Karen Armstrong delivered the Global Centre for Pluralism’s 2018 Annual Pluralism Lecture at the Aga Khan Centre on 4 October, in the presence of Mawlana Hazar Imam, Princess Zahra, former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson, and Secretary General of the Global Centre for Pluralism John McNee.

Armstrong — a British author, historian, officer of the Order of the British Empire, and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature — spoke about “the urgent global imperative that is pluralism.”

Mawlana Hazar Imam introduced Armstrong as, “a person who has contributed in a remarkable way to illuminating Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and indeed understanding all of the great religious traditions.”

He went on to say, “Looking into the future, I think one of the greatest challenges for the entire world will be finding ways in which we can all achieve a deeper understanding of the other, and what makes each of us distinct as human beings and as communities. To achieve this vital goal, reflective, creative, and empathetic thinkers and writers will be critically important. Tonight, we are privileged to hear from one of their most respected voices.”

Armstrong began her lecture by asking why the world needs pluralism. She went on to say that religious pluralism requires people to acknowledge how little they know about the subject of religion, saying it is “unlike other disciplines.” Having the humility to admit what we do not know is a vital step in embarking on a journey of open-hearted discovery, about ourselves and others.

Karen Armstrong proposed that ego causes certain groups to regard that only their beliefs are correct or better than others. As an alternative to the prevalence of ignorance and ego, Armstrong suggested that a more compassionate way of living and interacting is urgently required in today’s fragmented world.

The practice of compassion goes beyond mere toleration, she said. Much more than sympathy or pity, compassion involves seeing the common humanity in another, and encourages care and concern for others, near and far.

Karen Armstrong has spent much time studying the world’s major religious faiths, and has published works on the history of Islam, and the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family).

“I was drawn to Islam because of its massive pluralism,” Armstrong said. “The Quran has a pluralistic outlook.”

She went on to quote passages of eminent philosophers and theologians in the Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions, including Ibn Arabi and Thomas Aquinas, who propounded faith, reason, and knowledge over egotism and conceit.

Karen Armstrong concluded by speaking of the role of religion today in teaching compassion for one another. With the well-known Golden Rule at its core, a compassionate view of the world can unite diverse groups, and inspire us all to infuse our lives with kindness, understanding, and a truly pluralist outlook. Following the lecture, BBC’s Lyse Doucet moderated a conversation with Armstrong, giving the audience an opportunity to ask questions.

The Global Centre for Pluralism, an independent centre for research and education, was jointly established by Mawlana Hazar Imam and the Government of Canada. Its annual lecture series features leaders in pluralism, who are making a difference in their chosen fields.

Previous lectures have featured speakers such as Roza Otunbayeva, Central Asia’s first female leader; António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations; The Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of Canada; and Justice Albie Sachs, a senior member of the African National Congress.

The late Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General and Nobel Peace laureate, delivered the Annual Pluralism Lecture in 2013 and also sat on the Centre’s Board of Directors. Prior to introducing Karen Armstrong, Mawlana Hazar Imam spoke about Annan’s contributions around the globe.

“I was privileged to know and work with Mr Annan for many years. He made an enormous contribution to the Global Centre for Pluralism, just one of his many remarkable contributions to humanity. He will be greatly missed,” Hazar Imam said. “It is gratifying that the important work of the Kofi Annan Foundation for a fairer more peaceful world is continuing.”

This was one of the first major events held at the newly-opened Aga Khan Centre, which was inaugurated in June by Mawlana Hazar Imam and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. This was also the first time that the Global Centre for Pluralism’s Annual Pluralism Lecture was held outside of Canada.