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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Vision for Society

Written by: Anna Akasoy

The most prominent representative of Ismailism in the contemporary world, the Aga Khan, promotes a very different vision of society that is more characteristic of the modern, globalised world. The rise of the Aga Khans dates back to the mid-19th century when a member in a line of Imams recognized by Nizari Ismailis moved from Iran to India where a community of followers had established themselves. The current Aga Khan, the fourth Aga Khan and the 49th imam of the Ismailis, supports projects in a variety of countries and in areas ranging from development in rural areas, over health and education to architecture. The Aga Khan Development Network intends to support endeavors to improve living conditions regardless of the religion of the beneficiaries. Another example where Shiites have modernized their traditions and contribute to the wellbeing of society without confessional restrictions is the decision of a Shiite community in Ontario, Canada to donate blood during Ashura instead of simply shedding it.

While the use of charity in political propaganda is a widespread phenomenon, this has assumed great importance in cases of high-running confessional tensions. Both Hizbollah and the Mahdi army have successfully combined two themes in their propaganda: the defense against a foreign enemy (primarily Israel and the United States respectively) and improving the socio-economic conditions of their followers. Not unusually for a movement of political Islam, Hizbollah has established an entire network of charity institutions. In the aftermath of the war against Israel in 2006, they gained approval from many Lebanese for having provided help more efficiently than the government. Other parties in the country criticized them for having provoked the confrontation in the first place.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the spectrum of activism in Shiite communities?
2.     What is the Aga Khan and what role does he play in Shiite communities?
3.     How does the Hizbollah serve the community?


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