AKU’s academic regalia inspired by colours of the Fatimid Court

The robe of the Chancellor, Mawlana Hazar Imam, distinguishes itself by its unique white colour with elaborate gold embroidery – the colours of the Fatimids.

The first revelation to Prophet Muhammad was about knowledge and learning. The value placed on knowledge in the Qur’an became the foundation for the development of education among Muslims. Inititally, the mosques were places of learning. However, as the demand for learning grew, new institutions of higher learning emerged –  these were the madrasah (colleges) and the Jamia (universities). The Abbasid, Umayyads, Fatimids all founded institutions of higher learning, which were emulated in Europe, including the academic regalia and terminology such as the term ‘Chair’ at a university, which in Arabic is called kursi (literally ‘sea’t) upon which the alim (teacher) would sit and teach the students.

The teacher had to acquire an ijaza to teach. Literally meaning permission, the ijaza referred to academic certificates given out in medieval Islamic scholarship and played an important role in the transmission of material in all fields, guaranteeing the accuracy of the materials – from hadiths to manuals of jurisprudence. The Ijaza were also issued to students who, before embarking on advanced studies could memorize introductory textbooks and present them in the oral tests. The license to teach law and issue legal opinions (ijazah al-tadris wa al-ifta) resembles the degrees received in European universities, the Latin licentia docendi. George Makdisi attributes the origins of the licentia docendi to the ijaza al-tadris, equivalent to the Doctor of Laws degrees.* When an alim received an ijaza, he was often presented with a robe of honour indicating he was qualified to teach, that is, he had graduated.  H.G. Farmer states that the tradition of the graduation gowns can be traced to Fatimid times:

“In the Islamic colleges in Cairo under the Fatimids, the doctors in the various faculties wore distinctive gowns (khila’), and it is said that the ordinary gown of British universities retains the original form of the Arabic khil’a.”**

Caliphs also gave robes of honour as a mark of special favours, to mark important events, or when invested with office. At the Fatimid court, robes of honour were made of luxurious fabrics and embroidered in gold, a very expensive commodity at the time. The official Fatimid colour was white, with the  gold embroidery indicating the rank – the more gold in the robe, the higher the rank of the person. The production of the gold thread used in the manufacture of textiles was supervised by the director of the Caliph’s mint.

The Aga Khan University, founded by Mawlana Hazar Imam, a thousand years after the founding of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo by the Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Muizz, has an academic regalia known as Jamiapoash, which comprises a Khila’at, and a Sirpoah, meaning headwear in Persian (from the Persian sar-o-pah, ‘from head to toe’).

headwear_AKUThe Sirpoash is a composite article that brings together a turban and a kulah, the two most outstanding forms of headwear used historically throughout the Islamic world, with a tassel on the right. The colour coding of the Sirpoash for each rank follows the colour combination of the Khila’at and its embroidery, with the higher ranks being distinguished by gold bands. The basic colours of green and white have been derived from the official seal of the University. Similarly, all elements of decoration of the Jamiapoash have been taken from motifs, calligraphy and art designs used in the architecture and interior design of the University.

The Khila’ats of the students, Faculty, and Trustees are elegantly embroidered in green and gold, derived from the artwork of the interior decorative motifs of the University.The robe of the Chancellor, Mawlana Hazar Imam, distinguishes itself by its unique white colour with elaborate gold embroidery – the colours of the Fatimids.

*George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, Edinburgh University Press, 1981
**H.G. Farmer, Historical Facts for the Arabian Musical Influence, Benjamin Blom Inc, New York, 1971
Aziz Ali Najam, Heritage Reviewed, Tradition Revived, Elite Publishers (Pvt) Ltd

Research by Nimira Dewji

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