Ismaili Muslims and Aga Khan’s Doctrine of Neutrality By Zahir Ebrahim

Ismaili Muslims and Aga Khan’s Doctrine of Neutrality

By Zahir Ebrahim | Project

“You [Zahir Ebrahim] appear to advocate confrontation with power. While that is okay for some rich guy who is not worried about earning a living through a paycheck, how can an ordinary middle class student whose only option for livelihood is a job, who is not a rebel, who does not want to change the world, nor wishes to commit suicide confronting the robber barons, but just to live in dignity and support his or her family, live up to such ‘jihadi’ advice? It is entirely impractical in the real world of putting real food on the table – hungry stomachs and medical bills aren’t filled and paid in fighting losing battles, but in accommodation to power, in getting along, in remaining silent to their criminal enterprises, in remaining neutral, and in minding one’s own business. The great Ismaili leader Aga Khan is the most pragmatic among Muslim leaders today. By being neutral, and also commanding his Ismaili flock to remain neutral, the Aga Khan has secured for his minority people sanctuary from tyranny. Look they are thriving, and happy, while he continues to build schools, universities, hospitals, and social programs for them worldwide. In his 1954 Memoirs “World Enough and Time” (PDF, Cached), the late Sir Aga Khan III, the 48th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, wrote: ‘Of one fact my years in public life have convinced me: the value of a compromise is that it can supply a bridge across a difficult period, and later having employed that bridge, it is often possible to bring into effect the full-scale measures of reform which originally would have been rejected out of hand.’ And the late Aga Khan wisely chose his grandson, the present Aga Khan IV, the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, and the coveted European socialite who is now a bridge between two civilizations, the East and the West, to continue that vision of neutrality as the safest bridge across tyranny. The dusty old books in the world’s libraries are filled with great platitudes and we are still exactly where we were when Kaabil killed Haabil (Cain killed Abel) at the dawn of man. I am no hero. The great Aga Khan’s pragmatism of compromise, of not confronting power, of getting on with great social work which power does not mind, and in fact, encourages, so long as you don’t challenge it, even giving it great awards and titles, just as it bestowed the knighthood upon Sir Aga Khan III, appears far more productive to me to pattern my life upon. I will at least be able to put food on the table for my family and better my economic condition by being a team-player.”

My Response to the Evergreen Doctrine of Neutrality

Which is why no one may answer this age old question for others but for oneself: to confront, or be co-opted? Thank you for reminding us of that fact.

See Islam: Surah Al-Asr of the Holy Qur’an and answer it for your own self according to your own bent of mind. Just as you evidently have the “maarfat” (wherewithal) to challenge this little Project Humanbeingsfirst with such great eloquence, acquire the “maarfat” to also challenge your own limitations – real and imagined – to rise above them. Take an inventory of your assets, and liabilities. Meaning, enumerate for yourself the gifts you have received by being born on the right side of the railroad tracks compared to the poorly endowed fellow you most pity, and the limits that have been put upon you by being born on the wrong side of the railroad tracks compared to that well endowed fellow you envy even a little bit. That is surely your space. Higher you set your purpose, more you are driven to fill that space. It is perhaps the simplest way to look at matters of qaza and qada (destiny vs. freewill) – but also very practical. There are surely other more abstract philosophical ways as well.

Your Accountability, if there is such a thing as what Islam preaches, is only to the sensible equation: Output / Input. Meaning, your voluntary contribution to life in relation to your own special gifts and our own trying limitations. One does not have to be a “religious” person to live a moral life in the traditional sense. Islam however demands far more from all Muslims as is self-evident from my little exposition of Surah Al-Asr for instance. That sensible equation noted above is very difficult to get to even unity for most people who are most superbly endowed, let alone surpass unity. Meaning, many of us are in fact far more blessed than our output might demonstrate. Far less output is needed from those who are less fortunate than us, to surpass us in that equation of life. Thus, in a way, a smaller denominator is a greater mercy as the expectation of output is commensurately less in relation to one with a larger denominator. In any case, this is not my concoction but the wisdom of the sages who have tried to rationalize life and its inequities. Islam’s guidance to mankind lends itself naturally to that rationalization: “On no soul doth Allah Place a burden greater than it can bear. It gets every good that it earns, and it suffers every ill that it earns.” ( Arabic:لَا يُكَلِّفُ ٱللَّهُ نَفْسًا إِلَّا وُسْعَهَا ۚ لَهَا مَا كَسَبَتْ وَعَلَيْهَا مَا ٱكْتَسَبَتْ ) Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqara, 2:286.

