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  1. Culture
11 December 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:30am

The meaning of life

As Ismailis celebrate the Golden Jubilee of their spiritual leader the Aga Khan, Fayaz Alibhai looks

By Fayaz Alibhai

‘What is the meaning of my life?’ As individuals, we face this question most often at what are known as ‘limit-situations’ – the birth of our children, the death of our loved ones, markers of the rites of passage in our journey of life.

As a member of a religious community, I ask myself the same kinds of questions. What is the meaning of our life? Who are we as Muslims? What is our history? Indeed, what is our vision – and legacy – for the future? As a Shia Ismaili Muslim, these questions are particularly poignant today, for the community is celebrating a unique and historic milestone, namely the commemoration of the Golden Jubilee of its Imam (spiritual leader), His Highness the Aga Khan.

What does this mean for the Ismaili Muslims? On 11th July 2007, the Aga Khan had come to devote 50 years of his life to the upliftment of the community and to humanity at large. His role and the responsibilities of his office have, however, often been poorly understood, particularly in Western discourse, where the secular is clearly demarcated from the religious.

This is not the case in Islam. Faith and world, din and dunya, are so inseparable as to constitute a ‘Way of Life’. Indeed, in his address to the Tutzing Evangelical Academy last year, the Aga Khan articulated, as he has done in various fora since his accession to the Imamate, the role and responsibility of the Imam as being “both to interpret the faith to the community, and also to do all within his means to improve the quality and security of their daily lives.”

The Imamate’s endeavours, therefore, in education, health, the economy and the building of social infrastructure, amongst others, are thus not merely expressions of philanthropy or entrepreneurship. Rather, the Aga Khan said, “this work is … part of our institutional responsibility – it flows from the mandate of the office of Imam to improve the quality of worldly life for the concerned communities.”

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This office of the Imamate is grounded in the Shi‘i understanding of the Qur’an and the hadiths (the sayings and actions) of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Shia Imami Ismaili Imamate is thus a fundamental and integral expression of a concept of enlightened leadership and authority in Islam that goes back in an unbroken line almost 1400 years in history.

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As Ismailis commemorate their Imam’s Jubilee this year, they remind themselves of the continuity of this office, commit themselves to the principles of Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith, and in a myriad ways, express their abiding love, devotion and appreciation for the guidance and vision of their Imam-e Zaman, Imam of the Time.