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Fresh snow and slick streets didn’t deter a large audience from attending the Monday night premiere of a documentary about the Aga Khan—the spiritual leader of millions of the world’s Shi’ite Ismaili Muslims—at the Kennedy School of Government.
The hour-long film, “An Islamic Conscience: The Aga Khan and the Ismailis,” depicted the spiritual leader’s message of religious tolerance as well as his heavy funding of development organizations in Asia and Africa to help eliminate poverty, to support women’s rights, and to promote Islamic art and architecture.
“In a post-9/11, post-London bombing world, we really need to examine the plurality of Islam,” said Shamir Allibhai, the documentary’s producer and a student at Harvard Divinity School. “Right now, there’s a lot of media coverage of Islam associated with terrorism and extremism. This project looks at a different side of things.”
In contrast with other Shia sects, Ismailis believe that the Aga Khan is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and trust in his interpretation of the faith. The documentary discusses the history of the Ismailis and the policies of the three previous Aga Khans. The current Aga Khan, Prince Karim al-Hussayni, also appears in the film to reiterate the importance of tolerance during times of conflict.
The film screening was followed by a panel discussion with Allibhai, Emmy award-winning director Bill Cran, Islamica Magazine deputy editor Firas Ahmad, and Professor of Indo-Muslim Languages and Culture Ali Asani.
Cran, whose previous documentary was about jihad and al Qaeda, said that although he worried this documentary might be less “edgy” because it was so positive, it had to be made.
“The prejudice in our world is so extreme that we have to convey the simple fact that not all Muslims are extremists,” Cran said.
During the question and answer session, panelists responded to criticism of the film as portraying Sunni Muslims as aggressors and Shia Ismaili Muslims as a “rational” minority, which led to a debate over the role of journalists in propagating religious stereotypes.
Many viewers said they were impressed by the project’s attempt to portray a more tolerant side of Islam.
“It was a good introduction that broke the ice to understanding some of the problems of communication between the West and Islam,” said visiting Brown University freshman Areebah Ajani. “But I still think we have a long way to go.”
For Allibhai, who is himself an Ismaili, the documentary embodies a personal desire to promote change.
“This is a passion project on a number of different levels,” said Allibhai. “We hope the story of Aga Khan serves as a catalyst for people to rethink Islam.”
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