Mawlana Hazar Imam Aga Khan IV: “A strong commitment to learning has been at the very root of Ismaili and Islamic culture” (@UNESCO)

January 24 – UNESCO International Day of Education

A strong commitment to learning has been at the very root of Ismaili and Islamic culture, going back to the first Imam of the Shia Muslims, the fourth Caliph, Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib, and his emphasis on knowledge. The tradition was renewed over many centuries in many places by the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Safavids – the Mughals, the Uzbeks and the Ottomans. During his Imamat, my late Grandfather started some 300 schools in this region.
Mawlana Hazar Imam
Foundation Ceremony, Aga Khan Academy, Kampala, Uganda, August 22, 2007

Mawlana Hazar Imam Aga Khan IV speaking at the foundation ceremony of Aga Khan Academy, Kampala, Uganda. August 22, 2007

The earliest revelation to Prophet Muhammad was about learning and knowledge. The value placed on knowledge in the Qur’an became the foundation for the development of education among Muslims. The acquisition of knowledge came to be perceived as a way of improving understanding of the faith and its practices. Motivated by the central message of the Qur’an to pursue knowledge and the Prophetic Tradition, ‘Seek knowledge, even though it comes from China,’ the rulers incorporated some of this material into their own way of looking at the world, founding many institutions of learning. This began the period of translation and advancement, ushering in the era of knowledge exchange whose effects are felt today. The Prophet also urged the people to “reflect on signs in the universe that they might understand that in addition to achieving material goals, human life also had a higher moral and spiritual purpose (Nanji, The Muslim Almanac p 5).

Mawlana Hazar Imam said:
Scientific pursuits, philosophic inquiry and artistic endeavour are all seen as the response of the faithful to the recurring call of the Qur’an to ponder the creation as a way to understand Allah’s benevolent majesty.
(Speech, London, UK, October 19, 2003).

Andromeda Galaxy. Image: Jamie Carter/Forbes

In Islam, the cosmos is understood to represent an infinitely vast display of the signs of God. “The principle of tawhid (Divine Unity) infused all intellectual endeavour, preventing the splitting of subject from object. Tawhid… declares the inter-relatedness of all things… Given that Muslim intellectuals saw all things as beginning, flourishing, and ending within the compass of One Source, they could not split up the domains of reality in any more than a tentative way…the more they investigated the universe, the more they saw it as manifesting the principles of tawhid and the nature of the human self.” (Nasr, Sufi Essays p 112-113).

Early Muslim intellectuals “were not able to disengage knowledge of the cosmos from knowledge of God or from knowledge of the human soul” (Ibid. p 113). The primary focus was on the nature of things, “describing and explaining the three fundamental domains…God, the universe, and the human soul.” The universe and the human self are viewed as inseparably linked” (Chittick, The Muslim Intellectual Heritage p 108-109).

(See Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III: “…we stuck to our rites and ceremonies … forgetting the other half of our faith”)

Astronomers working in the Istanbul observatory, from the Shahinshah-nama (‘History of the King of Kings’) by Mansur Shirazi, Turkey, 16th century. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

The Qur’an refers in practically every chapter to the importance of intellection and knowledge, and the first verses revealed relate to recitation (iqra) which implies knowledge, and to science (ilm – hence ta’lim, to teach)” (Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred p14).

The need to study and make the works of the previous civilisations more widely available led the Abbasid ruler Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809) to establish a translation centre in Baghdad, Iraq – the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom. The centre translated the works of the Greeks as well as knowledge from the Byzantium, Persia, India, and China. This began the period of translation and compilation, ushering in the era of knowledge exchange whose effects are felt today.

The learning dealt with many disciplines that in modern-day are considered separate fields such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, among others; thus, pre-modern Islamic scholars were knowledgeable in a variety of fields rather than in a specific area.

The pursuit of knowledge was emphasised by Hazrat Ali, the first Imam of the Shia Muslims and by his descendants, including the Fatimid Caliphs, who founded and endowed institutions of learning such as the Al-Azhar and the Dar al-Ilm.

Al-Azhar Mosque. Image: Archnet

Named after the Prophet’s daughter, the Fatimids were Imams of the Shia Ismailis who established their empire in North Africa in 909 CE, when Imam al-Mahdi was proclaimed Caliph, marking the foundation of “one of the most brilliant periods of Islamic history” (Halm). The recovery of material attests to the rich intellectual and literary heritage of the Ismailis during the Fatimid period. The reign of the Fatimid Caliph-Imams, for almost two centuries in North Africa and later in Egypt (972-1171), is often referred to as a ‘golden age’ in Ismaili history.

Imam Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III continued the long tradition of learning by establishing over 300 schools during the first half of the twentieth century in Zanzibar, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, India, and Pakistan. He also supported the development of institutions of higher education.

Aga Khan School, Mundra, India founded by Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III in 1905. Image: Aga Khan Development Network

The quest for knowledge is never-ending, and those with the necessary preparedness must pay close attention to the advice that God addresses to the Prophet:

‘Say: “My Lord, increase me in knowledge” (Qur’an 20:114) (Chittick, The Islamic concept of Human Perfection p 3)
(See transmitted knowledge and intellectual knowledge)

The pursuit of knowledge, instructed to the Prophet, continues to be enforced and expanded by Mawlana Hazar Imam through the agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network that he founded. These agencies are the Imamat’s contemporary endeavour to enact the ethics of Islam.

Naryn campus
Kyrgyz Prime Minister HE Sooronbay Jeenbekov, Mawlana Hazar Imam, and Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Executive Chairman, Board Executive Committee, University of Central Asia, and Diplomatic Representative to the Kyrgyz Republic, following the official unveiling of the plaque to mark the opening of the University’s Naryn campus (19 October 2016). Photo: AKDN / Gary Otte

“Our history, our interpretation of our faith is anchored in the intellect and we rejoice in investing in the human intellect. It’s part of the ethics of what we believe in and it’s part of what we believe distinguishes us obviously from the environment in which we live.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam
Signing of Agreement between Province of Ontario and the Ismaili Imamat, Toronto, Canada, May 25, 2015


Azim Nanji, “The Prophet, the Revelation, and the Founding of Islam,” The Muslim Almanac Ed. Azim A. Nanji, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1996
Nasir Khusraw, Wajhi-Din, tr. Faquir M. Hunzai, in An Anthology of Ismaili Literature: A Shi’i Vision of Islam, Vol. 2, I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2008
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred, The Gifford Lectures
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Sufi Essays, State University of New York Press, 1972
William C. Chittick, The Muslim Intellectual Heritage and Its Perception in Europe, Central and Eastern European Online Library (PDF)
William C. Chittick, The Islamic Concept of Human Perfection, The Matheson Trust For the Study of Comparative Religion
Abu Ibrahim Isma’il ibn Bukhari (d. ca. 870) cited by Lewisohn in The Sacred Foundations of Justice in Islam, Edited by M. Lakhani, Sacred Web Publishing, 2006, p 113

Contributed by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer who also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at

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