Item(s) for the ‘Ismaili News’ Category

Mar 6,2008

Bush’s appointment to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
by Stephen Schwartz
03/06/2008 12:00:00 AM

ON MONDAY, MARCH 3, the first U.S. special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which brings together 57 Muslim countries, took up his duties. Named by President George W. Bush, America’s new diplomat to Muslims is Pakistan-born Sada Cumber of Austin, Texas. Cumber is the co-founder of an investment and wealth consultancy, CACH Capital Management, and some 10 other enterprises. Cumber’s official job at the OIC is “to promote mutual understanding and dialogue between the United States and Muslim communities around the world.”

Born in Karachi in 1951, he was educated in Pakistan, came to America in 1978, became a U.S. citizen in 1986, and has been prominent in Texas politics. But these details of his life–even his identification with the president’s home state–are of little interest compared with a remarkable fact that does not appear in his U.S. government biography. Sada Cumber is an Ismaili Muslim–a member of a small and historically suppressed branch of Shia Islam.

When President Bush announced last June that he would send a U.S. representative to the OIC, some observers wondered how an American Muslim would function in a body that has long been dominated by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Having selected an Ismaili for the post, President Bush proved to be astute and adroit. Because Ismailis have suffered discrimination at the hands of Sunnis, and especially Islamist bigots, to draw America’s observer at the OIC from their ranks represents a substantial challenge to the radicalism and conformism imposed on
global Islam. It affirms the rights of Muslim minorities including Sufis, or spiritual Muslims, as well as Shias, just as America has advocated for the freedom of non-Muslims in Islamic lands. Ismailis have been brutally mistreated in the Saudi kingdom, where they are few but, as elsewhere, well-educated and vocal in demanding respect.

Once the rulers of Cairo, Ismailis are distributed today in small communities across the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. They total about 25 million people, out of 1.2 billion Muslims. Their religious leader is Aga Khan IV, their Imam, a billionaire born in 1936, known for his family’s worldly ways as well as his own generosity in public good works. Aga Khan’s father Aly Khan was wed in 1949 to the actress Rita Hayworth, who had previously been romantically involved with another larger-than-life figure, Orson Welles. Aly Khan’s marriage to the movie star lasted only four years. But Aly Khan also became Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations, in 1958, when the Muslim world was less afflicted by fundamentalist extremism.

Ismaili theology is esoteric and almost as difficult to explain to ordinary Muslims as to non-Muslims. In the recent past, Ismailis were often seen as drifting away from Islam altogether, but Shia leaders now perceive a movement in the Ismaili sect back toward an established Shia tradition. Further, Aga Khan IV, as leader of the worldwide Ismaili community, has also demonstrated great intelligence in the use of his fortune. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) operates a system of agencies that finance improvement of education, health, microcredit availability, agricultural technology, historic preservation, and cultural endeavors across Africa and Asia. But AKDN help is not limited to Muslims; rather, it benefits members of all religions who are found to be in need.

In addition to his work within the American Ismaili religious community, Sada Cumber, Bush’s OIC appointee, has represented the Aga Khan’s humanitarian programs in the southwestern United States. In sending an American Muslim to the OIC who stands for independence in Muslim theology, entrepreneurship as well as social responsibility in the use of Muslim wealth, and a strong pro-Western attitude, Bush has brought another small but positive change to relations between the West and the Islamic world. Throughout history, and especially in crisis zones, minor developments have had great consequences. Perhaps the appointment of a U.S. representative to the OIC in the person of Sada Cumber will prove to be another such decisive and meaningful action.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.


Jan 12,2008

Kelvin Browne, National Post Published: Saturday, January 12, 2008





By Philip Jodidio

“This book is not about architecture,” says Philip Jodidio, author of Under the Eaves of Architecture, the Aga Khan: Builder and Patron. He explains that, “It’s about a man and his commitment to bettering the life of many through improvements to the physical environment.”

The man is Prince Karim Aga Khan. He’s the 49th hereditary iman, or spiritual leader, of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. He succeeded his grandfather in this role in 1957 at the age of 20. Approximately 15 million Ismailis live in more than 25 countries, including Canada and the United States.

Among other things, the book documents the winners of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture that began in 1977, illustrates the successes of the Aga Khan Historic Cities Program, and describes four fascinating new projects in Canada. These include the delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa, the Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana, the Aga Khan Museum, and the gardens that unite these two projects on a single site in Toronto. What’s unexpected is not the architecture the book showcases, which is mostly excellent, but the philosophy of the Aga Khan that maintains good architecture is a foundation for a better life.

This belief is beyond a narrow sense of architecture contributing to a spiritual life via religious buildings as you might as sume the Aga Khan’s focus might be. In an interview in the book from March, 2007, His Highness says, “In much of Islamic architecture you find a sense of spirituality. You find that spirituality not only in religious building. If you think of the history of landscape architecture and you relate that to references to heaven in the Koran, you find very strong statements about the value of the environment, the responses to the senses, to scent, to noise, music or water. You do not treat these spaces as theological spaces, you treat them as spaces that aim to give you a sense of spiritual happiness.”

