Friday, December 14, 2007


An Islamic Conscience
Opinions - KSG Citizen, Harvard University
By Shamir Allibhai, MTS

For years, the Western world has watched atrocities committed in Islam’s name from New York to Baghdad, from Kabul to Bali, and the same perplexing questions keep getting asked: “Why can’t Muslims just accept democracy? Why do so many Muslims kill in the name of religion?” A survey of Muslims would surely yield some interesting answers – but no answer would be complete without a discourse on Muslim leadership.
An important, but often misunderstood, form of Muslim leadership is the office of the imam, often stereotyped as a hate-preaching, anti-Western cleric with a prominent beard and the Quran in-hand. While we often see religious figures (not just Muslim ones) being demonized and discredited by the media, what we often misunderstand is the scope of their influence.
In both the Sunni and Shia traditions of Islam, the role of the imam is to interpret the faith to those who refer to him and to do all within his means to improve the quality and security, of their everyday lives. In the same way that a Christian or a Jew might refer problems and anxieties to a priest or rabbi, the Muslim confides in his imam. If a Muslim fears for his life or for the lives of his family, he will refer his fears to his imam. And the imam is obliged to instill faith, hope and courage in his followers and, at the same time, work for their protection and material progress.
Now situate the role of imams in the context of Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan or any other Muslim land where there is widespread poverty, illiteracy, lack of opportunity, and inadequate healthcare, along with perpetual fears of instability and violence. We all know that millions upon millions of Muslims live in deplorable social and economic conditions, but we might not understand that for all Muslims, faith and worldly life are inextricably linked. In times of difficulty, Muslims place their hopes in their imam and their trusts in Allah (God). And where hope is lacking, where life seems too unbearable, there is always the more comforting prospect of eternal rest in a sensual, peaceful paradise – hence the path chosen by suicide bombers.
How do imams deal with the plethora of social problems, especially in the absence of state support or external funding? Some build schools and hospitals. Some build institutions of civil society. And some build militias. What does not exist is a platform to bring imams together into dialogue, consensus, and collaboration in the quest for stability and progress. The absence of such a platform results from the struggle for power within Muslim countries and the marginalization of religious figures by secular governments. In order to tackle these issues, we must first deal with our own prejudices with respect to religious leadership.
Whether or not religion should have any place in civic matters and public life is not up for debate in most Muslim countries. And so the political leaders of tomorrow, many of whom will graduate from KSG, must to prepare themselves to deal with Muslim leaders who do not separate faith from the domains of politics and social progress. Fortunately, there are progressive Muslim leaders who engage in quiet diplomacy, promote inclusive forms of development, support civil society and democratic processes and live exemplary lives in selfless service to others. One such leader is His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Ismaili Muslims and a descendant of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
His inspiring story is the subject of a documentary I produced, “An Islamic Conscience: the Aga Khan and the Ismailis,” which premiered in the JFK, Jr. Forum on Monday. The Aga Khan has persevered for fifty years to focus on common humanity, namely through his secular development organization the Aga Khan Development Network.
The documentary aims to use the story of the Aga Khan as a catalyst to re-examine stereotypes of Muslims and Islamic leaders in particular. It is a story that speaks to the diversity and plurality of Islam and explores ways to bridge not just the Muslim and non-Muslim divide, but the divide within the Muslim World itself. I encourage my classmates to watch the documentary in hopes it cultivates a wider understanding of the Muslim world and its complicated leadership.
“An Islamic Conscience: the Aga Khan and the Ismailis” can be found at

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