Mansoor Ladha interviews the Aga Khan in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1970.
By Mansoor Ladha
I have had the privilege to meet the Aga Khan personally as a journalist and as a leader of the Ismaili Muslim community. As features editor of the leading Tanzania’s English daily, the Standard, he was gracious enough to grant me an exclusive interview in 1970 in Dar es Salaam.
In 1979, when the Aga Khan made his historic first visit to Canada, I was blessed again to spend three-days with him as chairman of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community in Edmonton. Both these events have been the most fulfilling occasions of my life.
I consider myself fortunate and blessed to have had such memorable, outstanding and exceptional opportunities, impressing me greatly with his commitment to pluralism, generosity, international commitments and enhancing my faith and spiritual happiness as a follower. It makes me proud to review on 60 years of the Aga Khan’s service and leadership of the community and his immense contribution to humanity and his association with Canada.
Calgary’s Ismaili Muslim community celebrated a memorable and extraordinary Diamond Jubilee of their spiritual leader, The Aga Khan, whose 15 million Ismaili Shia Muslims have been celebrating his Diamond Jubilee throughout the world.
The three-day Calgary celebration marking his 60 years of leadership was attended by Ismailis from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba estimated to be close to 20,000. The Calgary event was preceded by Diamond Jubilee celebrations in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and several cities in the United States.
Below: The Aga Khan and the Begum are welcomed by Mansoor Ladha and his wife, Anaar, on arrival in Edmonton. Bottom: The Aga Khan and the Begum at a welcome reception held by Alberta government.
On arrival in Ottawa, the Aga Khan attended meetings at the Global Center for Pluralism and a dinner hosted by Governor General, Julie Payette and attended by Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, former Governor Generals David Johnson and Adrienne Clarkson and former PMs Jean Chretien and Joe Clark.
The Aga Khan became the Imam of the Ismailis on July 11, 1957 at the age of 21 while still a student at Harvard University, succeeding his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah.
The Aga Khan has strong bonds with Canada and is no stranger to Canadians. A personal friend of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, the Aga Khan has described Canada as “a model for the world” and has publicly expressed admiration for Canada’s pluralistic society. Inspired by Canada’s experience as a diverse and inclusive country, the Aga Khan established, in partnership with the federal government, the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. The centre’s vision is a world where human differences are valued and diverse societies thrive. It has successfully drawn from Canada’s pluralist civil society by providing a platform for comparative analysis, education and dialogue about the choices and actions that advance and sustain pluralism.
In a tribute to the Aga Khan’s Diamond Jubilee, former prime minister Jean Chretien, recalled that the Aga Khan chose Ottawa from all the capitals of the world to be the site for the Global Centre for Pluralism “so he could showcase a world where human differences are valued and diverse societies thrive.”
“Because we recognize in this man and in his faith a good deal of what inspires the best in ourselves. That dialogue and understanding are a means to peace and stability. That what makes each of us different does not need to be a source of conflict or envy or suspicion, but instead something to treasure and celebrate,” he said.
Below: The Aga Khan being introduced to the welcoming party.
It can be safely noted that the Aga Khan’s admiration for Canada is so immense that he has established Canada as headquarters of the Ismaili community by locating the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre in Toronto and the Delegation of Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa. The Delegation of Ismaili Imamat has an ambassadorial role and also represents non-denominational, philanthropic and development agencies such as the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which has partnered with Canada in several projects in Third World countries.
The Aga Khan Museum, which is mandated to promote Islamic art and Muslim culture by acquiring and holding public exhibitions and display artifacts relating to cultural, artistic and religious traditions of Muslim communities, has become a Toronto icon visited by hundreds of local residents and visitors. All these projects in Canada have been designed by internationally-renowned architects and built to international standard.
Closer to home in Alberta, the Aga Khan has donated $25 million towards the establishment of the second Aga Khan Park in Edmonton which is under construction following the footsteps of the Aga Khan Park in Toronto which opened in 2015. Built as a symbol of friendship, the garden will be located at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden and is the 11th garden in the world supported by the Aga Khan.
On an international scale, the Aga Khan is actively involved in humanitarian and development projects throughout Asia and Africa. One of his most monumental projects has been the establishment of the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan and later on founding the world’s first internationally chartered institution of higher learning in Central Asia. The governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan signed an agreement with the Aga khan to establish the University of Centre Asia in 1994 after the fall of the Soviet Union in that region.
As a great promoter of architecture, he has established the Aga Khan Award for architecture, the world’s largest architectural award totalling US$500,000, aimed at encouraging architecture that reflects pluralism in Muslim communities.
One can visit countries in Asia or Africa and see numerous examples of the Aga Khan’s benevolence reflected in promoting and preserving historic sites, and establishing non-denominational hospitals, universities and schools for years. During one of his visits to Tanzania, tribute was paid during a government function by a cabinet minister who acknowledged being a product of the Aga Khan School — a testimony of his foresight and generosity.
Vanity Fair has described the Aga Khan’s global charity network as a “staggeringly large and effective organization,” akin to “his own UN … that also includes an enormous portfolio of for-profit businesses.”
Above: The Aga Khan departs at the end of his memorable visit to Edmonton.
The network employs 80,000 people in 30 countries, operating universities, hospitals and school programs for people in poor and war-torn parts of the world, regardless of their faith.
The Aga Khan’s Canadian charity, the Aga Khan Foundation, is part of this network. Since 2004, the Canadian government has sponsored 16 global development initiatives in partnership with the foundation, worth a total of more than $300 million.
The foundation’s projects have supported from craft producers in Mozambique to investing in childhood education in Bangladesh or working to improve women’s health in Afghanistan.
During his visit to western Canada, Ismailis, many of whom have made Canada their home following their mass expulsion from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin in 1972, marked his Diamond Jubilee with festivals and religious ceremonies. This was also a time for the Ismailis, 100,000 of whom are estimated to live in Canada, to rededicate and affirm their allegiance to their Imam.
As a tribute to his various contributions, the Aga Khan has received several honourary degrees and citizenships, including one by the Canadian government. Although he is a king without a kingdom, his authority and power surpasses a leader of any stature. He receives royal treatment everywhere he goes and he meets more foreign heads of state, presidents and prime ministers than even the president of U.S., the most powerful nation on earth.
Ismailis worldwide have progressed and prospered as a vibrant community under his leadership and guidance and have become the envy of the world. Described as “Prince of the Islamic World,” the Aga Khan has moulded his community into a successful model community who have contributed in professional, economic, social, political and civic matters of the country of their adoption. It is a tribute to his leadership that the Ismailis are so highly regarded everywhere.
As one of the pillars of their faith, Ismailis volunteers fervently – both in their own community and in civil society at large – believe in volunteerism because they deem that making the effort to do so leads toward enlightened self-fulfilment. As a token of appreciation to their Imam, many Ismaili professional have come forward to volunteer their time and knowledge in developing countries.
While other Muslim leaders have caused divisions and religious animosity, the Aga Khan is the only Muslim leader who has been building bridges with other communities by being conciliatory and supportive in promoting pluralism, diversity and Muslim values.
Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based travel writer, journalist and author of Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West and Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims.