The Ismaili tradition of education is underpinned by a cosmopolitan approach to learning

It was just a century ago that my late Grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, began to build a network of educational institutions which would eventually include some 300 schools, many of them in East Africa.

My late Grandfather, who was also the founding figure of Aligarh University in India, was renewing a tradition which stretches back over 1000 years, to our forefathers, the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs of Egypt, who founded Al-Azhar University and the Academy of Knowledge in Cairo.

And going back even further, I would cite the words of the first hereditary Imam of the Shia Muslims, Hazrat Ali Ibn Abi Talib, who emphasized in his teachings that ‘No honour is like knowledge.’

– His Highness the Aga Khan, August 13, 2007

Mawlana Hazar Imam speaking at the launch of the Faculty of Health Sciences of the Aga Khan University. Image:AKDN/Gary Otte
Mawlana Hazar Imam speaking at the launch of the Faculty of Health Sciences of the Aga Khan University.
Image: AKDN/Gary Otte

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. As Islam spread outside the Arabian peninsula, it became enriched by the intellectual contributions of a multitude of individuals and cultures in regions that it spread to. The new Muslim rulers came into contact with people who had relatively sophisticated ideas about theology, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics, and incorporated these new ideas into their own way of looking at the world. As a result, an extremely rich synthesis of cultures and religions took place, producing great scientific and philosophical treasures. By the tenth century, the Islamic civilization was characterized by a diversity of intellectual and literary traditions in various fields such as law, philosophy, arts, mysticism, natural sciences, and others.

The early Ismailis laid the foundations of intellectual traditions which were further developed during the Fatimid and subsequent periods. In the Fatimid period (909-1171), when the Ismailis possessed a state of their own, they developed many institutions of learning, making important contributions to Islamic thought and culture. Modern recovery of Ismaili literature provides evidence of the rich literary and intellectual heritage of the Ismailis of the Fatimid period.

Mawlana Hazar Imam continually emphasizes the importance of knowledge and education. During his Golden Jubilee visit to Kenya, Mawlana Hazar Imam reflected on the tradition of education dating to the time of Hazrat Ali:

“ … my concern for education grows intimately out of my family history.

It was just a century ago that my late Grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, began to build a network of educational institutions which would eventually include some 300 schools, many of them in East Africa.

My late Grandfather, who was also the founding figure of Aligarh University in India, was renewing a tradition which stretches back over 1000 years, to our forefathers, the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs of Egypt, who founded Al-Azhar University and the Academy of Knowledge in Cairo.

And going back even further, I would cite the words of the first hereditary Imam of the Shia Muslims, Hazrat Ali Ibn Abi Talib, who emphasized in his teachings that ‘No honour is like knowledge.’

Those words have inspired an emphasis on education within our tradition ever since that time.

That tradition has been expressed in recent decades in many ways, ranging from the sponsorship of Madrasa early childhood projects to the founding of the Aga Khan University and the University of Central Asia.

We are also establishing a new network of Aga Khan Academies – outstanding residential primary and secondary schools – teaching the International Baccalaureate and covering no less than 14 countries in Africa and Asia.”

Excerpts from Speech by Mawlana Hazar Imam
at the Inauguration of the Faculty of Health Sciences of the Aga Khan University Nairobi, Kenya
August 13, 2007

Reference:
Azim Nanji, “The Prophet, the Revelation and the Founding of Islam,” The Muslim Almanac edited by Azim A. Nanji, Gale Research Inc,. Detroit, 1996
Farhad Daftary. The Ismailis: Their History and doctrines. Cambridge University Press,1990

Research by Nimira Dewji


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