His Highness the Aga Khan: ‘Islamic culture in past centuries was distinctly dynamic’

Indeed, Islamic culture in past centuries was distinctly dynamic – constantly reaching out – both to India and the East and to Europe and the West – for enrichment. Throughout history, confident cultures from every part of the world have been eager to seek new learning, not to dilute inherited traditions but to amplify and extend them. The great civilisations of Islam were prime examples.”

In keeping with our past traditions, and in response to our present needs, we must go out and find the best of the world’s knowledge – wherever it exists.

His Highness the Aga Khan Address at American University Cairo
His Highness the Aga Khan delivering the commencement address at the American University in Cairo. – Photo: AKDN/Gary Otte

‘At various times in world history, the locus of knowledge has moved from one centre of learning to another. Europe once came to the Islamic world for intellectual enrichment – and even rediscovered its own classical roots by searching in Arabic texts.

‘Astronomy, the so-called “Science of the Universe,” was a field of particular distinction in Islamic civilisation – in sharp contrast to the weakness of Islamic countries in the field of space research today. In this field, as in others, intellectual leadership is never a static condition, but something which is always shifting and always dynamic.

‘Indeed, Islamic culture in past centuries was distinctly dynamic – constantly reaching out – both to India and the East and to Europe and the West – for enrichment. Throughout history, confident cultures from every part of the world have been eager to seek new learning, not to dilute inherited traditions but to amplify and extend them. The great civilisations of Islam were prime examples.

‘More than a millennium ago, as early as the 8th century, the original Abbasids, ruling as Caliphs in Baghdad, set up academies and libraries where new knowledge was honoured – independent of its source. The Fatimids continued this tradition – reaching out from their base in Cairo – established in the 10th century – to welcome learned figures from distant lands.

‘By the time of the Safavid era – halfway through the second millennium – cultural leaders of all types – mathematicians, scientists, painters, musicians, and writers – were moving constantly from country to country and court to court – from the Safavid centers in Iran to the Mughal courts of India, and the Uzbek court at Bukhara in what is now Uzbekistan.

‘I believe that same pattern must be our model today. In keeping with our past traditions, and in response to our present needs, we must go out and find the best of the world’s knowledge – wherever it exists.

‘Once we have acquired knowledge, it is important that the ethical guidelines of faith be invoked, helping us apply what we have learned to the highest possible ends. And it is also important that those ends be related to the practical needs of our peoples.’

Extracts from Address by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Commencement Ceremony of the American University (Cairo, Egypt)
June 15, 2006

Read full speech at http://www.akdn.org/Content/182/American-University-in-Cairo

Research by Nimira Dewji

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