Friday, October 3, 2008

Article on the Film in the Lebanese Press

A look at the Aga Khan and the Ismaili people

Alice Fordham, NOW Staff , October 3, 2008
Imam (spirtual leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, the Aga Khan (C) is welcomed at the Taj Residency Ummed in Ahmedabad on May 16, 2008. (AFP PHOTO/ Sam PANTHAKY)

Prince Karim Aga Khan IV has a reputation more playboy than pastoral. This is a man who owns over 600 racehorses and who, earlier this year, spent $200 million on a yacht, named it Alamshar after a favorite horse and was said to be furious when it failed to break the world superyacht speed record. He has been married twice, both times to aristocratic European beauties, and divorced twice. All this glitter, plus all the gold (he was in 2005 the world's 68th richest person, although his second divorce diminished his wealth a little), is more widely covered than his role as 49th Imam of the world's 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims.

Shamir Allibhai wants to change that. His film, An Islamic Conscience, premiers in Beirut on Sunday. In a world of fears about Islamic fundamentalism, he wants to paint a picture of Islam as a “mosaic rather than a monolith”, taking as his theme the Ismailis and the life of their leader, the Aga Khan, beyond the glitz.

The Ismaili people represent only a fraction of the global Muslim population, which numbers well over a billion, and as a community within Shia Islam believe that after Mohammad’s death, his cousin and son-in-law, Hazrat Ali, became the first Imam. The principle difference lies in their devotion to their Imam, the Aga Khan, who is held to be a direct descendant of the prophet and may appoint his successor from any of his male descendants.

This young director believes that the Ismailis represent a tolerance, moderation and equality to be treasured. In person, Allibhai is warm and witty, but it is clear that he sees his film as a work with a serious message, even an agenda.

He has, he told NOW Extra, wanted to make the film for years, especially since traveling with the Aga Khan and being impressed with his huge development program, but Allibhai sees it as more than a biopic. “It is,” he says, “about the Aga Khan on a primary level - who he is, the theology behind the Ismailis - the side of Islam that you don't hear much about.”

But, he continues, “on a higher level, it's about the divides between the Muslim and non-Muslim world and within the Muslim world itself. There are many people in the West who associate Islam with terrorism or bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, but there's a plurality of viewpoints within Islam.” He wanted to tell the story of a people with more moderate beliefs.

At a screening of An Islamic Conscience in Tajikistan

The Aga Khan himself, who celebrated his golden jubilee as leader this year, also presents the Ismailis as a tolerant and enlightened people. Interviewed in the film, he says, “What we are trying to do is bring this idea of intellect as part of faith forward in what we’re trying to achieve.” He also emphasizes the importance of equality to Ismailis, who pray side by side in mosques, with the women discouraged from veiling. Discussing the importance of educating girls, he condemns the, “tendency in parts of the Islamic world to see education as a trampoline to let women take positions in society which the Muslim world – or Muslims – might consider inappropriate.”

Excellent news for a world that needs more equality and education, and coverage of the Aga Khan foundation’s work in building hospitals and schools is inspiring. But still, one can’t help thinking, as one learns that for Ismailis to lay eyes on their Imam is a more profound experience than visiting Mecca, as the idea of the tithe paid to him is explained – does he really need that many racehorses? Does a spiritual leader need a resort on Sardinia? Can his followers respect a leader whose ex-wife sold her jewels at auction for millions? To its credit, the film does not shy away from asking questions – although it answers resoundingly that riches are no obstacle to spiritual leadership.

The Aga Khan himself explains patiently that Islam does not make a distinction between faith and wealth. It just states, he says, “don’t abuse the wealth. Use what you need to live appropriately and be generous with the rest.” His followers, too, vigorously defend his lifestyle and riches.

His life itself is fascinating. This Harvard-educated, charming and cosmopolitan man took on his role as imam at the age of 20, and the archive footage of his father’s huge international role in the early part of the 20th century is one of the film’s most interesting aspects. But the film also manages to squash into a few richly informative minutes the whole history of the Ismaili people.

Allibhai says that it was his “disposition as an Ismaili” that made him want to tell a story that had never really been told before. He particularly strove to speak for marginalized Ismaili communities, like some of those living in Tajikistan.

“Tajikistan,” he says, “was one place where it was definitely tough to make this film. I felt that I spoke for the silenced voices within Islam… It's not just the West who's silencing moderate Muslims. Oftentimes, Muslims pretend that there are no divides within the Muslim world itself, and it is this lack of acceptance, of tolerance, of dialogue that burdens me.

“When they going got tough for me, during the filming,” he says, “the silenced people were who we were fighting for. The people of Tajikistan were part of this. We felt that there's a huge, loyal Ismaili community out there, who have been marginalized at times. We were fighting for them.”

In Tajikistan, there was some official resistance to the dissemination of the film, but they did set up a screening in the capital, Dushanbe. But once in the country, they heard that in Khorog there were people who wanted to see the film Allibhai tells how his contacts in the area told him: “just come, don't worry, it'll be fine.”

“We were in community centres,” says Allibhai, “it was wonderful. Sometimes they would bring their own generators and plug in all the equipment and we would just set up a screen and just - go.”

Allibhai correctly shies away from schmaltz, and his film is not without bias. But it is good to be reminded, in a world where religion too often is used to justify violence and intolerance, that faith can be an inspiring and a beautiful thing.

An Islamic Conscience is showing at the Empire Sofil, Achrafieh, on Sunday October 5 at 7.30pm. For more showings click here.

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