Understanding the Aga Khan’s Speech in History

Recently, the Aga Khan gave a speech at Brown University. As the head of a community of Muslims spread throughout the world, a community to which I belong, the speech needs some reflection. As the Imam, or Divinely appointed head of the community, it would be a mistake to read his comments as a concern for the moment.

In the beginning of his speech, he congratulates Brown on its first quarter of a millennium, a nod to the fact that as the current holder of the Office of Imam, there is a continuity going back nearly 1400 years to Imam Ali (d. 661), and 250 years is a small fraction of that time.

During this span of time of the Imamate, the message has been amazingly consistent. Imam Ali says in a letter to his son Imam Hasan:

O my child, make yourself the measure (for dealings) between you and others. Thus, you should desire for others what you desire for yourself and hate for others what you hate for yourself. Do not oppress as you do not like to be oppressed. Do good to others as you would like good to be done to you . Regard bad for yourself whatever you regard bad for others. Accept that (treatment) from others which you would like others to accept from you.

A variation of the golden rule, but one that explicitly rests on reciprocity. It is not only what one desires for one’s self, but if it’s truly good, it should be desired for others. The last line of the passage speaks to human connectedness and relationality.

A part of the desire for others is a condemnation of poverty and miserliness. Imam Ali continues to say that “poverty humiliates,” but that “almsgiving is a powerful medicine.” The idea that we are in competition and must battle each other for resources is also anathema to the Imam, who says, “ Whosoever is happy with the sustenance God has given him will not be saddened if another has more.” To see what others have and desire it is avarice, and a sign of ungratefulness to God. However, when the acquisition by others of goods causes despair, then that must be challenged. Our worldly goods should not be seen as a zero-sum game that diminishes an individual in the mistaken belief that it enriches another.

To create despair in another human being is a sign of weakness, because Imam Ali tells us that true might is combatting the power of despair. In order to do that, we must cultivate compassion, which the Imam describes as the pinnacle of knowledge. Knowledge of the self can only come through the knowledge of another; as the Qur’an says: God created us tribes and nations that we may know one another (49:13), even as we are created from one soul (4:1).

One of Imam Ali’s descendants, Imam Jafar (d. 765), is as explicit in the need to help others. He says that we have four areas of conduct in the world: with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with the world. When dealing with each other, we should do so with “forbearance, forgiveness, humility, generosity, compassion, good counsel, justice, and fairness.” It is four of these which echo and project principled ethics of the faith for me in this article: generosity, compassion, justice, and fairness. If, as the Imam commands, “with every breath you take, a thanksgiving is incumbent upon you, indeed, a thousand thanks or more,” we then realize that all we have is a blessing from God and then, “charity for the sake of Allah is due from every single part of your body, even from every root of your hair. In fact, charity is due for every instant of your life.”

However, the language of charity is limiting in English. The idea that we have a choice in the matter is problematic. Rather, it is an obligation, and not to those less fortunate, but to God and God’s creation. The issue of power in charity is always a concern, and the way the Imams have guided us is to think about generosity, so that we are giving, because we are thankful for God’s favors on us. More importantly, we act compassionately, recognizing ourselves in others, as we feel with them. And our giving should be to create a more just and fair world. To paraphrase Dorothy Day, sometimes we need to free the slave, but we should be working towards ending slavery.

The Aga Khan’s established the Aga Khan Development Network to make more formal this tradition of compassionate, generous giving. In using more contemporary language to summarize the teachings of the previous 48 Imams, he says, “let me emphasise that Islamic belief sees the spiritual and material worlds as inextricably connected. Faith should deepen our concern for improving the quality of human life in all of its dimensions.”

The Imam also brings in the issue of empathy and compassion when he says, “the struggle to remain empathetically open to the Other in a diversifying world is a continuing struggle of central importance for all of us.” And it is in reflecting with each other that we have the opportunity to be most humbled and most transformed.

Although the Aga Khan is speaking in the moment to concerns of the moment, the fact is that he is continuing a centuries-old push to create a more just and fair society, one that has to be predicated on individual, human interaction. One must read the speech as an indictment of our ongoing mistreatment of one another, but also, that the message Prophet Muhammad came to give is being carried on by his descendants. This is not a man or speech of the moment, but part of a history and legacy, and Divine writ, that is about challenging our relationships to one another and the world it has created.

[Managing Editor’s note: to read another reflection on the Aga Khan’s speaking tour by Contributing Scholar Arzina Zaver, click here]

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