The equation Accountability = Output / Input is merely that Qur’anic statement “On no soul doth Allah Place a burden greater than it can bear” put mathematically. Leading a life which strives to optimize that equation towards unity however, a life that is “not at a loss” according to Surah al-Asr of the Holy Qur’an, first and foremost, is a choice, like every other choice that you can enjoy in your space. Islam unequivocally underscores this choice: “Surely We have shown him the way: he may be thankful or unthankful.” ( Arabic:إِنَّا هَدَيْنَاهُ السَّبِيلَ إِمَّا شَاكِرًا وَإِمَّا كَفُورًا ) Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-insaan 76:3.

To confront, or be co-opted?, is a question therefore which the great Aga Khan chose to address in his own way – and for which he is just as Accountable as every human being – for he can also rationally argue that he carried the great burden of leadership of his entire community upon his shoulders: “My duties are wider than those of the Pope, … The Pope is only concerned with the spiritual welfare of his flock.”[1] That a good shepherd endeavors to protect his own flock: “An imam in Islam is responsible for the security of the people who refer to him; he is responsible for the interpretation of faith; and he is responsible for their quality of life; so those three areas are areas which are my responsibility.”[2] The Aga Khan is evidently also well aware of the aforementioned Accountability equation: “The Islamic ethic is that if God has given you the capacity or good fortune to be a privileged individual in society, you have a moral responsibility to society.”[3] You can perceptively see that even Imam Hussein ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Aga Khan’s great grandfather some two score generations removed, and the Prophet of Islam’s own beloved grandson from his own Ahlul Bayt, when he chose to sacrifice his own life standing up to the tyrants of his time as the Exemplar of the Holy Qur’an, only took with him his own immediate family members to the fatal battlefront; he did not call upon other Muslims in Medina where he lived, to sacrifice their lives fighting the imperial tyrants ruling Muslims at the time. He left that decision up to each individual entirely, and to their “sha-oor”, to endeavor or not to endeavor in his footsteps. And when he had finally made that famous call which has come down to us in history: “hull min naasirun yun surna”, history has also documented just how many voluntarily responded to the Imam’s testing call. Most of the citizens of Kufa (Iraq), as in the rest of the Hijaz, choosing the path of neutrality and silence. And even in the battlefield, on the night before, history records a speech in which the pious Imam, honored by the Ismailis today like all Muslims both Shia and Sunni, invited those who had dared to courageously join him, to leave him and save themselves. He forewarned them that he and his family faced certain annihilation the next day. That is the same point here. When you hear the call for help, “hull min naasirun yun surna”, from Pakistan to Palestine, Iraq to Afghanistan, from Quetta to Karachi, when you see your own nations looted and plundered, and when you see your own life reduced to nothing but vile servitude under your own feudal lords of every uniform, it is your call to respond, or to silently look away chasing your ‘American Dream’.

Today you can witness the same Ismailis you speak of being slaughtered in Pakistan along with the rest of Pakistanis irrespective of their allegiance to the neutral Aga Khan. The emperor’s battalions doing the slaughter of Pakistanis is donning various uniforms to foment both “insurgency” and justification for “counter-insurgency” ( ). Today the emperor’s battalion in pirate’s uniform is doing the Ismaili slaughter. The time is close at hand when another battalion of the emperor in its own uniform will un-apologetically be doing the same slaughter. We have witnessed this in Iraq with sufficient empirical evidence to wisely learn from that modus operandi of fomenting “revolutionary times”. No compromise is a sufficient bridge between tyranny – for tyranny really does not distinguish in the limit of things. The Ismailis are most aware of their own long history of persecution and will testify to the truth of this statement. You are answerable for your neutrality. A temporary reprieve it may provide to some, but the fire engulfing others while you enjoy that reprieve is never known to distinguish between homes. As the famous saying attributed to the German pastor Martin Niemöller goes:

‘First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the catholics,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a catholic.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.’

Someday, at a future “Nuremberg Tribunal”, when it is once again demonstrated under victor’s justice that silence is criminal, that, compromise and neutrality are the first “banality of evil” from which all the rest of evil naturally follow, all those living and preaching neutrality will surely be as loudly condemned as today they are held up as the epitome of pragmatism. That is of course only of theoretical interest for the pragmatist. The survivalist always knows how to cut a deal. Arguably, that is the smartest way forward in a jungle.

All I can humbly suggest to someone of your sophistication and pragmatism is to develop your “sha-oor” to complement your practical instincts for survival. The rest will automatically follow. Let your own “sha-oor” be your first guide, your own internal imam, and not some website you randomly read on the internet. Although, the matters are surely different when you follow your favorite scholar in turban, suit, or bow tie (sic)! Effectively, more you follow others, more opinion you seek from others, more you make others your imam, more you condemn yourself to their thinking. That too is your choice, for as per the promise of the Holy Qur’an, if you believe in such Provenance I mean, and most really don’t despite their claims to holiness and great piety: “One day We shall call together all human beings with their (respective) Imams” (Arabic:يَوْمَ نَدْعُو كُلَّ أُنَاسٍ بِإِمَامِهِمْ ) Holy Qur’an, Surah al-Israa’ 17:71.

