji 
THE ISMAILI DOCTRINE OF IMAMAT
“In accordance with Shia doctrine, tradition, and interpretation of history, the Holy Prophet (s.a.s.) designated and appointed his cousin and son-in-law Hazrat Mawlana Ali Amiru-l-Mu’minin (a.s), to be the first Imam to continue the Ta’wīl and Ta‘līm of Allah’s final message and to guide the murids, and proclaimed that the Imamat should continue by heredity through Hazrat Mawlana Ali (a.s) and his daughter Hazrat Bibi Fatimat-az-Zahra, Khātun-i-Jannat (a.s).” — Ismaili Constitution 
SUCCESSION OF IMAMAT
“Succession of Imamat is by way of Nass [designation], it being the absolute prerogative of the Imam of the time to appoint his successor from amongst any of his male descendants whether they be sons or remoter issue.” — Ismaili Constitution 
THE PUBLIC INSTALLATION VS THE INSTANCE OF BECOMING THE IMAM
“Well the ceremony [of enthronement] is a public installation of the Imam. The Ismailis pay homage to the Imam and that is when you are recognised by the world at large as the Imam. I will probably wear the robes that my grandfather wore during his last jubilee and I will receive a sword which is the sword of justice of the Imamat. I will be given these robes and the sword by the leading members of the community and they will present an address at the same time.
“Officially as soon as one Imam passes away, his successor takes on from the very minute that the Imam has passed away.” — Aga Khan 
THE NATURE OF IMAMAT
“As Imam of the Ismaili sect, I am in a position to adapt the teachings of the Qur’an to the modern condition. On the question of modernity the issue is essentially whether one is affecting the fundamental moral fabric of society or whether one is affecting the fundamentals of religious practice. As long as these two aspects are safeguarded the rest can be subject to adjustment.” — Aga Khan 
“In Islam, imams whether they are Shia or Sunni, they have a duty to serve people. That is the nature of Imamat and, therefore, in countries where the Ismaili Imamat can bring support and help, it is our duty to do so and we’re very happy to do so in Central Asia, like we are doing so in the Indian sub-continent, we’re doing so in East Africa, in West Africa. So it’s part of the mandate of any Imam. But it’s a big mistake to think that you can do development only for Muslim communities. Many countries have mixed communities and therefore you have to do development for all the people within a given area whether they are Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Hindu or Sikh. You have what I would call a civil responsibility.” — Aga Khan 
THE ALLEGIANCE TO THE IMAM OF THE TIME
“The authority of the Imam in the Ismaili Tariqah is testified by Bay‘ah [allegiance] by the murid [follower] to the Imam which is the act of acceptance by the murid of the permanent spiritual bond between the Imam and the murid. This allegiance unites all Ismaili Muslims worldwide in their loyalty, devotion and obedience to the Imam within the Islamic concept of universal brotherhood. It is distinct from the allegiance of the individual murid to his land of abode.” — Ismaili Constitution 
THE GOVERNANCE OF THE IMAM OVER HIS COMMUNITY
“Historically and in accordance with Ismaili tradition, the Imam of the time is concerned with spiritual advancement as well as improvement of the quality of life of his murids. The Imam’s ta‘lim lights the murid’s path to spiritual enlightenment and vision. In temporal matters, the Imam guides the murids, and motivates them to develop their potential….By virtue of his office and in accordance with the faith and belief of the Ismaili Muslims, the Imam enjoys full authority of governance over and in respect of all religious and Jamati matters of the Ismaili Muslims.” — Ismaili Constitution 
THE LIVING IMAM –
MAWLANA HAZAR IMAM, HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN
“Mawlana Hazar Imam Shah Karim al Hussaini, His Highness Prince Aga Khan, in direct lineal descent from the Holy Prophet (s.a.s.) through Hazrat Mawlana Ali (a.s.) and Hazrat Bibi Fatima (a.s), is the Forty-Ninth Imam of the Ismaili Muslims.” — Ismaili Constitution 
“Well the Shia history has followed the same sort of historical developments all hereditary offices have followed, where there have been differences of opinion on who was the legitimate successor to the predecessor, whether it was a secular or religious office. In the case of the Shia Muslims, the Shia branch of Islam split and one branch of the Shia Muslims accepted the concept of the Imam in hiding, the invisible Imam, because the twelfth Imam disappeared as a very young child, and our branch of Shia Islam, in that particular generation of the family, accepted the legitimacy of the eldest son, Ismail, as being the appointed Imam to succeed and that is why they are known as Ismailis. And that branch of the family has continued today hereditarily and that is why there is a living Imam for the Ismaili Muslims.” — Aga Khan 
COLLABORATION WITH OTHER COMMUNITIES
“It is the desire and Hidāyat of Mawlana Hazar Imam that the constitutions presently applicable to the Ismaili Muslims in different countries be superseded and that the Ismaili Muslims worldwide be given this constitution in order better to secure their peace and unity, religious and social welfare, to foster fruitful collaboration between different peoples, to optimise the use of resources, and to enable the Ismaili Muslims to make a valid and meaningful contribution to the improvement of the quality of life of the Ummah and the societies in which they live.” — Ismaili Constitution 
“If I had to take stock of my life, my feeling would be that I have structured the Ismaili Imamat, for which I was given responsibility nearly 50 years ago, in such a way as to provide it with the institutional means to work for the good of Ismaili communities and the countries in which we are involved.” — Aga Khan 
THE ISMAILI COMMUNITY – 50 YEARS AGO AND NOW
“I was still a student at Harvard when I inherited the responsibilities of the Ismaili Imamat from my grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah. It seemed inconceivable then that there would ever be substantial communities in the West. The Ismailis were too deeply rooted in their ancestral homes, indeed frozen there by the Cold War in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. But dislocations in the wake of decolonisation, and more recently the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prolonged difficulties in Afghanistan, have caused a number of Ismailis to seek new lands and homes. These migratory movements over the last half-century have resulted in a substantial Ismaili presence in Russia, in Western Europe, the United Kingdom and Portugal, and particularly in the United States and Canada. In these settings Ismailis have found themselves rejoicing with new opportunities, but also confronted by new challenges. Bolstered by a long tradition of self-reliance, and a strong system of community organisations, Ismailis have established themselves quickly as productive members of society in their new homelands.” — Aga Khan 
MATERIAL COMFORT AND BALANCE BETWEEN MATTER AND SPIRIT
“In Islam there is nothing wrong in the search for comfort, but the accumulation of wealth for the specific purpose of accumulating wealth or personal power is something which Islam does not like to see. If you are fortunate enough to go past what you personally need then share what you have.” — Aga Khan 
“I have been involved in the field of development for nearly four decades. This engagement has been grounded in my responsibilities as Imam of the Shia Ismaili Community, and Islam’s message of the fundamental unity of “din and dunia”, of spirit and of life. Throughout its long history, the Ismaili Imamat has emphasised the importance of activities that reflect the social conscience of Islam, that contribute to the well-being of Allah’s greatest creation — mankind, and the responsibility which Islam places on the fortunate and the strong to assist those less fortunate.” — Aga Khan 
A more recent portrait of Prince Karim Aga Khan, taken on June 22, 2012 in Chantilly, France. Photo by Philippe Petit/Paris Match via Getty Images.
