The Aga Khan’s love for Canada is the sort of love shared by two friends who always know what the other is thinking. Canada is a place that shares wholeheartedly the Aga Khan’s vision for a global community built on the values of pluralism, education, and social action.
As the first religious leader to address Canada’s Parliament, it was perhaps appropriate that the Aga Khan’s parting words on 27 February were a verse from the Qur’an. The verse – which says that humankind was ‘created from a single soul’ – voices a sentiment the Aga Khan called the most ‘beautiful expression about the unity of the human race’ he knows.
The Aga Khan’s respect for pluralism comes not only from his practical experience as the head of the world’s largest development network, but also from his religious commitments. ‘It grows out of the age-old Islamic ethic,’ he said in his Address, ‘committed to goals with universal relevance: the elimination of poverty, access to education, and social peace in a pluralist environment.’
At Toronto’s Massey Hall the following night, Prime Minister Harper lauded the Aga Khan’s dedication to pluralism, which he called ‘a foundational principle of Canadian governance.’ That shared principle – foundational to both the country of Canada and the thought of the Aga Khan – is the bedrock of their long and continuing partnership in pluralism.
The Aga Khan’s support for pluralism derives from both practical experience and religious conviction. His understanding of its practical benefits arises out of his decades of first-hand experience as head of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). As Imam of the diverse global community of Shi`a Ismaili Muslims, it is his mandate to create an enabling environment for success in matters of both faith and world.
And, in his view, pluralism is the key to that success. The source of conflict in today’s world, he believes, is the lack of active understanding and engagement between peoples – not only in war-torn societies, but in all societies where different groups co-exist. In his Parliamentary Address, he lamented that while many governments are unable to meet the challenge of instability, ‘Canada is an exemplary leader’ in the global effort to remedy the clash of ignorance, as he calls it.
The Aga Khan institutionalized his respect for what he called Canada’s ‘robust pluralistic history’ by establishing the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, a joint project between the Aga Khan and the Government of Canada. The Global Centre defines pluralism as an ethic of respect that values human diversity, and as a set of practices and intentions.
Basing himself on the forty years of AKDN’s development work, he concludes that institutional development is the essential for engendering a sustainable pluralist civil society. In his Address, he spoke about the importance of civil society as ‘opening the way for diversity’ and ‘welcoming plurality.’ Canada, in particular, he said, ‘is uniquely able to articulate and exemplify three critical underpinnings of a quality Civil Society — a commitment to pluralism, to meritocracy, and to a cosmopolitan ethic.’
Emblematic of the Aga Khan’s approach to pluralism is that he views it as a ‘process,’ not a product. The work of seeking pluralism, in his view, is never-ending. In this regard, he said in his Address, Canada’s history offers an invaluable lesson in learning about the ‘long, incremental processes through which quality civil societies and committed cultures of pluralism are built.’
The Qur’an and Pluralism
In the Aga Khan’s conception of Islam, pluralism is a central ethic espoused by the Qur’an, which instructs humankind to come to know one another through civic interaction and create a co-operative and united global community. In his Address, he stated that there is ‘little in our theological interpretations that would clash with the other Abrahamic faiths – with Christianity and Judaism.’ Rather, he said, ‘there is much that is in profound harmony.’
The Qur’an’s vision for humanity is of an ethical community of diverse individuals who strive to ennoble both themselves and society through the search for knowledge as well as effective social action. The Qur’an actively promotes diversity (Q. 5:48) as a celebration of humankind, which it says should ‘come to know one another’ (Q. 49:13). This ethic of brotherhood is rooted in the Qur’anic notion of a common humanity, which stresses that all humans, regardless of ideological persuasion, were created ‘from a single soul’ (Q. 4:1). In this view, it matters not whether one is a Jew, or a Christian, or what-have-you (Q. 2:62), since ‘the noblest’ among people, says the Qur’an, ‘is the best in conduct’ (Q. 49:13).
The clashes of modern times, said the Aga Khan, have been more a result of political circumstances than theological divides. ‘Yet sadly,’ he concluded, ‘what is highly abnormal in the Islamic world gets mistaken for what is normal.’ Much of this results from media perceptions of the Islamic world as conveyed through ‘a lens of war’, which tend to neglect the fact of its demographic and intellectual diversity. Changing this relies on re-shaping global discourse about pluralism and the history of Islam and Muslims, an arena in which the Aga Khan thanked Prime Minister Harper for his informed direction.
