The Ismaili is pleased to publish an interview with Shiraz Allibhai, Deputy Director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. As part of a series of conversations with key figures, Mr Allibhai discusses the positive impact of culture and its development potential, and humanity’s shared responsibility to preserve heritage.

Why is culture important to the Ismaili Imamat and AKDN? 

Development has a cultural dimension, which is why cultural development is one of the three pillars of development in the AKDN model. The other two are economic and social development.
Now while it is easy to appreciate how building and operating schools and hospitals, or how investments in insurance, banking, energy, etc. are vital to the development process and to improving quality of life, the impact of investments in cultural pursuits is less obvious. So this is a very good question.

To answer it, we need first to understand better what we mean by the term “culture.” Today, the notion is understood in two key ways:
1. Different beliefs, customs, knowledges, languages, laws and norms – or ways of life – of different human societies and groups.
2. The arts and heritage of different societies and/or groups in society (this includes literature, stories, music, dress, architecture, myths, and food).

In 1982, UNESCO embraced both of these understandings by offering a widely accepted definition of culture as “the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterise a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs.”

Next, we need to understand how and why the Ismaili Imamat began to invest in culture in these multiple senses? Hazar Imam explained the value and importance of cultural diversity and its role in promoting peace and development in a speech at the Avignon Forum in 2008. Mawlana Hazar Imam stated in the keynote address: “...exactly 50 years ago, when I inherited the Imamate from my grandfather, I discovered that wars, indifference, negligence and the drive to standardise cultures through colonisation, or the desire to modernise the built environment, had resulted in the irreparable loss of important cultural characteristics in developing countries, particularly those in Muslim countries. In other words, the distinctive cultural features of those countries, whose key importance is stressed by UNESCO’s definition, were being eroded. Something had to be done.”

The Imamat, through the work of Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), focuses on cultural heritage.

This is the stock of physical artefacts and intangible forms of expression – knowledge and knowhow – that each generation inherits from past generations. Understanding, appreciating, protecting and transmitting this multiple heritage requires active effort on our part. All forms of heritage are significant for several reasons. They may have considerable economic potential, particularly when used as resources for the tourism industry, or when they are in fact the only assets at the disposal of impoverished communities.

But the preservation of heritage also enriches us in ways that cannot be measured quantitatively. Heritage connects us to the pasts of our societies and embodies our collective memories, representing key moments in our histories. It provides a timeline for human thought and development. It helps us understand who we are, where we are coming from and where we want to go. Our forms of attachment to heritage help shape our sense of belonging and represent our identity as a group or a people. The preservation of heritage is therefore a shared responsibility for all of us.

What we have seen in the decades that the Trust has been implementing projects around the world, is that the development of cultural assets can be a powerful key in overcoming poverty and enhancing the quality of life.

Finally, the Imamat’s focus on culture, through the work of the Aga Khan Music Programme and the Aga Khan Museum, clearly recognises and promotes the value of pluralism and exchange, which is integral to promoting quality of life. And this is what it comes down to, improving peoples’ lives across a broad spectrum of their everyday needs.

Today, the place of culture in discussions about development is now widely recognised—this was not always the case, and I think that the work of the Trust has contributed to this understanding. In the Muslim world, the Trust is, in many cases, the only institution working in this realm.

The work remains important, relevant and impactful.

Why is AKTC investing in cultural projects in some of the poorest and most remote areas of the globe?

The mandate of AKDN is to help those that are marginalised and trapped in a cycle of poverty. Its focus is Asia and Africa. These are regions that have a very rich heritage, but not always the means to preserve these assets or to use them in a manner that can spur socio-economic development. The Trust is in a position to be a catalyst for positive change in this arena. Communities in these places do not always have the means and knowledge to adequately address the loss of cultural heritage and this loss, either through neglect or willful destruction takes with it a culture, a civilization, the story of a life, a chapter of our humanity, and a history that can no longer be passed down to future generations to learn from and draw inspiration from. When you are ripped from your culture and sense of identity, the ripple effects can be felt for generations, and unfortunately, we are feeling these effects today in Muslim societies across the globe.

AKTC works in areas where the Ismaili community is not present. What is the relevance of this work to the community?

