Beyond Relativism: The Aga Khan on Personal Search, Universal Ethics and Pluralism — by Mohib Ebrahim on Ismaili Gnosis com (Updated)

How can we inspire people to reach beyond rampant materialism, self-indulgent individualism, and unprincipled relativism?

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, New York, 2006

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, New York, 2006 -Image source:

Mohib Ebrahim

(UPDATED: April 28, 2015 — In the original version of this article the author, Mohib Ebrahim, mentioned pluralism but had not addressed it. He has now done so and we are pleased to amend the article with his robust reconciliation of His Highness the Aga Khan’s support for pluralism and his rejection of relativism. — Editor)


Click here to jump directly to the amendment.

Relativism — the worldview that suggests there are no “black and white answers” as all points of view are equally valid because knowledge, truth, ethics and morality are not absolute but relative to, and depend on, the individuals, groups or contexts (cultural, religious, societal, historical, civilisational) holding them — is, arguably, one defining facet of contemporary, liberal society. Indeed, it may even be the signature characteristic of a liberal society.

As champion of cosmopolitan ethics, pluralism and of an interpretation of Islam which unequivocally a) upholds the legitimacy of diverse and individual interpretations, b) reprimands bids to normatise, and c) insists on personal search as an essential facet of Islam, it is often assumed that His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of the Isma’ili Muslims, therefore, also embraces relativism, given its air of legitimacy that arises from the “pluralistic equity” it accords to all points of view. However, it may come as a surprise to many — as is often the case when the Aga Khan’s actual remarks are not studied but his position only assumed — that the Aga Khan has emphatically and unambiguously described relativism as “unprincipled.”

Leaving aside logical and philosophical absurdity of relativism — in that it cannot even confirm its own validity, for doing so would itself require an absolute statement and, therefore, it condemns itself, I review below the Aga Khan’s exact remarks on the above principles so as to reconcile his disdain of relativism with the apparent relativistic thread common to these principles he holds near and dear to his heart.

Right of individual interpretation

In his 2003 address to the international colloquium Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur’an and its Creative Expressions, the Aga Khan said, with respect to freedom of interpretation, that:

This freedom of interpretation is a generosity which the Qur’an confers upon all believers, uniting them in the conviction that All-Merciful Allah will forgive them if they err in their sincere attempts to understand His word.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV

Address to the International Colloquium ‘Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur’an and its Creative Expressions’ (London, United Kingdom), October 19, 2003


Similarly, in his 1954 autobiography, “The Memoirs of Aga Khan III — World Enough and Time”, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, and the present Aga Khan’s predecessor, wrote:


[T]hat the Qur’an is constantly open to allegorical interpretation … leads also to a greater charity among Muslims, for since there can be no cut-and-dried interpretation, all schools of thought can unite in the prayer that the Almighty in His infinite mercy may forgive any mistaken interpretation of the Faith whose cause is ignorance or misunderstanding.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III
The Memoirs of Aga Khan III, Chapter 2: Islam, The Religion of My Ancestors


That believers may “err” or be “mistaken” in their interpretation requires, of course, an absolute standard against which their interpretation may be judged for mistakes. In other words, while we are permitted to hold our own personal interpretations, these should not be automatically considered or assumed to be correct and valid, as relativism insists, but, rather, we must have the humility to accept we can be mistaken and, further, have the courage to then actually accept our mistakes. However, relativism precludes the very possibility mistakes — as all points of view are equally valid and none can be judged wrong — and thus it denies us the opportunity to be fallible and mistaken. In doing so, relativism renders accountability (even to yourself), humility and their associated courage as all irrelevant and unnecessary, even though these three — fallibility, humility and courage — are essential, irreplaceable fibres of the human condition and, arguably, define what it means to be human.

Personal search

In his 2005 message to the International Islamic Conference held in Amman, Jordan, the Imam of the Time said, with respect to personal search:


Our historic adherence is to the Jafari Madhhab and other Madhahib of close affinity … This adherence is in harmony also with our acceptance of Sufi principles of personal search …

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Message to The International Islamic Conference, July 4, 2005


And in his 2007 L’Express interview, while commenting on the Shi’ism’s intellectual perspective that Hazrat Ali espoused, the Aga Khan said:


Because of [Hazrat Ali], Shi’ism is an intellectual interpretation of Islam. The direct impact is the reduction of conflict between the spiritual and the temporal. The other fundamental element resides in the personal spiritual search. The individual is perhaps more important for us than among the different Sunni traditions.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
[Translation] L’Express Interview, Eric Chol and Christian Makarian, (Paris, France), July 4, 2007


Unfortunately, the notion of personal search — especially because of its emphasis on the individual — is often merged or conflated with the mistaken, relativistic understanding of right to personal interpretation explained above. Consequently personal search is typically restated and understood in relativistic terms to mean “because everyone is on their own personal search and entitled to their own interpretation, there are no black and white answers to questions of faith.” In other words, there are no absolute answers because the personal interpretations arising from each of our personal searches are equally valid — and beyond criticism. And so personal search is thereby given its own relativistic veneer.

However, in Pakistan, in 1964, the Aga Khan highlighted one aspect of his own search — and perhaps the sole objective of his search. He spoke of his commitment to the “continuous search for truth in all matters,” which of course includes values, ethics, morals, norms, mores and so forth: the moral fibre of society. But if truth is not absolute — as relativism insists it is not — and truth is only relative to the individual, then how can the Aga Khan, or we, ourselves, even search for it? How does one search for something that does not even exist? Instead, all one can do is search for other’s opinions and in this way relativism redefines opinion as truth and thus permits unsubstantiated opinion to masquerade as “truth.” However, since opinions are, by definition, unverified statements — for once verified they become absolute truths which relativism denies, relativism actually eliminates truth as it makes both everything and nothing “true” at the same time. In other words, if truth was relative, there would neither be any need to search for it nor any truth to search for because “truth” would not exist outside of what you decide you want it to be.

Resisting normative efforts

Time and time again, the Imam has criticised attempts to be normative or prescriptive, going so far as to call them “unethical to the essence of Islam:”


[I]n the Islamic world, as in the Christian world, there have existed attempts of normatisism [sic] — that is, the imposition of a unique perspective within the Ummah [community of believers]…. The attempt to normatise has a very little chance to succeed and it would be unethical to the essence of Islam.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Paroquias de Portugal Interview, António Marujo and Faranaz Keshavjee, (Lisbon, Portugal), July 22, 2008


Well before the invasion of Iraq, the principal watchword of al-Qaeda was to normatise Islam according to one fundamentalist Sunni interpretation. The exclusivist attitude is a form of theological colonialism, and it has spread throughout the whole of the Islamic world.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
L’Express Interview, Eric Chol and Christian Makarian, (Paris, France), July 4, 2007


History has shown in every part of the world and at every time, that the rejection of pluralism and the attempt to normatise the human race has always resulted in factionalism, oppressiveness and economic and social regression.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Aga Khan Academy, Kilindini, Opening Ceremony (Mombasa, Kenya), December 20, 2003


Those groups that seek to standardise, homogenise, or if you will allow me, to normatise all that and those around them must be actively resisted through countervailing activities. Whether it be in Central Europe, the Great Lakes region in Africa, or in Afghanistan — to cite just one example from three different continents — one of the common denominators has been the attempt by communal groups, be they ethnic, religious, or tribal groups, to impose themselves on others.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Prince Claus Fund Conference on Culture and Development, Concluding Address (Amsterdam, The Netherlands), September 7, 2002



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