Beyond Relativism: The Aga Khan on Cosmopolitan Ethics, Pluralism and Personal Search

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

reason and faith-w656-h328Image 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

As with personal search, the Aga Khan’s stance against normatism is also often misunderstood and conflated with the same mistaken, relativistic understanding of right to personal interpretation explained above. Consequently his stand against normatism is taken to mean that “Islam has no absolute norms” and so once again, like with personal search, his positions are given a relativistic veneer. However, note that he only criticised attempts to normatise and said that they would be “unethical to the essence of Islam.” He did not say, nor does this mean, that Islam has no norms whatsoever but, rather — due to Islam’s essential ethic that there is no compulsion in faith — those norms and their interpretation of them, cannot be imposed or forced upon others, as he explained in the Kyrgyz Parliament in 2001:

[T]he Inquisition in Spain was every bit as cruel and destructive as any case that one can imagine…. What is not acceptable is any attempt to impose a particular interpretation on an unwilling individual or population. The Holy Qur’an says that there shall be no compulsion in religion.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Address to the two houses of the Kyrgyz Parliament (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan), September 25, 2001

Indeed, even the ardent insistence by relativism’s supporters that others should adopt and accept relativism’s premises — that there are no absolutes, no black and white answers — because those who think there are absolutes are wrong (leaving aside the inherent contradiction for relativism to even take such a stand), is itself a form of normatism the Aga Khan also resists. As he explained in his 2008, Vancouver Sun interview:

Don Cayo: In Canada I think some of our success is the comfortable tolerance of letting people set different standards for themselves. So, yes, some people may choose license and other people choose some realistic guidelines, if you like, to exercise their freedom. Is that what you see as the goal for the broader society, or is it a little different from that?

Aga Khan: Well I think it’s difficult to impose a firm line…. Freedom doesn’t mean that if you want to abuse that freedom, whatever it is, you legitimise or impose that on others.

Vancouver Sun Interview, Don Cayo (Vancouver, Canada), November 28, 2008

To be sure the Aga Khan himself says he is “cautious” about “formalistic” interpretations of Islam’s articles of faith that anchor the faith in time — which is something he says he “would never accept.” However, one must be careful not to confuse this, which is related to his views about the character of correct interpretations (i.e. they must not be time-bound) with the practise of those same interpretations (i.e. they must not forced on people).

In other words, the Aga Khan’s stand that Islam is not prescriptive does not mean it has no prescriptions, no articles of faith, and “to each his own” — that is, each individual’s interpretation must be considered valid and correct by virtue of the right to interpret, but, rather, that Islam is not prescripTIVE, not normative, simply means that its prescripTIONS, its norms, (as correctly and validly interpreted for the time) cannot be forced and each individual must make their own choice to follow or ignore them.

Cosmopolitan ethics

Click image to download as PDF
Click image to download as PDF

The Aga Khan has urged modern society to adopt what he calls a “cosmopolitan ethic” which, he says, is “an ethic for all peoples.” However, “for all peoples” is often taken to mean as “of all peoples,” so recasting the cosmopolitan ethic as the union of all people’s ethics (again as though all were valid and correct), whereas, as the Aga Khan explains below, the cosmopolitan ethic is comprised of just the intersection of everyone’s ethics, that is, what is common among all peoples, a consensus. And so with this misunderstanding — of union instead of intersection — again, like with personal search and normatism, the Aga Khan’s position is given a relativistic veneer.

I believe that people share the same basic worries, joys, and sadness. If we can reach a consensus in terms of cosmopolitan ethics, we will have attained something, which is very important.

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

Stephen McAndrew, author of Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe If It’s Not True: Is There Absolute Truth?, said: “If truth and moral values are relative, one cannot claim that certain human rights [Ed. or ethics] are universally applicable to all cultures and all people” and yet a universal ethic is precisely what the Aga Khan’s cosmopolitan ethic is.

