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His Highness the Aga Khan on Reconciling Modernity and Tradition in Islam

His Highness the Aga Khan

Highlighted below are excerpts from the speeches of His Highness the Aga Khan where he shows that Islam is compatible with the modern world. He cautions against abandoning tradition in the face of modernity and also to not adhere uncritically to the past. As always, his speeches are filled with wisdom!

NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat speeches, interviews and writings
Excerpts provided by NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat speeches, interviews and writings

Please also download the NanoWisdoms Modernity and Tradition thematic chart for a graphic view of these thoughts. Click here to download.

"I think we are experiencing a time of, in a sense, the search for a legitimacy in interpretation of Islam in relation to the modern world, in relation to modern society, in relation to non-Muslim societies and in that search there are all sorts of interpretations being put forward. I personally am very cautious about seeking a formalistic approach, because I think that one of the great risks ... is the fact that it tends to anchor a faith in one time and that is one aspect which, of my faith which I would never accept. I would never accept that the concept of Islam, the practice of Islam, cannot be fulfilled in the modern world or in the world of tomorrow."

All India TV and Radio Interview, Rajiv Mehrotra (India) February 1989

"I apprehend that in certain educational institutions respect for tradition has restricted academic study to the accomplishment of the past. However, our faith has never been restricted to one place or time. Ever since its revelation the fundamental concepts of Islam have been its universality and the fact that this is the last revelation, constantly valid, and not petrified into one period of man’s history or confined to one area of the world. Islam is for all places and all time. This is why there is a role for a modern Islamic university which can draw inspiration from the faith and from the past in addressing the opportunities of the future."

Faculty of Health Sciences of the Aga Khan University and Aga Khan University Hospital Inauguration Ceremony (Karachi, Pakistan) 11 November 1985

"The past cannot be repeated. By copying it, it proves that one cannot do better. By repeating the past, by designing the same thing is not the solution. Modernity cannot be denied. How do we merge the two? That is continuity. We can’t ask people to live in mud houses. We have to come up with new solutions. The award tries to connect the two. The monuments of the past are important but the monuments of today are also important and they have to be recognised."

Times of India Interviews 'Celebrating Beauty' & 'Education has not kept pace with globalisation' (New Delhi, India) 27 November 2004

"What the Muslim world needs today, I suggest, is more of those innovative architects that can navigate between the twin dangers of slavishly copying the architecture of the past and of foolishly ignoring its rich legacy. It needs those who can thoroughly internalise the collective wisdom of bygone generations, the eternal Message and ethic with which we live, and then reinforce them in the language of tomorrow."

Fourth Aga Khan Award For Architecture Prize Ceremony (Cairo, Egypt) 15 October 1989

"Our venues [for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture] were not meant to imply however that our goal was simply to reproduce the past. In fact, the projects we have honoured through the years — over one hundred of them — have invariably rejected simplistic, copy-machine approaches. The fact that we hold these current ceremonies in a contemporary setting — one which has itself been a recipient of our Award, symbolises our faith that Architecture can not only link us to the past, but also propel us, creatively, into the future. The past is not something to stand on, but rather to build on. [Emphasis original]

"If ignoring the past was a problem on one side, then the opposite danger was an exaggerated submission to the past, so that some creations and creators became prisoners of dogma or nostalgia. There is a danger, in every area of life, everywhere in the world, that people will respond to the hastening pace of change with an irrational fear of modernism, and will want to embrace uncritically that which has gone before. The Islamic world has sometimes been vulnerable to this temptation — and the rich potential for a new “Islamic modernism” has sometimes been under-estimated.

"The Aga Khan Award was designed, in part, to address this situation, encouraging those who saw the past as a necessary prelude to the future and who saw the future as a fulfilling extension of the past. And, by and large through the years, this objective has been accomplished. In my view, a healthy life, for an individual or a community, means finding a way to relate the values of the past, the realities of the present, and the opportunities of the future. The built environment can play a central role in helping us to achieve that balance."

2007 (10th) Aga Khan Award For Architecture Presentation Ceremony (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) 4 September 2007

"Great icons of the past must not be allowed to disappear, without an opportunity to come back to life and serve the future. At the same time, in looking at the places we have met and the projects we have honoured, we also see enormous diversity. Diversity, in fact, is part of the essence of Islam. The unity of the Ummah does not imply sameness. Working in an Islamic context need not confine us to constraining models. Nor does respecting the past mean copying the past. Indeed, if we hold too fast to what is past, we run the risk of crushing that inheritance. The best way to honour the past is to seize the future. In sum, an Islamic architectural agenda involves a dual obligation — a heightened respect for both the traditions of the past and the conditions of the future."

2010 Aga Khan Award For Architecture Prize Ceremony (Doha, Qatar) 24 November 2010

"The issue of modernity, which is the one you are addressing, was an extremely complex issue for us and remains so. What we are talking about is forces in building that did not really exist at the time when the great buildings of the past were built. Airports, business complexes, housing estates, industries, office buildings, many phenomena of modern life clearly do not have a link with the past. How do you deal with that? ... We do not want to be seen as an institution that draws inspiration only from the past. The inspiration is part of society, it is part of design. Our interest is to generate new inspirations for modern architecture, and I think that that is happening."

Philip Jodidio Interview 'The Process of Change' (London, United Kingdom) 6 March 2007

"[T]he two main tendencies [of the Ummah], traditional and modern, are trying to maintain, indeed to develop, their Islamic legitimacy. Loss of identity, anxiety about the risk of being caught up in a process of Westernisation that is essentially Christian and is perceived as becoming less and less religious, are deep and very real concerns."

Address at the 'Musée-Musées' Round Table Conference, Louvre Museum (Paris, France) 17 October 2007

"The Holy Prophet’s life gives us every fundamental guideline that we require to resolve the problem ... His example of integrity, loyalty, honesty, generosity both of means and of time, his solicitude for the poor, the weak and the sick, his steadfastness in friendship, his humility in success, his magnanimity in victory, his simplicity, his wisdom in conceiving new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam, surely all these are foundations which, correctly understood and sincerely interpreted, must enable us to conceive what should be a truly modern and dynamic Islamic Society in the years ahead."

Presidential Address, International Seerat Conference, 'Life of the Prophet (sas)' (Karachi, Pakistan) 12 March 1976

With courtesy and permission of author Mohib Ebrahim, publisher of NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat speeches, interviews and writings

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