New Speech by the Imam Aga Khan IV

October 12, 2006 at 4:56 pm (Imam's Speeches, Uncategorized)

SPIEGEL ONLINE – October 12, 2006, 02:34 PM
SPIEGEL Interview with Aga Khan
“Islam Is a Faith of Reason”

Karim Aga Khan IV, descendant of the prophet Muhammad and spiritual
leader of 20 million Ismaili Muslims, discusses the foundations of his
faith, the controversy over the pope’s recent statements about Islam
and ways of preventing a global clash between religions.

SPIEGEL: Your Highness, in a lecture Pope Benedict XVI quoted Emperor
Manuel as saying: “Show me just what Muhammed brought that was new,
and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as a
command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” This quotation
from the 14th century has caused great uproar in the Muslim world.
Why? And what was your reaction?

Aga Khan: From my point of view, I would start by saying that I was
concerned about this statement because this has caused great
unhappiness in the Islamic world. There appears to be momentum towards
more and more misunderstandings between religions, a degradation of
relations. I think we all should try not to add anything to worsen the

SPIEGEL: Benedict XVI did explicitly dissociate himself from the
emperor’s quoted statement. The pope’s own position with regard to his
lecture is that he wanted it to promote a dialogue; and since then,
several times, he has expressed his respect for the world religion
that is Islam. Was it just an unfortunate choice of words? Or was he
deliberately misunderstood?

Aga Khan: I do not wish to pass judgement on that, nor can I. And it
might also be unreasonable for me to presume that I know what he
meant. But that (medieval) period in history, to my knowledge, was one
of the periods of extraordinary theological exchanges and debates
between the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world. A fascinating time.
The emperor’s statement does not reflect that, so I think it is
somewhat out of context.

SPIEGEL: The theme of Pope Benedict’s lecture was different, it was
one of his favorites: the link between faith and reason which, he
said, implies a rejection of any link between religion and violence.
Is that something you could agree on?

Aga Khan: If you interpret his speech as one about faith and reason
then I think that the debate is very exciting and could be enormously
constructive between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world. So I
have two reactions to the pope’s lecture: There is my concern about
the degradation of relations and, at the same time, I see an
opportunity. A chance to talk about a serious, important issue: the
relationship between faith and logic.

SPIEGEL: If the pope were to invite you to take part with other
religious leaders in a debate about faith, reason and violence, would
you accept?

Aga Khan: Yes, definitely. I would, however, make the point that an
ecumenical discussion at a certain stage will meet certain limits.
Therefore I would prefer to talk more about a cosmopolitan ethic
stemming from all of Earth’s great faiths.

SPIEGEL: Does Islam have a problem with reason?

Aga Khan: Not at all. Indeed, I would say the contrary. Of the
Abrahamic faiths, Islam is probably the one that places the greatest
emphasis on knowledge. The purpose is to understand God’s creation,
and therefore it is a faith which is eminently logical. Islam is a
faith of reason.

SPIEGEL: So, what are the root causes of terrorism?

Aga Khan: Unsolved political conflicts, frustration and, above all,
ignorance. Nothing that was born out of a theological conflict.

SPIEGEL: Which political conflicts do you mean?

Aga Khan: The ones in the Middle East and in Kashmir, for example.
These conflicts have remained unresolved for decades. There is a lack
of urgency in understanding that the situation there deteriorates,
it’s like a cancer. If you are not going to act on a cancer early
enough, ultimately it’s going to create terrible damage. It can become
a breeding ground for terrorism.

Now to the issue of spreading faith by the sword: All faiths at some
time in their history have used war to protect themselves or expand
their influence, and there were situations when faiths have been used
as justifications for military actions. But Islam does not call for
that, it is a faith of peace.

SPIEGEL: It’s true that horrible crimes were committed in the name of
Christianity, for example by the crusaders. That was long ago, that’s
the past. But jihadists commit their crimes now, in our times.

Aga Khan: It is not so far in the past that we have seen bloody fights
in the Christian world. Look at Northern Ireland. If we Muslims
interpreted what happened there as a correct expression of
Protestantism and Catholicism or even as the essence of the Christian
faith you would simply say we don’t know what we are talking about.

