Life – An Exalted Destiny – Aga Khan III

Life - An Exalted Destiny - Aga Khan III Life is a great and noble calling; not a mean and grovelling thing to be shuffled through as best as we can, but a lofty and exalted destiny.

The Tolerance of the Fatimids toward “The People of the Book” (Ahl Al-Kitab)

Fatima and her sons in metal work inscription Iran 17c
The Tolerance of the Fâtimids toward “The People of the Book” (Ahl Al-Kitâb)

By Diana Steigerwald


“The first principle is to comprehend, to be convinced of, to uphold the fact
that  there  is  no  conflict  between  Islam  and  Christianity.  There  may  be
conflict on political issues, there may be conflict on economic issues, there
may be conflict on social issues but the faith of Islam is not in conflict with
the faith of Christianity and that is so clearly specified in Islam and all I need
to do this morning is to mention the words to you Ahl al-Kitâb, the People of
Book.  The  Book  is  Allah’s  revelation  to  man,  revealed  to  man  through
Allâh’s Prophets of which Prophet Muhammad was the last Prophet.” (Karîm
Âghâ Khân, Los Angeles, June 15, 1983)

In  the Qur’ân, Jews and Christians are designated as Ahl al-Kitâb (People of  the
Book). The Book (Kitâb) refers to previous revelation such as the Torah (Tawrât), the
Psalms (Zabûr), and the Gospels (Injîl). The status of Ahl al-Kitâb is distinguished from
the one of  idolaters  (mushrikûn)  (XXVII: 62s.). The  latter  are  invited  to  adopt  Islâm
whereas  Jews  and  Christians  may  keep  their  religion.  The  Qur’ân  (III:  110,  199)
recommends  Muslims  to  be  respectful  toward  Ahl  al-Kitâb  since  there  are  sincere
believers among them.

Islâm  is a  tolerant  religion. Tolerance does not mean a passive adherence  to all
opinions, but an affirmation of our own faith while respecting other religions. Tolerance
means to accept other people with their own differences, hence the Qur’ân recognizes the
right of People of the Book to practice their religion. It is clearly indicated in the Qur’ân
(II: 256) that Islâm may not be imposed by force because it is essentially tolerant.
Tolerance invites people to reflect and to dialogue in order  to raise  their level of
consciousness. Prophet Muhammad used to explain that the People of the Book received
only a part of  the truth (III: 23; IV: 44). Hence certain Jews and Christians  forgot  the
original principles of  the Abrahamic  faith. Muhammad considers  the  religious writings
compiled by some scribes corrupted and falsified, each time that they do not agree with
the Qur’ânic truth (cf. XX: 133; IX: 30-31). Thus he invited the Jews and the Christians
to accept the Qur’ân which completes former revelations. People of the Book should find
the confirmation of the Qur’ânic revelation by carefully examining the Bible (cf. II: 89,
101; III: 7, 64;  IV: 47). Even if  the Judeo-Christian scriptures were altered, there still
remain some elements of truth within them. The Qur’ân even recognizes that certain Jews
and Christians are saved in the hereafter (II: 62).

The  Constitution  of  Medina  protected  Jews  and  Christians.  They  were  called
dhimmiyyûn  (protected  subjects) who were not  subject  to  the  religious  tax  (zakât) but
were required to pay another tax (jiziya). Their goods were protected and they were given
the right to practice their religion. In exchange for upholding certain obligations, they
were  given  these  rights.  The  Constitution  stipulated  that  the  Jews  would  form  one
composite nation with  the Muslims;  they could practice  their  religion as  freely as  the
Muslims; they had to join the Muslims in defending Medina against all enemies.

After the death of the Prophet, his direct descendants through his daughter Fâtima
and his cousin ‘Alî, had to wait many centuries before creating in 567/909 the Fâtimid
Empire, which extended from actual Palestine to Tunisia. In this Empire, the majority of
Muslims were Sunnî and Coptic Christians constituted a very significant portion of the
population. There also were some Orthodox Greeks called Melkites and Jews especially
in Syria. Nâsir-i Khusraw (d. circa 470/1077), the famous Ismâ‘îlî thinker, who visited
Egypt, noticed that nowhere in the Muslim world had he seen Christians enjoy as much
peace and material wealth as did the Copts. The Caliph Mu‘izz was  the first  to hire a
large number of Ahl al-Kitâb as administrators of the state. The Caliph al-‘Azîz continued
his father’s policy of religious tolerance and married a Melkite Christian. Al-‘Azîz’s two
brothers-in-law,  Orestes  and  Arsenius,  were  nominated  Patriarch  of  Jerusalem  and
Metropolitan of Cairo, respectively. In spite of Muslim discontent and jealousy, al-‘Azîz
permitted  the  Coptic  Patriarch  Ephraim  to  restore  the  Church  of  St. Mercurius  near
Fustât. Moreover, he protected the Patriarch against Muslim attacks.

The Caliph al-Hâkim (d. 411/1021) experienced many difficulties internally as well
as  externally  during  his  reign.  He  temporarily  adopted  some  antagonistic  measures
against Christians. Christians and Jews were forced to follow the Islâmic law. However,
toward the end of his reign al-Hâkim changed his policy. Thus he restored some of the
churches and became more tolerant  toward  the Christians and their religious practices.
Then  Caliph  al-Zâhir  (d.  427/1036)  who followed him, established  a  complete  policy  of
religious freedom.