The environment, built and natural, is intrinsic to our quality of life. This isn’t just rhetoric or someone getting on a trendy bandwagon. The Aga Khan was a pioneer environmentalist. One of his first projects in the early 1960s was on the beautiful but largely undeveloped Costa Smeralda. He gave himself the dual mandate of raising the standard of living of people there and, at the same time, protecting the remarkable landscape. Only recently have other developers tried to do both.

The Aga Khan says that when he first assumed his role and began to travel the world, he came into contact with poverty that was indescribable. Because of this, it’s understandable his interest in architecture was initially driven by how it could help improve the quality of life of the really poor. Ahead of his time again, he then realizes that, “Whereas in the consumer societies of the West you can build and then pull things down, in these ultra-poor societies you cannot afford to do that. What you have to do is to modify buildings or adjust them; therefore, the flexibility of the plan that you put into place has to be conceived with a different view of time than it would be in other parts of the world.”

He goes on to explain the difficulties of a western conception of architecture in poor countries and how important it is not impose this approach in terms of what is needed from a programmatic perspective or how a building should look. With the overwhelming influence of the modern (and western) approach to building in the 1960s and ’70s, literally using the local vernacular or the lessons it could give vis-a-vis sustainability seldom happened. While it seems obvious now, this insight was truly enlightened 40 years ago.

When Mr. Jodidio asks why the Aga Khan created an award for architecture, the notion of sustainability is implicit in his response. “One of the factors leading to the award was what I would call the deconstruction of the cultural inheritance … We worried about the loss of cultural continuity in the physical environment … there was no serious analysis of traditions and how they came into place, or how they could be revived and used in modern buildings.”

At the conclusion of the interview, the Aga Khan reiterates his holistic notion of the place of architecture in life. He says, “You cannot conceive of quality of life change without integrating the physical environment. Everyday you live under a roof.”


Jan 6,2008

The Daily Herald

View Archives
Suggest A Topic

While on a recent trip to Atlanta, Georgia, I visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden. On exhibit was the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme Exhibition.

I was fascinated by large before and after photographs of historic sites around the Muslim world such as the Gardens of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, the Citadels of Aleppo and Masyaf in Syria. For more information go to and click on “historic cities” in the column on the far left of the page.

Since l992, the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP) has been undertaking restoration of historic structures and public spaces. Our tour guide explained the thinking behind this initiative by noting that rehabilitation of urban areas sparks social, economic, and cultural development within communities where Muslims have a significant presence. The projects go beyond mere refurbishment of the site addressing questions of the social and environmental context of the site to the local population. Each project includes adaptive re-use, an effort toward institutional sustainability and training of local people.
These projects impressed me as an enlightened way to preserve culture, engage in urban renewal, and give an economic boost to the local population.

Public libraries often serve a similar function. In Schaumburg, an old shopping center near the center of the village was shuttered and had become a real eyesore. In l995, new Mayor Al Larson saw an opportunity. By l998, the new 166,500 square foot Schaumburg Township District Library was dedicated and became the anchor for the revitalized shopping center.

Libraries are really good in this capacity because they are open long hours and are fun places of learning and culture that one visits again and again. Libraries are places where the community comes together.

The Schaumburg story was repeated in Des Plaines. Downtown Des Plaines was a collection of small shops and assorted buildings facing the railroad tracks. It had merely grown up over the years and was neither beautiful nor impressive. City planners wanted a project that would give identity to the downtown so, naturally, the library was selected as an anchor for this redevelopment. The current 82,000 square foot Des Plaines Public Library was dedicated on September 24, 2000.
The City of Chicago has long used libraries as an impetus for economic development. Mayor Richard M. Daley has said, “In Chicago, we look at schools and libraries as the anchors of society. Learning is key to success in this information and technology economy. Libraries are key to safe neighborhoods. That is why we have built so many libraries and why they also are architecturally beautiful.”

Starting with the downtown Harold Washington Library Center, completed in l991, in the once less than trendy South Loop neighborhood, Chicago library construction has been credited with the building of about 10,000 units of new housing, improvement to streetscapes, schools and parks, expansion of educational institutions and redevelopment with uses as diverse as blues clubs and trendy hotels.

Since Mayor Daley has been in office, 52 of the system’s 79 branches have been reconstructed or seriously renovated. Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey said, “I’ve purchased and knocked down more liquor stores, more no-tell motels, more really crummy and dilapidated, burned-out buildings in neighborhood after neighborhood and replaced them with libraries than I’d ever thought I’d do in my life.”

What do forward-thinking library planners have in common with His Highness, the Aga Kahn? Both believe in and have seen the positive effects of investing in cultural institutions that have deep roots in the community. A new or refurbished building is nice, but it takes a building plus an ongoing program to really have an impact.