SPIEGEL: “The West (will stand) against the Rest” wrote Professor
Samuel Huntington in his famous book “Clash of Civilizations.” Is such
a conflict, such a clash inevitable?

Aga Khan: I prefer to talk about a clash of ignorance. There is so
much horrible, damaging, dangerous ignorance.

SPIEGEL: Which side is responsible?

Aga Khan: Both. But essentially the Western world. You would think
that an educated person in the 21st century should know something
about Islam; but you look at education in the Western world and you
see that Islamic civilizations have been absent. What is taught about
Islam? As far as I know — nothing. What was known about Shiism before
the Iranian revolution? What was known about the radical Sunni
Wahhabism before the rise of the Taliban? We need a big educational
effort to overcome this. Rather than shouting at each other, we should
be learning to listen to each other. In the way we used to do it, by
working together, with mutual give-and-take. Together we brought about
some of the highest achievements of human civilization. There is a lot
to build on. But I think you cannot build on ignorance.

SPIEGEL: Nonethless, it is striking that a particularly large number
of Muslim-dominated states figure among the most backward and
undemocratic states in the world. Is Islam in need of an era of
enlightment? Is the faith even incompatible with democracy as others

Aga Khan: As I said before, one has to be fair. Some of the political
leaders have inherited problems that are in no way attributable to the
faith. New governance solutions have to be tested and validated over
time. Nor do I believe Muslim states are systematically economic
underperformers. Some of the fastest growing economies and some of the
most successful newly industrialized countries are in the Islamic
world. Now concerning democracy: My democratic beliefs do not go back
to the Greek or French (thinkers) but to an era 1,400 years ago. These
are the principles underlying my religion. During the prophet’s life
(peace be upon him), there was a systematic consultative political
process. And the first imam of the Shiites, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin
and son-in-law, Hazrat Ali, emphasized: “No honor is like knowledge,
no power is like forbearance, and no support is more reliable than

SPIEGEL: If pluralism, civil society and Islam can coexist
harmoniously, as was proven in the past, then why is this so seldom
achieved nowadays?

Aga Khan: I think we have a very diverse situation in the Islamic
world. Wealthy countries with enormous ressources, newly
industrialized countries, extremely poor ones.

SPIEGEL: Not many are functioning democracies.

Aga Khan: People speak about failed states. I do not think that states
can fail, but democracies certainly can. The failure of democracy is
not specific to the Islamic world. Indeed, about two years ago, the
United Nations carried out an in-depth analysis of democracy in South
America. About 55 percent of the population in South American states
said that they would prefer to live under a paternalistic dictatorship
instead of an incompetent or corrupt democracy that is not improving
their living condition.

SPIEGEL: Most of your Ismaili constituency lives in states that cannot
be called perfect democracies: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran.
What makes democracies fail?

Aga Khan: I ask myself every day what we can do to sustain the
multiple forms of democracy, to make these forms of government work,
whether it is in Latin America, Africa or the Middle East.

SPIEGEL: And what do you believe to be the answer?

Aga Khan: I admit that I live in a mood of frustration. What is the
point in these areas of the world of carrying out a referendum in a
population that essentially cannot read and write? What is the point
in testing a constitution with a population that knows no difference
between a presidential regime or a constitutional monarchy? Elections,
constitutions — all this is necessary, but not sufficient. I think we
have to accept that countries have different histories, different
social structures, different needs, so we have to be a great deal more
flexible than we have been.

SPIEGEL: Nor is democracy monolithic. The American model of democracy
is no panacea for the rest of the world. Has George W. Bush aggrevated
the situation with his particular way of bringing democracy to the
Middle East? Can the United States still win the war in Iraq?

Aga Khan: I am very, very worried about Iraq. The invasion of Iraq had
an impact across the world like nothing before in modern times. The
invasion has unleashed every force in the Islamic world, including the
relations between the Arabs and non-Arabs and the relationship between
the Shia und the Sunni.

