Aga Khan University Convocation


Your Excellency, Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali,
Your Excellency, Governor of Sindh, Dr. Ishrat-ul-Ebad,
Honourable Chief Minister of Sindh, Sardar Ali Mohammad Khan Mahar,
Honourable Ministers,
Distinguished guests,
Faculty, staff and students of the Aga Khan University,
Parents and families of our students,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me very great pleasure to address this 16th Convocation of the Aga Khan University and to welcome the Prime Minister to this important occasion in the life of the Aga Khan University. He has a particularly demanding schedule at this time, including a long journey abroad within the next days and his presence amongst us today is testimony of his own and his government’s commitment to education in Pakistan and their conviction in its essential role for the future destiny of this great country. I am also most happy to be able to greet so many of our friends and supporters from Asia, Africa and North America who are also our generous and committed partners in the life of this institution.

I share the joy and pride of everyone associated with the achievements of AKU’s 241 new graduates. You enter the world as nurses and physicians, researchers and educators, with the University’s and my highest expectations that you will contribute to your societies as professional givers of health care and solace, and of educational skills and aspirations, but also as intelligent and wise voices in the communities you serve. This is a time that will call for the very best of truly educated minds: your skills and specialised knowledge, but also your patience and tolerance. Above all, it will call for your understanding. May you bring reason, and hope to all whom you touch in your professional and personal lives, and may you find your work deeply rewarding.

The Aga Khan University is now 20 years old, but its aspirations were formed in the 1970s- nearly a generation ago. Some ten years ago, the Chancellor’s Commission re-examined the University’s goals and intentions that were set down in the Harvard Report of 1983 and found them to be no less salient. The Commission strongly reaffirmed AKU’s commitment to be, in its words, an “open, Muslim university, devoted to free inquiry of distinction, quality and international character, preparing its students for constructive, worthwhile and responsible roles in society”.

There were questions in AKU’s early years about the timeliness and priority of a university, in an environment in which poverty and illiteracy – as we knew only too well – were dauntingly high. Would a new university and its university hospital merely benefit well-prepared students and well-off patients, replicating existing social divisions? It is only in the last few years that new voices, such as the World Bank’s, have noted the world’s “knowledge revolution” in which it is not so much factories, land and machinery that now drive the world economy but the knowledge, skills and resourcefulness of people. All societies, it has become clear, must invest in higher education for their talented men and women or risk being relegated to subordinate, vulnerable positions in the world.

The feelings of the subordination of people – that they are victims of an economic or cultural globalization in which they cannot be full partners but from which they cannot remain apart – these feelings fuel some of the most potent, destructive forces at play in our world today. The sense of vulnerability is especially powerful in parts of the Muslim world, which is itself heir to one of the greatest civilisations the world has known, but which also has inherited from history, not of its making, some of the worst and longest conflicts of the last 100 years, those of the Middle East and Kashmir. When people of a distinctive faith or culture feel economically powerless, or inherit clear injustice from which they cannot escape, or find their traditions and values engulfed culturally, and their societies maligned as bleak and unjust, some amongst them can too readily become vulnerable. They risk becoming the victims of those who would gain power by perverting an open, fluid, pluralistic tradition of thought, and belief, into something closed, and insular.

It would be wrong to see this as the future of the Ummah. There are many today across the Muslim world who know their history and deeply value their heritage, but who are also keenly sensitive to the radically altered conditions of the modern world. They realise, too, how erroneous and unreasonable it is to believe that there is an unbridgeable divide between their heritage and the modern world. There is clearly a need to mitigate not what is a “clash of civilisations” but a “clash of ignorance” where peoples of different faiths or cultural traditions, are so ignorant of each others that they are unable to find a common language with which to communicate. Those with an educated and enlightened approach – amongst whom I can count our graduates – are of the firm and sincere conviction that their societies can benefit from modernity while remaining true to tradition. But they will bring to our world more than that: they will be the bridge which can eliminate forever today’s dangerous clash of ignorance.

It is especially at times when ignorance, conflict and apprehension, are so rife, that universities, in both the Muslim world and in the West, have a greater obligation to promote intellectual openness and tolerance, and to create increased cultural understanding. Muslim universities, however, have a unique responsibility: to engender in their societies a new confidence. It must be a confidence based on intellectual excellence, but also on a refreshed and enlightened appreciation of the scientific, linguistic, artistic and religious traditions that underpin and give such global value to our own Muslim civilisations – even though it may be ignored or not understood by parts of the Ummah itself.