THE NOTION OF QUALITY OF LIFE
“The quality of life is determined by a number of different factors that are, in my view, not limited to the World Bank indicators on longevity, or health, or the economic welfare of an individual, or a community. To the Imamat, the meaning of “quality of life” extends to the entire ethical and social context in which people live, and not only to their material well-being, measured generation after generation. Consequently, the Imamat’s is a holistic vision of development, as is prescribed by the faith of Islam. It is about investing in people, in their pluralism, in their intellectual pursuit, and search for new and useful knowledge, just as much as in material resources. But it is also about investing with a social conscience inspired by the ethics of Islam. It is work that benefits all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality or background.” — Aga Khan 
“A new president comes to power. What does he do? He contacts me immediately and tells me ‘Come back and help me rebuild my country.’ So, if you want, time changes situations, makes them different. Thus the institution that I represent, the Imamat, has to adapt according to the needs. It has to go beyond, it should anticipate situations. It has to be in a position to say that such and such area of the world is at great social, economic, political risk, whatever. Other areas are stable. These are areas where people live in acceptable conditions.” — Aga Khan 
“There was a time, earlier in my Imamat, when mediocrity was considered tolerable here because it was “good enough for Africa”. I remember my apprehension at the time, my concern that among all the goals that were set for Africa in those days, the achievement of normal world-class standards was not seen as realistic. But in the rapidly globalising world of the 21st century, the progress of every country and continent will depend on its ability to meet universal standards. To settle for less is an increasingly dangerous decision.” — Aga Khan 
“Education has been important to my family for a long time. My forefathers founded al-Azhar University in Cairo some 1,000 years ago, at the time of the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt. Discovery of knowledge was seen by those founders as an embodiment of religious faith, and 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.” — Aga Khan 
“The conviction that home-grown intellectual leadership of exceptional calibre is the best driver of a society’s destiny, underpins the Ismaili Imamat’s endeavour to create catalytic centres of educational excellence.” — Aga Khan 
THE UNITY OF MANKIND – A GIFT OF GOD
“I would turn to those words from my grandfather which were quoted in two earlier Peterson Lectures. He included them in a speech he gave as President of the League of Nations in Geneva some 70 years ago. They come originally from the Persian poet, Sadi, who wrote:
‘The children of Adam, created of the self-same clay, are members of one body. When one member suffers, all members suffer, likewise. O Thou, who art indifferent to the suffering of the fellow, thou art unworthy to be called a man’.
“You will readily understand why such words seem appropriate for a Peterson Lecture. They speak to the fundamental value of a universal human bond — a gift of the Creator — which both requires and validates our efforts to educate for global citizenship. I would also like to quote an infinitely more powerful statement about the unity of mankind, because it comes directly from the Holy Qur’an, and which I would ask you to think about. The Holy Qur’an addresses itself not only to Muslims, but to the entirety of the human race, when it says:
‘O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from one single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women’.
“These words reflect a deeply spiritual insight — a Divine imperative if you will — which, in my view, should under gird our educational commitments. It is because we see humankind, despite our differences, as children of God and born from one soul, that we insist on reaching beyond traditional boundaries as we deliberate, communicate, and educate internationally.” — Aga Khan 
HOMOGENIZATION VS DIVERSITY
“Why would homogenization be such a danger? Because diversity and variety constitute one of the most beautiful gifts of the Creator, and because a deep commitment to our own particularity is part of what it means to be human. Yes, we need to establish connecting bonds across cultures, but each culture must also honour a special sense of self. The downside of globalisation is the threat it can present to cultural identities.
“But there is also a second great challenge which is intensifying in our world. In some ways it is the exact opposite of the globalising impulse. I refer to a growing tendency toward fragmentation and confrontation among peoples. In a time of mounting insecurity, cultural pride can turn, too often, into an endeavour to normatise one’s culture. The quest for identity can then become an exclusionary process — so that we define ourselves less by what we are for and more by whom we are against. When this happens, diversity turns quickly from a source of beauty to a cause of discord.I believe that the coexistence of these two surging impulses — what one might call a new globalism on one hand and a new tribalism on the other — will be a central challenge for educational leaders in the years ahead. And this will be particularly true in the developing world with its kaleidoscope of different identities.As you may know, the developing world has been at the centre of my thinking and my work throughout my lifetime. And I inherited a tradition of educational commitment from my grandfather. It was a century ago that he began to build a network of some 300 schools in the developing world, the Aga Khan Education Services.” — Aga Khan 
TOWARDS A PEACEFUL WORLD: A MESSAGE TO MUSLIMS AND NON-MUSLIMS
“What some describe as a clash of civilisations in our modern world is, in my view, a clash of ignorances. This is why education about religious and cultural heritage is so critically important — and why we will continue to invest in these institutions. We deeply believe that scholarship, publication and instruction — of high quality and generous breadth — can provide important pathways toward a more pluralistic and peaceful world.” — Aga Khan 