More importantly, however, the Aga Khan has, time and time again, since 1959, clarified that ethics generally, and the cosmopolitan ethic itself, must be rooted in the “spiritual dimensions of our lives:”

Stefan Aust / Erich Follath: If the Pope were to invite you to take part with other religious leaders in a debate about faith, reason and violence, would you accept?

Aga Khan: Yes, definitely. I would, however, make the point that an ecumenical discussion at a certain stage will meet certain limits. Therefore I would prefer to talk more about a cosmopolitan ethic stemming from all of Earth’s great faiths.

Spiegel Online Interview (2nd), Stefan Aust and Erich Follath (Berlin, Germany), October 12, 2006

[W]hat we must seek and share is what I have called ‘a cosmopolitan ethic,’ a readiness to accept the complexity of human society. It is an ethic which balances rights and duties. It is an ethic for all peoples. It will not surprise you to have me say that such an ethic can grow with enormous power out of the spiritual dimensions of our lives.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
10th Annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture, Institute for Canadian Citizenship (Toronto, Canada), October 15, 2010

A deepening sense of spiritual commitment — and the ethical framework that goes with it — will be a central requirement if we are to find our way through the minefields and the quick sands of modern life. A strengthening of religious institutions should be a vital part of this process. To be sure, freedom of religion is a critical value in a pluralistic society. But if freedom of religion deteriorates into freedom from religion — then societies will find themselves lost in a bleak and unpromising landscape — with no compass, no roadmap and no sense of ultimate direction.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Address to the Evora University Symposium (Evora, Portugal), February 12, 2006

Rajan Roy: Do individuals increasingly lack an ethical compass?

Aga Khan: Which is why most freedoms go past a certain set of limits. Freedom has been taken to a point where unethical behaviour has become acceptable.

Times of India Interview, Ranjan Roy, (Hyderabad, India), September 29, 2013

[A] healthy sense of public integrity, in my view, will be difficult to nurture over time without a strong religious underpinning…. From that perspective, I would put high among our priorities, both within and outside the Islamic world, the need to renew our spiritual traditions.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, Commencement Ceremony (New York, USA), May 15, 2006

Let me finally emphasise my strong conviction that public integrity cannot grow out of authoritarian pronouncements. It must be rooted in the human heart and conscience. As the Holy Qur’an says: “There is no compulsion in religion.”

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, Commencement Ceremony (New York, USA), May 15, 2006

The message I will always give is that humanity cannot deal with present day problems without a basis of religion.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Press Conference (Kampala, Uganda), September 18, 1959

Firstly, note from the above quotes that, as mentioned earlier, the cosmopolitan ethic is a consensus — that is, what we all agree on. And so, given the Aga Khan has said that it must arise from the “Earth’s great faiths,” he has already limited the scope of that consensus to the ethical framework prescribed by those faiths, and in particular, in his case, Islam. One must be careful here not to jump to a conclusion that he suggesting some benign form of “enforced” religion. In fact, he has said the dialogue “would have to include non-believers because I am talking about human society.” Furthermore, besides being “unethical to the essence of Islam” and its no-compulsion-in-faith ethic, forced religion could not, of course, be a consensus. And so, when the Aga Khan says the cosmopolitan ethic will come from the “Earth’s great faiths” he is merely speaking to the source of the ethic. Again, since the ethic is a consensus, that consensus may not accept all the values, standards, mores and norms of a particular creed and so would adopt a subset of those, but at the same time it can’t be more than those values of the “Earth’s great faiths.”

