Opening of the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre, Toronto

Mawlana Hazar Imam speaking at the opening ceremony of the Ismaili Centre Toronto and Aga Khan Museum. Moez Visram


Prime Minister Harper,
Words fail me — and that’s not often the case — but words fail me to thank you enough for your most gracious and warm comments on this occasion.
Madame Clarkson,
Honourable Ministers,
Chancelier de Broglie,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is indeed a magnificent day.

It is not so often that we have an opportunity of this sort -- to come together in a beautiful setting, in a wonderful spirit of friendship, and to dedicate such a splendid architectural accomplishment.

As we inaugurate this building, we also have the opportunity to contemplate what it represents: the inspiring traditions of the past, the stirring challenges of the future, and the continuing search for peace through prayer.

Depuis les 1 400 ans qui se sont écoulés depuis la révélation de la foi musulmane, le monde de l'Islam a évolué en un vaste ensemble d'interprétations et de traditions -- comme ce fut le cas des autres grandes religions monothéistiques du monde. La communauté ismaïlie compte bien entendu au nombre de ces expressions, spécifique dans sa reconnaissance d'un Imam unique et vivant mais aussi dans son historicité géographique très diverse, qui s'exprime sous la forme d'importantes communautés dans de nombreuses parties du monde.

Canada, of course, has become a significant newer homeland for our community, as Ismailis have come here from so many places -- from East Africa, from Tajikistan, from Afghanistan, from Syria and from other parts of the world -- all choosing to develop their destinies under the Canadian flag.

One of the ways in which Ismailis have expressed their identity wherever they have lived is through their places of prayer, known today as the Jamatkhana. Other Muslim communities give their religious buildings different names: from ribat and zawiyya to khanaqa. And, in addition, there are other places where Muslims of all interpretations can come together, such as non-denominational mosques.

What we dedicate today is what we identify as an Ismaili Centre — a building that is focused around our Jamatkhana, but which also includes many secular spaces. These are places where Ismailis and non-Ismailis, Muslims and non-Muslims, will gather for shared activities — seminars and lectures, recitals and receptions, exhibitions and social events. These meeting halls and lounges, work offices and conference rooms will serve the organisational needs of the Ismaili community. But they will also, we trust, 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!

Yes! We are a community that welcomes the smile!

And soaring above it all is the great crystalline dome that you have observed, through which light from the prayer hall will provide a glowing beacon, symbolising the spirit of enlightenment that will always be at the heart of the Centre’s life.

The size and complexity of what we celebrate today has been immense, and so is the list of those whom we salute for having made it possible.

Certainly our list should begin with the Prime Minister, with whom we have shared so many magnificent moments and so many worthwhile endeavours. On many fronts, in this country and beyond, the Canadian Government has been a strong, significant partner for the Ismaili Imamat and the Aga Khan Development Network. And we recall with special pleasure, of course, the Foundation Ceremony on this site, at which the Prime Minister so graciously presented me with the enormous honour of Canadian Citizenship.

We are grateful as well, to all the officials who have facilitated this accomplishment, in the Federal government, and in the Provincial government, where the Premier’s unwavering enthusiasm has meant so much to us. And the same thing is true of the City of Toronto, and its dedicated councillors and staff, as well as the Bata family, and the people of this neighbourhood.

I am also deeply pleased to salute the donors who have so generously supported the building of outstanding Ismaili Centres across the world, including this Centre here in Toronto, as well as the dedicated leaders, staff and volunteers from the Ismaili community who have also played such a significant role.

And, of course, I want to recognise with special appreciation those who designed, built and decorated this space, especially the eminent architects Charles Correa and his daughter Nondita. Let me underscore as well, the important contributions of the Toronto firm of Moriyama and Teshima, of Gotham Notting Hill, and of the great German-Muslim artist, Karl Schlamminger.

And, of course, it is with deepest admiration that I thank the person whose guiding hand has been so important at every stage of this project: a member of my family, my brother, Prince Amyn Aga Khan.

Our focus today is on two splendid new buildings here on Wynford Drive, but I would be remiss not to mention the new public space that will tie these two new buildings together: the Aga Khan Park, which will have its official opening when the vegetation matures next year.

When our planning for the Toronto Ismaili Centre started in 1996, we decided to ask the younger generation of Ismailis about their vision for this building. What did they want it to represent? How did they see it functioning? In response, young people from the ages of 18 to 27 generously shared their aspirations with us. They told us that they wanted a building that would be forward looking, while also being anchored in traditional community values. They also wanted a building in which they could strengthen their personal relationships -– a place where they could not only unite in prayer, but could also develop new life-shaping associations — amongst themselves and with other Canadians.

They hoped that the Centre would become, and I quote, “... a great avenue through which they could integrate into society at large,” a place that would command the respect of all those who would visit it.

It was with all of these thoughts in mind that we selected for the Centre a world-class architect who had designed for many faiths, but always in an idiom for today and tomorrow. He was a man who deeply believes, as he puts it, that “tradition and modernity are not opposites.” And the result, as you can see, is a building in which traditional elements of Muslim architecture are given a confident, forward-looking vocabulary.

