The recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States is a suitable occasion to consider the often invoked comparisons between the Ismaili Imam and the Catholic Pope.
The institution of the Imamat is the succession to the Prophet Muhammad and recognizes Hazrat ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as the first Imam. The Imamat is a hereditary office where each Imam is appointed and designated by the sole designation (nass) of the previous Imam;
The office of the Papacy claims to represent the succession to Jesus and recognizes Simon Peter as the first Pope and successor. The Pope is elected by a College of Cardinals;
The Ismaili Imam guides the Ismailis in daily spiritual and temporal matters and also endeavors to improve the community’s quality of life.
The Pope guides the Catholics in spiritual and moral matters.
The Ismaili Imam is guided by the Holy Spirit throughout his life and is therefore infallible (ma‘sum) and sinless in his words and deeds;
The Pope is said to be infallible only when he speaks ex-cathedra (when making a doctrinal pronouncement on behalf of the Catholic Church) – he is not sinless or divinely-inspired as an individual person.
The present Imam of the Ismailis, Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, preaches a message of pluralism while emphasizing that pluralism does not mean for individual traditions and beliefs to be homogenized;
The present Pope, His Holiness Pope Francis, likewise focuses on interreligious dialogue while reminding people that dialogue cannot take place without a solid identity.
The Ismaili Imamat and the AKDN have entered into several agreements of Cooperation with Portugal and the Roman Catholic Church through the Patriarchate of Lisbon. These agreements between the Catholic Church and the Aga Khan Foundation currently involves 20 entities that assist people facing serious issues of poverty and exclusion. These agreements reflect the Ismaili Imam’s conviction that the great Abrahamic monotheistic religions share a number of common beliefs and values: