The Most Excellent Order of the Pearl of Africa was on Monday conferred upon the Aga Khan. This was at Uganda’s 55th Independence Day festivities in the Western region of the country, close to the world-famous Queen Elizabeth National Park.
The Order of the Pearl of Africa is the country’s highest possible award and it derives its name from Winston Churchill’s 1908 unforgettable encomium of the land as the loveliest on the continent. Uganda has many nicknames, including our jocularly intimate ‘Matoke Republic’, but the ‘Pearl’ is one of which Ugandans are proudest, regardless of its colonial origins.
Anyway, the Order of the Pearl, instituted in 2005, is a very rarely-awarded honour. The first of its so-far five recipients was, I believe, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, posthumously. It is normally reserved for Heads of State and Government.
This, indeed, is what had me prick my ears when I heard that the Aga Khan was going to be the Guest of Honour at the independence celebrations, and he was to be vested with the Pearl of Africa Order. I could not help wondering if the Aga Khan was a Head of State or government somewhere.
Those more knowledgeable than I will already have noticed my ignorance of these matters. Indeed, my ruminations today are a frank admission of such ignorance and a humble plea for enlightenment from those privileged to have inside knowledge of the Shia Ismaili “Imamat” and its Head, the Aga Khan. My curiosity needs no apology, but I should add that I am sure I am not alone in my unawareness of the essential facts of this significant segment of our world and society.
We may read the daily paper, watch a TV programme, resort to a banking, insurance or other financial service, attend school or receive medical care. Hardly are we aware that most of these times we are benefiting from an Aga Khan enterprise. Even more importantly, few of us in East Africa, especially in the urban areas, ever go through the day without interacting with “subjects” of the Aga Khan, at work, at school or at play.
This already hints at the sovereignty, the virtual ‘Head-of-State’ status, of the Aga Khan. But the story is even more intricate and fascinating, as I found out when I started looking around a little.
I will not attempt to tell it in detail, as I cannot claim to have understood it all, and I do not wish to rashly arouse the controversies that are inherent in most such great stories.
Rather, I will pick upon just a handful of strands of the Imamat phenomenon that I found most relevant to our experiences and aspirations.
The Aga Khan is a Muslim spiritual leader of the worldwide Shia Imami Ismaili community, hence his followers’ reference to him as the Imam. His leadership is hereditary, tracing his roots to the earliest days of Islam and his descent to the Prophet (SAW). Prince Karim Aga Khan is the 49th leader in the unbroken line of this genealogy.
The Imam’s spiritual role highlights a few points for me. The first is that, even in our pluralistic, largely secularistic world, it is possible to hold a faith and at the same time win respect beyond its strictly denominational interests. The Muslim secret, as I think the Ismailis interpret it, lies in Islam’s struggle to reconcile spirituality (din) with earthly material practicality (dunya). The Aga Khan has elucidated this in many of his lectures, including a landmark one, ‘The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World’, which he gave in November 2015 at Harvard, his alma mater.
It is probably this systematic reconciliation of spirituality and practicality that largely constitutes the power or sovereignty of the Aga Khan and his community. While cherishing the essentials of their Islamic faith, the Ismailis also appear to attach special importance to the material development and well-being of all the members of the faith.
“Leadership in the spiritual realm — for all Imams,” the Aga Khan said at Harvard, “whether they are Sunni or Shia — implies responsibility in worldly affairs; a calling to improve the quality of human life.” One does not have to be Ismaili or Muslim to realise the wisdom of this approach to faith and life, especially in these days of fanatical and violent extremism that is giving faiths like Islam a sadly bad press.
Another aspect of the Ismaili practice of reconciliation is the determined acceptance of global pluralism. While acknowledging their identity as members of a community with specific historical and cultural roots, the Ismailis appear to have accepted the reality that they have to live in a world of diversity. They thus cannot afford the luxuries of narrow exclusion and discrimination on the grounds of caste, race, faith or nationality.
It would be naïve to portray the Ismailis uniformly as angelic champions of non-discrimination. But they have made a strikingly good job of inclusiveness and cross-cultural cooperation, which has enabled them to live and thrive in diverse countries all over the world. The Aga Khan and his people seem to have achieved this mainly through ensuring that their development efforts target the entire societies and countries in which they live.
The Aga Khan’s umbrella development arm, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), is a good example of this. All the services and enterprises under its portfolio — and they are a multitude, believe me — seem to operate on two basic principles. The first is hiring the best professionals from any community for all of their jobs, and the second is offering their services equally to all and sundry, regardless of background.
The Aga Khan might not be a territorial Head of State or government. But he is certainly an ‘allegial’ one, commanding allegiance among both his millions of spiritual followers and all the societies and countries empowered by his beneficial interpretation of faith and practicality.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]