The movement of people across the world occurs at a frequency and volume unmatched in human history. Advancements in transportation, the spread of the global workforce, increasing urbanisation, and the search for economic opportunity are just a few factors that fuel the flow of people across borders.
These forces have been compounded by the existence of human conflict, economic and political strife, and climate change, which have also resulted in the frequent and often forced movement of people from one place to another. Naturally, this has created more encounters with difference.
Such interactions bring with them the exciting prospect of diversity as a wellspring of knowledge, beauty, innovation, and creativity. However, there is also a danger that such encounters may lead to hostility, due to ignorance and fear of the unknown.
In these situations, one reaction may be the retreat into comforting spheres of familiarity, where the “other” is excluded, and complex cultural histories are reduced to cruel and crude caricatures.
Finding ourselves in this situation, it may help to remember that notions of difference and diversity are not new. According to Islamic belief, the world’s diversity is in fact a generous blessing. While the forces of globalisation may have brought humanity’s inherent differences into sharper focus, the roots of this diversity lie in an ancient and divine imperative.
Sura al-Hujarat, selected by Mawlana Hazar Imam to feature in the Diamond Jubilee emblem, proclaims:
“O mankind, indeed, We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” (49:13)
For humanity to live peacefully, and thrive in an environment of difference and diversity, the cultivation of a cosmopolitan ethic is required. At the LaFontaine Baldwin Lecture in Toronto in 2010 Mawlana Hazar Imam remarked:
“In sum, what 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 people. In that light, the amazing diversity of Creation itself can be seen as a great gift to us – not a cause for anxiety but a source for delight… In this spirit of humility and hospitality the stranger will be welcomed and respected, rather than subdued and ignored.”
The notion of a cosmopolitan ethic has a long and complex history. The word “cosmopolitan” is rooted in the Greek word kosmopolitês meaning ‘citizen of the world.’ Its first explicit use has been attributed to the Greek philosopher Diogenes who, when asked where he was from, is said to have replied, “I am a citizen of the world ‘kosmopolitês.’”
Since then, the world has evolved and so too have understandings and definitions of cosmopolitanism. Yet throughout time, core to this idea is the understanding that humanity in all its diversity is bound in a single community. This does not mean ignoring our differences, but rather, celebrating them.
How might one arrive at a cosmopolitan ethic? Such an outlook can be rooted in a common set of principles that, while not exclusive to a distinct group or denomination, speak to the heart of humanity’s shared interests and values. These may include a shared concern for improving the quality of life, for the respect and dignity of each man and woman, and a shared responsibility to help those in need.
These common concerns have guided, and continue to guide the work of the Ismaili Imamat and the Aga Khan Development Network. While the outcome of AKDN's work is practical, the motivation is spiritual, drawing on the universal principle to invoke the goodness that exists in each person.
In this regard, a commitment to improving the quality of life is fundamental to a cosmopolitan ethic. It touches upon a shared responsibility to ourselves and to the other. This duty is one that extends beyond the differences of race, religion, culture, language, and ethnicity in search of a shared and common humanity.
Delivering the Jodidi Lecture at Harvard in 2015, Mawlana Hazar Imam remarked, “a cosmopolitan ethic is one that will honour both our common humanity and our distinctive identities — each reinforcing the other as part of the same high moral calling.”
Hazar Imam continued, “The central lesson of my own personal journey — over many miles and many years — is the indispensability of such an ethic in our changing world, based on the timeless truth that we are — each of us and all of us — ‘born of a single soul.’”
During the final week of December, The.Ismaili will focus on the theme of diversity and pluralism by exploring how Jamats around the world are celebrating difference, expressing their diversity, and sharing their cultural traditions with others.