The Aga Khan (second from left) on whom an honorary Doctor of Laws degree was conferred at NUI Maynooth yesterday by chancellor of the NUI, Dr Garret FitzGerald, with Prof Jim Walsh, left, and Dr Attracta Halpin, registrar NUI.

ALISON HEALYTHE AGA Khan has received an honorary degree from NUI Maynooth for his work in eliminating poverty, encouraging the advancement of women and promoting Islamic culture and pluralism.

The Aga Khan (71) is the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, whose 15 million-strong population is spread across 25 countries.

A key figure in the equine industry, he has close ties with Ireland and owns properties including Gilltown Stud in Kilcullen, Co Kildare.

He received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the chancellor of the NUI, Dr Garret FitzGerald, in a ceremony attended by his eldest child, Princess Zahra.

In his citation, NUI Maynooth president Prof John Hughes said the Aga Khan was the first member of the Islamic community to be honoured in this way.

“It is particularly fitting that this university should honour him at this time, steeped as it is, and proudly so, in the history of Catholicism in Ireland, but now a vibrant, multicultural and multi-denominational university,” Prof Hughes said.

“For the Aga Khan embodies the spirit of understanding, tolerance and ecumenism that should link the great religions of the world. For 50 years he has been a voice of moderation, a voice of reason, in promoting an Islam that embraces and indeed celebrates pluralism and diversity.”

The Aga Khan became Imam or spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims in 1957, at the age of 20, succeeding his grandfather, a former president of the League of Nations. The Aga Khan is founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of development agencies which supports the developing world in areas such as education, health, enterprise and architecture.

Prof Hughes said the Aga Khan had become “a major activist for civilised humanity and universal values” and added that he had championed religious pluralism as a way of building a common understanding around the globe. “We in Ireland readily identify with this view, given that it brought peace to the island,” he said.

The Aga Khan said he was “deeply honoured” to receive the award, particularly as he was the first Muslim to do so. “Being the first Muslim does carry a level of symbolism with it, which I appreciate enormously because it means that institutions, particularly this institution, is looking at the wider horizons of our world,” he said.

He described NUI Maynooth as “a pathfinder” for people working in the developing world because of the way it linked research with economic development.

The visit had given “a wonderful opportunity to be able to look to this university and see how together we might build bridges for a better future between Ireland and the developing world,” the Aga Khan said.

Prof Hughes said the university was hugely excited by the possibility of collaboration with the Aga Khan as it already had outreach programmes in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. “I see enormous opportunities,” he said.

The university, which offers a BA in equine business, was keenly aware of the Aga Khan’s links with Ireland and Prof Hughes said the Aga Khan had played “a very significant role” in the Irish horse racing industry.

The Aga Khan also called for a greater pluralism in education and said it was essential to enhance the understanding that pluralism was an asset, not a liability.

People were not born with the capacity to see those from different backgrounds as equals, but with the right education, they could become pluralist without even being aware of it, he said.

Dr FitzGerald said it was a particular honour to present the honorary degree and he added that most people were unaware of the scale of educational work initiated by the Aga Khan.

© 2008 The Irish Times


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