Pictures and story Mansoor Ladha
On July 11, 2017, Ismailis all around the world will be celebrating 60th years since the Aga Khan succeeded his grandfather as the imam of the Shia Muslim community. The Diamond Jubilee will highlight the Aga Khan’s tireless work around the globe and his vision to steer the Ismaili community during the last 60 years.
Canada’s close, strong and successful association with the Aga Khan began more than five decades ago with the arrival of thousands of Ismailis who were forced to flee from Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s anti-Asian regime. This relationship with Canada has been strengthened with several joint ventures between the Canadian government and the Aga Khan’s international development agency, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).
AKDN is involved in 30 countries around the world, employing 80,000 people, majority of whom are based in developing countries in Africa and Asia. Its projects include hospitals, universities, schools, media outlets, hydroelectric projects, factories, hotels etc. – all aimed at benefitting the local populations.
Prime Minister Harper and the Aga Khan at the opening of the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre, Toronto
The Aga Khan has several times publicly thanked Canada for its generosity in accepting and opening its doors to Ismailis. However, his admiration for Canada goes beyond that. He has described Canada as “a model for the world.” It was therefore befitting that the Aga Khan and the Canadian Governor General David Johnson this year opened the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa as a sign of their longstanding partnership.
The Aga Khan and PM Harper tour the terrace of the Aga Khan Museum building after the opening ceremonies.
The Global Centre for Pluralism is an independent, not-for-profit international research and education centre. Inspired by the magnificent example of Canada’s inclusive approach to citizenship, Ottawa was chosen as a site for the centre, committed to advance respect for diversity internationally and “believing that openness and understanding towards the cultures, social structures, values and faiths of other peoples are essential to the survival of an interdependent world.”
At the opening ceremony, Mr. Johnson said: “In a diverse, globalized, high-tech world, nothing could be more pragmatic than an inclusive, pluralistic society. Diversity helps us to enrich our society, to better understand other countries and to forge connections with people around the planet.”
The tranquil atmosphere of Aga Museum gardens provides a remarkable environment for relaxation and contemplation.
But the focal point of all the Aga Khan projects in Canada has been the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre in Toronto, which is dedicated to portraying artistic, intellectual and scientific contributions that Muslim civilisations have made to world heritage. The museum and its surrounding park, which sits majestically on Wynford Drive, has not only become a major educational and tourist attraction, but it also provides a remarkable environment of relaxation and contemplation for local residents. The museum and the Ismaili centre have become a place that commands respect of all those who have visited them.
The third major and notable Ismaili institution in Canada is the Ottawa-based Delegation of Ismaili Imamat which represents the Imamat institutions and its non-denominational, philanthropic and development agencies such as the Aga Khan Development Network. The Delegation also has an ambassadorial role with a resident ambassador with responsibilities to maintain and foster external relations. With all these high-profile projects, Canada can proudly regard itself as the Ismaili headquarters of the world.
The Aga Khan as a great lover of architecture has established in 1977, the Aga Khan Award for architecture, the world’s largest architectural award totalling US$500,000. The award encourages architecture that reflects pluralism and enhances understanding and appreciation of Muslim architecture. Another agency, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, focusses on the revitalization of communities in the Muslim world.
The Aga Khan can be compared to a king, but without a kingdom. The Ismailis have their own anthem played when the Aga Khan visits a foreign country and a flag fluttering on his limousine. His influence, authority and power surpasses leader of any stature. He meets more foreign heads of state, presidents and prime ministers than even president of United States.
The Aga Khan is one of the six foreigners accorded honorary Canadian citizenship in 2010 and he was invited to address the Canadian parliament, an honour usually accorded to heads of state, in 2014. He has also been awarded several honorary degrees by universities all around the world and bestowed national honours by numerous countries in recognition of his humanitarian activities.
A rare copy of the Quran on display at the Aga Khan Museum
This charismatic and dynamic imam of the Ismailis, a minority sect among the world’s 20 million Shia Muslims, ascended to the throne of Imamat on July 11, 1957, on the demise of his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah, at the age of 21 while still a student at Harvard University. He was chosen, as his grandfather said in his will, because he wanted to be succeeded by “a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age and who brings new outlook to life in his office as Imam.”
In his speech to the Canadian parliament, the Aga Khan outlined his role: “The role of the Ismaili Imam is a spiritual one; his authority is that of religious interpretation. It is not a political role. I do not govern any land. At the same time, Islam believes fundamentally that the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Faith does not remove Muslims — or their Imams — from daily, practical matters in family life, in business, in community affairs.
“Faith, rather, is a force that should deepen our concern for our worldly habitat, for embracing its challenges, and for improving the quality of human life. This Muslim belief in the fusion of Faith and World is why much of my attention has been committed to the work of the Aga Khan Development Network.”
Although he refrains from making comments on political issues, his advice and counsel is sought by governments and heads of state. He has been a regular delegate at international conferences on Syria and other world trouble spots, and recently he was in Moscow to discuss Afghanistan and other world issues with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
During his Diamond Jubilee, Ismailis from around the world will pledge to volunteer to donate their time and knowledge, an initiative initiated during his Golden Jubilee in 2007 – whereby an immense pool of expertise involving tens of thousands of volunteers have been enlisted, which included doctors, accountants, teachers, nurses and other professionals. Many of these Ismaili professionals – one third of whom are Canadians — will travel to developing countries as part of this outpouring of service in the name of their Imam.
During his Imamat, the Ismailis have progressed educationally and prospered economically, becoming a successful model community, which has been an envy of the world. Ismailis have participated enthusiastically in major cities of Canada as volunteers and have contributed in civic, provincial and national institutions. As we look into the future, it is fair to predict that the community will progress on the solid foundations laid by the Aga Khan for years to come.
Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based journalist, travel writer and author of A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims (Detselig) and Memoirs of a Muhindi (University of Regina Press).