By Shamez Babvani & Samreen Hooda
Today if we were asked: "What is your understanding of Islam," many of us may look at Friday's attacks in Paris, for which the self-declared Islamic State claimed responsibility, as a foundation for our answer. Yet, on Thursday evening, a day before these atrocious attacks, a much different tone was set by a man many have described as a quiet, hardworking Muslim leader who has devoted his life to bettering the human condition.
Delivering the honorable Jodidi lecture at Harvard University on Thursday, November 12th, His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, urged for a "pluralist, cosmopolitan society," one which "not only accepts difference, but actively seeks to understand it - and to learn from it."
So let us too try to understand and learn from the difference between these two voices. One, the self-declared Islamic state, attacked innocent people at a European soccer match in Paris on Friday. Another, His Highness the Aga Khan, was a soccer player himself for Harvard's prestigious, championship-winning soccer team. While the former destroys buildings, murders innocents, wreaks havoc and seeks power and control, the latter has spent nearly six decades creating opportunities in some of the most vulnerable areas of the world--building schools and hospitals, reconstructing cultural and historical heritage sites, founding one of the most prestigious awards for architecture, funding major energy and technology initiatives, supporting the arts and offering micro-credit to the poorest in our world. All of this with a single objective: to improve the quality of people's lives.
This work is critically important, His Highness said Thursday at Harvard's Memorial Church, because "much of today's conflict comes not from a clash of civilizations, but a lack of opportunity, a lack of understanding the other and a concern of feeling that one does not have opportunity, does not have basic necessities that they need to be hopeful for the future." And with hope comes the confidence to better your life which inspires people towards peace and development rather than violence and conflict.
One individual, whose life was changed by the efforts of the Aga Khan, is Professor Ali Asani, now a professor of Indo-Muslim Religion and Cultures and the Director of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard. Dr. Asani said in his introduction to the Aga Khan, that his own education was in fact made possible by the efforts of the Aga Khan, enabling him to go from an Aga Khan school in Kenya to studying and eventually teaching at Harvard.
"Yes, there are those, what I would call, the loud voices of Islam, that are very often about power and imposing power and hegemony... and those are the ones that very often make the media headlines," Dr. Asani said. Then there is actual faith-based initiatives that receive very little attention, he added, "because it's not egotistical, it doesn't go around proclaiming itself. It does its work silently. But, we have to pay attention to it."
A major mandate of the Jodidi Lecture Series "was to highlight the voices that are making a real change in the world that Americans need to know about," Asani said, "and bring to attention these silent voices that are doing this extraordinary work in the Muslim world."
And the work of His Highness and the Aga Khan Development Network is one such example.
"Endemic poverty, in my view," His Highness said Thursday at Harvard's Memorial Church, "remains the world's single most important challenge." Part of the challenge of poverty, His Highness suggested, are the "political realities," these communities live within.
"Whether we are looking at a more fragile European Union, a more polarized United States, a more fervid Sunni-Shia conflict, intensified tribal rivalries in much of Africa and Asia, or other splintering threats in every corner of the planet, the word 'fragmentation' seems to define our times," he said, and thus building bridges of understanding amongst different faiths becomes a critical goal for modern society.
"He has a very important voice as an ethical leader," Michèle Lamont Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs said. "It's people like him... and others who give us some guidance on how to deal with this question of pluralism and diversity not only in the U.S. but also elsewhere."
In order to do this work, His Highness said, "What was required, and is still required, was a readiness to work across frontiers of distinction and distance- without trying to erase them. What we were looking for, even then, were ways of building an effective 'cosmopolitan ethic in a fragmented world.'"
What this means for our world is an ability to work across aisles, to dialogue with those who may be different from us, to listen to the voices of those we may not agree with and, as His Highness said, quoting former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson "a readiness to listen to your neighbor, even when you may not particularly like him."
The Jodidi lecture, and Harvard University in general, is an important platform that allows for this dialogue, this understanding to occur between faiths, cultures, countries and even different societies.
With the mandate for "the promotion of tolerance, understanding and good will among nations, and the peace of the world," this lecture series has done the work that many more ought to do, that is to create opportunities for our society to learn more about the areas and peoples of the world that we know little about today. This learning allows us to actually understand that beyond the diversity of the world, there is a universal humanity that permeates our being.
In fact, "there is a strand in Islamic mystical thought called Wahdat al-Wujud, the unity of existence," Asani said, "which is premised on the notion that even though we may externally see difference but if we internalize spiritually, there is an underlying unity..."
This unity also extends beyond genders. In the discussion session with Harvard University Professor Diana L. Eck, the professor posed a question around women in leadership to which the Aga Khan responded that "leadership qualities are not gender driven so actually, if you don't respect the fact that both genders have competencies, outstanding competencies, you are damaging your community by not appointing those people."
If we can understand this unity, this ethical and moral responsibility that we have to one another, regardless of race, religion or gender, then our world has a chance to change from an increasingly disjoined, fragmented, fearful world of seeing the other as a threat, to a unified, compassionate, peaceful world where we see one another as strengths in our social fabric. It is this same idea that has inspired the cosmopolitan ethos, an idea that resonates with the world's great ethical and religious traditions. An idea that permeates across religious principles, but one that His Highness said must be remembered.
"I would strongly agree that pluralism is a subject that is taught; it's not instinctive in a human society," His Highness said in the discussion session with Professor Eck, "And indeed I would encourage education on pluralism even in secondary education..."
A Muslim leader, His Highness, speaking from an interdenominational Protestant church, Harvard's Memorial Church, quoted a universal message from the Holy Quran: "Oh Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women..."
This is a message that is "at the very heart of the Islamic faith... a conviction that we are all born 'of a single soul'" and that despite our diversity, "we share, in a most profound sense, a common humanity."
And this is also a message that is very much at the heart of the Christian faith. According to the gospel of Mark, verse 30-31: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'[a] 31 The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'[b] There is no commandment greater than these.
It is through these common core elements of some of the world's greatest faiths, that as a unified humanity, we can understand and celebrate our differences, come together around our commonalities and promote increasing connection through dialogue, for a more peaceful, pluralistic world.