Aga Khan & Toronto - 2010-05-28
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and His Highness the Aga Khan will dig shovels into the dirt today at the future site of a $300-million cultural centre for Ismaili Muslims. By 2013, the seven-acre expanse near Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue will be home to a world-class museum, multi-purpose building and parklands, cementing this city's importance as a past and future destination for the Ismaili diaspora. Farid Damji, a member of the Ismaili Council for Canada, said the Aga Khan chose to build the centre in Toronto because of its "cosmopolitan cultural outlook."
The Aga Khan Museum will be a white-stone building with a low dome by prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki. Directly south, the larger Ismaili Centre Toronto by Mumbai-based architect Charles Correa will strike a similar, modern pose, with a multifaceted glass roof and a limestone exterior. It will contain meeting rooms, a prayer room, youth lounge and a library. Surrounding these buildings will be a network of geometric ponds, fountains, gardens and pathways. The Post offers a view of what's to come, and answers questions on the little-known Ismaili religion.
WHO ARE THE ISMAILIS?
Ismailism is a branch of Shia Islam, which first prospered during the Fatimid caliphate in Cairo from the 10th to 12th centuries. Today, the group counts an estimated 15 million members around the globe and is led by the 49th hereditary Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan. Ismailis are extremely diverse, and their activities and faith are not especially well documented by historians and journalists. Comprising at least three distinct sects, Ismailism has spread and evolved along with its followers, who have been flung by various upheavals throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, East and South Africa and more recently to Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America. Almost half of Canada's 70,000 Ismailis live in Toronto. (Pictured at left is a 17th-century emerald bottle from Iran that will be housed in the new Toronto facility.)
WHO IS THE AGA KHAN?
Billionaire, intellectual, diplomat, tycoon, Shah Karim al-Hussayni, the Aga Khan IV, pictured, is revered by Ismaili Muslims as a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. Born in 1936 in Kenya, His Highness studied in Switzerland and at Harvard and now lives in a walled compound and chateau near Chantilly, France. Perhaps best known for his vast array of philanthropic projects, he is twice married with five children, is the top breeder of thoroughbred horses in France and competed as a skier for Turkey and Iran in the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games.
WHAT IS THE AGA KHAN'S RELATIONSHIP TO CANADA?
Once a trusted friend of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, the Aga Khan has a soft spot for Canada, which he has called "the most pluralistic country on the face of the Earth" and "a beacon to the world." His project in Toronto will complete a triptych of architectural projects in the country, including the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, B.C., and the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa, inaugurated by Prime Minister Harper and the Aga Khan in 2008.
WHAT IS THE EXTENT OF THE AGA KHAN'S INFLUENCE?
As chairman of the private Aga Khan Development Network, the Aga Khan directs about 70,000 employees at hundreds of institutions on fourcontinents. He exercises control over a hydroelectric project in Uganda, a five-star hotel and mobile phone company in Afghanistan and micro-credit institutions that lend money to poor people in Asia. A life-long advocate of interracial harmony,diplomacy and detente, the Aga Khan has been cited as the man in the best position to defuse antagonism between Islamic nations and the West in the wake of 9/11.
WHY DO NON-ISMAILIS KNOW SO LITTLE ABOUT THE SECT?
Ismaili Muslims are sometimes described as "tight-knit" or "secretive." Non-Ismailis are not allowed into Ismaili religious services; questions directed at Ismailis by reporters and other inquisitive types are often politely dismissed; and the globe-trotting Aga Khan's visits are shrouded in secrecy. Some have said this furtiveness reflects the subordination of Ismailis to their spiritual head, but others have called it a "quietest" attitude resulting from centuries of persecution. A senior staffer with Aga Khan Trust for Culture said Ismailis are just self-effacing. "I think it's just a low-key community. It's one that's about humility, that always wants to give back to the community in ways that are unseen."
WHAT WILL THE NEW MUSEUM CONTAIN?
Filled with artifacts from the Aga Khan's 1,000-piece private collection, the museum will showcase the richness of Islamic art and civilization through 13 centuries. A chestnut leaf inscribed with golden calligraphy from the Ottoman Empire, pages from the "blue Qur'an" from North Africa and a well-preserved Mongol robe from the 13th or 14th century are a few examples of what gallery-goers can expect to see in the museum, the first of its kind in North America.