Having recently seen the inspiring film, "Let The Beauty We Love Be What We Do," about The Aga Khan's dedicated work on the restoration of historical Islamic buildings, I was moved to read this collection of his talks on the need for pluralism and tolerance in today's diverse and violent world.
In this collection of fourteen addresses, given over the last six years to various distinguished organisations, he explains concisely the need for societies to not merely accept pluralism of cultures and viewpoints, but to work actively in promoting this necessity for a tolerant world.
I especially like the chapters on democracy, highlighting its failures, strengths and needs, and the Aga Khan's oft-repeated point that the "Clash of Civilisations" so frequently mentioned in the media is actually a clash of ignorances, as communities with so much in common slide into conflict and fear due to lack of education on each other's virtues.
Pluralism is not a word that we come across frequently, yet it is by no means a minor or obscure subject, being in fact the fountain from which tolerance flows. In religion, it means that different faiths should coexist peacefully, at least giving each other tolerance, and at best recognising the central truths that they share. And of course pluralism in culture - with which it must go hand in hand - means much the same. In not merely calling for pluralism, but actively working for it, the Aga Khan goes beyond many of the religious leaders of today, leaving behind the tangled, fruitless jungle of sectarian beliefs, and venturing into the reality of human desire for peace and fulfilment.
There is a choice to be made, and nowadays it presses upon us with greater urgency than ever before. To accept, enjoy and learn from the natural diversity of this world, or to fear this diversity, and in seeking to oppose it, narrow down our own souls into dark caves where we may crouch in avoidance of life's sunlight. War occurs for a limited number of causes, and it's a common saying that religion causes more wars than anything else. I have no patience with cheerleading for this religion versus that, whilst throwing aside the search for meaning and fulfilment, and so I applaud the content of this book heartily, whilst praising the insight with which it's delivered.
To me, pluralism is recognition of the inescapable fact that all human being are created differently, even though in their essential nature they are the same. Variety is said to be the spice of life, and it is in this variety of physical - and emotional - being that we can find joy in exploring the breadth of the world. Nor is variety limited to form and emotions: thought also varies, both in its ability and conclusions, and these conclusions can, if applied intolerantly, lead us into the most violent and disastrous of conflicts. Yet if considered with tolerance and understanding, differences can act as mirrors and commentaries to each other, and lead us to greater understanding and breadth of being.
There is an adventure in life, the adventure of going beyond the limited experiences that we know, and into communion with the unknown and exotic. In finding the virtues of strangers to be in sympathy with ours, we ourselves become the strange and exotic. Our accustomed skin we then exchange for that of different hue, lighter or more luxuriantly dark, or its plain smoothness for the bright geometry of reptilian scales, or the brilliance of rainbow plumage. This is perhaps a little poetically put, but how else to express life's beauty, so easily gained or lost by hatred or love?
Long ago, a culture formed in the near east, growing from the words and revelations of prophets, which it recorded in scriptures. It recognised the supremacy of one unseen God, and the folly of worshiping idols, and recognised rules by which man could live in harmony. All was not of course perfect: man's everyday baggage of evil struggled with this good, and different schools of thought contended. Within this culture a teacher arose, Jesus, who taught the same, but afresh, and later another, Prophet Mohammed, who again pointed to one God, and the uselessness of idols, and the brotherhood of man. Despite the agreement of their teachings, and the God they spoke of in different languages being one and the same, quarrels arose. Today we see three groups, which we, obsessed with pigeonholing, classify as different, though they are not, and in pursuit of ever more complex ideas we sub-divide them endlessly and uselessly. Disputes continue, and often these supposed differences are used to fuel political struggles for land, or power, or individual glory, and blood is shed where the original intention was to enjoy peace and prosperity.
Today we have the same choice as the millions who have gone before us, wavering between a deeper inner world and one of immediate gratification, and wavering also between perceiving the essential unity of religions or wandering angry and bewildered within a forest of petty arguments and blood stained histories. We can choose the simple path of tolerance and progress, or we can add to the hatred and ruin.
We choose which facts we remember; we choose which facts we know. Wars, murders, and acts of terrorism stand out dramatically, and hide the greater reality of everyday cooperation. Historically, Islam, Judaism and Christianity have learned from each other constantly, and today we are free to do the same, or be misled into seeing the feeble differences of detail and ignoring the all-powerful unities.
Graham Worthington, author, Wake of the Raven