The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Posted: 10 Jul 2007 08:59 PM CDT

Spiritual leader Aga Khan marks golden jubilee

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.