He is a jet-setting billionaire, owner of one of the world’s renowned horse-racing stud farms, and an admired philanthropist who briefly called Rita Hayworth his stepmother.
He is also a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims around the globe.
The Aga Khan, a beloved figure who is both the spiritual guide and secular role model for Canada’s 100,000 Ismailis, is in Toronto on Friday to lay the foundation for an Islamic museum and cultural centre. The construction on Canadian soil of the largest Islamic museum in the English-speaking world marks a significant milestone for a community that arrived here, nearly destitute, 38 years ago. In the last four decades, Ismailis have emerged as a remarkable success story. Their smooth integration is seen as one of the reasons the Aga Khan, a keen admirer of this country, promotes Canadian-style pluralism as a model for the world.
It was not long before Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda in 1972 that the Aga Khan first called prime minister Pierre Trudeau to plan a possible escape route for his people. The two leaders were friendly with one another, and the Aga Khan recognized that the situation for Ismailis in East Africa was growing more precarious by the day. When the axe fell and Mr. Amin began appropriating Ismaili businesses and property, Mr. Trudeau didn’t hesitate to offer safe haven, according to his biographer, John English.
About 5,000 Ismailis came to Canada in that initial phase, and a further 5,000 Ismaili Asians from other East African countries arrived not long after. The community has since grown across Canada as members of the Ismaili diaspora from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere have relocated here. In a short time, Ismailis have become leading figures in politics, business and the professions, with prominent people including Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed and Senator Mobina Jaffer.
Ali Shallwani, who owns a teaching-supply store in Oakville, Ont., came to Canada from Pakistan in 1976. He said one of the most influential moments of his life was when, in the early 1990s, he heard the Aga Khan say to Canadian Ismailis, “Make Canada your home.” Mr. Shallwani had just been granted a U.S. work permit, but returned to Canada within a year.
“His saying played a significant role in my decision to return,” Mr. Shallwani said. “I think [the Aga Khan] finds Canadian society to be more tolerant, which I agree with.”
That command, to make Canada home, is a phrase many other Ismailis describe as resonant, according to Shamir Allibhai, producer of a documentary about the spiritual leader. The Aga Khan encouraged Ismailis to engage with their new society, to emphasize education, integrate into the community and volunteer for the common good. They attribute much of their success in Canada to his leadership, he said.
“His emphasis on Canada is not found anywhere else in the Ismaili world,” Mr. Allibhai said. “The Aga Khan sees Canadian civil society as one that can be exported to other countries.”
The Ismailis belong to a relatively small Shia Muslim sect, one that for the last 150 years has had fairly close ties with the West. The Aga Khan’s grandfather passed the Imamat directly to the current Aga Khan in 1957, when he was just a 20-year-old undergraduate at Harvard University. His father, who had married film star and sex symbol Rita Hayworth a few years before, was bypassed because it was felt that a young leader was needed for the atomic age.
Thrust into the spotlight, the Aga Khan emerged as both a moderate, thoughtful leader and a charismatic figure of some international celebrity. He skied for Iran in the Olympics and, though he devotes most of his attention to his foundation and development projects, he also owns one of horse racing’s most successful breeders. His greatest horse, Shergar, valued at close to $20-million, was kidnapped from a farm in Ireland in 1983 and never seen again.
Shafique Virani, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto, describes the Aga Khan as “one of the very forward-looking leaders of the Muslim world.”
“He’s very much involved with the concept of pluralism,” Prof. Virani said. He added that the leader’s fascination with Canada stems from the impression that the country, thanks in part to its policy of official multiculturalism, has created a society where people of different backgrounds can get along, and where that ideal is taught, absorbed and passed on.
The tensions of the post-9/11 world, with its often oversimplified and false impressions of Islam, have been an ongoing concern for the Aga Khan. He has also been heavily involved in development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where much of the violent fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks is still unfolding.
“Our world is really torn apart right now, and there’s this concept of the clash of civilizations,” Prof. Virani said. “He’s put forward a thesis that says it’s not really a clash of civilizations that we have, but a clash of ignorance.”
Joe Friesen Demographics Reporter
From Friday’s Globe and Mail
Published on Thursday, May. 27, 2010 11:14PM EDT
Last updated on Friday, May. 28, 2010 8:34AM EDT
By Noor Javed
The artistic pieces have graced the homes of Mughal emperors, adorned the gardens of Persian palaces and educated the masses of the Muslim world.
Soon, over 1,000 years of Islamic art and culture will find a permanent home in Toronto.
