Editor’s note: To mark the Aga Khan Foundation’s 25th anniversary in 1992, an entire issue of The Ismaili, USA, was dedicated to the Foundation and its activities around the world. The excerpt of His Highness the Aga Khan’s message produced below and the piece following it by Professor Azim Nanji are taken from this special issue dated July 11, 1992.
25th Anniversary Message by the Founder of the Aga Khan Foundation
“This year  marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Aga Khan Foundation which I established a decade after assuming the Masnad of Imamat. The guiding principle in setting up the Foundation as a non-denominational philanthropic institution of the Imamat was the Muslim ethic of care and compassion for those of the society in greatest need.
During its first quarter century, the Foundation has established its credibility, internationally and among Muslims and non Muslims alike. It has attempted to show what good programming and project governance can achieve in improving the quality of life in developing countries
Today’s changed world order is creating new challenges, but also new opportunities for the Aga Khan Foundation and others to bring support to the most under-privileged, particularly in parts of the world which were previously inaccessible.
While the massive geo-political changes in the areas where the Foundation has, or will operate in the future, represent a fundamental alteration to the environment in which the Foundation will operate henceforth, it has simultaneously reviewed the lessons of its first 25 years. Endeavouring to forecast those new areas of greatest social need which are emerging, it has recently approved new strategies and scenes for the decade ahead.
This is a time of new freedoms, but it is also one in which new choices must be made wisely. In exercising freedom and making choices, our institutions must be guided, as they have been in the past, by the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace of Allah be upon him), and the tradition of our tariqah, which is the tradition of Hazrat Ali: A thinking Islam and a spiritual Islam – an Islam that teaches compassion, tolerance and the dignity of man – Allah’s noblest creation.” (May 14, 1992)
Action and Compassion
Moral Frameworks within the Islamic Tradition
By Azim Nanji
Among the African and Asian countries and areas affected [by economic deprivation and poverty], a significant proportion of these poor countries also happen to be Muslim. The issues of development that have become inter-linked on the global scene as a result of world-wide changes have a particular relevance within the context of present-day Muslim history and experience and may indeed constitute one of the most formidable challenges that Muslim peoples face today, as they seek to build local capacity and indigenous institutions. Such a search needs to be related to the larger context of existing global problems and the cultural pluralism and diversity of economic conditions and resources that exist within the Muslim world itself. At the heart of the dilemma that faces Muslims in regard to the question of development is whether Muslim moral imagination can draw inspiration from past experiences and values to shape meaningful contemporary solutions to social and economic problems worldwide.
One of the human qualities that encompasses the concept of a global ethical value in the Islamic tradition is summed up in the term taqwa, which in its various forms occurs over two hundred times in the Qur’an. It represents, on the one hand, the moral grounding that underlies human action, while on the other, it signifies the ethical compassion which makes human beings aware of their responsibilities to society. Applied to the wider social context, taqwa becomes the universal mark of a truly compassionate, moral community.
The Ummah, constituted by the various peoples and communities of Muslims, is the instrument through which such ideals are translated at the social level. Individuals become trustees through whom a moral and spiritual vision is fulfilled in personal and community life. The Qur’an affirms the dual dimension of human and social life material and spiritual — but these aspects are not seen in conflictual terms, nor is it assumed that spiritual goals should predominate in a way that devalues material aspects of life. The Qu’ran, recognizing the complementarity between the two, asserts that human conduct and aspirations have relevance as acts of faith within the wider human, social and cultural contexts. It is in this sense that the idea that Islam embodies a total way of life can best be understood.
The foundational perspectives and prescriptions that arise in the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet (Peace of Allah be upon him) regard obligations to assist the disadvantaged, the poor and hungry as part of the larger attempt to redress injustice and create a just and beneficent social order.
Thus the intellectual formulations covering ethical behaviour that developed in Muslim thought emphasize the spirit of giving and generosity. This philosophical grounding of ideas of social justice had a universalistic aspect and complemented the specific practices of the faith, in embodying and expressing attitudes of sharing and giving, not simply as acts of ritual and theological necessity, but as part of a more universal definition of the virtuous person promoting the good of society as a whole, within the Muslim community as well as others with whom Muslims lived through history.
The role of moral imagination is to promote compassionate action. When individuals participate in such an exchange as volunteers or givers, they recognize how their action can change peoples’ lives and conditions. When such individual acts come together, as in the case of the Aga Khan Foundation, they forge the bases for institutionalizing change, linking individual to community, and creating long-term structures that transcend boundaries of culture and place.
Date article posted on Simerg: December 20, 2010
Professor Azim Nanji is the Senior Associate Director for the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University and is also on the inaugural Board of Directors of the Global Centre for Pluralism, established by His Highness the Aga Khan. He previously served as the Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies for ten years (1998-2008). He has also held a number of academic and administrative appointments at various American and Canadian universities, and has been the recipient of awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Canada Council, and the National Endowment for Humanities. Professor Nanji has served as Co-Chair of the Islam section at the American Academy of Religion, and on the Editorial Board of the Academy’s Journal. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Islam, published by Penguin Press.
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