SPIEGEL: You mean the war created a new terrorist base and radicalized

Aga Khan: Indeed. It mobilized a large number of people across the
Islamic world, who before then were not involved, and indeed I think
they did not want to be.

SPIEGEL: Do you share the view of the American professor and Islam
expert Vali Nasr that the balance of power in the Muslim world is
undergoing a decisive shift, that Shiites could become the most
influential force from Baghdad to Beirut, that the future of the
Middle East will be shaped by wars between different Muslim factions?

Aga Khan: When the invasion of Iraq took place, we were told two
things: (that there would be) regime change and democracy. Well,
anyone who knew the situation in Iraq, as you did, I did, but what did
that mean? That meant a Shia majority; it could not have been
otherwise. Anyone who then concludes that the next issue is a Shia
majority in Iraq is going to start thinking, What does that mean in
the region, what does it mean in the Islamic world, what does it mean
in relation to the West? All that was as clear as daylight, you didn’t
even have to be a Muslim or a scholar to know that.

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, was it pure ignorance and naivete that made
the Bush government start the war? Was it really about introducing
democracy or a strategic decision about conquering oil fields and
military bases?

Aga Khan: I wish I could answer that question.

SPIEGEL: Are you in contact with the religious leaders in Iraq, like
Grand Ayatollah Sistani? And with the religious leaders of Iran as well?

Aga Khan: We have frequent contacts with important personalities in
both countries.

SPIEGEL: What would it take to get you to go to the region as a mediator?

Aga Khan: This is, at the moment, not one of my priorities. One day
maybe, we might consider (participating in the) reconstruction (effort).

SPIEGEL: When you compare the invasion in Iraq with the one in
Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida worked hand in hand …

Aga Khan: … there I see a completely different picture. First of
all, the Afghan regime at the time was quasi totally detested by the
people; it was equally unpleasant for Sunnis as it was the for Shias
and it was totally unacceptable I think just in terms of overall
civilized life.

SPIEGEL: Afghanistan is currently being confronted with major problems
and the situation seems to be deteriorating by the hour. What went
wrong? And what can the West do to make the situation more stable?

Aga Khan: The security situation is indeed very worrying — it is
getting worse, especially in the south. Most of our projects are in
the capital and in the north where (the situation) is better but not
satisfying. We can supply energy from Tajikistan, we can provide civil
services. We try to avoid the danger that certain areas in Afghanistan
will be rehabilitated more quickly than others. If this development
overlaps with ethnic divides you have another problem. But the main
problem is that most people in Afghanistan have not seen an
improvement in their daily lives. The process of reconstruction does
not seem to be penetrating. We have not succeded in bringing a culture
of hope to this country. One of the central lessons I have learned
after a half century of working in the developing world is that the
replacement of fear by hope is probably the most powerful trampoline
of progress.

SPIEGEL: President Karzai is a personal friend of yours. Many people
see him as a weak leader, and some call him “Mayor of Kabul” because
he is unable to control large parts of the country.

Aga Khan: We should do everything to help him. He has an enomously
complex agenda to deal with. He is our best hope. And besides, he is
the elected leader and we have to work with the parliament.

SPIEGEL: Even if warlords and a former members of the Taliban are
represented in Afghanistan’s parliament?

Aga Khan: You either accept the results of democracy or you don’t.
Otherwise you talk about qualifying democracy.

SPIEGEL: That means the West should deal with the radical Islamist
Hamas as well?

Aga Khan: You have to work with whoever the population has elected as
long as they are willing to respect what I call cosmopolitan ethics.
Now, it’s true that Hamas has a record of conflict …

SPIEGEL: … of outright terror …

Aga Khan: … but it would not be the only time that movements that
have such a record make it into parliament, and even end up in charge
of government later on. Can I remind you of Jomo Kenyatta and his Mau
Mau movement in Kenya, for example, or the ANC in South Africa? Take
away the causes of extremism and extremists can come back to a more
reasonable political agenda. That change to me is one of the wonderful
things about the human race.