Mawlana Hazar Imam is not only the Imam of the Ismaili community, he is a world leader. The office of Imamat is responsible for improving peoples’ lives. This mandate goes beyond the Ismaili community and it is a lesson for all of us. We all have a duty to our fellow man, which extends beyond family, community, nation, etc.

By responding to issues of concern for the Ummah — identity, cultural expression, heritage and cultural memory — AKTC seeks to provide leadership through its programmes and activities in the realm of the arts, architecture, music, the urban environment, and education.

  • AKTC’s programmatic development resonates significantly beyond the Ismaili community and contributes to enhance its global profile and benefit its position, both locally and globally. AKTC’s programmes help provide a modern and progessive image of the interests and cultural concerns of the Ummah and its commitment to make the world a better place for future generations.
  • These projects are of high quality, impact and follow best-practice and this reputation for high standards is projected on the community in all its endeavours.
  • In the cultural realm, AKTC programmes have created a global platform to engage with audiences within and beyond the Muslim world at the highest levels of government. This dimension raises the profile of the Jamat as the work is seen as an extension of the Imamat and therefore the community.

How does architecture and the built environment impact the way people live, work, and interact?

There is a clear correlation between the spaces in which people live, work, and interact and the spaces in which their lives play out. Again, for the Imamat, architecture is more than just building, it is about improving people’s lives. Architecture can help fulfil our aspirations about how we want to shape our societies, how we want to live and the value we place on improving our environments. It is an enterprise that celebrates diversity and can bring people together. Mawlana Hazar Imam in an interview outlined how architecture came to be important for him:

“Thirty-five years ago, it was difficult to find new construction that reflected in its design a concern much less an understanding of the social, cultural, or in some cases, even the climatic context in which it was built. I was particularly disturbed to find this in the Islamic world, given its historical record of architectural achievement and the special place that architecture has played in the aesthetics and spiritual expression of its cultures.

When I inherited the office of Imamat from my grandfather in 1957, I traveled extensively, meeting with various communities in different parts of the world. I came into contact with visible forms of poverty that I had not known before. Anyone who visited the slums of Karachi in 1957, or who visited the high mountain areas in the Karakoram, or who simply visited the periphery of Bombay or Calcutta, came into direct physical contact with levels of poverty which were absolutely indescribable, and which were very much evidenced by the physical environment in which the people lived.

The first indicator of a community’s poverty is the physical context in which they live. Therefore, my interest in architecture was driven at that time by the question of what to do to improve the quality of life of the ultra-poor. That brought into focus a very serious question that impacted my thinking on architecture. It was apparent that the material needs to change this process was so enormous that the idea that these parts of the world could ever enter the domain of the consumer society was simply unrealistic.”

Why are the restoration of monuments and the rehabilitation of parks and green spaces important to AKTC?


Shiraz Allibhai serves as Deputy Director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Shiraz Allibhai serves as Deputy Director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

To address this question, one has to understand the myriad problem that the Muslim world is facing. Muslim societies face a number of serious challenges. They are experiencing dramatic processes of transition and change, which are radically altering value systems of future generations. They are subject to popular culture often from external sources, threatening value systems. And cultural heritage is under threat of being wiped out leading to a sense of exclusion and alienation. At the same time, Muslim societies are facing population growth, deterioration of living standards, environmental degradation and some are on the front lines of climate change.

We are, I believe, also in a period of history in the Muslim world of great rupture. Rupture with our understanding of beauty and its connection to the divine, rupture in our understanding of our place in the world, and rupture of our connection with our history and our cultural identity.

To tackle issues related to the degradation of the built environment, the lack of natural environments, and to strengthen pride and identity, the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme was created to provide demonstrative models in urban regeneration for governments and other players that can be replicated. AKTC remains unique in its approach and methodology. The Trust’s involvement in the creation and rehabilitation of parks and gardens is a case in point. Encroachment, both legal and illegal, has gradually swallowed up forests and grassland, diminishing green space. Overwhelmed by financial demands, municipalities have neglected the problem, assuming that green space was unproductive and therefore of little value – or worse, a financial liability.

It is in this context that AKTC began working to prove that, rather than being financial liabilities, green spaces themselves could be catalysts for positive economic, social and cultural change. Implicit in that notion is the idea that green spaces can become self-sustaining rather than burdens on municipal budgets.

