SPIEGEL Interview with Aga Khan "Islam Is a Faith of Reason"

Karim Aga Khan IV, descendant of the prophet Muhammad and spiritual leader of 20 million Ismaili Muslims, discusses the foundations of his faith, the controversy over the pope's recent statements about Islam and ways of preventing a global clash between religions.

Karim Aga Khan IV: "Nobody will ever convince me that the faith of Islam, that Christianity, that Judaism will fight each other in our times -- they have too much in common."
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Karim Aga Khan IV: "Nobody will ever convince me that the faith of Islam, that Christianity, that Judaism will fight each other in our times -- they have too much in common."

SPIEGEL: Your Highness, in a lecture Pope Benedict XVI quoted Emperor Manuel as saying: "Show me just what Muhammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as a command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." This quotation from the 14th century has caused great uproar in the Muslim world. Why? And what was your reaction?

Aga Khan: From my point of view, I would start by saying that I was concerned about this statement because this has caused great unhappiness in the Islamic world. There appears to be momentum towards more and more misunderstandings between religions, a degradation of relations. I think we all should try not to add anything to worsen the situation.

SPIEGEL: Benedict XVI did explicitly dissociate himself from the emperor’s quoted statement. The pope's own position with regard to his lecture is that he wanted it to promote a dialogue; and since then, several times, he has expressed his respect for the world religion that is Islam. Was it just an unfortunate choice of words? Or was he deliberately misunderstood?

Aga Khan: I do not wish to pass judgement on that, nor can I. And it might also be unreasonable for me to presume that I know what he meant. But that (medieval) period in history, to my knowledge, was one of the periods of extraordinary theological exchanges and debates between the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world. A fascinating time. The emperor’s statement does not reflect that, so I think it is somewhat out of context.

SPIEGEL: The theme of Pope Benedict’s lecture was different, it was one of his favorites: the link between faith and reason which, he said, implies a rejection of any link between religion and violence. Is that something you could agree on?

Aga Khan: If you interpret his speech as one about faith and reason then I think that the debate is very exciting and could be enormously constructive between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world. So I have two reactions to the pope’s lecture: There is my concern about the degradation of relations and, at the same time, I see an opportunity. A chance to talk about a serious, important issue: the relationship between faith and logic.

SPIEGEL: If the pope were to invite you to take part with other religious leaders in a debate about faith, reason and violence, would you accept?

Aga Khan: Yes, definitely. I would, however, make the point that an ecumenical discussion at a certain stage will meet certain limits. Therefore I would prefer to talk more about a cosmopolitan ethic stemming from all of Earth's great faiths.

SPIEGEL: Does Islam have a problem with reason?

Aga Khan: Not at all. Indeed, I would say the contrary. Of the Abrahamic faiths, Islam is probably the one that places the greatest emphasis on knowledge. The purpose is to understand God’s creation, and therefore it is a faith which is eminently logical. Islam is a faith of reason.

SPIEGEL: So, what are the root causes of terrorism?

Aga Khan: Unsolved political conflicts, frustration and, above all, ignorance. Nothing that was born out of a theological conflict.

SPIEGEL: Which political conflicts do you mean?

Aga Khan: The ones in the Middle East and in Kashmir, for example. These conflicts have remained unresolved for decades. There is a lack of urgency in understanding that the situation there deteriorates, it’s like a cancer. If you are not going to act on a cancer early enough, ultimately it’s going to create terrible damage. It can become a breeding ground for terrorism.

Now to the issue of spreading faith by the sword: All faiths at some time in their history have used war to protect themselves or expand their influence, and there were situations when faiths have been used as justifications for military actions. But Islam does not call for that, it is a faith of peace.

SPIEGEL: It’s true that horrible crimes were committed in the name of Christianity, for example by the crusaders. That was long ago, that’s the past. But jihadists commit their crimes now, in our times.

Aga Khan: It is not so far in the past that we have seen bloody fights in the Christian world. Look at Northern Ireland. If we Muslims interpreted what happened there as a correct expression of Protestantism and Catholicism or even as the essence of the Christian faith you would simply say we don’t know what we are talking about.

SPIEGEL: „The West (will stand) against the Rest“ wrote Professor Samuel Huntington in his famous book „Clash of Civilizations." Is such a conflict, such a clash inevitable?

Aga Khan: I prefer to talk about a clash of ignorance. There is so much horrible, damaging, dangerous ignorance.

SPIEGEL: Which side is responsible?

Aga Khan: Both. But essentially the Western world. You would think that an educated person in the 21st century should know something about Islam; but you look at education in the Western world and you see that Islamic civilizations have been absent. What is taught about Islam? As far as I know -- nothing. What was known about Shiism before the Iranian revolution? What was known about the radical Sunni Wahhabism before the rise of the Taliban? We need a big educational effort to overcome this. Rather than shouting at each other, we should be learning to listen to each other. In the way we used to do it, by working together, with mutual give-and-take. Together we brought about some of the highest achievements of human civilization. There is a lot to build on. But I think you cannot build on ignorance.

SPIEGEL: Nonethless, it is striking that a particularly large number of Muslim-dominated states figure among the most backward and undemocratic states in the world. Is Islam in need of an era of enlightment? Is the faith even incompatible with democracy as others claim?

Aga Khan: As I said before, one has to be fair. Some of the political leaders have inherited problems that are in no way attributable to the faith. New governance solutions have to be tested and validated over time. Nor do I believe Muslim states are systematically economic underperformers. Some of the fastest growing economies and some of the most successful newly industrialized countries are in the Islamic world. Now concerning democracy: My democratic beliefs do not go back to the Greek or French (thinkers) but to an era 1,400 years ago. These are the principles underlying my religion. During the prophet’s life (peace be upon him), there was a systematic consultative political process. And the first imam of the Shiites, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Hazrat Ali, emphasized: "No honor is like knowledge, no power is like forbearance, and no support is more reliable than consultation."


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