Spiritual leader’s 50 years of guidance recognized with events throughout the year in Calgary

Graeme Morton, Calgary Herald
Published: Saturday, July 07, 2007

Calgary’s Ismaili Muslim community is ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ascension to the Imamat of their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan.

While the actual anniversary will be marked at five local Ismaili jamatkhanas (places of gathering) next Wednesday, events are planned throughout the year, says Sameera Sereda a volunteer with the Shia Ismaili Muslim Community of Calgary.

Born in Switzerland in 1936, the Aga Khan became Imam to the world’s Ismaili Muslims on July 11, 1957, succeeding his grandfather. He was a 20-year-old Harvard University student at the time.

For Ismailis, the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad,” Sereda says. “That direct link of a living descendant is very special to us; it speaks of 1,400 years of history.” Sereda says the Aga Khan’s mission as leader of the world’s Ismailis is multi-faceted.

“As our spiritual leader, his role is to interpret the faith and to advance the well-being of the Ismaili community from both a spiritual and a worldly aspect and improve the quality of life of the societies in which Ismailis live,” she says.

“But it goes far beyond that. We are called to contribute positively to our community and our world; that’s a fundamental ethic of Islam.” The Stampede is a prime time for local Ismailis to pitch in, Sereda says. A pancake breakfast this morning under a large tent near the airport is expected to draw 8,000 people. It will help celebrate new bonds being forged between Calgary Ismailis and Habitat for Humanity to help tackle the city’s need for affordable housing.

“For us, volunteering and giving back to our community is a faith-based value,” says Sereda, a Calgary legal recruiter. Sereda says in recent years local Ismailis have formed partnerships with a number of local social agencies to offer both their sweat and expertise.

“Habitat for Humanity is the latest in that history and it’s going to be a long-term commitment,” Sereda says.

Sereda says the Aga Khan Development Network, an umbrella organization active in many of the world’s poorest regions, embodies the social conscience of Islam expressed through concrete, humanitarian action.

“Its work in health, education and many other fields is completely non-denominational. It responds wherever the need is greatest, specifically in areas of Africa and Asia,” she adds.

Calgary is home to about 10,000 of Canada’s estimated 90,000 Ismailis.

The first major wave of Ismaili immigration to Canada came in the early 1970s, spawned by the mass expulsion of South Asians from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin and turmoil in other East African nations.

One of those was Calgary writer Mansoor Ladha, who has met the Aga Khan twice; first in 1968 as a young reporter in Tanzania, the second time as a leader of Edmonton’s Ismaili community in 1979.

“In Tanzania, I interviewed him about economic development and political issues of the time such as apartheid in South Africa,” recalls Ladha.

“In Edmonton, it was very much a visit by our spiritual leader. What struck me was how effortlessly and eloquently he could speak in either world.

“You could immediately tell the impressive qualities of the man that have made him so respected,” says Ladha, who is writing a book about Ismaili settlement in Canada.

The Aga Khan, Sereda says, has always had a strong affinity for Canada, a country he holds up as an example of a progressive, pluralistic society in a turbulent world. In partnership with the federal government, he is opening the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. It will act as an institution for research, study and promotion of pluralistic values and practices in culturally diverse societies worldwide.

“Even within our Calgary Ismaili community, there are people from many different countries,” Ladha adds.

Sereda says Ismailis will take the next 12 months to celebrate the Aga Khan’s leadership over 50 years, but also “to search our own hearts for what we can do as individuals to serve mankind.” She says she expects the Aga Khan will visit as many of the 25-plus countries where Ismaili Muslims live as he can in the next year.

“The last time he was in Calgary was 1992, so we hope we’ll be on his list.”


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