Jul 12,2007

TORONTO (CP) – As Ismaili Muslims around the world mark the occasion Wednesday of the Aga Khan’s golden jubilee, Canadians among them are grateful not only for his guidance and leadership, but also for his assistance in helping them make their homes in Canada.

“We know from our parents and our grandparents the conditions under which we lived in East Africa, the conditions under which we had to flee Africa,” said Amir Karim, a Montreal volunteer with the Ismaili Council for Canada.

“And I think we are very thankful to His Highness that 35 years later we are here, we got ourselves a good education, careers, and are, most importantly, contributing back to the society which accepted us.”

The spiritual leader of the Ismailis is His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, who became the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims on July 11, 1957, at age 20, following the death of his grandfather.

He’s well known beyond his religious community for his wealth and for his good works – the Aga Khan Development Network, or AKDN, a group of private, international and non-denominational agencies, spends more than US$320 million a year on social and cultural development activities, mostly in the poorest regions of Africa and Asia. Among the many honours bestowed on him is honorary companion of the Order of Canada.

The Aga Khan was born in Geneva, spent his early years in Nairobi, was schooled partly in Switzerland and graduated from Harvard University in 1959 after studying Islamic history.

He now resides in France and leads about 15 million Ismailis in about 25 countries, including a vibrant community of between 80,000 and 100,000 in Canada.
Karim said there were two major waves of migration to Canada.

“Idi Amin in Uganda had asked all residents of Indian descent to leave Uganda within a certain number of days. Ismailis had to find new homes, and so a number of them came to Canada in 1972-ish,” he said.

“The second big wave of immigration was in the early ’90s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are many, many Ismailis who live in central Asia, and some of them were fleeing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.”

Eighty to 90 per cent of Muslims are Sunni, while 10 to 20 per cent are Shia, Karim said. Ismailis are Shias, and along with other Shia Muslims believe that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, authority and leadership of the community was passed to his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and would continue by heredity though Ali and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.

“What characterizes Ismaili Muslims is that we consider the Aga Khan, the 49th direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, as our Imam, or spiritual leader,” Karim explained.

“This is not only a commemoration of 50 years of leadership, but it is also a commemoration or a reminder to ourselves, Ismailis, that this is 1,400 years of history.”
Karim said it’s part of Ismaili tradition to mark epochal events in the lives of their imams, and a time to reflect on their work.

Reena Lalji, a Toronto lawyer and volunteer with the Ismaili Council for Ontario, agreed.
“A very fundamental ethos of Islam is to give to the less fortunate, to help the less fortunate, to assist with the betterment of the lives of people around you,” she said. “And that’s what is being accomplished through the AKDN.”

Karim noted the importance of compassion and sharing.

“His Highness tells his community to always remember, not to think about ‘what have I achieved today?’ but ‘what have I helped others to achieve?”‘

A statement issued by the Aiglemont estate in France, headquarters of the AKDN, said jubilee celebrations “offer occasions to launch new social, cultural and economic development projects.”

An event in France marking the jubilee Wednesday will be private, but Karim and Lalji both expressed the hope that the Aga Khan’s travels in the coming year will bring him to Canada.

Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity, issued a statement recognizing the golden jubilee and encouraging Canadians to learn more about the Aga Khan’s “substantial contributions to international development, and the Canadian community’s very impressive achievements.”

Last October, the Aga Khan and Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the federal government and the Aga Khan would each contribute $30 million to a new Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa.
The think-tank and research facility will be housed in the old Canadian War Museum.
The Aga Khan wants “to essentially export the Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance to other countries,” Lalji said.

The Aga Khan is also establishing a representative office on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, designed by architect Fumihiko Maki.

In addition, Toronto will be the site of the Aga Khan Museum, and a new Ismaili Centre with classrooms, a library and a prayer hall.

“The museum will contain works from the Aga Khan’s family collection, as well as other collections,” Lalji said.

The relationship between the federal government and the Aga Khan dates back about 25 years, when the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA, became involved with the network.

“I think by building such a strong presence in Ottawa, what His Highness is saying is that this relationship is ready to go to the next level,” said Karim.

©All rights reserved, news from Canadian Press

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Jul 11,2007

How do you explain your faith to people who do not share your truth claims and who find your sacred practices foreign?

As a minority within a minority within a minority in the West – a Muslim, a Shia, an Ismaili – I have long struggled with that question.

When I was a child and I had to explain why I was fasting from food and drink on a certain day, or why I wore an Arabic symbol for God on a chain around my neck, I would put my head down and mutter: “My mom makes me do it.”

