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Looking back on 25 years of the Ismaili Centre, London
Sophia Mawji
22 April 2010
  • In the 25 years since it opened, tens of thousands of people have experienced the Ismaili Centre in London. The building at Cromwell Gardens in South Kensington was the first high profile Ismaili Centre to be designed and built in the West, and realised an important vision of Mawlana Hazar Imam. Since then, it has both reflected and shaped the aspirations of the Jamat.

  • “This building is more than simply a place of congregation. Through the quality of its design and workmanship, it will be a bridge between the culture of the community's roots and that of its future as well as a symbol of the hopes of people who have lived through change and turbulence and have ultimately found security here in Britain.”
    Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Opening Ceremony of the Ismaili Centre, London, 24 April 1985

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    Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim. This invocation – central to the Muslim faith – greets visitors as they enter the Ismaili Centre in London. Water ripples from a seven-sided marble fountain, drowning out the hubbub of Central London traffic outside.

    “[I] felt the silence and the reverberation of something that is very special,” said Adrienne Clarkson, the former Governor General of Canada after touring the Centre for the first time. “I could feel my blood running in my veins, it was so silent. And that's a very great privilege in the centre of a very great metropolis.”

    When the Ismailis first settled in the United Kingdom, their presence was imperceptible to the wider society. Today, that is no longer the case. While Ismailis still only make up a small fraction of the country's population, the community's contributions to society have increased exponentially. Within and beyond the walls of the Ismaili Centre, the community regularly hosts a variety of initiatives that are open to the general public, including exhibitions, lectures, and debates.

    “I can only applaud your emphasis on intellectual and cultural exploration as a means of integration, and your determination to discharge your obligations as citizens of this country without losing your own distinctive traditions,” said Prince Charles, speaking of the Ismaili community during his visit to the Centre for the inauguration of Spirit and Life, an exhibition of the Aga Khan Museum collection. “I have no doubt that the existence of shared values is a key defining factor. These values celebrate humility, greatness of soul, honour, magnanimity and, indeed, hospitality. They form the bedrock of the excellent outreach work of the Ismaili Centre.”

    Twenty-five years ago, Mawlana Hazar Imam, accompanied by his family, presided over the Opening Ceremony of the Ismaili Centre which was conducted by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Minaz Jamal, who was head of the Ismaili Volunteer Corps at the time, recalls it as “a truly memorable event for the Jamat.” He adds: “When we think about the small and mobile Jamatkhanas that most of the Jamat were gathering in at the time, the opening of the Centre gave us, for the first time, a real sense of identity, a sense of belonging and a sense of pride.”

    Welcoming Londoners and the world

    In the years since the opening, tens of thousands of people have experienced the building through guided tours conducted by trained volunteers. Counted among them are royalty from various countries, prime ministers and senior political figures, leaders of industry, religious leaders, and famous personalities.

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    Cherie Blair, wife of Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, visits the roof-top garden while touring the Ismaili Centre, London. Photo: Courtesy of the Ismaili Council for the UK
    Cherie Blair, wife of Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, visits the roof-top garden while touring the Ismaili Centre, London. Courtesy of the Ismaili Council for the UK

    Since 2000, the Ismaili Centre has participated annually in London's Open House, which has brought thousands of visitors to the Centre. Nizam Abdulla, a former Vice-President of the Ismaili Council and a Mukhi of the Darkhana Jamat, has been a volunteer tour guide since the building opened.

    “The roof garden on the third floor is often the space that completely takes people by surprise,” says Abdulla. “The idea of a garden, designed on the model of classic Islamic gardens, in the heart of Central London, in a space from which you can look up to the domes of the Victoria and Albert museum, and at the same time be totally unaffected by the sounds of the traffic below, is something that they just don't expect. It is often a space where people stop to reflect and to listen to the sound of the water from the five inter-connected fountains.”

    Members of the Jamat from all over the globe often travel through London – considered the cross-roads of the world – and the Ismaili Centre is a must-see destination. “As you enter the Jamatkhana, you immediately sense the serenity and tranquillity, which at once attracts one to meditative prayer” commented one visitor. “Although designed 25 years ago, the space feels timeless and allows one to leave the material world behind.”

    First Ismaili Centre

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    Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher officially opens the Ismaili Centre, London in the presence of Mawlana Hazar Imam. Photo: Nick Hewer
    Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher officially opens the Ismaili Centre, London in the presence of Mawlana Hazar Imam. Nick Hewer

    The building at Cromwell Gardens in South Kensington was the first high profile religious and cultural centre to be specially designed and built for the Ismaili community in the West, and was followed by Centres in Vancouver, Lisbon, Dubai and Dushanbe. Four others are at various stages of planning and development in Toronto, Houston, Los Angeles and Paris. These architectural masterpieces are bridges between communities and cultures, providing spaces for peaceful dialogue, contemplation, education and exchange. They embody the values and ethics of the Ismaili Muslim community.

    At the Foundation Stone ceremony for the Ismaili Centre, London in 1979, Mawlana Hazar Imam said: “It is my conviction that the building of this Centre is symbolic of a growing understanding of Islam. ... This building and the prominence of the place it has been given indicate the seriousness and the respect the West is beginning to accord Muslim civilisation, of which the Ismaili community, though relatively small, is fully representative. May this understanding, so important for the future of the world, progress and flourish.”