But secondly, and more importantly, why will, in the Aga Khan’s view, ethics generally, and therefore the cosmopolitan ethic as well, arise from and be rooted in “the Earth’s great faiths” — and in his own case, Islam — as opposed to, say, some “new age” religion? While Islam, as explained in the above section on right to personal interpretation, admits one’s interpretation can be mistaken, it does so only because it simultaneously admits there is an absolute standard against which our interpretations may be assessed for those very mistakes. Mistakes and an absolute standard are two sides of the same coin. In other words, the “great faiths” provide, as the Aga Khan says, a “compass” and a “sense of ultimate direction.” The metaphor of a moral compass is particularly accurate. A magnetic, navigational compass allows you to know your course because it lets you assess your heading in relation to an absolute standard — true North. Without such an absolute standard it would be impossible to know where you are and in which direction you are heading. Relativism has no absolute standard, no true North, and indeed not even a sense of direction because it has no destination. And without a true North, relativism leaves only the possibility of assessing your course and heading relative to others, who are in turn assessing their own course and heading relative to you. The indifferent outcome of such a directionless, wandering journey is self-evident.

However, in terms of ethics, relativism’s lack of a true North, lack of an absolute standard, creates an intractable, unresolvable dilemma for itself. Since relativism insists all perspectives, all views, all values and all ethics are equal and none are, nor can be, wrong or mistaken, it dictates that, for equity’s sake, everyone’s ethics — no matter how fanciful or bizarre — are valid and “ethical.” Indeed, relativism would even accept two contradictory or opposing positions as valid and “ethical.” This absurdity exposes that relativism, by its own definition, admits it has no principles to adhere to and that “anything goes.” And so, relativism is, as the Aga Khan succinctly said, “unprincipled:”

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

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, Commencement Ceremony (New York, USA), May 15, 2006


Of all the principles discussed so far, pluralism — with its promise of universal inclusion and equity — is perhaps the one where relativism casts its bland, grey shadow most surreptitiously. However, like with ethics, where the Aga Khan’s notion of a cosmopolitan ethic is mistakenly thought to be a union of the ethics of all people, as though they are all equally valid, without exception, so too the Aga Khan’s position on pluralism is also mistakenly thought to mean all positions and opinions must be respected and accepted as equally valid, without exception. Consequently — like with personal search, normatism and cosmopolitan ethics, the Aga Khan’s support of pluralism is given its relativistic veneer because, from this understanding of pluralism, pluralism is nothing more than relativism by another name. Or more accurately, relativism redefines itself as pluralism and hijacks pluralism’s legitimacy.

Furthermore, since relativism proposes that all points of view are equally valid, relativists argue that only relativism’s inclusive, non-discriminatory, non-judgemental worldview can motivate society towards a truly tolerant, pluralistic, mutually respectful society.

However, the Aga Khan’s understanding of pluralism does not accept the two aforementioned premises, of what we might call “unfettered pluralism.” That is, firstly, he does not subscribe to its sweeping, uncritical acceptance of all values, ethics, morals, opinions and positions without reservation, without exception, as though they are all equally valid. And, secondly, he does not accept that relativism is the indispensable, necessary worldview which motivates society towards pluralism and mutual respect and understanding.

Unfettered, individual freedom born of unfettered pluralism
or individual freedom tempered by social responsibility?

Unfettered pluralism dictates that all values, ethics and morals are equally valid, without discrimination, and implies, therefore, the unfettered right to hold and exercise them. In other words, sweeping, uncritical equity requires a concomitant to unfettered, individual freedom. Unfettered freedom is, however, license, which — as quoted below — the Aga Khan unequivocally rejects, and always has. Consequently it is self-evident that, the Aga Khan cannot, and indeed does not, subscribe to this relativistic definition of pluralism. A definition which permits unfettered, individual freedom to masquerade with an air of legitimacy simply because its proponents shout “Pluralism!” In other words, for him, pluralism does not mean blind respect without reason, blind inclusivity without intellection. Instead, the Aga Khan’s notion of pluralism is socially and intellectually sophisticated, nuanced and aligned with his notion of cosmopolitan ethics. It is one which “honour[s] both human rights and social duties, to advance personal freedom and to accept human responsibility.”

It’s clear that uncontrolled freedom becomes license. It’s an issue that keeps coming up all the time.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Pranay Gupte Interview (United States, United Kingdom), 1999

[I]n many areas [even beyond the Muslim world] people defend the principle of freedom to a point where freedom tends to become depravity, permissiveness and disrespect. At that point, Islam says ‘no.’

