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Perspective: When it comes to nurturing pluralism, the secret is serving others

A worldwide community of Ismaili Muslims shows that people can deepen their religious commitment when they help those outside of their faith

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

One of the most remarkable things about the civic institutions established by religious communities is that they give adherents the opportunity to deepen their own faith identity, feel more a part of their own religious history and embrace more fully their own community by serving the needs of people who fall outside of it. This is one of the ways that institutions built by faith communities can nurture pluralism in the broader society. 

I am an Ismaili Muslim, part of a community of about 15 million spread across some 25 countries. Ismailis, guided by our spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, are institution builders extraordinaire.

As a response to the discrimination they experienced in colonial South Asia and Africa, Ismailis started a whole network of schools, hospitals, economic development organizations and cultural initiatives for themselves. After colonialism ended, Ismailis, under the guidance of the Aga Khan, transformed those facilities into institutions that serve the broader public, and organized them into the Aga Khan Development Network.

The purpose of the AKDN is articulated in cosmic terms. It is the set of institutions that allows us to “realize the social conscience of Islam” by serving as a “bridge (between) the two realms of the faith, din and dunya, the spiritual and the material.”

In the words of Ismaili scholars describing the AKDN mandate: “Islam envisions a social order which is sustained by the expectation of each individual’s morally just conduct towards others. The function of ethics is to foster self-realization through giving of one’s self, for the common good, in response to God’s benevolent majesty.”

The AKDN is probably the most widespread and sophisticated network of Muslim civic and charitable organizations in the world. It works in 30 nations in South and Central Asia and across the continent of Africa, running more than 1,000 separate projects and employing nearly 100,000 people. Two million people each year are educated through the network’s schools and universities; 5 million annually receive medical care through its health programs; 8 million people in rural areas are made more food secure through AKDN initiatives; and 10 million people have electricity because of the organization’s infrastructure projects in developing nations.

Aga Khan University in Karachi is arguably the best university in the Muslim-majority world. It has a world-class medical program, with a particular strength in nursing, a profession that not only saves lives but also disproportionately employs women. Sensitivity to gender equity is a priority throughout the work of the network, indeed in every quarter of the Ismaili community.

Ismailis are perhaps the only Muslim community that have both female administrative leaders and female prayer leaders. My aunt, for example, was appointed by the Aga Khan as president of the world’s largest Ismaili National Council (in India), and my mother was appointed to be a worship leader at the jamat khana that my father helped to build in Naperville, Illinois.

Gender is not the only dimension of identity that the organization pays attention to. Pluralism in general is a core value across the AKDN. It goes beyond health and educational services being offered to people regardless of identity to mean an active appreciation, tolerance and openness toward other peoples’ culture, social structures, values and beliefs.

The value is most prominently displayed in the AKDN’s cultural initiatives, which include supporting the indigenous music, art and architecture of a variety of diverse communities. One of my favorite network initiatives is the support given to Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad project, which brought a diverse array of indigenous musical forms together in a single, magnificent sonic collaboration. 

Like other global development networks, the AKDN receives funding from national governments and international agencies. But a substantial amount of the resources are contributed by the Aga Khan himself, and the Ismaili community more broadly. The reason is simple: it is a requirement of Islam to help others, and the network is the vehicle for Ismailis to manifest this Muslim commitment.

The prophet Muhammad showed us that our everyday actions are suffused with spiritual significance. In his own life, he modeled the values of inclusiveness, inquiry, mercy, balance, care for the environment and self-reliance. And so it is that teachers in AKDN schools, researchers in network laboratories, doctors in network hospitals, and artists in network cultural programs seek, through their work, to embody this ethic.

Their secret, which nurtures a respectful pluralism. is serving others.

New York Times columnist David Brooks likes to say that social change happens when some people find a better way to live and other people start to copy them. That is precisely the theory of change that the Aga Khan Development Network operates on. The various network institutions are meant to model an ideal social order based on the ethics of Islam; the rest of the world is invited to follow.    

Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.”