In the age of universal deceit, it is surely wise to follow one’s own mind as one’s imam first, as limited and as fallible as its vision might be, for one never really knows who is the marde-momin and who is the superman ( ). Empiricism has shown that regardless of the merits of their claim, they both lead one to hell on earth while promising heaven elsewhere. And so does the feeble mind, the foolish mind, the dull mind that is unable to separate chaff from wheat. That is traditionally the Public Mind, encouraged to remain a perpetual follower so that it can be shepherded wherever the shepherd fancies. The Qur’an forewarns of this precise empiricism in these dire words:

“(On the day) when those who were followed disown those who followed (them), and they behold the doom, and all their aims collapse with them. And those who were but followers will say: If a return were possible for us, we would disown them even as they have disowned us. Thus will Allah show them their own deeds as anguish for them, and they will not emerge from the Fire.” Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqara, 2:166–167.

I do not much know about hell elsewhere – grappling with the one here is sufficient for most of us who do worry about it here – except for these statements of the Holy Qur’an wisely admonishing all “followers” to be judicious in the choice of whom they adopt as their guide and whom they choose to “pattern” their life upon. If you voluntarily follow others in this world making them your “imam”, you should know that you will also be held to account in their company involuntarily on the Day when all accounts are finally settled. If you followed them here voluntarily, as per 17:71 quoted above, you will have no choice but to also follow them to wherever is their ultimate destination post Accounting. So follow that “imam” you know for sure is not going to that other Hell elsewhere – if you care about it. The word “imam” according to The Arabic-English dictionary of the Holy Qur’an in my reference is defined as: “Leader; President; Any object that is followed, whether a human being or a book or a highway”.

Parse these pearls of wisdom from the doctrine of the Holy Qur’an as per your own “sha-oor” – bent of mind – if you believe in any of it that is. If you don’t, you really have no fear of Accountability.

Even in that case, still do your best to be a good person according to your inner moral compass – we all have one, our first inner imam – and the rest is c’est la vie. I know many fine atheists who are far better human beings than many a worthy man of cloth – for they see inherent virtue in being good irrespective of some fear of hell or favor of heaven which they don’t believe in anyway. They instead follow the virtue of Solon, the ancient Athenian law-giver, who advocated for social responsibility as not just a moral requirement, but a legal requirement. When asked which city he thought was well-governed, Solon said: “That city where those who have not been injured take up the cause of one who has, and prosecute the case as earnestly as if the wrong had been done to themselves.”

In the strictest moral sense, these godless people are more moral than the trader who is moral only to trade for heaven or hell. If the Output / Input equation of these godless people, irrespective of any notion of Accountability, exceeds that of the man of cloth, shame on the latter – a trafficker in religion could not match the gratitude for being born on the right side of the railroad tracks of even an atheist!

In conclusion, the matter is sufficiently obvious to warrant any further elucidation. Neutrality, which begets silence, is criminal – whatever might be the selfish existential considerations of expediency. No one can remain safe for long being neutral in a predatory jungle.

Silence: the root cause of banality of evil

Silence: the root cause of banality of evil

I would be sorely remiss not to also observe at least as postscript, that those who send others to their death telling them to stand-up to tyranny are often the first ones to also slink away. Next time you hear the clarion call from someone to stand-up – judge by their acts before you heed that specious call. Mullahs and Ayatollahs, like presidents and prime ministers, are the most adept at getting others to wear the battle dress while they sit comfortably in their home shoes – never failing to show up to recite the liturgies and last rites. The Aga Khan is the most forthright and honest in his stance in that way – he is himself neutral and therefore does not call upon his flock by any other clarion. Only when the Aga Khan decides to give up his doctrine of neutrality for himself – chooses to risk his own hair on his head – will he be entitled to call upon his flock to do the same. And if the blood of his great grandfather still runs in his veins, the Aga Khan will leave that as a moral choice to his followers, leading by example rather than through indoctrination and coercion in the name of divine Imammate. In that respect, all Mullahs and Ayatollahs, presidents and prime ministers, may take a leaf from Aga Khan’s play book. No – not that of strict political neutrality[4], but of not being hypocrites.

A Man of The World – The Aga Khan

His Highness Aga Khan interview for Portugal TV


[1] Excerpt from The Aga Khan’s Earthly Kingdom, Vanity Fair, February 2013,

‘Multi-billionaire son of a notorious playboy, His Highness Prince Karim, the fourth Aga Khan, enjoys his jets, yachts, and Thoroughbreds. But since the age of 20, he has also been the spiritual leader of 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, building a hugely effective global development network. In Chantilly, home to France’s most prestigious horse race, James Reginato explores how the press-shy, Harvard-educated prince, at 76, fuses two worlds.

