Monday, March 27, 2017

Traditionalism and the Aga Khan?

An interesting article in Religions 9 (2016), the journal of the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialog, has been brought to my attention. This is “Integral Pluralism as the Basis for Harmony: The Approach of His Highness the Aga Khan” (pp. 147- 62) by Ali Lakhani, a shortened and edited version of an article originally published in the Traditionalist journal Sacred Web in 2014, “Living the Ethics of One’s Faith: The Aga Khan’s Integral Vision” (no. 34, pp. 33-62). The article is interesting because the Aga Khan’s “integral pluralism” and “integral vision” appear as remarkably Traditionalist. Whether this has a basis in reality or is wishful thinking on the part of Lakhani is not known.

The Aga Khan (pictured) is, of course, the 49th imam (leader) of the Nizari Ismailis, a minority branch of Shi’i Islam that now has some five to ten million followers worldwide. The Nizari imams are descended from the Fatimid Caliphs, and thus from the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and grandchildren. Lakhani, the founder and editor of Sacred Web, is a one of the most prominent Traditionalists of the generation following Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Born in England in 1955, he is now a successful lawyer in Canada. He is also an Ismaili, and active within the Ismaili community. He was the first chair of the Ismaili Conciliation and Arbitration Board.

In the 2016 Religions article, Lakhani describes the Aga Khan’s “integral pluralism” as a combination of pluralism and being “true to universal and perennial principles.” This, according to Lakhani, “lies at the heart of the Aga Khan’s interpretation of Islam.” The 2014 Sacred Web article does not use the phrase “integral pluralism” or talk of the perennial, but it does ascribe to the Aga Khan a belief in “a unifying spiritual vision” and explains that he “does not seek a consensus based on outward forms, but on underlying principles that are universal, yet expressed within the Muslim tradition.”

From one perspective, this is uncontroversial, like being true to universal principles. From another perspective, this is precisely the Traditionalist view of the relationship between the exoteric and the esoteric. But is it also the Aga Khan’s view? Lakhani also ascribes to the Aga Khan, whom he sees as “a defender of cohesive traditional Muslim values,” “a trenchant critique of modernism” that sees “rampant materialism” as “a loss of verticality.” These, too, are characteristically Traditionalist conceptions. The 2016 article backtracks slightly, stressing that “The Aga Khan’s attitude to modernity is to embrace the modern world (for Islam is a faith for all time) while being critical of the modernist ethos which rejects the spiritual basis of life.”

Sacred Web is an overtly Traditionalist journal, but Religions is not. It is, however, edited by Patrick Laude, co-author of Frithjof Schuon: Life and Teachings (SUNY Press, 2004), and many of the original International Advisory Board, which includes Seyyed Hossein Nasr, are Traditionalists.


Anonymous said...

Then what the Aga Khan says in his recent remarks in Canada is sharply at odds with how Lakhani describes it:
"Yet another dimension of the challenge has to do with the realities of human nature. We often hear in discussions of Global Citizenship that people are basically alike. Under the skin, deep in our hearts, we are all brothers and sisters — we are told — and the secret to a harmonious world is to ignore our differences and to emphasise our similarities. What worries me, however, is when some take that message to mean that our differences are trivial, that they can be ignored, and eventually erased. And that is not good advice. In fact, it is impossible. Yes, our understanding and our underlying humanity should motivate our quest for healthy pluralism. But such a quest must also be built on an empathetic response to our important differences. And that, again, is a point which Adrienne Clarkson has emphatically articulated.

Pretending that our differences are trivial will not persuade most people to embrace pluralistic attitudes. In fact, it might frighten them away. People know that differences can be challenging, that disagreements are inevitable, that our fellow-humans can sometimes be disagreeable. As Madame Clarkson has famously said, and I am quoting her here: “the secret to social harmony is learning to live with people you may not particularly like.” My fear is that talking only about our common humanity might seem to threaten people’s distinctive identities. And that can complicate the challenge of pluralism."

Khalil Andani said...

In your post, you raise some questions as to whether the Aga Khan's views are Traditionalist or not with respect to his idea of 'integral pluralism', 'unifying vision', 'the relationship between the exoteric and the esoteric', etc. Having studied the Aga Khan's publicly stated views and privately-stated views on these issues, and as a student of Ismaili thought, I thought I could offer some clarifying comments as follows:

1. In Islam, God is both transcendent and immanent and the Aga Khan has stressed that the diversity found in the Universe - including natural, cultural, and religious diversity - is a gift and a manifestation of God's creative mercy and plentitude.

2. The Aga Khan advocates pluralism to be the proper response to diversity - where pluralism means both affirming what is unique in each tradition/culture/faith and also reaching out to learn from difference. He has recently clarified (in his remarks at the Harvard Jodidi Lecture 2015 and the Citizenship Award Address 2016) that pluralism is not about a superficial unity, whether at the outward or inward level, that denies difference. Rather, pluralism is about affirming differences, embracing them, and learning from them while also recognizing what unites all human beings.

3. The unitary dimension of the Aga Khan's view is the theological fact that diversity manifests the creative mercy of the Single Creator and that the Creator has created all humans from One Soul. This means that all humans are spiritually connected and united at the deepest level and this unity underlies the natural, God-given human diversity.

4. The Aga Khan also sees the human encounter with diversity manifested through a pluralist ethos as an opportunity for each human to attain self-knowledge and expand their self-knowledge as they learn.

5. In practical terms, the Aga Khan's vision of pluralism plays out through an ethical vision called Cosmopolitan Ethics. In such an ethic, all humans would practice a set of perennial and universal values shared across traditions - manifesting the spiritual unity of humanity - and, at the same time, each specific community and tradition can practice their own distinct value systems freely. Thus, the Aga Khan, while allowing for such freedom as the diverse expression of particular communal and human traditions,does not see reconciliation taking place at the outward level of difference, but only at the deeper spiritual level, and the latter can be enacted through commitment to universal principles of the Cosmopolitan Ethic.

Khalil Andani said...

6. On the topic of exoteric and esoteric, the Ismaili Muslim tradition of which the Aga Khan is the present living Imam has an abundance of esoteric discourse that explains the relation between the Zahir (outer reality) and the Batin (inner reality). Perhaps the oldest Ismaili text that we know of - the late 9th century Kitab al-'Alim wa'l-Ghulam - presents a three-level or tripartite vision of exoteric-esoteric hierarchy. There is the Exoteric, the Esoteric, and the Esoteric of the Esoteric. This tripartite vision happens to match Schuon's/Nasr's view of esotericism, but predates them by 1000 years. The overlap between Ismaili theosophy and Traditionalist views reflects no more than the universal and perennial metaphysical reality of Truth. Similar correspondences can be found at the depth of each major faith tradition – though Ismaili theosophy expresses this relationship between the outer and inner reality uniquely for its adherents.

7. The Aga Khan is at ease with the modern world, viewing existence as an aspect of spiritual life. He therefore advocates that one must engage with the world in which one lives, while keeping the interrelationship between spiritual obligations (Din) and worldly life (Dunya) in complete harmony and balance. In this context, the Aga Khan is highly critical of modernism's and post-modernism's tendency to separate the Spirit from life, with its resultant secularism, relativism, materialism, and individualism. In response, the Aga Khan emphasizes the need for ethical action that manifests the Ethics of Islam and other faith traditions.

8. You will find more detail and references for all the above statements in a public conference lecture I delivered on the Aga Khan's Vision of Pluralism at Boston University in 2015, at