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Eight hundred year-old Cambridge University awards Mawlana Hazar Imam an honorary degree
Majeed Neky
14 June 2009
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    Mawlana Hazar Imam at the University of Cambridge, where he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity. Photo: University of Cambridge

    Mawlana Hazar Imam at the University of Cambridge, where he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity. University of Cambridge

    In a colourful and historic ceremony held on Friday, 12 June, the University of Cambridge conferred upon Mawlana Hazar Imam an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity. Hazar Imam became the first Muslim to receive the distinction in the University's long and storied history.

    “The Honorary Doctorate of Divinity is awarded to individuals who have made a global impact through their religious leadership," said Tim Winter, Academic Secretary in the Faculty of Divinity. "I am delighted that His Highness the Aga Khan, whose charitable and spiritual leadership has a truly worldwide reach, and whose support for scholarship has impacted profoundly on Islamic Studies, should have been chosen for this well-deserved honour.”

    Hazar Imam was among ten eminent individuals who were presented with honorary doctorates by the Chancellor of the University, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. Other recipients included Baroness Shirley Williams, Professor and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, who together established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

    Cambridge has only granted the Honorary Doctorate of Divinity granted 19 times in the past 30 years. Past recipients include Mother Teresa, the Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Sir Jonathan Sacks, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

    Earlier in the week, Mawlana Hazar Imam received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Alberta in recognition of his efforts in improving the lives of millions of the world's poorest people and for building a global culture of tolerance. In his address to the students and faculty there, Hazar Imam noted that “the great universities of the world have a special mission – a high calling I believe – to take a leading role in the struggle to narrow and even to eliminate the knowledge deficits which challenge our world.”

    It is a calling that Cambridge has been answering for 800 years. Founded in 1209 by a group of scholars who gathered at an old trading post along the River Cam, the University has, over the centuries, produced great thinkers such as Newton and Darwin, Crick and Watson, Babbage and Hawking.

    Like the traditions of learning that flourished 1 000 years ago in the great universities of the Muslim world – such as Al-Azhar, which was founded by the Ismaili Imamat during the Fatimid period – the benefit of scholarship at Cambridge has spread far beyond its walls.

    The Cambridge name has long been a mark of educational accomplishment. As far back as the 19th century, people who lived in countries of the former British Empire and who sought to distinguish themselves academically would sit for Cambridge examinations.

    The Centre for Commonwealth Education at Cambridge University's Faculty of Education has links with the Aga Khan University's Institutes for Educational Development in East Africa and Pakistan. A number of collaborative educational projects are currently being developed that focus on educational leadership, the advancement of primary and secondary education, and initial and continuing teacher education.

    The awarding of Mawlana Hazar Imam's honorary degree also coincided with the signing of a scholarship agreement between the Cambridge Overseas Trust and the University of Central Asia. The University, which was founded jointly in 2000 by the governments of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, and the Ismaili Imamat, aims to serve the needs of 40 million people who live in the mountain regions of Central Asia by fostering economic and social development.

    The newly established University of Central Asia Cambridge Scholarships will enable outstanding students from Central Asia to study for higher degrees at Cambridge, building on the exemplary tradition of learning that the University of Cambridge has established over the past eight centuries.