“From the seventh century to the thirteenth century, the Muslim civilisations dominated world culture, accepting, adopting, using and preserving all preceding study of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and astronomy, among other areas of learning. The Islamic field of thought and knowledge included and added to much of the information on which all civilisations are founded. And yet this fact is seldom acknowledged today, be it in the West or in the Muslim world, and this amnesia has left a six hundred year gap in the history of human thought….” — Aga Khan 
“As I look to the future of the Ismaili community worldwide, living in many parts of Central Asia, and in more than 25 different countries, and as I look to the future of Tajikistan, with its variegated population, and as I look at the Ummah, I conclude that every and all those peoples, if they wish to achieve a better life for themselves in the generations ahead, must absolutely achieve peace within their societies, and because we are Muslim, conflict must be replaced by a peace which is predicated on the ethics of our faith. We must not kill to resolve our differences, whatever they may be. They must be resolved, as I have said, within the ethic of our faith through dialogue, through compassion, through tolerance, through generosity and forgiveness. These are the pillars on which to build a strong society in modern times — not through weapons.” — Aga Khan 
RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION – THE HIJAB
(a) Individual Expressions…
“My own sense is that if an individual wishes to associate publicly with a faith, that’s the right of that individual to do that, whether he’s a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. That is, to me, something which is important.” — Aga Khan 
(b) vs. Compulsion
“To go from there to an imposed process by forces in society, to me is unacceptable. It’s got to be the choice of the individual who wishes to associate with his faith or her faith. I have great respect for any individual who wants in the right way to be associated with his own faith. I accept that totally and I would never challenge it.” — Aga Khan 
ENVIRONMENT – MAN’S RESPONSIBILITY
“There is an often quoted ayat [of the Qur’an] which says that you should leave the world in a better environment than you found it. You have a responsibility of legacy of God’s creation of the world, to improve that legacy from generation to generation. So there’s an ethical premise to it.” — Aga Khan 
“Islam does not deal in dichotomies but in all-encompassing unity. Spirit and body are one, man and nature are one. What is more, man is answerable to God for what man has created. Since all that we see and do resonates on the faith, the aesthetics of the environments we build and the quality of the interactions that take place within them reverberate on our spiritual lives. As the leader of a Muslim community, and particularly one that now resides in twenty-five countries on four continents, the physical representation of Islamic values is particularly important to me. It should reflect who we are in terms of our beliefs, our cultural heritage and our relation to the needs and contexts in which we live in today’s world.” — Aga Khan 
A MESSAGE TO HIS FOLLOWERS
“In a world where quality of life is increasingly measured in material terms there is risk that the essential value system of Islam will be eroded, or even threatened with disappearance. Political situations with a theological overlay are also causing disaffection or antagonism between communities of the same faith, and even more so amongst different faiths. Where we can build bridges with other tariqahs around a common Muslim cosmopolitan ethos, we should make this endeavour.” — Aga Khan 
“Encounters. When two people meet. Or two particles. Or two cultures. In that crucial moment of interaction the results of an encounter are determined. In the simplest of encounters — say, with two billiard balls — the outcome is a predictable result of position, velocity and mass. But the encounters that interest me most are not so simple. In the encounters of people and cultures, much depends on the path that each has taken to that point. These are not stochastic processes. The subjects have histories. The encounter has complexity and rich dimensionality. The result of an encounter between two people or between two cultures is shaped by the assumptions of each, by their respective goals and — perhaps most directly relevant to a university — by the repertoire of responses that each has learned. Encounters therefore have aspects of both the general and the specific. What makes our current time distinctive are the new combinations of people and cultures that are participating in these encounters.” — Aga Khan 
THE ROLE OF THE NEW GENERATION
“As the young men and women from this Aga Khan Academy, and over time from its sister schools, grow and assume leadership in their societies, it is my hope that it will be members of this new generation who, driven by their own wide knowledge and inspiration, will change their societies; that they will gradually replace many of the external forces that appear, and sometimes seek, to control our destinies. These young men and women, I am sure, will become leaders in the governments and the institutions of civil society in their own countries, in international organisations and in all those institutions, academic, economic and artistic that create positive change in our world.” — Aga Khan 
THE ISMAILI IMAMAT’S OPERATIONAL STRUCTURE
Please click on image for enlargement. Credit: Aga Khan Development Network, http://www.akdn.org
“In Islamic thought and practice, the world of the spirit and the world of daily life are inseparably intertwined. This is why, over a half century, my role as a spiritual leader has also required me to act in a host of social, economic and cultural endeavours, in order to secure and enhance the well-being of the Ismailis and the communities amongst which they live….The approach we take in the Aga Khan Development Network is non-denominational and holistic. It encompasses both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. We seek to catalyse the creation of necessary basic infrastructure, together with the provision of good quality education and healthcare. We are concerned with ensuring access to appropriate credit for the poor at the same time as we are working to sustain the arts and culture.” – Aga Khan 
Date posted: Sunday, February, 24, 2014.