In the 20 years since the granting of its charter, the AKU has made a good beginning.

The School of Nursing in Pakistan and Eastern Africa have become known internationally for the professional competence of their graduates and the value to Asia and Africa of their curricula and pedagogy. I am delighted that today we award the first postgraduate diplomas to two graduates of the Masters programme in Nursing. As the president has said this is the first time in Pakistan that postgraduate degrees in Nursing have been offered and I view it as a major achievement not only for the nursing profession but for higher education for women in Pakistan and the Muslim world.

Graduates of the Medical College have established the reputation of their scientific and clinical preparations in residencies in excellent teaching hospitals around the world.

Medical College faculty members have proven themselves to be talented instructors and clinicians of the highest standards in their respective specialisations at the University Hospital.

The Hospital itself is now certified to be meeting stringent international standards of care. It continues to respond swiftly to major emergencies in Karachi. And I am especially pleased that its outreach services in Pakistan, in such areas as family medicine, home physiotherapy and laboratory tests, will by the end of the year have treated some two million patients.

The Institute for Educational Development, helped greatly by grants from the international community, is revitalising teaching and curricular improvement in schools in Pakistan, in Central Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Africa. It is working hard to develop research based educational policymaking.

I do not minimise these achievements, nor do I ignore the importance of the University’s continuing investment in its buildings, laboratories, instrumentation and precious faculty resources, when I say that AKU now has the strength and the duty to tackle an array of new challenges. Most were foreseen by AKU earliest planners, but the perils and voids of understanding I have suggested give them particular urgency now.

First the university must continue to expand its programmes of research. The true sign of maturity and excellence in a university is its ability to contribute to the knowledge of mankind, in its own society and beyond. It is equally essential that its faculty be challenged, as a matter of university policy, to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. Any vestige of dependence is cast off, any suspicion of a young scientist or scholar that he or she may sacrifice intellectual excitement by leaving the West is allayed, when a university becomes known for generating new ideas, making new discoveries and influencing events.

Some of this research will be in advanced realms of the medical sciences, for AKU, and Pakistan, must be part of the international edifice of inquiry in such fields as microbiology and biochemistry that will contribute much to the quality of human life in the coming century. But, because this is AKU, such work will usually be targeted, like the genetic research mentioned by the President, in an area, such as hypertension, of great concern to the people of Pakistan.

Much AKU research, however, will focus on pressing issues of public policy. This naturally follows the precepts of Islam, that the scientific application of reason, the building of society and the refining of human aspirations and ethics should always reinforce one another. The University – and notably the Department of Community Health Sciences – is already developing strength in applied research. This has enabled it to develop very productive relations between AKU scholars and scientists and provincial, federal and aid agency policy makers in such fields as nutrition, educational testing, maternal and child health, immunization strategies and vaccine development and epidemiology.

So important is this growing research capacity and informed discourse with policy makers, that the University must strengthen its public policy commitment. Large problem areas, for human development, and bio-ethics, to economic growth, and human settlements, desperately need systematic thought and information, and, whether through an Institute of Public Policy, or through policy units in existing departments, or even fully developed new faculties, AKU will pledge its energies and imagination to advancing effective public policy.

The second new emphasis of AKU that I would mention will gradually and beneficially change its nature: internationalisation. By the terms of its charter, AKU is to be an international university, with programs, projects and even institutes and campuses in other countries that have the desire, capacity and collegial spirit for partnership. The times I have described make these partnerships especially valuable today, and over time they will broaden and greatly strengthen the University.

AKU has made a good beginning in East Africa. In collaboration with Aga Khan Hospitals and Health Services, the School of Nursing has established Advanced Nursing Programs, as the President has indicated, in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania with the encouragement of their governments. I should emphasise to you that this is the first time in history of medical education in Eastern Africa that a private sector network of institutions is offering medical degrees to the peoples of Eastern Africa. Postgraduate medical education for physicians, assisted by our medical College, will soon follow in these countries. In the field of education, AKU will soon establish in East Africa a new Institute for Educational Development with its model, tested for a decade in Pakistan, of Professional Development Centres for teacher-improvement and curriculum-development. They will work both with national schools and with the first Aga Khan Schools of Excellence, private boarding schools of international quality that are now being established in East Africa. The objective of these schools is to enable means-blind, merit-based access to educational and extracurricular facilities of the highest international standards with multilingual curricula based on the International Baccalaureate programme. There will inshallah eventually be up to 21 such Schools of Excellence in numerous countries in Africa, and Central Asia and South Asia. Students and faculty will be encouraged to live and learn from all that this multinational network of schools can offer, circulating extensively within it. New generations of teachers and graduates with multilingual competencies and a new understanding of human pluralism should emerge. Some of these men and women will return to educate at AKU’s IED here in Pakistan, the future one to be created in East Africa and to teach at the Professional Development Centres. Hopefully this will result in a significant enhancement of the professional standing and strength of teachers in Asia and Africa. In due course, it is possible to imagine a full, comprehensive AKU campus in East Africa with strengths in educational development, health sciences education, and public policy.

