The world of the Aga Khan

Saturday, February 2, 2002 – Print Edition,
Page F3 The Globe and Mail

Canada's 45,000 Muslim Ismailis, for whom the Aga Khan is spiritual leader, are a close-knit community centred in Toronto and Vancouver known for their business acumen, educational attainments and philanthropy.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien once joked that what his hometown of Shawinigan, Que., lacked was a dozen Ismaili entrepreneurs.

The first major group of Ismailis arrived in Canada in 1972 after being expelled from their homes and businesses in Uganda by Idi Amin.

Reportedly, Canada decided to admit the Ismailis after a telephone call from the Aga Khan to then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, a personal friend of 30 years. Canada immediately opened a special diplomatic mission in Kampala to process applications from the 5,000 Ugandan Ismailis. Another 5,000 soon came from neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania.

The Aga Khan was an honorary pallbearer at Trudeau's funeral.

The world's 15 million Ismailis, who call the Aga Khan imam, are a branch of Shia Islam, which is a slightly misleading label. Ismailiism is Islam's equivalent of Christian Gnosticism, acknowledging the same metaphysical principle of dualism: Light balanced by darkness.

Ismailiism and Gnosticism view humanity as imprisoned in a creation controlled by sinister forces, but seeking absolute truth and goodness outside of space and time.

Ismailiism's historical roots in Islam date back to the eighth century and the followers of Ismail, eldest son of Jafar, who was a descendent of the Prophet and, according to the Shiites, the sixth imam to hold the Prophet's full spiritual authority.

Ismail would have inherited his father's authority, but died prematurely, leaving his followers, who invested their imam with divinity, without an immediate figurehead. They are called Seven-Imam Shiites because they believe Ismail was the seventh imam after the Prophet.

Ismailiism had numerous schisms over the years. The Aga Khan leads the sect known as Nizari Ismailiism.

The present Aga Khan, the fourth to bear the title, is considered to be the 49th Nizari Ismaili imam and a direct descendent of the Prophet.

He graduated from Harvard with an honours degree in Islamic history, resides near Paris, is one of the world's great racehorse breeders and travels the world on behalf of his followers and his charities. At Harvard, he played soccer, rowed and developed a passion for skiing (he skied for Iran in the 1964 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck).

The Aga Khan funds innovative hospitals and other health-care and educational projects around the planet, mainly in Third World countries. The Aga Khan Awards for architectural, environmental and landscape design, mainly in the Islamic world, have become a much-prized global mark of achievement. (The 1978 winner was the celebrated Canadian architectural firm ARCOP -- Architects in Co-Partnership -- for the Mughal Sheraton Hotel in Agra, India.)