SPIEGEL: You know Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, very well. You
recently visited him again in Damascus. In contrast to the American
administration, the German government is trying to get him involved in
the Middle East peace process.

Aga Khan: I would like to compliment the German government and others
in Europe who have taken the decision to invite President Assad to be
a party to the peace process. The process of change from decades of
political directionalism is something that needs time, as you saw in
East Germany. I think there are many reasons to go out of our way to
assist Syria in making the transition from the past to the future.

SPIEGEL: If you look back at the years that have passed since World
War II — the Cold War between the East and the West, the ideological
conflict with communism — would you ever have thought that this
conflict could be replaced by one between the West and radical Islamists?

Aga Khan: I beg you, please get away from the concept of a conflict of
religion. It is not such a conflict. Nobody will ever convince me that
the faith of Islam, that Christianity, that Judaism will fight each
other in our times — they have too much in common. That’s why I am
talking about this global ethic which unites us all. That’s why we are
trying to work with the Catholic Church in Portugal on a program aimed
at immigant minorities. I am aware of a sense of disaffection with the
society that many young Muslims feel because they think that the
Western society has the intention of marginalizing or damaging them.

SPIEGEL: The German government just organized a conference with many
different Muslim groups and personalities who live in Germany. Do you
consider such a forum useful or is it just window dressing?

Aga Khan: We can avoid misunderstandings by having such a forum where
people from different faiths consult each other so they understand
what really affects them. Once you have committed an offense all you
can do is to try and reverse it. Anyone who knows the faith of Islam,
for example, would have known that the caricatures of the prohet were
profoundly offensive to all Muslims.

SPIEGEL: Again, this whole affair was misused by radical Islamists.
They added caricatures much more offensive than the original ones to
incite the masses.

Aga Khan: But I am told that there was an internal debate between the
editors of that publication and they actually knew what they were
doing. They took a risk and somebody should have said to them, Why get
into that situation? Now we are talking about civility, which is a
completely different concept. If we are talking about civility in a
pluralist society, then how do you develop that notion of civility,
particularly where there is ignorance. And that’s the thing that’s
worrying. And that’s why I get frustrated when I see these situations
that go on and on and on. Because I’m not willing to believe that they
are all inspired by evil intent.

SPIEGEL: Provocative, sad and distasteful. But the freedom of the
press is one of the highest values in our democracy. We have to
balance one thing against the other and we will allow non-believers to
express even outrageous opinions.

Aga Khan: I think that you are now referring to one of the most
difficult problems that we have and I don’t know the answer. The
industrialized West is highly secularized; the Muslim world is much
less secularized and that stems largely from the nature of the faith
of Islam, which you know and I know has an intrinsic meshing with
everyday life. And that is a scenario where people of goodwill need to
think very, very carefully.

SPIEGEL: In some of your speeches you mentioned Kemal Atatürk in a
positive context. Turkey followed his path and is one of the very few
countries with a predominant Muslim population where there is
separation of church and state. Would you like to see others go the
same way?

Aga Khan: I am not opposed to secularism as such. But I am opposed to
unilateral secularism where the notions of faith and ethics just
disappear from society.

SPIEGEL: Your Highness, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Stefan Aust and Erich Follath.



  1. Arif said,

    Jim, wouldn’t hurt to publish the whole interview on the blog, it is very significant of an interview. 🙂

  2. ismailism said,

    I think I will do so.

  3. Boy George said,

    Oh wait. Yes, I have. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have it in me right now to type it all out again. Besides, it was just ramblings anyway. You didn’t want to hear me go on and on about this, right?

  4. shiraz baloch said,

    this is all im gonna say, may Allah open ur eyes and ur heart.

    Who is more wicked than one who is reminded of the verses of His Lord, then disregard them, while unaware of his sin ? Consequently, we place shields on their hearts, to prevent them from understanding (Quran), and deafness in their ears. Thus, if you invite them to the guidance, they can NEVER EVER be guided.” 18:57

  5. Al-Muslima said,

    Thank you so much Jim for all these wonderful work by publishing these mystery of these Batinya Ismailism Mystery Muslim on the Ismailsm Bio.

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