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Politique Internationale Interview, Jean-Jacques Lafaye, ‘The Power of Wisdom’ (Paris, France), March 2010

Don Cayo: When I look at the Western perceptions of freedom, which we value highly, I sometimes think we interpret it as the whole world should be free to be like us. Is that how we are seen from the other perspectives?

Aga Khan: I think that’s certainly one aspect — the feeling that the societies of the industrialised world are always right, and therefore what they get right should be the norm for everybody else. I think there are areas where we don’t agree with that. We think freedom is important, of course. But we think that freedom really is not something that one has to take in the absolute. There is abuse of freedom. And when freedom is abused, what does it become?

Don Cayo: License, I guess.

Aga Khan: Exactly. And that’s where parts of our world say ‘Stop!’

Don Cayo: In Canada I think some of our success is the comfortable tolerance of letting people set different standards for themselves. So, yes, some people may choose license and other people choose some realistic guidelines, if you like, to exercise their freedom. Is that what you see as the goal for the broader society, or is it a little different from that?

Aga Khan: Well I think it’s difficult to impose a firm line. But I think that when you look at history, the history of humankind, you will find that when freedoms have become license, society tends to disaggregate. And I think that what we’re seeing in the Western world is that very issue on the table, and a reversal. I think there is a reversal under way. Freedom doesn’t mean that if you want to abuse that freedom, whatever it is, you legitimise or impose that on others.

Vancouver Sun Interview, Don Cayo (Vancouver, Canada), November 28, 2008

What has been called the permissive society where anything goes, nothing matters, nothing is sacred or private any more, is not a promising foundation for a brave and upright new world. This fearful chase after material ease must surely be tempered by peace of mind, by conscience, by moral values, which must be resuscitated….

It is my deepest conviction that if Islamic society is to avoid following blindly the course of Western society without taking the trouble to raise guards against the latter’s weaknesses and deficiencies, a thorough rediscovery, revitalisation and reintegration of our traditional values must be achieved.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Peshawar University Convocation Ceremony (Peshawar, Pakistan), November 30, 1967

Perhaps, too, it is ignorance which has allowed so many participants in this discussion to confuse liberty with license — implying that the sheer absence of restraint on human impulse can constitute a sufficient moral framework…. I am suggesting that freedom of expression is an incomplete value unless it is used honourably, and that the obligations of citizenship in any society should include a commitment to informed and responsible expression.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Address to the Evora University Symposium (Evora, Portugal), February 12, 2006

A passion for justice, the quest for equality, a respect for tolerance, a dedication to human dignity — these are universal human values which are broadly shared across divisions of class, race, language, faith and geography. They constitute what classical philosophers, in the East and West alike, have described as human “virtue” — not merely the absence of negative restraints on individual freedom, but also a set of positive responsibilities, moral disciplines which prevent liberty from turning into license.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, Commencement Ceremony (New York, USA), May 15, 2006

Striking a balance between freedom and unbridled license demands constant pragmatic adjustments in all areas of life.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Dinner hosted by the Vice President of India (Delhi, India), January 12, 1983

A cosmopolitan ethic is one that welcomes the complexity of human society. It balances rights and duties, freedom and responsibility.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Address to both Houses of the Parliament of Canada in the House of Commons Chamber (Ottawa, Canada), February 27, 2014

Freedom must not be allowed to degenerate into licence, whether in universities or in society as a whole. When it has so degenerated, it has invariably destroyed the very civilisations which gave it birth.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Acceptance of the Charter of the Aga Khan University (Karachi, Pakistan), March 16, 1983

Pakistan Television Corporation: And what would be your ideal world view of the future of Islam? And what kind of world, Islam as a faith and followers of Islam would envisage where really we can say that yes this is an Islamic country with the best of ideals and practices?

Aga Khan: I would like [the] essence of the faith to be more predominant in everyone’s life…. Secondly, living in the context of the moral discipline of Islam, I think, is important because living in a society where freedom eventually becomes equated with license, is not what I would want.

