In an effort to expand understanding of world religions the Ponoka United Church has started a religion speaker series.
First up for the interfaith series was Islam and more specifically the Isma’ili branch of the religion. Presenting to a couple dozen people was Karim Shariff, who was invited to speak recently.
Shariff, who is a dentist by profession, wanted it known that he’s been speaking on this for some years now not as someone who is considered an authority on Isma’ilis but more from a personal investigation.
He’s a long time friend of Ponoka resident Jimmy Rawji, who is also an Isma’ili.
He pointed out that Islam at its core is a monotheistic religion with the belief of the oneness of God. Since its inception there have been splits within the religion, something that has occurred with many world faiths.
When Muhammad, the prophet founder of Islam died there was a question of secession and how Islam should move forward, said Shariff. “This was essentially the first major split in Islam.”
That separation saw the creation of the Sunni and Shia faiths, (Isma’ili is a branch of the Shia faith). The difference between the two is the Sunnis felt the Quran, the holy book of Islam, was enough to guide people forward while the Shias felt that authority continued through the Imams (religious leaders).
“Even within those groups there is a lot of diversity and that really is a human condition,” said Shariff of the splits.
The Aga Khan is the religious leader of the Isma’ilis, and is the 49th Imam. His name is Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini. Shariff said the Isma’ilis believe the Aga Khan is a direct descendant of Muhammad.
Speaking to the Imams, Shariff explained that the responsibility of these leaders is to provide religious interpretation and to motivate improvement in people’s lives. He was clear that Imams who speak to violence are speaking against the core message of Islam.
The basic principles of Islam are to be sincere, build consensus, to bridge faith with the world, improve people’s quality of life and to avoid compulsion. “Try and take the middle path and avoid extremes,” explained Shariff.
He says the faith is about actions, not words and that Islam is about the sanctity of life.
“Why is that at odds with what we’re hearing today?” he asked.
With six to seven million Muslims in North America alone, it’s clear that the majority of these individuals do not espouse a life of hate and violence. Shariff says when the negative actions of a few are put onto a pedestal, it helps create an unrealistic view of Islam.
To help illustrate that issue, Shariff used a video from the Aga Khan discussing the idea of “the exceptional cat.” This cat is among a million others but somehow it manages to climb a tree and then is stuck. This happens once a day and rescue efforts are needed to save the cat, so emergency crews come, which takes time and money.
The issue is there’s only 365 cats out of the one million that get caught in the tree. For the vast majority, this doesn’t occur, pointed out Shariff.
Another area of discussion was that of the status of women. They are considered equal, said Shariff. He said for those who believe in the soul, when a person dies the soul moves forward and it’s genderless.
Shariff pointed out that the first women prime ministers in the world were Muslim. “The idea that muslim women don’t have a role to play is a very narrow viewpoint in the Muslim world,” he stated.
“It is about asserting the right to achieve one’s potential in life.”