His Highness Prince Karim, the fourth Aga Khan and 49th hereditary imam of the world’s 15 million Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, remains a paradox to many people. The Pope of his flock, he also possesses fabled wealth and inhabits a world of marvelous châteaux, yachts, jets, and Thoroughbred horses. To be sure, few persons bridge so many divides—between the spiritual and the material; East and West; Muslim and Christian—as gracefully as he does.

Born in Geneva, brought up in Nairobi, educated at Le Rosey and Harvard, the Aga Khan has a British passport and spends a great deal of his time aloft in his private aircraft, but his base is Aiglemont, a vast estate near Chantilly, 25 miles north of Paris. On-site, in addition to a château and an elaborate training center for about a hundred of his Thoroughbreds, is the Secretariat, a modern office block that houses the nerve center of what might be described as his own U.N., the Aga Khan Development Network. A staggeringly large and effective organization, it employs 80,000 people in 30 countries. Although it is generally known for the nonprofit work it does in poor and war-torn parts of the globe, the A.K.D.N. also includes an enormous portfolio of for-profit businesses in sectors ranging from energy and aviation to pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, and luxury hotels. In 2010 these generated $2.3 billion in revenue. The extent of these endeavors might not be so well known to the general public, since the Aga Khan usually shuns the press and stays out of the public eye.

Though he has no political territory, the Aga Khan is virtually a one-man state and is often received like a head of state when he travels. As imam he is responsible for looking after the material as well as spiritual needs of his followers, who are scattered in more than 25 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. His projects, however, benefit people of all faiths. …

The title Aga Khan—meaning, in a combination of Turkish and Persian, commanding chief—was granted in the 1830s by the Emperor of Persia to Karim’s great-great-grandfather when he married the emperor’s daughter. But Aga Khan I was also the 46th hereditary imam of the Ismaili Muslims of the world, in a line that descends directly from the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.

In 1885, Prince Karim’s grandfather (who was born in India) was seven years old when he assumed the imamate upon his father’s death. The following year, he received his “His Highness” from Queen Victoria. In the early 1900s he moved to Europe, in part to pursue his passion for horse breeding and racing, in which he would become a celebrated figure. All the while, he looked after his flock remarkably well, building a huge network of hospitals, schools, banks, and mosques for them. “My duties are wider than those of the Pope,” he once explained. “The Pope is only concerned with the spiritual welfare of his flock.”

He was an extraordinary personality, a very powerful intellect,” recalls his grandson. “When he left India and established himself in Europe, he became very fascinated with the philosophy of the Western world. He brought that knowledge to his community.”

And they showed their appreciation. On his Golden Jubilee, in 1936, his followers famously gave him his weight in gold, a spectacle some 30,000 onlookers jammed a square in Bombay to witness. Upon his Diamond and Platinum Jubilees, he received similar tributes in the appropriate stones and metal. The sizable funds from those tributes pale, however, compared with the zakat money traditionally paid by members of the Ismaili community, some of whom believe their imam is semi-divine. (Prince Karim categorically denies any suggestion that he is divine.)’

[2] Statement made by Aga Khan IV in his first ever interview to American television network, NBC (time 2m 20s),

[3] The Aga Khan’s Earthly Kingdom, Vanity Fair, February 2013, op. cit.

[4] Excerpt from the Aga Khan’s official website

‘The Aga Khan, like his grandfather before him, has always been concerned about the wellbeing of all Muslims, particularly the impact on them of the challenges of the rapidly evolving world. Addressing as Chairman, the International Conference on the Example (Seerat) of the Prophet Muhammad in Karachi in 1976, he noted that the wisdom of Allah’s final Prophet in seeking new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, provides the inspiration for Muslims to conceive a truly modern and dynamic society, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam.

Since the present Aga Khan assumed the office of Imamat in 1957, there have been major political and economic changes in most of the countries where Ismailis live. He has adapted the complex system of administering the various Ismaili communities, pioneered by his grandfather during the colonial era, to a world of nation states. In the course of that process, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, who was twice President of the League of Nations, had already provided a contemporary articulation of the public international role of the Imamat. The Imamat today, under the present Aga Khan, continues this tradition of strict political neutrality.

In designating his successor to the Imamat in 1957, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan stated in his will:

“In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world…due to the great changes which have taken place…I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shia Muslim Ismailia Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up in the midst of the new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office of Imam”.’ (acquired March 9, 2013, cached)

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First Published March 8, 2013 | Last Updated with Footnotes March 9, 2013 06:05 pm

Ismaili Muslims and Aga Khan’s Doctrine of Neutrality By Zahir Ebrahim 11/11