Speech by The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
Citation for His Highness the Aga Khan
Delivered by The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
25 November 2013
Your Highness, Chancellor, Provost, members and friends of the Trinity College University Community:
I am deeply honoured to present today His Highness the Aga Khan, the Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. As a graduate of Trinity College, I feel particularly moved to welcome His Highness into our community at this beloved and extraordinary place. Trinity College, established as an Anglican University in 1852 by the Bishop of Toronto the Right Reverend John Strachan, has a history of learning, education and commitment to ethical values that has remained unbroken for over 160 years. When we welcome Your Highness into this fold, we are welcoming you into a place that combines the sacred with the secular with educational values that have seen its graduates take their place in the modern world and in Canada in a meaningful and committed fashion.
It was here at Trinity College in my first year, and actually in the living room at St. Hilda’s College across the street where I was living, when I first saw the picture of the young man aged 20 – also an undergraduate but at Harvard – who had just been named successor to his grandfather, the 48th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. I remember then thinking how extraordinary it was that someone almost my age would be taking on the leadership of 14 million people around the world on several continents, in diverse countries. I remember discussing it with my roommate and our feeling that we were very glad that the responsibility had not fallen on us or any of the young men who invited us to dances in this very hall. It was so difficult to imagine in the context of this place with its beautiful physical surroundings, its learning mixed in just measure with happy frivolity, that at the age of 20 one of us could take on such a responsibility.
I remember vividly how I thought he must have felt, knowing suddenly he had this enormous responsibility at our age and that the trust had been placed in him by his remarkable grandfather who had the complex task of leading the Ismaili community throughout the world during the colonial era for an astonishing period from 1885 to 1957 – 72 years that saw the world change and evolve, undergo two World Wars, and in kaleidoscopic fashion, emerge into new global patterns.
In his will his grandfather stated: “Ever since the time of my ancestor Ali, the first Imam, a period of thirteen hundred years, it has always been the tradition of our family that each Imam chooses his successor at his absolute and unfettered discretion from amongst any of his descendants... and in view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years due to the great changes which have taken place including the discoveries of atomic science, I am convinced that it is in the best interest of the Shia Ismaili Muslim Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office as Imam.”
In this College the ideal and the beliefs we hold dear are held within the same ethical framework as that of His Highness.
The recipient of this Doctor of Sacred Letters today has two distinct roles in this world: one as spiritual leader which he has inherited as an extraordinary charge and has held now for 56 years, and the other in the world that we all live, in that he has built upon and recreated, involving all of us. He manifests the creative relationship of spiritual values and material concern which is unique in the world today. He is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. He is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, through the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, the first Imam and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. He is the spiritual leader of 14 million Ismailis living all over the world, mainly in Western-Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Canada, the United States and Western Europe. We are fortunate in Canada to count 100 000 Ismailis who are Canadian citizens. In his own being, His Highness encompasses the world.
He was born in Geneva, son of the Prince Aly Khan, grandson of Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan, the third Aga Khan. He spent his childhood in Nairobi, Kenya and attended Le Rosey School in Switzerland and graduated from Harvard University in the United States in 1959. His grandfather in the nearly eight decades of being the third Aga Khan had the complex task of leading his community through violent and unexpected changes. His grandson has seen the world evolve in complexity, particularly following the independence of the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union.
But his family had already taken their place in the development of the world’s interconnectedness and its need for peace and reconciliation. His grandfather who named him as his successor was President of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, in the 1930s. His father Prince Aly Khan was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations. His uncle Prince Sadruddin headed the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and was charged with the humanitarian programme in the Middle Eastern states. His brother Prince Amyn entered the economic and social affairs of the United Nations directly upon graduation from Harvard and now is intimately involved with the governance of the network of activities supervised by the Aga Khan.
Historically, the Ismailis developed a state that concentrated on arts, science and trade centered in Cairo for a number of centuries. But in the 13th century, the Ismailis were dispersed, a diaspora that spread to Persia, Central Asia, Syria, India, and eventually Africa. It is out of this dramatic dispersal and the necessary knowledge of living as a community to whom faith shows itself in works that the far-ranging and extraordinary activities of the present Aga Khan emerge.
Through the physical dispersal of their community through the centuries, their spiritual allegiance to the Imam and their adherence to the Shia Imami Ismaili branch of Islam was their greatest strength. The Ismaili community has developed through centuries an ethos of self-reliance, unity and common identity. Wherever they live in the world, the Ismailis have developed a well-defined institutional framework under the leadership and guidance of the Imam to establish schools, hospitals, health centers, housing societies, universities, beautification projects and economic development institutions for the common good of all citizens in the countries where they find themselves – regardless of anyone’s race or religion.
The Ismailis have made an enormous contribution through the guidance of their Imams to Islamic civilisation throughout the world. The University of Al-Azhar, the academy of science Dar-Al-Ilm, in Egypt and indeed Cairo itself are testimony to this contribution. This growth has been exponential and extraordinary since 1957 when the present Imam became successor to his grandfather.
By Ismailis, the Aga Khan is called Hazar Imam which means present Imam or Imam of the time. And indeed, he has created institutions of our time.
