Muslim leader calls for cultural understanding

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SHAFAQNA – At a Harvard University talk, the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Shia Ismaili Muslims, says learning from our differences is key.

A prominent imam speaking at Harvard University on Thursday rejected the notion of a fundamental “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim world and the West and called for greater cultural understanding.

The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of some 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, told a packed audience that society must strive to be more “pluralist” and “cosmopolitan,” meaning people should actively seek out difference and diversity and learn from it.

He said globalization should not mean the creation of a single, homogenized society where all differences are erased, but one where what we have in common and what makes us different is respected.

“In my view, the deeper problem behind any prospective clash of civilizations is a profound clash of ignorances. And, in that struggle, education will be an indispensable weapon,” he told his audience at Memorial Church.

To Muslims, he issued a reminder that a central tenet of Islam is celebrating the “common humanity” among all the world’s people.

The Aga Khan is considered a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

“My hope is that the voices of Islam itself will continue to remind the world of a tradition that, over so many centuries, has so often advanced pluralistic outlooks and built some of the most remarkable societies in human history,” he said.

Ismaili Muslims are a branch of Shia Islam with followers in Asia, Africa the Middle East and North America. The Aga Khan is their 49th imam.

In his speech, he also noted how technology has helped people become more interconnected but has made the world more fragmented.

“We have more communication, but we also have more confrontation,” he said. “Even as we exclaim about growing connectivity, we seem to experience greater disconnection.”

He also touched on his time at Harvard, where he had been a 20-year-old junior and a member of the university soccer team when he succeeded his grandfather to become imam in 1957. And he highlighted the work his international development organization, the Aga Khan Development Network, does to address poverty, health care and education in developing countries.

His talk Thursday, the university’s Jodidi Lecture, was part of a series by Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

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