Muslim History in Pluralist Perspective
The Western world knows very little about the long and diverse history of the Muslim Ummah, says the Aga Khan. In his Address, he stated that the ‘most glorious chapters in Islamic history were purposefully built on the principle of inclusiveness — it was a matter of state policy to pursue excellence through pluralism.’ This was true, he said, of the Abbasids in Baghdad, the Fatimids in Cairo, the Umayyads in Spain, the Safavids in Iran, the Mughals in India, the Uzbeks in Bukhara, and the Ottomans in Turkey, to name a few.
In the grand scope of history, Muslim societies stand out for their acceptance of diversity as well as the promotion of co-operation between groups. Peaceful, pluralistic coexistence is seen as one of the original motors of Islam, exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad’s 7th-century Community, which was comprised of a diversity of socio-religious groups who formalized their unity in the ‘Constitution of Medina’.
The world’s first university, al-Azhar – founded in 10th-century Fatimid Cairo by the Aga Khan’s ancestors – was a haven for scholars from all over the world, regardless of religious persuasion, to collaborate and debate the latest advancements in all fields of human endeavour, including science, theology, and art. Cairo was the heart of Islam’s cultural and intellectual life, and the Fatimids employed a vast administrative service run by Christian and Jewish viziers, Coptic and Jewish officers, and an army staffed by Sunni Turkish as well as Christian commanders.
Spain today is littered with reminders of its architectural, cultural, and linguistic Muslim heritage of one thousand years ago. Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) was called ‘the ornament of the world’ and was in the 10th-century the beacon of civilisation on the European continent. It was where streets were lamp-lit for miles, and an impressive system of aqueducts and sewers staved off the Plague. It was where Hebrew began its Golden Age as a literary language, and where Averroes, Alhazen, and Maimonides produced great scientific and philosophical works that remained standard texts in European universities for centuries. It was also a place of ‘three religions and one bedroom’, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived co-operatively in a time when religious minorities were persecuted elsewhere.
‘Today,’ said the Aga Khan, ‘these Islamic traditions have been obscured.’ It is one function of the work of the AKDN to ‘revive the memory of this inclusive inheritance,’ he said in his Address. Part of this is the initiative to open the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, which he says is ‘an important testimonial in a Canadian setting to the immense diversity of Islamic cultures.’
Ismailis Heart Canada
In his Address, the Aga Khan remembered fondly the establishment of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in 2008 and Prime Minister Harper’s promise to make Canada ‘the headquarters of the global effort to foster peace, prosperity, and equality through pluralism.’ He also praised Canada’s emphasis on education as foundational to its civil society and said that Canada’s ‘record of educational opportunity resonates strongly with the Shi`a Ismaili belief in the transformative power of the human intellect.’
He was further impressed by the high levels of Canadian voluntary activity, which translated into a large number of Canadian Ismailis volunteering in developing countries. This is an important reality for the Muslim leader, who said that ‘this Canadian spirit resonates with a cherished principle in Shi`a Ismaili culture — the importance of contributing one’s individual energies on a voluntary basis to improving the lives of others.’
Canada’s unique conception of the world – embodied in its pioneering policy of multiculturalism – allowed a modern Muslim minority group like the Ismailis to flourish. The Aga Khan’s partnership with Canada, he said in his Address, has been ‘immensely strengthened’ by over four decades of significant Ismaili presence in the country. The Ismaili peoples, he admitted, have had a variety of experiences around the world, but ‘surely our experience in Canada has been a particularly positive chapter.’
Canada’s openness to diversity, its culture of helpfulness, and its dedication to education provided the necessary space for Ismailis to adapt their religion to the contemporary world without fear. Canada has been, for the Ismailis, a uniquely compatible partner, providing the right climatic context for them to articulate their tradition in a way that brings an unexpected dose of religious passion to Canada’s own deep commitments and values.
It is for this reason that, at Massey Hall, the Aga Khan thanked ‘all Canadians for the wonderful Partnership they have given us,’ which, he said, is not an opportunistic one, but, rather, is ‘built on a deep sharing of values.’