The groundbreaking for the Aga Khan Museum, the first in North America solely devoted to Islamic art, will take place on Friday near Don Mills Rd. and Eglinton Ave. E. The museum will be built alongside an Ismaili centre and park on a 7-hectare site at 49 Wynford Dr.
More than 1,000 Islamic artifacts from China to the Iberian Peninsula will be showcased — with 200 on permanent display — when the museum opens in 2013.
The pieces, which come from the collection of the Aga Khan family, already have more air miles than most Canadians. They have been featured in museums around the world from London to Madrid. Before they settle in Toronto, they will be exhibited in Istanbul and five other cities in the Muslim world.
The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, will arrive Friday to put a shovel in the ground and give his blessings to the $300 million project
“While some North American museums have significant collections of Muslim art, there is no institution devoted to Islamic art,” he said. “In building the museum in Toronto, we intend to introduce a new actor to the North American art scene. Its fundamental aim will be an educational one, to actively promote knowledge of Islamic arts and culture.”
The 10,000-square-foot building will be designed by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, who is also working on the expansion of the United Nations building and Tower 4 at the former World Trade Center site.
“This project will help to bridge the clash of ignorance,” said Amyn Sayani, a volunteer with the Ismaili Council for Canada. “This is very much an opportunity for people to dialogue and to bridge different cultures and faiths.”
A sampling of the art coming to town:
Manuscript of the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina, Iran or Mesopotamia, c. 1052: This manuscript is considered to be one of the most important collections of medieval medical knowledge in the Islamic world. It was used in the 12th and 13th centuries by medical schools in Europe, almost until the beginning of modern times. The document to be displayed is the fifth book, focusing on drugs and pharmacy.
• Emerald green bottle, Iran, Safavid dynasty, 17th century: The Islamic world, mainly due to proximity, has always had close ties to the Chinese world. This bottle was made to imitate Chinese ceramics, in both colour and appearance.
• Portrait of Sultan Selim, Turkey, c. 1570: A large album portrait done in watercolour, ink and gold of Sultan Selim II. It was his father, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, who solidified the geographical borders of the Ottoman Empire. Selim was better known for enjoying finer pleasures such as literature, art and wine. Here, he shown by the painter as larger than life, in a luxurious fur-lined and gold garment.
• Standard (alam), Iran, 16th century: Made of steel, standards usually decorated bowls used as drinking vessels or food containers for wandering ascetics. This pear-shaped standard contains an inscription which can be read from different angles. The text from top to bottom says: “Ya Allah, ya Muhammad, ya ‘Ali” (“O God, O Muhammad, O Ali).
The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Shia Ismaili Muslims, will put a shovel in the ground Friday, marking the start of construction of a $300-million development in the Don Mills Rd.-Eglinton Ave. area.
Plans call for the building of a museum named after the Aga Khan, an Ismaili Centre and the creation of a park. The massive project is slated for completion by 2013.
“These projects represent a major investment by His Highness in this country’s cultural fabric and are a reflection of the Aga Khan’s commitment to Canada, which serves as a beacon to the rest of the world for its commitment to pluralism and its support for the multicultural richness and diversity of its peoples,” said Farid Damji, of the Ismaili Council for Canada.
The Aga Khan Museum — announced in 2002 — will be built on a 7-hectare site on Wynford Dr. and is the first of its kind in the English speaking world. The 10,000-square-metre structure will house collections of Islamic art, including ceramics, metal work and paintings covering a 1,000-year period of Islamic history. The design was done by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki.
The second part of the project is the Ismaili Centre — a community centre that includes a place of prayer, library, youth lounge and public spaces for cultural activities. It will be located on the same spot as the museum and is designed by Indian architect Charles Correa.
The park on Wynford Dr. has been designed by award-winning Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic. It will surround the museum and project a sense of a traditional Islamic garden.
“I’m excited this is happening because (the Aga Khan) is one of the few Muslim leaders who have reconciled with modernity,” said Tarek Fatah, author and founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress. “He offers a very clear alternative to the Islamism that is being spread by Jihadis. (People in the GTA) will get a view of Muslims and Islam without looking through the prism of Saudi or Iranian-tainted politics.”
The Ismaili Centre Toronto is the second in Canada — the other was built in 1985 in Burnaby, B.C. and opened by prime minister Brian Mulroney in the presence of the Aga Khan. Other Ismaili Centres have been built in London, Lisbon, Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Dushanbe.
Toronto was picked as the site of the museum because of the city’s cultural diversity.
Nearly 100,000 Ismailis are settled throughout Canada — more than 30,000 of them live in Toronto.