Pakistan Television Corporation Interview (Karachi, Pakistan), November 12, 1985

Indeed, the Aga Khan, in one of his seminal quotes, reinforces his conviction that all ethics and values are not equally valid, that some are right and others just simply wrong — which, in and of itself, is a rejection of relativism’s core position: its non-judgemental stand. Furthermore, he also laments how what was wrong is still wrong, but must, today, be tolerated simply for the sake of individual freedom:

What was once wrong is now simply unconventional, and for the sake of individual freedom must be tolerated. What is tolerated soon becomes accepted. Contrarily, what was once right is now viewed as outdated, old fashioned and is often the target of ridicule.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Presidential Address, International Seerat Conference, ‘Life of the Prophet (sas)’ (Karachi, Pakistan), March 12, 1976

Motivating society towards pluralism:
The relativist mindset or a spiritual imperative?

For the Aga Khan, diversity is a gift from Allah, from the Divine and a “pluralist commitment is rooted in the essential unity of the human race.” Consequently, from this perspective, he renders relativism’s other premise — that only its worldview offers humanity the best opportunity for a truly pluralist society — as unnecessary. In other words, for the Aga Khan, pluralism is a “sacred spiritual imperative”, a spiritual obligation, rather than a secular ethic rooted in, or motivated by, any other non-spiritual source or worldview, such as relativism.

[D]iversity and variety constitute one of the most beautiful gifts of the Creator

What this challenge [of balancing and reconciling the quest for distinctive identity and the search for global coherence] will ultimately require of us, is a deep sense of personal and intellectual humility, an understanding that diversity itself is a gift of the Divine

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
The Peterson Lecture, Annual Meeting of the International Baccalaureate (Atlanta, USA), April 18,2008

In acknowledging the immensity of the Divine, we will also come to acknowledge our human limitations, the incomplete nature of human understanding. In that light, the amazing diversity of Creation itself can be seen as a great gift to us

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
10th Annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture, Institute for Canadian Citizenship (Toronto, Canada), October 15, 2010

[The] ethic of connectivity with others has deep spiritual roots — in Islam as for other faiths. It stems ultimately from humankind’s sense of humility in the presence of the Divine. In this light, human diversity itself is seen as a gift of Allah, cultural differences are embraced as a blessing, and different interpretations of faith are seen as a mercy, one that nourishes the Ummah’s vast identity, and its constructive interface with society at large.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Ismaili Centre Opening Ceremony (Dushanbe, Tajikistan), October 12, 2009

A pluralist commitment is rooted in the essential unity of the human race. Does the Holy Qur’an not say that mankind is descended from “a single soul?” In an increasingly cosmopolitan world, it is essential that we live by a “cosmopolitan ethic,” one that addresses the age-old need to balance the particular and the universal, to honour both human rights and social duties, to advance personal freedom and to accept human responsibility. It is in that spirit that we can nurture bonds of confidence across different peoples and unique individuals, welcoming the growing diversity of our world, even in matters of faith, as a gift of the Divine. Difference, in this context, can become an opportunity — not a threat — a blessing rather than a burden.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
88th Stephen A. Ogden, Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs, Brown University (Providence, USA), March 10, 2014

When diversity is viewed as a gift from Allah, from the Divine, pluralism becomes a spiritual imperative, an inescapable, spiritual charge instead of an unimaginative, but otherwise necessary, compromise fashioned merely to facilitate peace or reduce conflict. Instead, as a spiritual obligation, pluralism is assigned a profound role — beyond even relativism’s ideals — for pluralism becomes the instigator of discovery and exploration, a source of enlightenment:

What is required goes beyond mere tolerance or sympathy or sensitivity — emotions which can often be willed into existence by a generous soul. True cultural sensitivity is something far more rigorous, and even more intellectual than that. It implies a readiness to study and to learn across cultural barriers, an ability to see others as they see themselves.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
The Peterson Lecture, Annual Meeting of the International Baccalaureate (Atlanta, USA), April 18,2008

