By Shamez Babvani and Samreen Hooda
"George Washington...came to this campus in 1790, after just one year as President, when Brown itself was only a quarter of a century old,," His Highness the Aga Khan said on Monday during his own visit to Brown University's 250th anniversary celebration.
President Christina Paxson invited the Aga Khan to deliver the 88th Stephen A. Ogden, Jr. '60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs, just a few weeks after his historic speech to both houses of the Canadian Parliament, the first Muslim non-head of state to address the Canadian Parliament, a country of which he is also an honorary citizen.
The Aga Khan, 49th hereditary Imam of some 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims worldwide, explained in his address at the Canadian Parliament, that the Ismaili Imamat is a "supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet," and the Ismailis are the only Shia community who "throughout history, have been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from the Prophet."
Introducing his life's work as "critically important," President Paxson added that the Aga Khan's agencies span over 30 countries with 400 healthcare facilities, over 200 schools and an "annual budget for nonprofit development activities that is approximately $600 million," with "project companies associated with those efforts generating close to $3 billion in total revenue."
This would seem an unimaginable feat for a personality that is not the head of any state, nor governs any land. He describes his mandate for economic and educational development as part and parcel of his mantle and responsibility as Imam. Yet, the Aga Khan is constantly awarded head of state status, has agreements with national and state level governments including a number of African and Asian governments, Canada, Portugal as well as California, Illinois, and Texas, has established 6 Ismaili centers which serve as ambassadorial delegation buildings around the world, and has numerous honorary degrees and memorandums of understanding from prestigious universities including McGill, McMaster, Cambridge, Harvard and Brown, amongst others, along with many other awards and honors conferred upon him by leaders and dignitaries around the world. He is clearly a respected and admired figure who leaders and institutions around the world seek to partner with and listen to.
"To see a Muslim leader with such vision and compassion and engagement in a very positive way in society, yes I think it changes the public sense of what an Imam is, but I also think much more importantly it dignifies the office and the intention of the office," said Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson, Chaplain of the University and Director of the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life. "As a leader, I take quite a bit of model as well as encouragement from the care with which the Aga Khan presents himself. He does not take your good will or mine for granted. He tries to earn it."
In his lecture at Brown, the Aga Khan spoke about technology, knowledge gaps and the challenges of modern government in our fast-paced world.
"Washington's visit in Providence marked a moment of historic constitutional significance... He was worried, principally, he said then, about what he called the spirit of "faction" and its ability to undermine a sense of democratic nationhood," the Aga Khan added, likening Washington's thoughts to the condition of our world today, in which nearly 25 percent of the member countries in the United Nations are writing or rewriting their constitutions. And 50 percent of those countries have majority Muslim populations.
"Clearly, many Muslim societies are seeking new ways to organise themselves. And there can be no 'one size fits all,' the Aga Khan said, adding that today's governance issues are of global relevance where great universities, particularly Brown, can play a pivotal role.
Unfortunately today, much of what is shown about Islam is a result of, as the Aga Khan puts it, "more fleeting attention-spans, more impulsive judgements, and more dependence on superficial snapshots of events," than it is on what Islam actually teaches and little to none is known about the history of Islam, beliefs and accomplishment of a majority of Muslims.
"My own ancestors, the Fatimids, founded one of the world's oldest universities, Al-Azhar in Cairo, over a thousand years ago," His Higness said "In fields of learning from mathematics to astronomy, from philosophy to medicine, Muslim scholars sharpened the cutting edge of human knowledge. They were the equivalents of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, Galileo and Newton. Yet their names are scarcely known in the West today. How many would recognise the name al-Khwarizmi - the Persian mathematician who developed some 1,200 years ago the algorithm, which is the foundation of search engine technology?"
Khwarizmi is but one example of the breadth and depth of Islamic contributions to the world that are still largely unknown in the mainstream. We may live in a world where more and more information is readily available at our fingerprints, "but the incalculable multiplication of information can also mean more error, more exaggeration, more misinformation, more disinformation, more propaganda. The world may be right there on our laptops, but the truth about the world may be further and further away."
In such a world where the changing pace of information and technology is dizzying, it becomes even more important for educational institutions and universities to play the part of instilling in their students an ability to question, think critically, and be literate in cultures and religions of a global community.
"Taking the time to reflect, to hopefully see other perspectives on something before you jump in to deal with it, I think that's the kind of discipline process that we need to have," Dr. Tom Kessinger of the Aga Khan University Board of Trustees, said. "As a thought leader, as someone with developed expertise, you owe it to your profession, to yourself but also to the wider public to exercise that carefully and constructively."
These ideas of openness, of understanding other perspectives, of accepting and enhancing pluralism are not just ideas the Aga Khan talks about; rather they have been part and parcel of his life's work over the last 60 years, work that is not simple philanthropy, but that is directly rooted from the values and principles of the faith of Islam.
"For most of us, there is singularly little in our theology that would clash with the other Abrahamic faiths, with Christianity and Judaism," the Aga Khan said. "And there is much more in harmony. What has happened to the Islamic tradition that says that our best friends will be from the other Abrahamic Faiths, known as the 'People of the Book,' all of whose faith builds on monotheistic revelation?"
In keeping with this Islamic principle, the Aga Khan does not hesitate to seek out the best talent, the brightest minds, regardless of religious or national background. Dr. Kessinger was formerly the president of Haverford College in Philadelphia before he moved to Geneva in 1997 with a five year commitment to work with His Highness. Today, he's still there, 17 years later.
"It's been extremely rewarding, extremely busy, very demanding as you can imagine trying to keep up with someone like the Aga Khan, but it's been an opportunity of a lifetime," Kessinger said. "He works extremely hard, he opens himself up to people and listens carefully to a wide range of choices on what he's interested in and on what we're doing, but it just takes great focus, great dedication and a lot of energy."
And His Highness definitely has the focus, dedication, and energy for this work. It is not only his life's work, but it is his life. Even in moments of humor, the Aga Khan endeavors to educate and bring to light the contributions of the Islamic Civilizations showcasing how Muslim scholars, scientists, philosophers and thinkers have contributed time and time again to the developments of the modern world.
"I wonder what would've happened if al- Khwarizimi had patented or copyrighted his algorithm," he joked, going on in humor to say that sharing of ideas is how societies have moved forward. "Just as you pinched Plato from Arabic, so we intend to pinch knowledge from you today."
Through his actions and his words, the Aga Khan demonstrates what Islam and being a Muslim mean to him, and how he views his role as the Imam.
"The Imam's work is guided by one of the foundational ethical principles of Islam, the unity of humankind. The Imam's ethical role for humanity at large is to help enable each person to live up to their exalted status as vicegerent or trustee of God on earth," said Khalil Andani, Master of Theological Studies candidate at Harvard University. "The Imam's mandate includes realizing the ethics of Islam through institutional and social action."
His advice to the students at Brown is very potent, very telling of his approach and perspective - that we are caretakers of creation and it is our responsibility to leave creation in a better place.
"Essentially, the faith says God has given His creation of the world to humankind to better. And, the principle is you leave life, having left the world better than it was when you were born into it," His Highness said. "So you don't divorce yourself from real life. You seek to improve it and to leave it to others in a better state."
This is a responsibility that he never stops working towards and one that he takes extremely seriously. This responsibility which comes from the faith of Islam can be summed up through this verse of the Quran which reverberated across North America over the last two weeks, from the lofty halls of the Canadian Parliament to the hallowed Ivy League walls of Brown University:
"O Mankind !
Be careful of your duty to your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women."
Holy Qur'an (Surah 4, Ayat 1)