UAE. The Aga Khan, leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, this week opened a cultural centre in Dubai for followers of the branch of Shia Islam.
The Ismaili Centre Dubai is the first base for Ismailis in the majority-Sunni Muslim Middle East. The Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary imam, or spiritual leader, of the Ismailis, the second-largest group of Shiites.
“This is a means of establishing a permanent cultural root in one area,” the Aga Khan said today in an interview after opening the centre.
He founded the Geneva-based Aga Khan Development Network, which has established several agencies in Syria and Egypt that focus on microfinance, education and culture to improve local living conditions. Dubai’s Ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al- Maktoum, donated the land for the centre in 1982, a gesture that is a “symbol of the wonderful diversity that characterises Dubai,” the Aga Khan said.
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Dubai has become a regional business and tourism destination, attracting expatriates who use it as a base for accessing the rest of the Gulf region.
The role of the Dubai Ismaili Centre, the fourth in the world after London, Lisbon and Vancouver, is to bring together the secular and the spiritual to emphasise the role of “Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith,” according to a statement from the Aga Khan’s secretariat. The United Arab Emirates location includes a prayer hall, as well as a secular pre-school, and will hold conferences and public exhibitions on Islam’s heritage.
“There is a long tradition, certainly in the Emirates, of tolerance and accommodating the practices and beliefs of the immigrant communities,” Anthony Harris, former UK Ambassador to the UAE, said in a Bloomberg interview.
Earlier this month, Qatar opened its first church since pre-Islamic times. Qatar joined Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain in allowing churches to be built to serve the 70,000 Christians living in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Ismaili Centre’s Egyptian architects, El Dahan & Farid Engineering Consultants, were inspired by the Fatimid Empire in Cairo, which dominates accounts of Ismaili history for about 400 hundred years after the founding of Islam in the seventh century.
“That’s where Ismaili history lies,” Azim Nanji, Professor of Islamic Studies at Stanford University in California and Director of the London-based Institute of Ismaili Studies, said today during a tour of the Centre. “That period in Egypt was such a fertile time for creativity, and this center is a way to bring that ethos back again.”
About 85% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, while some 15% are from Shia and other minority branches.
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