Tolerance which grows out of hope is more than a negative virtue, more than a convenient way to ease sectarian tensions or foster social stability, more than a sense of forbearance when the views of others clash with our own. Instead, seen not as a pallid religious compromise but as a sacred religious imperative, tolerance can become a powerful, positive force, one which allows all of us to expand our horizons and enrich our lives.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Acceptance Address – Tutzing Evangelical Academy’s ‘Tolerance’ Award (Tutzing, Germany), May 20, 2006

This ethic of exploration and interconnectedness is one that is deeply shared by the Ismaili community. It is an ethic, in fact, that is firmly rooted in our faith — a value system which grows from deeply spiritual roots. It understands that human diversity is itself a gift of Allah — that pluralism is not a threat but a blessing. It sees the desire to explore and connect as a way to learn and grow, not to dilute our identities but to enrich our self-knowledge. This ethic emanates ultimately from a relationship to the Divine which inspires a deep sense of personal humility and a relationship to humankind which is infused with a spirit of generous service and mutual respect.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
Ismaili Centre Opening Ceremony (Dubai, United Arab Emirates), March 26, 2008

Relativism and the Divine: An incompatible combination

Note from the above, however, the subtle, but fatal blow the Aga Khan delivers to relativism when he invokes the Divine, as he did for ethics, earlier, for pluralism, above, and indeed for all aspects of his life, generally. By definition, the Divine is absolute and the source of absolute truth. The Qur’an itself famously declares, in Sura Ikhlas, that “Allah is Absolute. Independent.” (112:2) That is, Allah is neither relative to, nor dependent on, anything. Instead, Allah is unique, singular. Independent. Relativism, however, rejects, also by definition, absolutes and absolute truth. Consequently, relativism rejects the Absolute, the Divine. And so, one can not, on the one hand, invoke or draw on the Divine without simultaneously rejecting relativism on the other. The two are simply incompatible logically, philosophically and theologically.

Even Hazrat Ali — who, 1400 years ago, first held the office of Imamat which the present Aga Khan holds — rejected relativism’s all-views-are-equal-and-none-are-wrong proposition, when, as common sense also dictates, he unambiguously stated that two different positions (let alone contradictory positions which relativism permits) cannot be simultaneously equally valid, equally correct and equally meritorious:

When two biddings differ. one of them is misleading.
When answers compete, correctness is concealed.

Hazrat Ali
(Living and Dying with Grace, Counsels of Hadrat Ali), Thomas Cleary, pp 33

And it is here, in the notion of merit, where relativism reveals its most fundamental and critical weakness. Relativism’s bland, homogeneous intellectual landscape — where no set of values, ethics and morals are allowed to enjoy greater merit or intellectual validity over any other other, where, therefore, no one is more enlightened than anyone else — strips away intellectual merit from the human condition. The diversity of merit itself is denied and any one intellect is rendered just as unworthy of higher consideration, just as unimportant and indifferent, as any other. Intellectual merit is reduced to the similar indifference, intellectually speaking, of, say, various hair colours or eye colours. However, in stark contrast to this abolition of merit, merit, for the Aga Khan is a noble, cherished and unavoidable consequence of pluralism:

In the final analysis, no nation, no race, no individual has a monopoly of intelligence or virtue. If we are to pursue the ideal of meritocracy in human endeavour, then its most perfect form will grow out of a respect for human pluralism, so that we can harness the very best contributions from whomever and wherever they may come.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
University of Alberta Graduation Ceremony (Edmonton, Canada), June 9, 2009

The spirit of the Knowledge Society is the spirit of Pluralism — a readiness to accept the Other, indeed to learn from him, to see difference as an opportunity rather than a threat.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV
2006 Aga Khan University Convocation Ceremony (Karachi, Pakistan), December 2, 2006

And thus, when relativism is considered from these two perspectives — its denial of both the Divine and intellectual merit, relativism contradicts the very mandate of the office of Imamat the Aga Khan holds and all that it represents (an absolute authority), all that it offers Ismailis (the most enlightened and sole, correct interpretation of Islam) and all that it stands for (including the notion of a hierarchy of intellectual merit with Imam himself at the apex):

Roger Priouret: What is your role as head of the community?

Aga Khan: It is two-fold. The Imam must direct Ismailis on the practise of their religion and constantly interpret the Qur’an for them according to our theology. On the spiritual plane, the Imam’s authority is absolute. Ismailis believe therefore that what the Imam says is the only true interpretation possible. This is fundamental to our religion — perhaps something similar is found in the case of the Pope in the Catholic religion….

L’Expansion Interview, Roger Priouret, ‘Face to Face with the Aga Khan’ (Paris, France) [Translation], March 1975

The Shia or “party” of Ali, already in existence during the lifetime of the Prophet, maintained that while the revelation ceased at the Prophet’s death, the need for spiritual and moral guidance of the community, through an ongoing interpretation of the Islamic message, continued…. Their espousal of the right of … to the leadership of the community was rooted, above all, in their understanding of the Qur’an and its concept of qualified and rightly guided leadership, as reinforced by Prophetic traditions.

Ismaili Imamat, Aga Khan Development Network website

Indeed, the notion of an hierarchy of intellectual merit echoes throughout the Qur’an itself, where it is explained that merit is a blessing. As such, it is self-evident that we, as mere humans, cannot just extinguish it by decree, by fiat, or, even if one denies the Divine, just pretend merit doesn’t exist because it offends some arbitrary sensibility.

All (of them) We aid, these as well as those, out of the bounty of your Lord; and the bounty of your Lord is not restricted. Behold how We cause some of them to excel others; …

Holy Qu’ran 17:20-21
Translation by S.V. Mir Ahmed Ali

… Say, ‘Can those who know be equal to those who do not?‘ Verily, only men of understanding heed the warning.

Holy Qu’ran 39:9
Translation by S.V. Mir Ahmed Ali

God will exalt in ranks those who believe among you, and those who have been granted knowledge …

Holy Qu’ran 58:11
Translation by S.V. Mir Ahmed Ali

… We raise in degrees (of wisdom and knowledge) of whomsoever We will, and above everyone endued with knowledge is the all-Knowing

Holy Qu’ran 12:76
Translation by S.V. Mir Ahmed Ali

Pluralism and Relativism: Epilogue

The intersection of pluralism and relativism is, however, important for another reason, for, ironically, it is at this intersection, where relativism feels most secure, it is actually most vulnerable and exposed.

Despite relativism’s insistence that, by definition, there are no universal human values, relativists argue — nay insist — that tolerance and pluralism are a special exception to this cardinal rule and they should be elevated to the special status of “universal human values.” Relativism requires this exception for itself because without it, relativism itself could not even exist. For, if alternative views are not tolerated, relativism’s indifferent buffet of perspectives — which it so cherishes — would, by definition, be stillborn and extinguished before it arises because, without tolerance and pluralism, each viewpoint would not even have right to be heard. In other words, relativism, despite its steadfast insistence against universal human values, against absolutes, self-servingly reserves an absolute — that of tolerance and pluralism — for itself just so it may actually exist as a concept itself.

However, this is not the only absolute exception relativism reserves for itself. Relativism further insists that relativism itself should be an absolute, a universal value that all should adopt. Further still, relativism accepts only one definition of pluralism — namely all values and views be accepted without criticism, without exception and without reservation. But even this third exception is insufficient and relativism then insists that this specific brand of pluralism should be adopted by all. However, since this brand of pluralism rests on the principle of unfettered, individual freedom, relativism also insists on a fifth exception, that all should accept unfettered freedom as an ethically valid universal value.

It is this duplicity, this reserving of self-serving exceptions for itself, that undermines the moral, ethical, intellectual and philosophical credibility and viability of relativism. Notwithstanding that the exceptions, of course, beg the question: if five notions can be granted exceptions to elevate them to absolute, universal status — let alone simply for expedience, then why not other notions?


And so, while the principles the Aga Khan steadfastly champions, discussed above, appear to have a common relativistic thread, and suggest the Aga Khan endorses the notion of relativism, despite his own explicit rejection of it, this thread is a superficial one. Furthermore, his rejection of relativism is necessary simply because all of these very principles are only logically consistent, both individually and collectively, because relativism is rejected. In other words, relativism is simply an intellectual and moral illusion.

Supplemental reading

To learn more about the Aga Khan’s views on the principles highlighted above, please see:

Their Highnesses the Aga Khans III and IV on Islam’s and the Qur’an’s assent of freedom of individual interpretation

Their Highnesses Aga Khans III and IV on interpreting the faith: individuality vs formalistic approaches which anchor faith in time

His Highness the Aga Khan on the need to revive spiritual traditions as a prerequisite to restoring public integrity

His Highness the Aga Khan on the cosmopolitan ethic and inter-religious dialogue, which must include non-believers

His Highness the Aga Khan’s cautionary notes on Western values

About the author:

Mohib Ebrahim is the Editor and Publisher of the NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat Speeches, Interviews and Writings. Launched several years ago, in 2011, upon receiving special permission from Aiglemont to publish His Highness the Aga Khan’s speeches, the NanoWisdoms Archive is a unique website dedicated solely to the Ismaili Imamat’s speeches, interviews and writings. With over 500 readings — from,,,,,, printed materials, media Web sites and other sources — and thousands of quotes, the Archive is the most comprehensive, public collection of Ismaili Imamat knowledge available today.

An honours graduate of Simon Fraser University in Computer Science and Mathematics, Mohib has been involved in software development and the IT industry since the ’80s. His current project, MasterFile, is a state-of-the-art evidence system for academic researchers, investigators, and litigators. Mohib has also been a keen amateur astronomer for almost 40 years and his religious interests lie in the reconciliation of faith and reason.

Other articles by the author

5 thoughts on “Beyond Relativism: The Aga Khan on Cosmopolitan Ethics, Pluralism and Personal Search

  1. Dear Mohib, I am no scholar or intellectual but your writing has inspired these spontaneous thoughts in my searching mind. I want to thank you for sharing your discourse that lays bare on the unprincipled nature of those who uphold relativism as a sacred principle to guide their self styled secular life which I have always found to be self-serving – especially in the hands of those who do not want to hold themselves accountable for any kind of a reasoned understanding of universal values or ideals that the great faith traditions inspire us to uphold – if for no other reason than to make civilized life possible here on earth.

    Unfortunately, for the longest time, I have allowed my secular friends to have the upper hand in presenting their arguments that claim that relativism is the gold standard for modern life. I have found their claims to be most self serving and unsettling but I have found myself at a loss of words – only because I did not have the liberal arts and intellectual training to put forward principled arguments that you have so successfully put forward and so intellectually and brilliantly supported by the Aga Khan’s deep reflections on this timely subject. For this I want to thank you for helping me understand the principles of my faith and the vital role of our Ismaili Imam has been spending his whole life to help us understand, to internalize and to apply these age old principles into the way we live in our contemporary world – a world in which too many of our contemporaries have conveniently come to believe that everything is relative, nothing is sacred, everything goes – as long as it suits the unprincipled “believer’s” self interest.

    I for one am greatful to have a living Imam who inspires and empowers us to volunteerily choose to undertake the scared journey of life through personal search which is informed by sacred principles of our faith tradition. A personal search which frees us to seek our truths through the realities of our own lives on this earth and to benefit from our God given privilege to seek out our own understanding of enlighnment in the world. An enlightenment which can help light our path as we seek to live peacefully on this earth and leave it a little better place than we found it when we found it. Again Mohib, thank you. Thank you. Thank you my brother in Islam.

    Nizar Jiwan

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