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Mediation Perspectives: The Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims in Dialogue With the World

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“We must not kill to resolve our differences, whatever they may be. They must be resolved, as I have said, within the ethic of our faith through dialogue, through compassion, through tolerance, through generosity and forgiveness. These are the pillars on which to build a strong society in modern times – not through weapons.”

His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th Hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, Tajikistan 1995

Conflicts with a religious dimension are increasingly commanding global attention and have become a focal point for those working in the field of dialogue and mediation. While the role of religion in conflict is salient, focusing excessively on this relationship runs the risk of losing track of the unifying capacity of religious institutions and the work that is being done by their members to transcend cultural, religious and political boundaries. Against the backdrop of intensifying unrest between Sunni and Shia Islamic communities in many different regions of the world, it is pertinent to remind ourselves of the many initiatives from within these communities to bridge differences. What can we learn from the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim community regarding the promotion of peaceful co-existence worldwide?

Insights From His Highness the Aga Khan

One example of a Muslim initiative for peace is the Global Centre for Pluralism, chaired by His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Hereditary Imam and spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.

The Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims are a Shia Muslim community residing in over 25 countries. Their dialogue practices and dispute resolution mechanisms, which function both within the community and with external actors – including other religious communities, governments and civil society – raise some important considerations about the nexus between conflict and religion. This was illustrated in a recent address to the Canadian Parliament, in which the Aga Khan touched on perceptions of the division between Shia and Sunni interpretations of Islam and between the Islamic and Western worlds. Many of these remarks could be useful for policymakers and practitioners.

First, he sought to counter the perception that conflict is often based on opposing religious beliefs, contending that most contemporary conflicts are rooted in “particular political circumstances, the twists and turns of power relationships and economic ambitions, rather than deep theological divides.” This notion is of critical importance in the modern world, as misunderstandings about the relationship between religion and conflict can cause conflicts to escalate. Cross-cultural dialogue and education about the fundamental values that underpin Islam are integral to the Aga Khan’s approach to resolving these misunderstandings, as evidenced by the work that the Aga Khan Development Network is conducting globally.

Second, he implored “non-Muslims who are dealing with the Ummah [the entirety of Muslim communities around the world] to communicate with both Sunni and Shia voices”. This point has enormous implications for the future of conflict within the Ummah and underlines the importance of entering into dialogue with all of the stakeholders to a conflict. Dialogue with all stakeholders is of particular salience in the Islamic context due to the danger of conflicts spreading if they are not resolved (which the Aga Khan alluded to later in the address).

Qur’anic Basis for Peace: Dialogue, Empathy and Spirituality

Alternative Dispute Resolution has been a longstanding practice within the Ismaili community, rooted in both Qur’anic interpretations of the faith as well as the rich history of the community worldwide. Mohammed Keshavjee notes the origins of the Sulh – a Qur’anic principle that translates as negotiated settlement – and describes how the concept of dialogue was favoured by the Holy Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali, the first Shia Imam. At present, the respective National and International Conciliation and Arbitration Boards within the Ismaili community serve to resolve internal conflicts, ensuring strength and unity across the community, which is an important prerequisite to successful dialogue.

But it is not only the importance placed on dialogue that reveals the key role that negotiation and mediation plays in the community. It is also the value invested in concepts that facilitate successful mediation approaches. An example of this is the emphasis on “fostering empathy” that Laurie Nathan has deemed crucial to effective mediation. This is held in equally high regard by the Aga Khan who, speaking to students of Brown University as part of the Ogden Lecture series, explained that “the struggle to remain empathetically open to the Other in a diversifying world is a continuing struggle of central importance for all of us”.

Empathy – understood as seeking to understand the other, even if one does not necessarily agree – is a cornerstone of dialogue. It goes hand in hand with a focus on the idea of a oneness of humanity that persists despite individual differences. For the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, this is perhaps best summed up in the following words of the Aga Khan: “It is because we see humankind, despite our differences, as children of God and born from one soul, that we insist on reaching beyond traditional boundaries as we deliberate, communicate, and educate internationally.” The prevalence of this concept – that focuses on global commonalities rather than differences – is why dialogue is seen as the primary path to resolve disputes.

This is also evidenced by the importance in the Ismaili faith of the batin, or internal understanding of the Qur’an – a place where differences between faiths do not exist. Professor Ali Ansani explains that “central to the Ismaili traditions of esotericism has been the notion that a singular spiritual reality underlies what may appear externally to be starkly different and disparate doctrines and creeds.” This underlying foundation allows the Ismaili community to interact, engage in dialogue and seek unity across boundaries – be they religious, political, institutional or cultural.

The practices of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims can offer insight into and help us to reframe our understanding of the relationship between religion and conflict. In doing so, they also pose an important question: do religious communities really see the world through contrasting lenses, or do we too often see these conflicts through the “lens of war” that the Aga Khan refers to, preventing us from appreciating the common realities and beliefs that bind everyone together as a global population?

Removing this “lens of war” means focusing on the political nature of many so called “religious conflicts” and attempting to solve them politically. It calls for non-Muslims to communicate to both Shia and Sunni communities and for both Muslims and non-Muslims to recognize more fully the Qur’anic basis for dialogue as a way to deal with differences. Focusing on the oneness of humanity and recognizing the unifying nature of spirituality – the idea that we are “born indeed of a single soul” – can help to illuminate the path to peace.

Sabrin Kassam is a Production Assistant at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and an Intern Analyst at the geostrategic consultancy, Wikistrat. She has previously worked with the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich.

Mediation Perspectives” is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.
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One reply on “Mediation Perspectives: The Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims in Dialogue With the World”

Mediation has been critical in opening dialogue between many religions and ethnic minorities over the years. Mediation will remain as the key to opening up of conversations, voicing opinions and collaborating to come to agreements that will satisfy all who are involved.

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