His Highness the Aga Khan delivering the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs’ Commencement Address, at the Riverside Church, New York. – AKDN / Zahur Ramji
How can we inspire people to reach beyond rampant materialism, self-indulgent individualism, and unprincipled relativism?
In this hard-hitting question, we are being trenchantly alerted by His Highness the Aga Khan to some of the most spiritually dangerous tendencies of our times. These tendencies are all the more insidious in that they are caricatures of authentic values. Let us look at each of these tendencies a little more closely. The seeking of material comfort is a legitimate human value; but ‘rampant materialism’ exaggerates and disfigures this value beyond recognition. A materialism that knows no boundaries, and eclipses all other values, ethical, intellectual and spiritual is perhaps what His Highness is referring to; for it is obvious that the material or physical side of our existence has its rights – it is when this search for material comfort leads to a loss of sense of proportions that it can be called ‘rampant’. Materialistic desire has to an extent run away with our intelligence. Instead of serving our higher calling as beings made in the image of God, the material aspect of our existence usurps that higher calling, and exploits our intelligence and our ethics for its own purposes.
Similarly, as regards to ‘self-indulgent individualism’: the seeking of individual fulfilment is of course intrinsic to the spiritual quest; but ‘self-indulgent individualism’ poisons this laudable quest for self-fulfilment with an entirely illegitimate self-obsession. ‘Do you see the one who takes his own desire as his god? We are asked in the Qur’an rhetorically (25:43). The Prophet famously warned his companions against ‘hidden idolatry’, by which he meant not the worship of stones and trees, but precisely the kind of self-worship alluded to in this Qur’anic verse. One may well affirm belief in God with one’s mind, and even worship this God with one’s body; but the belief may well be merely notional, and the worship may well be mere lip-service — while the heart is placed at the service of the desire of the ego. In Islam, as in all revealed religions, true worship of God always goes hand in hand with generosity to the neighbour. This relationship between worship of God and charity to one’s neighbour is a core value of the Islamic faith, and is, again, taught to us by Allah through the Qur’an in the form of the posing of a question. This time, we are asked whether we observe the one who gives the lie to religion, who denies it, even while apparently manifesting belief in it. This question comes as the opening verse in one of the shortest chapters in the whole Qur’an, and also one of the most powerful in conveying this simple but profound message: without charity and generosity, formal worship is but self-serving hypocrisy, thus a belying of the very substance of the faith:
Do you see the one who gives the lie to religion?
That is he who repels the orphan;
And urges not the feeding of the needy.
So woe be to those who pray!
Those who are heedless of their prayers;
Those who wish only to be seen [praying];
And refuse small acts of kindness.
(Surat al-Ma’un, 107: 1-7)
Turning to His Highness’s final description of the spiritual maladies of our times, ‘unprincipled relativism’, we note that this is a parody of pluralism, tolerance of difference, celebration of diversity. Few would contest that pluralism and tolerance are key Muslim values, but when they are based upon ‘unprincipled relativism’ they lose any relationship to objective principles rooted in the truth. The result is an indifferent ‘anything goes’ attitude. By contrast, if pluralism and tolerance are organically rooted in a conception of the Absolute which identifies that Absolute as the source of supreme Goodness, then one is equipped with a moral compass enabling one to discern those religious beliefs and cultural orientations which are consonant with the principle of the Good and the True. Without such a compass, principled tolerance can easily sink into ‘unprincipled relativism’.
The quest for authentic Muslim values, then, both begins and ends with a conception of the ultimate source of goodness, the Absolute Good, which imparts to all other ‘good things’ their value, their share in the source of absolute Goodness, which is nothing other than God. The Qur’anic revelation is inaugurated by Allah’s self-definition: al-Rahman and al-Rahim. These two names of God are not simple repetitions of the ideas of mercy and compassion. Rather, as is clear from the beautiful translation of the late Sufi scholar, Dr Martin Lings (d. 2005), it is absolute goodness—and hence ultimate source of all values — that is being referred to in this Muslim formula of consecration: ‘In the Name of God, the Infinitely Good, the Boundlessly Merciful’. From God as al-Rahman flow love, mercy and compassion — not to mention justice, truth, beauty, holiness, light, and all the other qualities of God — that are contained within the infinite goodness of the divine Essence. It is perhaps for this reason that the Qur’an gives al-Rahman as the closest synonym for Allah: ‘Call upon Allah or call upon al-Rahman’ (17:110).
Understanding God not only as the ultimate Reality, but as the infinitely Good, as al-Rahman, reveals the source of authentic Muslim values, all of which are summed in the word ‘virtue’. The English word, ‘virtue’, however, is a rather weak translation of the Arabic ihsan, a verbal noun whose root is hasunawhich means ‘to be beautiful’; ihsan might then be defined more accurately as ‘making beautiful’. The Prophet defined ihsan as ‘worshipping God as if you could see Him’, hinting at the transcendent source of human virtue. So the muhsin is not just one who is ‘virtuous’, but one who ‘makes beautiful’ his character, deeds and comportment, in conformity with the intrinsic beauty of the God whom he worships.
Imam Ali makes a subtle allusion (ishara) to this relationship between human virtue and divine beauty in one important saying, bringing to light an all-too neglected aspect of the intellect: ‘The excellence of the intellect resides in its capacity to perceive the beauty of things outward and inward’. The vision of beautiful things on the outward, formal plane (al-zahir), must be matched, and interiorised by, a vision of beauties on the inward, essential plane (al-batin), and these inward beauties are first, the virtues of the human soul, and then the divine names and qualities which these virtues reflect and display.
With this in mind, we can better understand why it is that the Prophet defined ihsan so elliptically as worshipping God ‘as if you could see Him’: if we could see the pure Goodness and Beauty of God, then that goodness and beauty would, irresistibly, radiate from us. The vision of God thus feeds directly into a life of generous service to others, seeing such service not so much in terms of duty as of beauty. One wishes to participate more fully in the beauty of God’s rahma by being generous and kind to one’s fellow human beings. We return to the fundamental Muslim values expressed in the Surat al-Ma’un: true worship of the Absolute, the source of all Goodness, must manifest itself outwardly in all our actions, even (or most especially) in ‘small acts of kindness’; we say most especially, because in each day, we have the opportunity—perhaps dozens of opportunities—to perform small acts of kindness, whereas we are not given the chance every day to perform heroic acts of sacrifice.
All Muslim values are rooted in our vision of God. The more clearly the heart ‘sees’ the beauty of the Divine, the more authentic our life of virtue will be. For an authentic intuition of God’s true nature heightens our sense of the sacred, and deepens our orientation towards the divine beauty from which all goodness radiates. A moral compass calibrated by divine Revelation helps us to not only steer away from all vices masquerading as virtue —‘rampant materialism, self-indulgent individualism, and unprincipled relativism’; it also helps us to transcend a flat conventional moralism conceived in terms of social platitude, and inspire us instead with a vision of virtue overflowing as spiritual plenitude.
 See for this, and other translations he offers for the formula in his different books, the compilation entitled The Holy Qur’an: Translations of Selected Verses (Cambridge, 2007).
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in issues of The Ismaili magazines in 2014.