“For many centuries, a prominent feature of the Muslim religious landscape has been the variety of spaces of gathering co-existing harmoniously with the masjid, which in itself has accommodated a range of diverse institutional spaces for educational, social and reflective purposes. Historically serving communities of different interpretations and spiritual affiliations, these spaces have retained their cultural nomenclatures and characteristics, from ribat and zawiyya to khanaqa and jamatkhana. The congregational space incorporated within the Ismaili Centre belongs to the historic category of jamatkhana, an institutional category that also serves a number of sister Sunni and Shia communities, in their respective contexts, in many parts of the world. Here, it will be space reserved for traditions and practices specific to the Shia Ismaili tariqah of Islam.”
– Mawlana Hazar Imam, at the Foundation Ceremony of the Ismaili Centre, Dubai, 13 December 2003.
As articulated by Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Foundation Ceremony of the Ismaili Centre, Dubai, the Ismaili Centres belong to the historic category of jamatkhana. They are symbolic markers of the permanent presence of the Ismaili community in the regions in which they are established. Architecturally unique, each building incorporates spaces for social and cultural gatherings, intellectual engagement and reflection, as well as spiritual contemplation. They serve as ambassadorial hubs, representing the Ismaili community's attitude towards the Muslim faith and modern life, while extending a hand of friendship and understanding to enhance relationships among faith communities, government and civil society.
Through their design and function, the Ismaili Centres reflect a mood of humility, forward outlook, friendship and dialogue. They facilitate the promotion of cultural, educational and social programmes from the broadest, non-denominational perspectives within the ethical framework of Islam. A central purpose of the Ismaili Centres is to encourage mutual exchanges and understanding between diverse peoples, communities and faiths. The Centres are, therefore, not only places for spiritual search, but also spaces for broadening intellectual horizons and fostering an appreciation of pluralism.
In 1979, the foundation stone was laid for the first Ismaili Centre, in the South Kensington area of London. This high-profile building was opened by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Mawlana Hazar Imam in April 1985 – a historic event which marked a new phase of the Ismaili presence in Europe. Several months later, in August, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney joined Mawlana Hazar Imam to open the second Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, Canada, an area where Ismailis had first settled in the country more than a decade earlier.
In 1998, the third Ismaili Centre was opened in Lisbon. The Muslim heritage of Portugal made it appropriate for the Centro Ismaili to draw inspiration from many influences, including the distant but familiar heritage of Moorish architectural forms. In particular, the interplay and combination of outdoor and indoor spaces give the building a unique aesthetic feel, reflecting the local context as well as aspects of Islam's architectural heritage.
The Ismaili Centre, Dubai was opened in March 2008, during Mawlana Hazar Imam's Golden Jubilee, which commemorated 50 years since his accession as the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. The Centre is comparable in scope and architectural standing to its predecessors in London, Burnaby and Lisbon. Built on land donated by the Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the Ismaili Centre unites in its construction and décor the experiences and aesthetics of the past with the materials of the present, in order to meet the needs and objectives of the future.
The Foundation Ceremony for the Ismaili Centre in Dushanbe, Tajikistan was held in August 2003, and the Centre was opened in October 2009. Four other Ismaili Centres, in various stages of planning and development, are currently being established in Toronto, Houston, Los Angeles and Paris.
Conceived in the ethic of respect for human dignity, the Ismaili Centres seek to empathise with, and to expand our intellectual, cultural and moral horizons. They are each a safeguard and a symbol of the core values of the Ismaili Muslim community.