    With its open plan and inviting space, the Social Hall at the Ismaili Centre has hosted a variety of events and activities that have contributed to this understanding. For example, the Ismaili Centre Lecture Series, which has been running for over a decade, brings together guests from a multitude of backgrounds to hear high profile speakers discuss topical issues.

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    The Ismaili Orchestra performing in the Social Hall at the Ismaili Centre, London in 1987. Photo: Courtesy of the Ismaili Council for the UK
    The Ismaili Orchestra performing in the Social Hall at the Ismaili Centre, London in 1987. Courtesy of the Ismaili Council for the UK

    The Ismaili Centre also takes part in Exhibition Road Music Day – London's expression of the international music festival, Fête de la Musique – held annually in June. Naseem Jivraj has been involved in this for a number of years: “For me, Music Day has many outcomes. Most importantly, this free event attracts members of the public and foreign visitors to engage with Muslim Heritage by visiting the Centre, attending workshops on Muslim music, art and literature, and listening to concerts performing music reflecting our diverse musical heritage.”

    Making history

    The Ismaili Centre has also hosted a number of historic milestone events for the global Jamat. During Mawlana Hazar Imam's visit to the UK Jamat in 1994, a number of gatherings and ceremonies were held at the Ismaili Centre – the memory of which is dear to many Ismailis. In 1997, the leadership of the global Jamat gathered to meet with Mawlana Hazar Imam on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his accession to the Imamat. Mahmood Ahmed, then President of the Ismaili Council for the UK recalls the event:

    “By 1997, more than 12 years after the formal opening, the full implication of Mawlana Hazar Imam's vision for such high profile [Ismaili Centres] was becoming clearer to the international leadership. We were all gathered on the third floor and reflected on how the London Ismaili Centre, the first of all the Centres, was playing such a key role in consolidating the international Jamat, and inspiring excellence in everything that took place within it. The sense of occasion was powerful indeed, and in the evening all the leaders attended prayers in their robes of honour – the prayer hall packed to capacity. What was felt by everyone in the Centre that day and evening was a sense of overwhelming gratitude.”

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    Mawlana Hazar Imam reviews an exhibition at the Ismaili Centre, London on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of his accession to the Imamat.
    Mawlana Hazar Imam reviews an exhibition at the Ismaili Centre, London on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of his accession to the Imamat. Courtesy of the Ismaili Council for the UK

    In 2003, The Institute of Ismaili Studies held a colloquium on the Holy Qur'an at the Centre, as part of the Institute's 25th anniversary commemorations. Speaking at the conference, Mawlana Hazar Imam noted that: “The venue for this international colloquium is particularly appropriate. In its architectural design and definition of broader functions, the Ismaili Centre in London, like its counterparts in other countries, has been conceived in a mood of dialogue, of humility, of friendship and of harmony. These Centres reflect a commitment to premiate excellence of endeavour in the realms of the intellect and the spirit.”

    In addition to high profile events, the Centre has also hosted thousands of gatherings for the Jamat in the UK, including lectures, debates, parties, weddings, exhibitions, fairs, conferences, training sessions, and workshops. Aliyyah Giga, a member of the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the UK, recalls her first volunteer committee appointment within the Jamat. “It was in 2000, and it was a debate with the motion: This House believes that it is better to be self employed than employed. My role was to be the timekeeper on the day,” she recollects. “I had just finished school and was getting ready to go to university. This was an exciting way to volunteer and at the same time be able to discuss issues that were important to me at the time – and in fact still are today.”

    A home away from home

    For many, the Ismaili Centre is an intrinsic part of life; a home away from home that harbours special personal memories. “Aged ten, I attended a family wedding in the Jamatkhana at the Ismail Centre,” recalls Shafina Dhanani. “I remember looking up at the incredibly beautiful inscriptions in wood repeating Allah's name, at the traditional oil-lamp-shaped lights, thinking, this is where I want to get married. Seventeen years later, my dream came true! Every time I walk into the Ismaili Centre the hairs at the back of my neck stand up and I am immediately taken back to that special day.”

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    The geometric designs and symmetry are visible in the décor and furnishings in the Social Hall. Photo: Crispin Boyle
    The geometric designs and symmetry are visible in the décor and furnishings in the Social Hall. Crispin Boyle

    Those who have grown up with the Ismaili Centre over the last 25 years recall running around the Gulgee portrait of Mawlana Hazar Imam as young children, never quite comprehending how his eyes could constantly follow them. They have fond memories of attending New Year's eve youth festivities in Centre Space as young teenagers who were only allowed to ring in the occasion there, or as older teens who attended with friends who were on the organising committee. There were also sleepless nights spent in basement committee rooms preparing for Partnership Walks, Imamat Day socials, National Sports Festivals and other Jamati activities.

    “The importance of the Ismaili Centre is not in its form but in the meanings it conveys,” observes Amin Mawji, President of the Ismaili Council for the UK. “It speaks to our notions of beauty. It speaks to the value we put on community cohesion. It speaks to the value we put on equality – between men and women, young and old, rich and poor. And anyone who comes to this building can see these things – we don't need to articulate them.”