Diamond Jubilee time to affirm allegiance
by Mansoor Ladha
The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s 10 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, is expected to visit western Canada in May as part of his worldwide Diamond Jubilee celebration. He is expected to visit Vancouver May 5-7 and Calgary May 9-11 when hundreds of Ismailis are expected to congregate for special religious ceremonies and festivities.
The western Canada visits are part of the global celebration of the Aga Khan’s Diamond Jubilee, who became the Imam of the Ismailis on July 11, 1957 at the age of 21 while still a student at Harvard University. Diamond Jubilee celebrations have been held in several countries, including the United States throughout the year.
The Aga Khan has strong bonds with Canada and is no stranger to Canadians. He has described Canada as “a model for the world” and has publicly expressed admiration for Canada’s pluralistic society. Inspired by Canada’s experience as a diverse and inclusive country, the Aga Khan established in partnership with the federal government the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. The Centre’s vision is a world where human differences are valued and diverse societies thrive. It has successfully drawn from Canada’s pluralist civil society by providing a platform for comparative analysis, education and dialogue about the choices and actions that advance and sustain pluralism.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Aga Khan tour the roof top of the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, after performing the opening ceremony.
The Aga Khan’s admiration for Canada is so immense that he has established Canada as headquarters of the Ismaili community by also locating the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre in Toronto and the Delegation of Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa. The Delegation of Ismaili Imamat has an ambassadorial role and also represents non-denominational, philanthropic and development agencies such as the Aga Khan Development Network, which has partnered with Canada in several projects in Third World countries.
The Aga Khan Museum, which is mandated to promote Islamic art and Muslim culture by acquiring and holding public exhibitions and artifacts relating to cultural, artistic and religious traditions of Muslim communities, has become a Toronto icon visited by hundreds of visitors. All these projects in Canada have been designed by internationally-renowned architects.
Closer to home in Alberta, the Aga Khan has donated $25 million towards the establishment of the second Aga Khan Park in Edmonton which is under construction following the footsteps of the Aga Khan Park in Toronto which opened in 2015. Built as a symbol of friendship, the garden will be located at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden and is the 11th garden in the world supported by the Aga Khan.
On an international scale, the Aga Khan’s most monumental project has been the establishment of the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan and later on founding the world’s first internationally chartered institution of higher learning in Central Asia. The governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan signed an agreement with the Aga khan to establish the University of Centre Asia in 1994 after the fall of the Soviet Union in that region.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes the Aga Khan when he visited Canada.
As a great promoter of architecture, he has established the Aga Khan Award for architecture, the world’s largest architectural award totalling US$500,000, aimed at encouraging architecture that reflects pluralism in Muslim communities.
One can visit countries in Asia or Africa and see numerous examples of the Aga Khan’s benevolence reflected in promoting and preserving historic sites, and establishing non-denominational hospitals, universities and schools for years. During one of his visits to Tanzania, tribute was paid during a government function by a cabinet minister who was a product of the Aga Khan School — a testimony of his foresight and generosity.
Vanity Fair has described the Aga Khan’s global charity network as a “staggeringly large and effective organization,” akin to “his own UN … that also includes an enormous portfolio of for-profit businesses.”
The network employs 80,000 people in 30 countries, operating universities, hospitals and school programs for people in poor and war-torn parts of the world, regardless of their faith.
Journalist Mansoor Ladha interviews the Aga Khan in Dar es Salaam in 1970.
The Aga Khan’s Canadian charity, the Aga Khan Foundation, is part of this network. Since 2004, the Canadian government has sponsored 16 global development initiatives in partnership with the foundation, worth a total of more than $300 million.
The foundation’s projects do everything from supporting craft producers in Mozambique to investing in childhood education in Bangladesh or working to improve women’s health in Afghanistan.
During his visit to western Canada, Ismailis, many of whom have made Canada their home following their mass expulsion from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin in 1972, will celebrate his Diamond Jubilee with festivals and religious ceremonies. This is also a time for the Ismailis, 100,000 of whom are estimated to live in Canada, to rededicate and affirm their allegiance to their Imam.
As a tribute to his various contributions, the Aga Khan has received several honourary degrees and citizenships, including one by the Canadian government. Although he is a king without a kingdom, his authority and power surpasses a leader of any stature. He receives royal treatment everywhere he goes and he meets more foreign heads of state, presidents and prime ministers than even the president of U.S., the most powerful nation on earth.
Ismailis worldwide have progressed and prospered as a vibrant community under his leadership and guidance and have become the envy of the world. Described as “Prince of the Islamic World,” the Aga Khan has moulded his community into a successful model community who have contributed in professional, economic, social, political and civic matters of the country of their adoption. It is a tribute to his leadership that the Ismailis are so highly regarded everywhere.
While other Muslim leaders have caused divisions and religious animosity, the Aga Khan is the only Muslim leader who has been building bridges with other communities by being conciliatory and supportive in promoting pluralism, diversity and Muslim values.
- Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based travel writer, journalist and author of Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing east Africa for the West and Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims.