Aga Khan University Convocation in Karachi, 2006

Photo: Gary Otte

“Many observers describe this new world as the “Knowledge Society” - contrasting it with the Industrial Societies or the Agricultural Societies of the past. In this new era, the predominant source of influence will stem from information, intelligence and insight rather than physical power or natural resources.”


Your Excellency Mohammedmian Soomro, Chairman of the Senate
Honourable Chief Minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim
Honourable Ministers
Chairman Dehlavi and the Members of the Board of Trustees
President Firoz Rasul
Graduates and Parents
Generous donors and well wishers of the University, from Pakistan and around the world
Distinguished guests


It is a privilege and a pleasure to be with you—on what is truly “Your Day.” Those of you receiving degrees and certificates at this ceremony are the genuine guests of honour—and it is a joy to congratulate you. I include in this salute, as well, all who have helped you to attain the achievements we celebrate today—families, friends and faculties who have supported you all the way. And I also would like to thank all of those who have supported this University along its way—through their generous gifts of time, energy and financial resources. I know you will agree with me when I say that education is truly a team effort.

This is a time of transition for you—and thus a good moment for personal reflection. But it also comes at a time of transition for the Aga Khan University—and is thus a good moment for institutional reflection as well.

When we talk about transition today, we immediately think, of course, of the recent transition of our University’s presidency. I was able, at these ceremonies one year ago, to reflect on the remarkable contribution of our founding president, Shamsh Kassim-Lakha. And I am pleased today to be able to offer an official welcome to our new president, Firoz Rasul, as he is formally invested with presidential authority. Firoz, and his wife Saida, bring with them years of experience at the highest level in academia and in entrepreneurship, and it is precisely in these two areas that AKU requires continuing world-class leadership.

But our transition today is more than a handing over from our first President to our second. AKU’s original blueprint, written more than 25 years ago-- and implemented competently and rigorously by its Trustees since that time--- focussed AKU’s efforts primarily here in Pakistan. It was to be a time of concentrated innovation---and it was. We see the physical symbols of success as we walk this campus – nearly every year a new building has been added. More than that, all over the world, we can trace the impact of AKU through the accomplishments of its graduates.

But as I have watched our recent progress, it is clear that we are now moving at an accelerating pace into a new phase of our history—a period in which our energies will be focused more than ever on reaching out to new locations, new disciplines and new partners.

It is a time when we will become more inter-dependent, more inter-disciplinary and more international— just as our world itself is becoming more inter-related.

The Aga Khan University has been described as a “problem-oriented university”— a description of which we should all be proud. It explains why we focused so sharply on the fields of health and education in our early days—these were the sectors where our planners identified as the most urgent problems. And they are still areas of central concern.

But with the passage of time, we have come to see that meeting the problems of any one sector increasingly requires an understanding of other sectors—and that the best way to broaden our impact is to broaden our reach.

There has always been a human tendency to seek a simple, all-powerful answer to the world’s problems. Those who have lived or worked in the developing world know this pattern particularly well. When progress seems to be moving at a snail’s pace, we are easily persuaded that there must be some “quick fix”.

And thus we have lurched from one panacea to another, from dogmatic socialism to romantic nationalism, from embattled tribalism to rampant individualism. For a period of time we behaved as though our political systems or economic institutions or cultural traditions could save us—or perhaps that some heroic leader was the answer. I suspect that many of us have hoped, from time to time, that education would be the solution—and that if we could create the right learning institutions, then everything else would fall into place.

But the plain truth of the matter is that everything else does not just fall into place. The hard reality of life is that there is no single button we can push that will set off an unstoppable wave of progress.

Social progress, in the long run, will not be found by delegating an all-dominant role to any one player—but rather through multi-sector partnerships. And within each sector of society, diversity should be a watchword. Healthy communities must respect a range of educational choices, a diversity of economic decision-makers, multiple levels of political activity, and a variety of religious and cultural expressions.

There was a time when many felt that modern technology would work against such diversity—blending and homogenizing the world. Technology was dehumanizing, they said. Digital communications would destroy individual expression. Globalization would mean standardization everywhere. This is not what has happened.

Instead, what the advancing years have produced, on balance, is an ever more complicated world, with a higher level of diversity-- as power is dispersed to the periphery rather than collecting at the hub.

The world into which you are graduating increasingly resembles a vast web in which everything connects to everything else—where even the smallest groups and loneliest voices can exercise new influence, and where no single source of power can claim substantial control. Indeed, the argument is often made that our long run enemy in such a world is NOT likely to be the tyranny of the few, but rather a new, global disorder—in which the centre fails to hold and a new anarchy takes over.

A vast decentralization of decision-making is already occurring in many countries; it has the advantage of placing new responsibilities in the hands of local communities. But to function successfully, these communities will need stronger civil society institutions, and broader and more expert leadership.

For the key to future progress will lie less in traditional top-down systems of command and control—and more in a broad, bottom-up spirit of coordination and cooperation. Similarly, the key to intellectual progress will not lie in any single body of instruction, but in a spirit of openness to new expression and fresh insights.

All of these changes suggest that we are moving into a new epoch of history, a new condition of human life. Many observers describe this new world as the “Knowledge Society” - contrasting it with the Industrial Societies or the Agricultural Societies of the past. In this new era, the predominant source of influence will stem from information, intelligence and insight rather than physical power or natural resources.

This Knowledge Society will confront people everywhere with new challenges—and new opportunities. Clearly this will be true of the Ummah, so let us look, dispassionately, at its present and future.

What would an independent, non-Muslim observer have to say about the Ummah in these first years of the 21st century? He might begin by noting its wide dispersion -- stretching across many countries and climates, from the very hot to the very cold, yet concentrated in a band of land that separates the far north from the far south. He might also observe its broad diversity—embracing many histories and ethnic backgrounds, speaking a multitude of languages, and experiencing a wide array of economic conditions—from extreme poverty to extreme wealth. He might continue by pointing out that Muslim peoples live under virtually every form of government—from republics to monarchies, and including more and less functional democracies. An accurate picture of the Ummah today must be truly kaleidoscopic.

But amid this variety, Muslims also share a common, continuing aspiration for security—the hope of being free from fear. Their common enemy is a sense of vulnerability in the face of volatility—whether it stems from natural causes or human failure. And they dream of a better life.

That quest for a better life, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, must lead inevitably to the Knowledge Society which is developing in our time. The great and central question facing the Ummah of today is how it will relate to the Knowledge Society of tomorrow.

If we judge from Islamic history, there is much to encourage us. For century after century, the Arabs, the Persians, the Turks and many other Islamic societies achieved powerful leadership roles in the world—not only politically and economically but also intellectually. Some ill-informed historians and biased commentators have tried to argue that these successes were essentially produced by military power, but this view is profoundly incorrect. The fundamental reason for the pre-eminence of Islamic civilizations lay neither in accidents of history nor in acts of war, but rather in their ability to discover new knowledge, to make it their own, and to build constructively upon it. They became the Knowledge Societies of their time.

Those times are over now. They are long gone. But if some people have forgotten or ignored this history, much of the Ummah remembers it—and, in remembering, asks how those times might be recaptured. There may be as many answers to that question as there are Muslims—but one answer which can be shared across the whole of the Ummah is that we must become full and even leading participants in the Knowledge Society of the 21st Century.

That will mean embracing the values of collaboration and coordination, openness and partnership, choice and diversity—which will under-gird the Knowledge Society, learning constantly to review and revise and renew what we think we know - learning how to go on learning.

The spirit of the Knowledge Society is the spirit of Pluralism—a readiness to accept the other, indeed to learn from him, to see difference as an opportunity rather than a threat.

Such a spirit must be rooted, I believe, in a sense of humility before the Divine, realizing that none of us have all the answers, and respecting the broad variety of God’s creation and the diversity of the Human Family.

As the Ummah moves into the Knowledge Society, a variety of questions and choices will arise. And this brings us back to where we started. For my singular goal for the Aga Khan University, the University of Central Asia, and related institutions is that they should play a central role in addressing those questions and in guiding those choices.

Priority setting will be a particularly important challenge. One of the problems of the Knowledge Society is that it produces too much information. I recall President Nixon acknowledging publicly more than 30 years ago his dismay at the sheer volume of information that the President was expected to absorb daily. In such a world we can easily lose track of the forest by seeing only the trees. As a poet lamented: “Where is the Wisdom we have lost in Knowledge. Where is the Knowledge we have lost in Information?” As we work our way back again from Information to Knowledge and from Knowledge to Wisdom, a rigorous sense of priorities will be a central requirement.

But just how should the Ummah set its priorities as it embraces the Knowledge Society? Can we determine, for example, what areas of knowledge are needed in the greatest urgency, or those that will be needed for as long as we can predict? Are there specificities to the needs of the Ummah which it should seek to draw from, or instil, into the global knowledge society of tomorrow? In ethics? In the balance of world and spirit? Or in more worldly issues such as stem cell research or nuclear non-proliferation versus global access to nuclear energy. I am not arguing that the Ummah as a whole will share similar priorities on every subject. But there may be subjects where the specific needs of the Ummah should shape our research agenda. Universities are the correct fora, but no doubt not the only ones, in which such questions should be raised, and intelligent answers developed from the best of minds.

In addressing such questions, including those with special relevance to the Ummah, we must also recognize that learning has become a global enterprise. There was a time when a single society or empire could live unto itself, culturally and intellectually—claiming dominance over other places. But that was when knowledge travelled slowly—and could be seen as a local resource. That day too has passed. In the age of the internet, knowledge is universally shaped, universally accessible, and universally applied. And successful institutions of learning must be global institutions.

That is why the Aga Khan University must make the years ahead a time to broaden our networks, broaden our teaching and broaden our geographic reach.

This can happen in a variety of ways. We are already, for example, planning a new curriculum in the liberal arts—expanding our role as a comprehensive learning institution. We are also developing new programs in fields such as architecture and human settlement; law; management of for-profit and not-for-profit institutions; government, civil society and public policy; leisure and tourism; media and communications; science and technology; and human development.

We are strengthening our research activities. Universities have a special obligation to produce new knowledge—though always within ethical bounds. But in the Knowledge Society, productive research is most often partnership research —as Universities work closely with businesses, industrial associations, engineering centres and scientific laboratories–sharing agendas and exchanging insights. New knowledge is a constantly unfolding gift of God—but it is rarely something that is achieved in isolation.

We will be building alliances with other Universities around the world—opening study and research opportunities for students and faculties alike. The result will be the development of truly global citizens, graduates who have studied in a variety of places—among people from a variety of backgrounds, fostering a better understanding of a diverse and complex world. In an era of breath-taking change and bewildering complexity, we choose not to pull back or to settle down, but instead to reach out and push forward.

The path we have chosen is not easy to chart—and it is certainly not risk free. But it is both a necessary and an exciting road—filled with the promise of high adventure.

Even as our University moves on down such a path, so I hope will each of you—in your own personal lives. For wherever you go, this University also goes—we are inevitably a part of one another’s future.

It is both a perplexing and an exciting new world that we enter today—and it should be supremely reassuring and inspiring to all of us that we can enter it together.

Thank you.