The ‘quiet and peaceful’ face of Islam
Vancouverites join leader of Muslim sect for international ceremony
Sunday, July 08, 2007
The West Vancouver man and his wife will join 500 fellow followers in France Wednesday at a private ceremony with the Aga Khan, religious leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims.
“I feel happy, honoured and very blessed,” said Verjee, 61, a real-estate broker and past national president of the Ismaili Council for Canada.
“It’s how a Catholic would feel if they meet the Pope.”
On July 11, the Aga Khan celebrates his golden jubilee as the 49th hereditary Imam, or spiritual leader, of Ismaili Muslims.
Reflecting the pluralism of the Muslim world generally, the Ismailis are a richly diverse community living in more than 25 countries. Culturally and linguistically, they belong to several distinct ethnographic traditions: Arab, Middle Eastern, Iranian, Central and South Asian.
“He is a quiet and peaceful face of Islam,” said Verjee. “He represents the silent majority of Muslims, quietly, quietly working away, educating the masses, providing health care and creating a sense of social responsibility.”
A multi-billionaire and active philanthropist, the Aga Khan founded the Aga Khan Development Foundation, the world’s largest private development organization.
Its annual budget of $300 million US goes toward improving education and healthcare and promoting culture and rural development in Asia and Africa.
In Vancouver on Wednesday, a daylong celebration to mark the Aga Khan’s 50th anniversary is expected to draw about 12,000 people to B.C. Place.
The Aga Khan is expected to make a major announcement that day.
“Everyone’s quite excited. It’s a big deal in our community,” said Farid Damji, spokesperson for the Ismaili Council for B.C. “It’s a chance for us to renew acquaintances, celebrate and share meals.”
“It’s a great opportunity to celebrate someone who has done so much for people,” said 24-year-old UBC student Khaleel Meghji, who plans to attend the event.
Richmond’s Farzana Hamir, 32, will be there with her husband. “I’m very excited. It’s going to be a very historic event,” she said.
The festivities begin at 1 p.m. and go on until early morning.
Participants can look forward to an extravaganza of music and dance, followed by a communal dinner. Youth members can hang out at the Cup of Essence, a cafe and lounge area.
Part of B.C. Place will be made into a prayer hall. Clips from the ceremony in Aiglemont, France, including the Aga Khan’s address to followers, will be shown on screens.
The party has been in the works for many months, said Damji. On the big day, more than a thousand volunteers will be on hand to make sure the event goes smoothly.
The Aga Khan’s last visit to Vancouver in 2005 drew 25,000 devotees from western Canada and the U.S. About 15,000 Ismailis live in the Vancouver area. They form a close-knit prosperous community whose low profile belies its business success.
The community has a strong tradition of philanthropy.
The annual Ismaili Walk for Kids raised $350,000 last year for the United Way. The World Partnership Walk, a walk-a-thon in nine cities across Canada, raised more than
$5 million for the Aga Khan Foundation.
The faith espouses tolerance, education and pluralism — values Canadians hold dear.
Most Canadian-Ismailis fled political turbulence in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania in the early 1970s.
Verjee, who left Uganda with his sister in 1973, credits the Aga Khan for encouraging them to identify with their adopted country. “We came to Canada about 30 years ago, and through his guidance and advice, we became part of the bigger community,” he said.
Verjee was 11 years old when the Aga Khan, at 20, became imam.
“I’m sure he will have something very powerful to say to young people,” said Verjee. “Do not separate the religious and the secular. They go hand in hand. He’s always been very adamant about that.”
For a slideshow of the events at B.C. Place, go to http://www.theprovince.com.
© The Vancouver Province 2007