Mansoor Ladha, Special to the Sun
Published: Tuesday, July 10, 2007
He is a king without a kingdom. His influence, authority and power surpasses leader of any stature. He meets more foreign heads of state, presidents and prime ministers than the president of United States, the most powerful nation on earth.
He is the Aga Khan, the direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed through his cousin and son-in-law Ali, the first Imam, and his wife Fatima, the prophet’s daughter.
This charismatic and dynamic leader of the Ismailis, a minority sect among the world’s 20 million Shia Muslims, ascended to the throne of the Imamat on July 11, 1957, on the demise of his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah, or Aga Khan III, at the age of 21 while a student at Harvard University.
The Aga Khan was chosen because his grandfather 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.”
On Wednesday, Ismailis, many of whom have settled in Canada following their expulsion from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin in 1972, celebrate the Aga Khan’s 50th anniversary with festivals and religious ceremonies in cities throughout the world, including Vancouver.
The year July 2007-2008 has been declared the Jubilee Year during which new initiatives will be announced as a tribute to the Aga Khan’s humanitarian work. This is also the time for the Ismailis to re-dedicate their allegiance to their faith and to their Imam.
In the past 50 years, the Aga Khan Development Network’s contribution to international development in many developing countries is well known. Canada, through the Canadian International Development Agency, has partnered with AKDN in several countries in projects to eradicate poverty and providing humanitarian assistance.
But the Aga Khan’s contribution does not just end with international development and humanitarian aspects. He is also a promoter of education and a lover of architecture.
Perhaps the most monumental project of the Aga Khan’s Imamat was the founding of Pakistan’s first private university in 1983 — the Aga Khan University and the Aga Khan University Hospital, inaugurated in Karachi in 1985.
The Aga Khan scored another first by founding another of the world’s first internationally chartered institution of higher learning in Central Asia. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in that region, the Aga Khan and the governments of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan signed agreements to establish the University of Central Asia in 1994.
As a great lover of architecture, in 1977 he established the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the world’s largest architectural award totalling $500,000 US. The award’s objective is to encourage architecture that reflects pluralism that has always characterized Muslim communities. It was established to enhance the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture.
Apart from giving the award, the Aga Khan has done a great deal to boost Islamic architecture in the United States and elsewhere. The Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at MIT and Harvard has an endowment of $58 million US offering American students fellowships to travel to the Middle East and other Islamic countries to study Muslim architecture.
The Aga Khan has strong ties with Canada. A friend of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Aga Khan was one of the pallbearers at his funeral.
Trudeau is reported to have facilitated easy entry into Canada of Aga Khan’s followers, the Ismailis, when they were expelled from Uganda. The Aga Khan has several times publicly thanked Canada for its generosity in accepting and opening its doors to Ismailis during the Uganda crisis.
However, the Aga Khan’s admiration of Canada goes beyond that. He has described Canada as “a model for the world.”
It was, therefore, only natural that the Aga Khan and the feds join hands to establish the Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, in which each of the participants invested $30 million.
The centre is expected to draw from Canada’s successful track record of pluralist civil society and working closely with governments, academia and civil society around the world. It will undertake research, deliver programs, facilitate dialogue and work with international partners to build the capacity of individuals, groups, educational institutions and governments to promote indigenous approaches to pluralism in their own countries and communities.
The Aga Khan’s faith in Canada is so enormous that he has made this country the headquarters of the world Ismailia community.
In this respect, in 2005 he announced three major Ismaili projects — the Delegation of Ismaili Imamat, also being built in Ottawa and the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre, both under construction in Toronto.
The Delegation of Ismaili Imamat will have an ambassadorial role in that it will serve as a representative of the Imamat institutions and its non-denominational, philanthropic and development agencies such as the Aga Khan Development Network.
The Aga Khan Museum will promote Islamic art through exhibitions with special emphasis on Shia Islam but particular emphasis on the Ismaili community.
It will include collections of His Highness the Aga Khan and his late uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. Manuscripts in the collections will include the earliest known copy of Avicenna’s Qanun Fi’l-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine) dated 1052.
Described as “Prince of the Islamic World,” the Aga Khan has made the Ismailis a successful model community, which has been an envy of the world.
Mansoor Ladha is writing a book on the Settlement of Ismailis in Canada, which will be published later this year.