Remarks made by Professor Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, introducing His Highness the Aga Khan
Delivered on November 12, 2015 at Memorial Church, Harvard University
Good afternoon, everyone. It is my honor and privilege to be here today, and to introduce to you—and to welcome back to Harvard—our guest speaker, His Highness Karim Aga Khan, 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, Harvard class of 1959. Your Highness I am sure being back here at Harvard brings back many fond memories.
It is customary when introducing such a distinguished leader to list the guest’s awards and accolades, many of which are already familiar to those in this audience. However, on this occasion, I would like to highlight His Highness’ untiring efforts to better the human condition, a mission to which he has so passionately devoted himself since becoming Imam in 1957 when he was a junior attending Harvard College. Often working quietly, and without seeking attention on the world stage, His Highness’ vision, words and deeds have impacted the lives of millions of people around the world.
For nearly 6 decades, the Aga Khan has been responsible for both the spiritual guidance and the material welfare of millions of Ismaili Muslims residing in over 25 countries, sometimes in contexts of conflict and poverty. Under his leadership, this multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and trans-national community, or Jamat, has witnessed the greatest transformation in its history. He has guided the Ismailis through a dramatic metamorphosis that has impacted the lives of each and every member of his community.
However, His Highness’ concerns have extended well-beyond the communities of his followers to the larger societies in which they live. He has consistently emphasized the role of education as a foundation for a pluralistic world and has made it possible for hundreds of thousands of children of different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds to study inAga Khan Kindergarten, primary and secondary schools and academies located in both Africa and Asia. Thousands of women and men have gone on to colleges and universities with support from the Aga Khan Foundation. He has created two international universities and endowed professorships at major institutions of higher education—including Harvard—which serve to promote teaching and learning in what he has referred to as the "knowledge society" of tomorrow. Your Highness, I am one of those children who many years ago was a student attending Aga Khan schools in Kenya, and with your support and guidance, went on to study and teach here at Harvard. Thank you, Your Highness.
His Highness’ concern for the countless numbers of people, whom life has marginalized, led to the creation of the Aga Khan Development Network. Established by the Aga Khan to realize “the social conscience of Islam through institutional action,” the AKDN consists of a number of agencies, institutions, and programs operating mostly in the poorest nations of Africa and Asia. Today it constitutes one of the world’s largest non-governmental development agencies. With the combined mandate of relieving the burdens of ignorance, disease, and deprivation, the AKDN institutions are underpinned by “the Muslim ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society and the duty...to contribute to improving the quality of all human life.” Many of the areas in which the AKDN operates are prone to natural disasters; in the face of such events, the crisis prevention and response of Focus Humanitarian Assistance saves lives and enables the vulnerable to rebuild their livelihoods.
His Highness has made every sector and aspect of the human existence a part of his concern. His institutional efforts are deployed to meet the holistic and multiple needs of millions of people around the world, irrespective of their religion, race or nationality. These exemplary and cutting edge endeavors involving public-private partnerships are often anticipatory and preventive efforts to forestall the aimlessness and loss of hope created by lack of opportunities for survival and growth.
According to a well-known saying attributed to the Aga Khan’s ancestor, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), “God is Beautiful and Loves Beauty.” In keeping with ancient Muslim traditions of nurturing the arts, His Highness has also enriched the lives of people around the world by giving the priceless gift of beauty. While some wanton elements in our world today are sadly intent on destroying humanity’s cultural heritage, the Aga Khan’s institutions have been restoring historic monuments, beautifying urban landscapes with magnificent gardens and stunning award winning buildings, reviving traditions of music and promoting the role of the arts as bridges of cultural understanding. Thus, while the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, the only museum in North America dedicated to the arts of the Muslim world, offers insights into Muslim Civilizations as the cultural patrimony that all humans share, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, brings renewed attention to the lives of people in the built environment and has redefined the very notions of architecture.
Today, we live in an increasingly polarized world in which people are unable to tolerate difference, let alone understand and engage with it. The lives of one and a half billion Muslims and perhaps everyone on this planet have been changed by the machinations of powerful geo-political forces. Your Highness, in our world of increasing division orchestrated by small cells of radical extremists and often manipulated by powerful forces with consequences that reverberate in large parts of the world, we cherish your lifetime commitment to pluralism and betterment of society, and look forward to your thoughts on "The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World."
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome His Highness.