Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun

CALGARY – The era when Europe was locked into or just breaking out of what we call the Dark Ages is also known as the Golden Age for Muslims. From the 8th century to the 12th and even beyond — in some places as late as the 15th or 16th century — Muslims led the Western world in wealth, power and learning.

I knew this before I visited Timbuktu — a great Muslim city of yore — in 2004. At a time before the discovery of the New World’s glitzy treasures, nearly all the gold in Europe came from West Africa. The usual route it took included camel caravans across the Sahara, and they emanated from Timbuktu.

What I didn’t know before my visit was this: So great was this legendary city as a centre of learning that in some years the value of books it exported exceeded the value of its gold.

Fast forward to 2008, a time when Western perceptions of Muslim learning are at a precipitous low. The dominant vision seems to be of doctrinaire mullahs in shabby madrassas inculcating the young with ideas that feed, at best, bigotry toward the West and, at worst, terrorism.

While it’s sadly possible to find examples of just such schools, I’ve travelled enough to know this perception is neither a complete nor a fair picture. But it was refreshing, nonetheless, to attend a weekend event here that reminded me just how far off base it is in relation to some Muslims in many parts of the world, including a vibrant community living productively in our midst.

I was an adjudicator for the first national ISTAR awards, a new level added to decades-old regional programs that recognize high achievement from Canadian Ismaili students in a variety of categories — academic excellence, arts and culture, leadership and community service, science and technology, and sports.

And when they say “high achievement,” oh boy, they mean it. I’ve judged a variety of competitions over my career, including the Jack Webster Foundation’s highly competitive Seeing the World fellowship for young B.C. journalists, and I’ve never faced such difficult choices.

I judged the ISTAR’s leadership and community service category, and I found good reasons in every application to put it at the top of the pile, and no clear reason in any to put it at the bottom.

The depth and breadth of involvement in both secular and faith-based good works was astonishing, as were the energy, commitment and skill.

But, as with my earlier visit to Timbuktu, I did learn some new things about this Muslim group at the ISTAR awards ceremony here on Saturday.

Tom Kessinger, deputy chairman of the international Aga Khan Development Network — the No. 2 man to the Aga Khan, the hereditary leader of the Ismailis — noted that education, though not always in the formal sense, is at the root of virtually all his organization does.

The AKDN is a huge development organization — it’s hard to say exactly how huge, as much of its funding comes from the private wealth of the Aga Khan and donations from his followers and those figures aren’t made public. It’s a complex web of non-profit and for-profit ventures, but, Kessinger noted, all have education at their core.

I should have guessed.

I’ve written not only about non-profit AKDN work to improve education in East Africa and other parts of the developing world, but also about some of its for-profit work in areas that range from growing and processing beans to running high-end hotels.

The goal of these enterprises goes far beyond profit. (See my blog entry “Celebrating foreign aid that works” to access detailed stories on these projects.)

In the bean project, for example, farmers are trained to produce profitable cash crops that don’t interfere with their traditional subsistence.

In the hotels, local people don’t just do menial work — they’re recruited and trained for every kind of job. Even the crafts they display and sell are hand-made and one-of-a-kind, not the mass-produced kitsch found on every downtown street corner and tourist market in poor cities worldwide.

Even in AKDN’s innovative pre-schools for children of families whose members may have never seen a classroom, a big problem is that the teachers they custom train — young women with no other job options — are lured away by other schools.

Nashir Samanani, president of the Ismaili Council for the Prairies, quoted the Aga Khan as saying education should be “the polar opposite of indoctrination.”

The young people I met here on the weekend — and those whose long and impressive bios I pored over trying to split enough hairs to identify a winner — are, I think, shining examples of what he means.

In my world of journalism where good news is most often no news, we don’t write often enough about things like this. But I think it’s important to note that, all these centuries later, learning is still central to Muslim culture in some parts of the world — Canada included.


Three students from Metro Vancouver — two from the same family — won a total of five of the 18 top prizes in the first-annual ISTAR competition for Canadian Ismaili students held to mark the 50th jubilee of the Ismailis’ leader, the Aga Khan.

Aaria Rahim, a Grade 12 graduate from Vancouver who is entering a program in ethics, society and law at the University of Toronto, was named student of the year in the Grade 11-12 age group — a prize that includes a trip to a developing country of her choice. She also won first place in both the leadership and community service category and the arts and culture category.

Another Vancouverite, Shakir Rahim, was runner-up in the same category.

Shakir and Aaria are not related, but Aaria’s brother, Aarman, also won first place in the Grade 10-11 leadership and community service category plus two second-place finishes — arts and culture and science and technology. The other first prize for a B.C. student was the Grade 10-11 arts and culture award won by Aliza Vellani.

Second-place prizes went to Ashraf Amlani in post-secondary science and technology, Rafiq Charani in post-secondary sports and Rafiq Baloo in Grade 11-12 sports.

Third-place prizes went to Rafiq Salemohamed in Grade 10-11 academic excellence, Aquil Virani both in Grade 11-12 academic excellence and in Grade 11-12 arts and culture, Aalia Chatur in post-secondary leadership and community service, and Safiya Dhanani in Grade 11-12 science and technology.

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