During the Fâtimid period, Christians and Jews had full  liberty to celebrate  their
festivals. Muslims took part in these celebrations and the state participated as well. The
government  also  used  some Christian  festivals  as  an  occasion  for  the  distribution  of
garments  and money  among  the  people.  Christians  and  Jews  were  employed  in  the
Fâtimid administration. They were able to reach very important ranks, even to go as high
as the position of vizirate. It is worth mentioning that no similar examples of employment
of non-Muslim viziers are known among other Muslim contemporary dynasties. Nowhere
in the Muslim world during that time could non-Muslims accede to such a rank.

The only exception to this policy of religious freedom was under al-Hâkim’s reign.
According to the historian al-Maqrîzî (d. 846/1442), economic and social life deteriorated
during this era. The Ismâ‘îlî dâ‘î Hamîd al-dîn Kirmânî (d. 412/1021), in his treatise Al-
risâlat al-wâ‘iza, described this critical period in which there was a great famine. Several
of the hostile but temporary measures taken by al-Hâkim can be explained by the existing
situation, in which Sunnî Muslims were extremely perturbed by the growing prosperity of
Ahl al-Kitâb and their increasing power  in the state. Al-Hâkim perhaps also wanted to
thwart the Byzantine Empire, which threatened Northern Syria. Broadly speaking, it must
be emphasised that Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived peacefully and worked together
for the well being of the Empire in all Ifrîqiya.

Even  if  today  the  actual  Imâm Karîm Âghâ Khân  is  not  the  head  of  a  state  in
Aiglemont,  he  still  employs  in  his  service  skillful  people who  are  not Muslims. He
benefits from the competence of people coming from different cultures and religions. In
many  of  his  speeches,  he  recognizes  that  the Western  ethical  principles  of  faith  are
essentially the same as those found in Islâm.

In the rest of the Islâmic world, the treatment of the Ahl al-Kitâb varies from one
Muslim  country  to  another. Most  of  the Muslim  States  are  proclaimed  secular,  their
understanding of the relations between Muslim and non-Muslim is still inspired by the
previous  juridical  tradition, and  their constitutions  stipulate  that  the Chief  of  the  state
must be Muslim. Today in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, and in some other states, religious
minorities are represented in Parliament.




Madelung Wilferd, “Ismâ‘îliyya”, EI2, vol. 6 (1978): 198-206.

Steigerwald Diana,  L’islâm:  les  valeurs  communes  au  judéo-christianisme, Montréal-
Paris: Médiaspaul, 1999.

Vajda Georges, “Ahl al-kitâb”, EI2 , vol. 1 (1979): 264-266.

Diana Steigerwald
Religious Studies, California State University (Long Beach)

Please leave your comments

Quran, 13:28

ألا بِذِكْرِ اللهِ تَطمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ

“Verily! In the remembrance of Allah do hearts find contentment.” - Quran, 13:28

Prophet Muhammad

Prophet Muhammad:

‘Ali is ‘as my own soul’ (ka-nafsi).

He said to ‘Ali, ‘You are from me and I am from you (anta minni wa ana minka).’

‘Truly, ‘Ali is from me and I am from him (inna ‘Ali minni wa ana minhu), and he is the wali (patron/spiritual master) of every believer after me.’

Hazrat Ali

12. When some blessings come to you, do not drive them away through thanklessness.

13. He who is deserted by friends and relatives will often find help and sympathy from strangers.

Imam Ali Sayings

Imam Jaffer Sadiq

لاَ يَكُونُ شَيْءٌ فِي اْلاَرْضِ وَلا فِي السَّمَاءِ إِلاَّ بِهذِهِ الْخِصَالِ السَّبْعِ: بِمَشيئَةٍ وَ إِرادَةٍ وَقَدَرٍ وَقَضَاءٍ وَ إِذْنٍ وَكِتابٍ وَأَجَلٍ. فَمَنْ زَعَمَ أَنَّهُ يَقْدِرُ عَلى نَقْضٍ وَاحِدَةٍ، فَقَدْ كَفَرَ.

“Nothing occurs in this earth and in the heaven except with the following seven stages: Will, intention, destiny, decree, permission, book and implementation. Then whoever thinks that he can reduce any of these stages, then indeed he has disbelieved.”

- Imam Jaffer Sadiq, Usul al Kafi, vol. 1, p. 149

Rumi on Ramadan

The month of fasting has come, the emperor’s banner has arrived; withhold your hand from food, the spirit’s table has arrived. The soul has escaped from separation and bound nature’s hands; the heart of error is defeated, the army of faith has arrived. Fasting is our sacrifice, it is the life of our soul; let us sacrifice all our body, since the soul has arrived as guest. Fortitude is as a sweet cloud, wisdom rains from it, because it was in such a month of fortitude that the Koran arrived. …Wash your hands and your mouth, neither eat nor speak; seek that speech and that morsel which has come to the silent ones.


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Aga Khan jokes

Aga Khan Speech Brown University May 1996:

"Looking around this colorful gathering, I recall helping in the choice of the Aga Khan University's regalia. Our research into Islamic traditions of academic dress revealed that an academic's rank determined the height of his hat. The higher the rank, the taller the hat. The senior most professors therefore appeared taller than their students even when sitting down. I have just learnt that my friend Neil Rudenstein, the President of Harvard has given instructions that all Harvard hats are to be heightened by at least a foot. This has caused havoc in the Ivy League which is now debating resolution MAHH96, standing for Maximum Allowable Hat Height. My academic standing and that of President Gregorian, should be evident from the hats that we are presently wearing!"

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