Last updated: February, 24, 2014, 18:15 EST (footnote corrections)
This piece is subject to frequent updates (ed.)
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Excluding the background material taken from Dr. Azim Nanji’s articles and clauses from the Preamble of the Ismaili Constitution, the numerous excerpts of His Highness the Aga Khan are taken from the following sources available at Nanowisdoms, an excellent website dedicated to speeches, interviews and writings of Ismaili Imams:
- The Imamat in Ismailism and What is Shia Islam? by Dr. Azim Nanji, Lifelong Learning Articles at the Institute of Ismaili Studies
- The Preamble Of “The Constitution of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims”
- Interview with an unidentified media outlet 9 days prior to the first Takht Nashini (Enthronement) Ceremony in Dar es Salaam, Interview in Tanzania or London, 19 October 1957, Nanowisdoms
- India Today Interview, Aroon Purie (India), February 1989, Nanowisdoms
- Press Remarks published at nanowisdoms with an unidentified media outlet, Central Asia, Nanowisdoms
- CBC Interview, Man Alive with Roy Bonisteel, Canada, 8 October 1986, Nanowisdoms
- Paris Match interview, 3 February 2005, Nanowisdoms
- Ismaili Centre Opening Ceremony, Houston, Texas, USA, 23 June 2002, Nanowisdoms, www.akdn.org
- Life Magazine Interview, Margot Dougherty and Richard B. Stolley, ‘In Him, East and
West Meet’, Nanowisdoms
- Address to the Annual Meeting of The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 5 May 2003, Nanowisdoms
- Al Watan Interview, Waddah Abed Rabbo, Damascus, Syria, 27 August, 2008, Nanowisdoms
- Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International Interview, Aleppo, Syria and Lebanon, Nanowisdoms
- Banquet Hosted in Honour of the President of Uganda, Kampala, Uganda, 22 August 2007, www.akdn.org and Nanowisdoms
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology Commencement Ceremony, Cambridge, USA, 27 May 1994, Nanowisdoms
- Aga Khan Academy, Maputo, Foundation Stone Ceremony, Mozambique, 25 June
2004, www.akdn.org and Nanowisdoms
- ‘The Peterson Lecture’ at the Annual Meeting of the International Baccalaureate, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, 18 April 2008, www.akdn.org and Nanowisdoms
- Imamat dinner for senior members of the Government, diplomats … etc. London, United Kingdom, July 3, 2008, www.akdn.org and Nanowisdoms
- Brown University Commencement Ceremony, Providence, Rhode Island, USA, 26 May 1996, www.akdn.org and Nanowisdoms
- Public Address, Rushan, Badakhshan, Tajikistan, 27 May 1995, Nanowisdoms
- Irish Times Interview, Alison Healy, ‘Jubilee for an imam among equals’, Maynooth, Ireland, Nanowisdoms
- Interview featured in PBS/E2 Series, ‘A Garden in Cairo’, USA, 2 September 2008, Nanowisdoms
- Ismaili Centre Opening Ceremony, Houston, Texas, USA, 23 June 2002, www.akdn.org and Nanowisdoms
- Golden Jubilee Inaugural Ceremony, Aiglemont, France, 11 July 2007, Nanowisdoms
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology Commencement Ceremony, Cambridge, USA, 27 May 1994, Nanowisdoms
- Aga Khan Academy, Kilindini, Opening Ceremony, Mombasa, Kenya, 20 December 2003 www.akdn.org and Nanowisdoms
- Imamat dinner for senior members of the Government, diplomats … etc. London, United Kingdom, July 3, 2008, www.akdn.org and Nanowisdoms
Note that several speeches made by the Aga Khan can also be read by clicking on www.akdn.org.
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