Perhaps even more importantly, the creation of parks and gardens and upgrading of open spaces, is a responsibility. Care for the environment is a duty of trusteeship, which humankind owes by virtue of its stewardship over creation and over its resources for the benefit of all living beings. Each generation is ethically bound to leave behind a wholesome, sustainable social and physical environment.

In Cairo, Bamako, Kabul, Delhi and other sites, AKTC’s rehabilitation of existing parks and the creation of new green spaces have made these sites hugely popular among local populations and international visitors. Some are running surpluses and a few even help subsidise urban regeneration projects in adjacent neighbourhoods, restoring hope for the future in historic districts where many had become resigned to terminal decline.

What was a hypothesis many years ago is now proven and the benefits of these green spaces cannot be overstated. AKTC has demonstrated that parks not only contribute to the quality of life in cities but that they can also be self-sustaining if conceived and managed properly. In several locations, it has even demonstrated that, under the correct conditions, parks and gardens can also be economic generators that drive – directly and indirectly – a broad advance of positive change in terms of social development, local employment, entrepreneurial activity, and cultural development.

How has the current Covid-19 crisis effected the work of the Historic Cities Programme?

Like everyone and all institutions, AKTC has been and continues to be affected by the health crisis. HCP efforts (parks and gardens, conservation work, and construction projects) in each country where they take place had to shut down, sometimes, several times, depending on the severity of the virus outbreak. We have had to adapt how we work, manage and operate projects. We have been innovative and the strength and capacities of our local teams have proven to be robust and resilient in these times. Our parks and gardens are well managed and have, over the years, accumulated surpluses that were put aside for emergencies. In this way, we did not have to cut employment when the parks were closed. We managed to retain and pay our employees at a time when they would be the most vulnerable. I am proud of this fact.

How can museums play a role in education and contribute to public discourse?

Education and public discourse are the primary aims of museums. A good museum will seek to foster a better understanding of cultures, human development and thought, spark curiosity, and make a connection between global patrimony and our common heritage. By engaging with the objects, we are connecting with people across time, across space, and across divides.

Museums in the contemporary world have expanded their missions to become powerful educational institutions, actively seeking to broaden their constituencies. Collections and exhibitions have become dynamic tools for instruction, debate, and reflection, and for attracting large numbers to the cultural life of societies. They act as catalysts for cultural exchange. The role of the museum today is not just to showcase a civilization or its cultural artifacts, it must also play a key role in catalyzing cultural exchange and communication locally and internationally.

In this regard, the Aga Khan Museum’s key mission as stated by Mawlana Hazar Imam is “ offer unique insights and new perspectives into Islamic civilizations and the cultural threads that weave through history binding us all together. My hope is that the Museum will also be a centre of education and of learning and that it will act as a catalyst for mutual understanding and tolerance”.

The Aga Khan Museum plays a role in education and dialogue through its programming, exhibitions, and performances. It can challenge stereotypes and change minds through the messages it conveys about art as a universal medium that transcends culture, language and religion.

The Aga Khan Museum’s programming is unique in Canada. I constantly look at the Museum’s website and check off all the programmes that I would love to attend if I lived in Toronto. The offering is so unique. It is the first place I would bring a colleague or friend, who has questions about Islam or Muslims, or just wants to experience something beautiful or have a good meal. The Museum has done a good job of making the objects come to life and making their stories accessible.

I am heartened to see that the Museum is active throughout the day and its audience is becoming more diverse. Its focus on both contemporary expression and history is welcome. I am certain that the Museum will help shift opinions, get people more curious about Muslim cultures and civilisations and provide a backdrop for discussions that would not have been possible before it was created.


To conclude on a personal note, I am heartened to see so much engagement and appreciation in the Jamat for the work of AKTC. I believe the work has resonance and is understood and appreciated by the Jamat and especially the younger generation who see the Trust’s work in park and gardens and music as being topical, timely, and necessary. For my presentations to the youth of the Jamat, I only need to show images of Azhar Park, Sunder Nursery, or Baghe Babur, and right away, they understand the importance. I don’t have to explain why we are doing these projects, they just get it. This makes my job easier and much more rewarding.