At the foundation ceremony of the Ismaili Centre in Lisbon in 1996, Mawlana Hazar Imam said that the Ismaili Centres were to be seen as “ambassadorial buildings, which today reflect and illustrate much of what the Shi‘a Ismaili community represents”. But what does it mean for a building to play an ambassadorial role?

We often think about buildings as mute edifices, constructed merely to serve practical purposes. However, Mawlana Hazar Imam has long maintained that buildings offer much more than that. They represent the values of our faith and the aspirations that our beloved Imam has for his Jamat.

As we reflect on the grace of our forty-ninth Imam, it is important to highlight the notable complexes, which Mawlana Hazar Imam has personally seen through its planning and building processes. There are six such representational Jamatkhanas, located in Burnaby, Dubai, Dushanbe, Lisbon, London and Toronto. The first Centre was opened in 1985 in London, by the then Prime Minister, the late Margaret Thatcher. Both the London and Burnaby Centres had emerged as Silver Jubilee projects that were established from the Nazrana that had been offered to the Imam of the Time. All six Ismaili Centres embody a silent language of place and space, helping us to articulate our identity and our values through their physical presence and the multi-functional way in which they are utilised for various educational, social and cultural activities.

But importantly, the Centres represent our ongoing commitment to our tariqah, the spiritual path that we follow as a result of the giving and accepting of our bay’ah to our Imam of the Time. For this reason, at the heart of every Ismaili Centre in the world is its prayer hall, a space for contemplation, upliftment, and the search for enlightenment.

The Ismaili Centres also stand to exemplify the ethics of our faith. At the opening of the Ismaili Centre in Dubai, in 2008, Mawlana Hazar Imam said that this space is, “not a place to hide from the world, but rather a place which inspires us to engage our worldly work as a direct extension of our faith”. Through its architecture, each Ismaili Centre, in its own unique way, demonstrates a sense of integration and pluralism.

Each building fuses tradition and modernity, pulling inspiration from the environment in which it is built, while still referring back to the historic roots of the community. We see this, for example, in the Fatimid features of the Ismaili Centre Dubai, or the crystalline dome that stands as a glowing beacon, at the Ismaili Centre Toronto, symbolising the spirit of enlightenment that will always be at the heart of the Centre’s life. In this way, the Ismaili Centres represent the pride we have in our identity, and the way in which that identity weaves together our history, our present realities, and our aspirations for the future.

The buildings also reflect the value of pluralism through the inclusion of a variety of spaces that are designed to be shared with others; spaces that foster community cohesion and friendship. In 2014, at the opening of the Ismaili Centre Toronto, Mawlana Hazar Imam said the secular spaces should be “filled with the sounds of enrichment, dialogue and warm human rapport, as Ismailis and non-Ismailis share their lives in a healthy gregarious spirit”.

It is Mawlana Hazar Imam’s aspirations that the Ismaili Centres along with other institutions, such as, the Aga Khan Museum, and the Global Centre for Pluralism, build bridges and share knowledge with others. Creating and exchanging knowledge have always been part of our intellectual tradition. According to the great Ismaili thinker Sayyedna Nasir-i Khusraw:

“Knowledge is a shield against the blows of time”; it dispels “the torment of ignorance” and nourishes “peace to blossom forth in the soul.”

As ambassadorial buildings representing the values of our faith, the Ismaili Centres enable us to dialogue and extend the hand of friendship to those amongst whom we live, whilst continuing to provide us with spaces for intellectual engagement, social and cultural gatherings and spiritual contemplation. Equally, the Centres have a tremendous impact on our identity, dispelling misperceptions of our faith and transforming our sense of who we are and our place in the world, both as Ismailis and Muslims.