The Star-Telegram – The Shia you dont hear about
Wednesday marks the Golden Jubilee of His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, global leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community.
At a time when the news is dominated by sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq, the jubilee offers an opportunity to learn about a very different, little-known but quietly powerful current within Islam.
Like the vast majority of Iranians and a significant majority of Iraqis, the Ismailis are part of the Shia branch of Islam. Shiism emerged from an early dispute about leadership in the ummah, or Islamic community.
The Sunni argued that the caliph, the successor of the prophet Muhammad, should be elected. The Shia argued that succession should remain within the direct line of the prophet’s closest relatives.
But this division also reflected profound differences regarding the nature of leadership within the Islamic community. The Sunnis, stressing Islam’s historic emphasis on effective political engagement, opted for caliphs who were primarily political and military leaders; the Shia looked for leaders known for wisdom and spirituality.
Eventually the Shia themselves divided. The vast majority (those we hear most about in Iran and Iraq) believe there was an unbroken line of 12 imams — the last of whom, Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn Ali, was born in 868 and was hidden by God in 939 rather than dying. Twelver, or Imami, Shia believe that he eventually will return to usher in a reign of justice.
The Ismailis trace their own leadership from the seventh imam, Isma’il bin Jafar (721-755), and believe that the law, embodied in the Quran and the sayings and practices of Muhammad, is accompanied by a mystical teaching passed from one imam to the next. The current Aga Khan, who as a 20-year-old in 1957 succeeded his grandfather, is the 49th hereditary imam of the Shia Ismailis.
The Ismailis’ belief in a deeper, mystical approach to the faith meant that they played an important role in the intellectual history not only of Islam but also, indirectly, of Europe.
Ismailis were crucial in translating the Greek texts of Plato and Aristotle, which were lost to Western Europe, into Arabic. It was in this language that most were passed on, via Jewish translators in Muslim Spain, to Christian Europe.
Ibn Sina (980-1037), known in the West as Avicenna, came from an Ismaili family. His text on medicine was used not only in the Islamic world but also in the West up until the 17th century, and his philosophy profoundly influenced that of Thomas Aquinas and thus the whole Roman Catholic tradition.
Ismailis established the great university of al-Azhar — one of the world’s oldest, dating from 971 — and effectively built the city of Cairo, Egypt.
Important beneficiaries of Ismaili patronage include the mathematicians al-Haytham and Nasir al-Din Tusi and the poet and philosopher Nasir e-Khusraw. Although I am not an Ismaili, I have an unusual connection to the Ismaili tradition.
My family comes originally from Sicily, an island that has known many conquerors — most of them brutal exploiters. But the era of the Ismaili Fatimids, who governed Sicily for much of the 10th and 11th centuries from their capital at Cairo, was Sicily’s golden age. Agriculture, commerce, the arts, the sciences and philosophy flourished.
Today, the Ismailis are but a small minority of Muslims, numbering about 20 million out of roughly 1.4 billion Muslims and 120 million Shia worldwide, but their presence continues to be felt.
They are concentrated mostly in Central Asia, western China, parts of the Middle East, India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the United States, Canada and Western Europe. They are actively engaged in the struggle for social justice and human development.
They work locally, through active participation in civic institutions, and globally, through the Aga Khan Development Network.
The network is involved in an extraordinary range of activities from disaster relief, basic healthcare, rural development, microfinance and the promotion of private enterprise to architecture, culture and the revitalization of historic cities.
The organization operates more than 200 health centers, including nine hospitals, in Afghanistan, India, Kenya, Pakistan and Tanzania.
It is at the forefront of disaster relief efforts worldwide, focusing its humanitarian efforts on long-term capacity building. The network has been involved in microlending for more than 25 years — long before it became popular — and currently has a portfolio of more than $52 million in outstanding loans to more than 97,000 people in 12 countries. This is in addition to more traditional economic development projects involving more than 90 companies employing more than 30,000 people and generating more than $1.5 billion in revenue annually.
The network’s education programs encompass more than 300 schools with 54,000 students across East Africa and South and Central Asia — most of which emphasize education for girls and women and focus on academic rigor and leadership development — as well as two universities: the University of Central Asia with campuses in the Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan.
One project especially dear to me is the Aga Khan Humanities Project, which developed an undergraduate humanities curriculum for Central Asian universities that tapped into and helped conserve local traditions while preparing students to engage a broader intellectual universe.
All of the network’s hospitals, schools, development projects and humanitarian assistance programs are open to people of all faiths and origins.
The tension between Islam and the West reflects deep-seated economic, political and cultural contradictions. But when one looks at the Ismailis and understands their history, and their current contributions to human development and civilization, it becomes clear that relations between Islam and the West cannot be summed up simply as a clash of civilizations.
We have learned too much from Islam — and much of that with the assistance of the Ismailis.
Islam — and especially the Ismailis — has engaged and learned from the West. Let us make this century not one of new crusades but rather one of dialogue and collaboration in healing and building up our common home, the Earth. Let it be the time when we make it a true house of peace.
Anthony Mansueto holds a Ph. D. in religion and society from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. He is dean of communications and humanities at the Spring Creek Campus of Collin College in Plano.