“These centres serve to reflect, illustrate and represent the community’s intellectual and spiritual understanding of Islam, its social conscience, its organization, its forward outlook and its positive attitude toward the societies in which it lives.”
– His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan at the foundation laying ceremony of the Ismaili Centre, Dushanbe
The 17-acre site of the new Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre in Toronto
By Mansoor Ladha, Edmonton Journal
Toronto’s Ismaili Centre will be the sixth among a growing network of Ismaili centres built around the world. In the last 25 years, equally architecturally spectacular projects have been built in London, England (1985), Burnaby (1985), Lisbon (1998), Dubai (2003) and Dushanbe, Tajikistan (2009). Similar projects are planned for Houston, Paris and Los Angeles. The centres stand majestically as a tribute to the settlement of the Ismaili Muslim community in those countries.
Each Ismaili Centre serves both religious and ambassadorial functions with a jamatkhana — a space for prayer and contemplation — and rooms for social gatherings, educational facilities and libraries. As a whole, the centres portray and reflect the values of Islam.
Describing the design of the centre, architect Charles Correa said that “this jamatkhana must be pluralistic — expressing on the one hand the age-old heritage of the Ismaili community and on the other their new-found aspirations as proud citizens of Canada. So throughout the building, the architectonic language and the materials used are contemporary (exposed concrete, stainless steel and frosted glass), but there are also references to other values, derived from other times.”
The centre will be a source of pride for the total Muslim population in Canada and the U.S., displaying the inherent pluralism of Islam.
The Aga Khan Museum, which will reflect the art, culture and performing arts of Islamic civilizations, will house artifacts from the Aga Khan family’s private collections, dating back more than 1,000 years. The museum is aimed at promoting Islamic art through exhibitions, with special emphasis on Shiite Islam, and will provide a forum for exchanges between Islamic and western scholars.
In a speech made at the Musee-Musees Round Table Louvre Museum in October 2007, the Aga Khan explained the reasons for building Aga Khan Museum. He said the Muslim world, with its history and culture, is still unknown to the West. Even today, the study of the Muslim world in our high schools and universities is a specialist subject. Very little of the Muslim world features in the study of humanities in the West, where courses are essentially centred around Judeo-Christian civilizations.
“This lack of knowledge is a dramatic reality which manifests itself in a particularly serious way in western democracies, since public opinion has difficulties judging national and international policy vis-à-vis the Muslim world,” he said.
“The two worlds, Muslim and non-Muslim, eastern and western, must as a matter of urgency make a real effort to get to know one another, for I fear that what we have is not a clash of civilizations, but a clash of ignorance on both sides. Insofar as civilizations manifest and express themselves through their art, museums have an essential role to play in teaching the two worlds to understand, respect and appreciate each other,” he said.
In the words of the Aga Khan, “the museum will show, beyond the notoriously politicized form of Islam which now tends to make headlines, Islam is in reality an open-minded, tolerant faith capable of adopting other people’s cultures and languages and making them its own.”
Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based journalist, travel writer and author of A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims
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