The Aga Khan Development Network is His Highness’ way of bringing together the faith and the action of the Ismaili beliefs. Ismaili tradition means that their Imam leads in matters of interpretation of faith and the relationship of that faith to the conditions of the world in which we find ourselves living. It is grounded in the ethics of Islam in which economic, cultural and social matters all come together to determine the quality of life for human beings. As the Aga Khan often tells us “we have been created as one by a single creator”. Since 1957, projects have been initiated and always supported by the communities served no matter how diverse. They are aimed towards becoming self-sustaining and frequently involve private sector partnerships and partnerships outside the Ismaili community. Enormous work has been done because has His Highness has said, “development is sustainable, only if the beneficiaries become in a gradual manner the masters of the process.” Under the cultural wing there is a very prestigious prize for architecture, a historic cities programme, a music initiative and a museums and exhibitions portfolio. In the economic development field the fund works to strengthen the role of the private sector in developing countries by promoting entrepreneurial activity and supporting private sector initiatives. In social development the fund seeks to find solutions to the long term problems of hunger, poverty, illiteracy and ill-health with special attention to the needs of poorer regions and rural development.
The health network has 325 centres in countries like Pakistan, India, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Educational initiatives include 240 schools from pre-school to secondary levels attempting to diminish the obstacles to educational access and achievement. There are 18 Aga Khan Academies to be established in the coming years with curriculum based on the International Baccalaureate and a special emphasis on the humanities. The admission to these academies is based on merit and need. There are two universities, the Aga Khan University of Pakistan in Karachi, a major centre for health sciences and teacher education and the University of Central Asia which has three separate campuses, in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
In terms of the historic cities programme, I remember going to Kabul as Commander-in- Chief of the Canadian Forces in 2000 and seeing not a single pane of glass in that city of 3 million people. Babur’s Gardens, the exquisitely terraced place where the Mogul King had wished to be buried, was desecrated by the years of war in Kabul with the terraces denuded and an amusement park placed in it. We went on a tour with the Aga Khan Development Network person in charge of redevelopment and within two years the terraces were back in place and planted with their lovely cherry and pomegranate trees and the view that the great King wanted for his tomb was restored. Several years ago I went to Cairo and saw the Al-Azhar Park, where the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has taken medieval rubble and garbage to create an exquisite place of gardens, trees, plants, and picnic grounds for the people of Cairo. To me this garden is a metaphor for what the Aga Khan Development Network does: the creation of beauty, utility and inclusiveness out of garbage, desecration and indifference. I will never forget that day wandering in that park watching the families enjoy the green space that Cairo has never had before.
The 18-acre space here in Toronto at Wynford Drive and the Don Valley Parkway is an initiative that Torontonians will find adds to our civic and national life enormously: there will be the new Ismaili centre designed by Charles Correa of India and the Aga Khan Museum for Islamic Art designed by the Japanese Architect Fumihiko Maki surrounded by an exquisite park in the Islamic tradition but using Canadian indigenous plants and trees designed by Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic. This will be a great centre of civic pride for all of us as Canadians.
Ismailis have often been uprooted by radical changes in their respective countries, particularly on the Indian subcontinent and in East Africa where new nation states caused the dislocation of Ismaili populations. In 1972 when Idi Amin was president of Uganda, Ismailis and other Asians despite their citizenship and having lived there for several generations were expelled. So, fortunately for us, the Aga Khan took personal steps to find homes for the Ismailis not only in Asia but particularly in Canada and Europe. His personal appeal to Prime Minister Trudeau led to 10 000 Ismailis coming here in 1972. We did not realise as Canadians at the time how important this injection of Ismailis to our national and civic life would be. Who here does not have at least one Ismaili friend now? We have Ismaili students here at Trinity. All of this is due to His Highness looking after his people and being personally involved with their fate. Naheed Nenshi immigrated to Canada in his mother’s womb, otherwise we wouldn’t have him as the mayor of Calgary. And as you look around at our hospitals, banks, businesses, universities, you see the fruit of that wonderful immigration which has meant so much to us. His Highness believes in plurality and his life and work has manifested this greatly.
Christians and Jews in this country share in the Abrahamic tradition of Islam and we have much to learn from Quranic teachings. From the way in which the sacred and secular are knit together, and how it places a value on maintaining equilibrium between the spiritual well-being of an individual and the quality of their daily life. One thing that we who have been in Canada a little longer, notice about Ismailis is their devotion to community wherever they are and their willingness to give their time to volunteer activities. It springs from the Ismaili belief in man’s dignity and the idea that we are all human and that we must behave as though we are common members of that humanity. Therefore lending their skills, sharing their spare time, giving money, giving ideas to help relieve hardship, pain or ignorance is part of the DNA of the social consciousness of the Ismaili Muslim community. Over the past six years the Aga Khan has established in partnership with the government of Canada the Global Centre for Pluralism with its offices in Ottawa on Sussex Drive. The Centre, which I am honoured and happy to serve, is doing work to advance the cause of diversity among populations worldwide. It is a daunting task but one to which His Highness has applied his considerable attention, beliefs, and activities. The Centre is taking the old War Museum building on Sussex Drive and is redoing it into a physical space which will welcome and initiate the various activities that fulfill the ideals of our sharing, in the most practical terms, our common humanity.
Since 2009, His Highness has been an honorary Canadian citizen and he is an honorary Companion of the Order of Canada.
In this place which all of us here who call ourselves Trinity graduates so treasure, it is deeply moving and appropriate for us to welcome as an honorary graduate a man who is perhaps the only person in the world to whom everyone listens. The Aga Khan remains an outstanding bulwark against ignorance, partisanship, and selfishness. He is honoured by civilisations that need not clash out of ignorance but can and must work together to fulfill God’s promise that we his people are one.