In a world where people from different faith backgrounds are in constant contact with one another, and there are forces who actively seek to sow division between diverse people, we need better ways to build understanding. We need what I call a ‘public language’ of faith, a language which highlights the history of our traditions, and the good works they are doing for the broader world.

Every tradition has a history, and while yours might be different from mine, I expect that you will have more understanding for who I am and how I practice faith if I tell you a little about where I come from. And every tradition has a core which seeks to serve others. And if I tell you about how the people, institutions and leader of my faith are helping people live more peaceful and prosperous lives, I think that you will have deeper respect – perhaps even admiration – for my tradition.

Today, on one of the holiest days of my life, I want to use this public language of faith, in the hopes that it will provide a window of understanding into my tradition and community.

Today, I celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Imamat of my spiritual leader, the Aga Khan.

I am an Ismaili Muslim, one of 15 million members of a Shia Muslim community spread across 25 countries. Ismailis, like all Muslims, affirm the Shahada – that there is no god but God and Muhammad is God’s messenger. Like all Shia, we believe that the Prophet Muhammad appointed his cousin and son-in-law Ali to lead the Muslim community after his death. Ali was known as the first Imam (this is not to be confused with the small ‘i’ imam, as in the person who leads Muslim congregational prayers), a designation that carried with it the unique ability to interpret the meaning and application of the Holy Qur’an in changing times. The Imam, according to Shia tradition, chooses his successor from within the Ahl al-Bayt, or the family of the Prophet. Over the course of history, disputes arose over the appointment of certain Imams, and the Shia split into multiple communities.

Today, the Ismailis are the only Shia community with a living and present Imam. The current Aga Khan is the 49th in the line of Imams recognized by Ismailis. Previous Imams have played a significant role within the Muslim ummah and the wider world. Ali was not only the first Shia Imam, he was also the fourth Caliph of the entire Muslim community. Ismaili Imams laid the foundation for the modern city of Cairo in the 10th century, and built there one of the world’s most ancient universities, Al Azhar. This Imam’s immediate predecessor, Sultan Muhammad Shah, served as the President of the League of Nations and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

As an Ismaili, I look to the Aga Khan for religious guidance. But one does not need to have a spiritual allegiance to the Aga Khan to admire the work of his institutions. As the Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – an innovative and highly effective association of health, education, cultural and economic development institutions – he has helped literally millions of people in forgotten parts of the developing world live more peaceful, prosperous and dignified lives.

Consider these concrete examples:

-There are 300 Aga Khan schools in the world, educating 62,000 students and employing nearly 5000 staff.

– There are over 200 Aga Khan health centers in the world, caring for nearly two million and employing nearly 10,000 staff.

– The AKDN is currently building the University of Central Asia, whose purpose is to foster the human and social capital for democracy, pluralism and prosperity in a region that gets far too little attention.

– When a tragic earthquake struck Kashmir in 2005, AKDN helicopters were amongst the first to arrive on the scene.

Two particularly distinctive aspects of the AKDN is its understanding that culture – architecture, poetry, music, calligraphy – is a crucial part of human existence, and its commitment to nurturing effective private enterprise in developing countries. On the culture front, the AKDN built Al Azhar park in Cairo and restored Humayan’s Tomb in India. It has supported everything from indigenous music in Tajikistan to Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. Regarding effective private enterprise, Roshan, a mobile phone company that the AKDN owns a 51% share in, is the single largest private employer in Afghanistan.

A substantial amount of this work is funded by the private resources of the Aga Khan and the Ismaili community. (I serve on the National Committee of the Aga Khan Foundation in the USA, which raises money and awareness for AKDN programs around the world, especially through the Partnership Walk). But all of it – the hospitals and schools, the private companies and university courses – is non-sectarian. In fact, these programs are specifically designed to nurture pluralism. As the Aga Khan once said, “Tolerance, openness and understanding toward other peoples’ cultures, social structures, values and faiths are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world. Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for progress and development, it is vital to our existence.”

There is a guiding philosophy, an animating ethos, behind the AKDN – Islam. Over and over again, the Aga Khan has emphasized that his work for mercy, compassion and dignity emerge directly from his commitment to Islam.

So while many people call the Aga Khan a leading philanthropist, I believe that term captures neither his inspiration nor his vision.

He is the Imam of the Ismaili community. He is a Muslim.

“On Faith” panelist Eboo Patel is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core and the author of “ Acts of Faith.”


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Jul 9,2007

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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