The University is also now working in Afghanistan, where the School of Nursing is helping increase the capacities of the Intermediate Medical Education Institutes of which there are six; in Syria, where we see the beginnings of productive work with the Ministry of Education; and in Central Asia with the University of Central Asia recently established by an international treaty between the Ismaili Imamat and the governments of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

I strongly believe that, as these international associations increase, it will become clear that, although AKU’s immediate goal is to provide assistance, its long-term goal is not mere extension of its existing skills, but the enhancement of its core purposes with partners of equal strength in different cultural settings. When this happens, AKU will be a most exciting innovation: a genuinely international, inter-cultural university, exchanging students and faculty among campuses that share a common goal of intellectual excellence.

My third aspiration is that AKU now fulfil its mission to become a comprehensive university and a centre of liberal study of Muslim civilizationsMuslim scholars in South and Central Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa are researching, publishing and discussing far too few books on Muslim history, architecture, city planning, art, philosophy, economics and languages and literatures. There is too little public sustenance for, and debate about, contemporary Muslim architecture and literature – and relatively little of the literary, cinematic and music talent from Turkey, Egypt and Iran that is now beginning to be recognized. The consequences are an intelligentsia – and a younger, successor generation – that is intellectually unchallenged and culturally undernourished, and a one-way flow of scholarship and popular culture from the West, which, in turn, receives all too little that is creative and interpretative, scholarly and artistic, from the Muslim world.

In the coming decade, I believe AKU can help, less to fill a void than to become a magnet and a concentration for Muslim scholars who are vividly engaged in a broad range of humanistic studies. AKU’s Institute of the Study of Muslim Civilizations, in London, is making a beginning. It is assembling scholars from around the Arabic, Farsi and Urdu- speaking parts of the Muslim world in the fields of philosophy, history and other disciplines. Through public seminars and research monographs on a variety of topics – ethics, ecology, historiography, scholarly traditions, and dimensions of Muslim identity – they will develop and test the curriculum of an MA in Muslim Civilizations that will be of value to the liberal professions including diplomats, teachers, business people, publishers and journalists, civil servants and NGO professionals.

The hub of this scholarly venture will be the AKU’s new Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which will be well under way in the present decade. The Faculty will establish a residential campus on 600 acres of land that the University has purchases to the north east of Karachi. In its first phase it will have 1400-1500 undergraduates and some 100 post-graduate students. Undergraduates will experience rigorous (aside to the faculty) -- I hope you are listening – rigorous pedagogy, in English, and receive education in the sciences, economics and information technology. But they will also with equal rigor, be expected to master a broad core curriculum that engages them in world history, in the study of one or more Asian languages and in the strong foundation courses on the elements of Muslim civilizations, on South Asian history and culture, and on the history of the Persian speaking world. They will also (aside to the faculty) -- and I hope you are still listening—perform summer service and research projects in rural and urban areas of their own societies.

Such interdisciplinary programs as Human Development, Government, Law and Public Policy, Human Settlements and Architecture will function at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels and will prefigure eventual professional schools. Graduates of these programs will be qualified for further study, or employment, anywhere in the world or in Pakistan. The objective of the new undergraduate Faculty, however, is to equip young men and women from within and outside the Ummah, with the skills, ethical commitment and leadership qualities for their future careers wherever they choose. My great hope and prayer is that, in time to come, the Aga Khan University will be only one of hundreds of universities in the Muslim world that are on the frontiers of scientific and humanistic knowledge, radiating intelligence and confidence, research and graduates, into flourishing economies and progressive legal and political systems.

These aspirations I hold for the Aga Khan University but I also hold them for our new graduates. As with AKU, I hope you, our 2003 graduates, continue to be restless researchers and learners. I hope that you, like AKU, will, with broadened international and cultural horizons, recall the heritage of Muslim civilizations past, and discover that change and progress take time, but that they also require impatience!

Thank you.