The young men and women whose views we sought back in the year 2000 are now between 32 and 41 years old — in the middle of their careers. It is my earnest hope that the formation of this Centre, which will now become theirs, has responded to their hopes of 14 years ago.

Let me acknowledge, of course, that a part of that response is found in the entirety of this new complex on Wynford Drive — including the Aga Khan Museum — welcoming the public with its unique concentration of cultural assets, and the surrounding Park — providing a remarkable environment for relaxation and contemplation for peoples of all ages and backgrounds.

In sum, I am pleased to think that the complex being opened today does indeed meet the requests that were articulated 14 years ago... even if I have not been able to concentrate them all in one building!

The fusion of tradition and modernity which this building achieves, and the blend of spiritual, educational and social objectives that it embodies, have also characterised our other Ismaili Centres — in Vancouver, London, Lisbon, Dubai, and Dushanbe. All of them were designed by architects of great international standing, and, I would emphasise, of great multi-cultural sensitivity.

Charles Correa, for example, comes from an Indian background and has also designed Hindu and Christian buildings. The architect for our Vancouver Centre 30 years ago was Bruno Freschi, whose family is of Italian background, and whose earlier work had included a Sikh place of worship. The new Aga Khan Park was designed by an architect of Lebanese heritage, Vladimir Djurovic. And the Aga Khan Museum is the work of a superb Japanese professional, Fumihiko Maki. How pleased we are that all of these fine artists are with us today.

In its origins, in its design, and in its programmes and activities, the complex we inaugurate today is animated by a truly pluralistic spirit. In this respect too, it reflects the deep-set Ismaili values — pluralistic commitments that are so deeply embedded in Canadian values.

These commitments have been strikingly evident in a recent government initiative that I would like to mention today. I refer to the establishment, less than two years ago, of the new Office of Religious Freedom, led by Ambassador Andrew Bennett. We hope that our organisations in Canada can be helpful allies of the Office of Religious Freedom, as it works to support people throughout the world who are targeted because of their religious affiliations.

Just a week ago, Ambassador Bennett and the Minister for Multiculturalism, Mr Kenney, received the leader of an ancient religious minority as he arrived from Egypt for an extended visit to Canada. He was Pope Tawadros, of the Christian Coptic Orthodox Church. Canada’s effort to extend the hand of friendship to Pope Tawadros, whose people have come through difficult times, confirms and renews the great Canadian message of universal welcome.

Let me conclude by returning to another context in which the hand of friendship has been playing a major role. When I mentioned that our planning for this complex began 18 years ago, some of you probably wondered how people sustained their enthusiasm through such a long process — yes 18 years! My response is to say that throughout these 18 years, we have been inspired by a great sense of common purpose, as we have sought to create places and spaces of true enlightenment. And, in doing so, we have also been strengthened by a pronounced spirit of friendship.

And what a joy it is to celebrate that spirit, at a time when so much of the world’s attention is focused on climates of belligerence.

This first step in the planning of the Centre in the late 1990s was to find an appropriate building site, one that would be convenient to a large number of Ismailis. This was a challenge in and of itself, as we tried to reconcile the needs of more established Ismailis with the requirements of newly arriving and less settled immigrants. After a long search, we selected a site which was little more than half of the site we have today — it was located where the new Museum is now standing. Happily, we were successful in acquiring that land, and it was evident that the hands of friendship helped to make that acquisition possible.

As the project progressed, we learned that the Bata family was intending to give up its office building on a site adjacent to ours — an elegant building, but one where time had taken its toll. Once again the hand of friendship was extended, and Mrs Bata made it possible for us to acquire that building. Because it stood on the highest point in the area, we decided to move the Ismaili Centre to this site, and to redesign it accordingly.

The next step, of course, was to seek approval to remove the Bata building. As it became apparent over time that the Bata building had little residual life, the spirit of friendship again was present and we were authorised to replace it.

As these events unfolded, my late uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, passed away, and his widow, Princess Catherine, invited me to become the owner of their remarkable Islamic art collection. Here again the hand of generous friendship was extended, this time by my own family. Regrettably, Princess Catherine cannot be with us today. But I might note in passing that the decisive role at critical junctures in this process was played by two remarkable women: Princess Catherine and Mrs Bata.

And so it was that things came together. I was able to join my late uncle’s collection with part of the collection that I had assembled for The Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, and with some of my personal objects. But where should this assembled collection then be situated? After numerous discussions with many thoughtful people, the decision was made to build a museum on the very site that had been selected originally for the Ismaili Centre.

And here we are today. The story, over eighteen years indeed, has been one of deeply shared purpose.

I hope you will join in my profound happiness in recalling the cradle of friendship in which this Centre has been born. And I know that all of you will also share my profound wish that the Centre will now prolong decade after decade, its beautiful legacy of friendship and enlightenment.

Thank you.