The other side of Islam in Canada

By Fabian Dawson

As I began to write this piece, I googled the word “Islam” for a snapshot of news coverage about the only religion that is now growing faster than the world's population.

It was only after 10 pages, and about 100 stories, one appeared with a positive tone. The rest, as you can guess, were about terrorism, war, hate, blasphemy and extremism.

But there is another side to Islam, one we rarely see, read or hear about. One that inspires with pluralism, humanitarianism and action framed in ethical service and unrelenting philanthropy.

It is the side of Islam that lives amongst us creating a legacy of hospitals, schools, business enterprises and cultural institutions to impact the quality of life of communities across Canada, Asia and Africa.

This week, as Shia Ismaili Muslims around the world commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of His Highness the Aga Khan, that legacy and the man behind it comes into focus, showing why we Canadians should care.

The Aga Khan, a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is the spiritual leader of 15 million people around the world, including 120,000 in Canada, who belong to the Ismaili faith. They are a global, multi-ethnic community whose members - comprising a wide diversity of cultures, languages and nationalities - live in Central Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and North America.

On July 11, 1957, at the age of 20, the Aga Khan succeeded his grandfather, as the 49th Imam of the Ismailis, to energize the understanding of Islam and Muslim civilizations, and foster collaboration between different peoples and faith communities around the world.

The first wave of Ismailis into Canada began in the early 70’s after then dictator, Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of Asian residents from Uganda.

Since then, this community has embraced Canadian values at all levels

putting into practice their ethic of compassion, service, and respect for all through a vast number of community initiatives and institutions.

The Aga Khan’s fundamental philosophy revolves around religious leaders not only interpreting the faith but also taking on the mantle to improve the quality of life in their communities and in the world they live in.

In Canada, that is manifested through the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and its partner agency the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada (AKFC).

Over the years, the Aga Khan has established several major institutions in Canada, including the stunning Aga Khan Museum and Park in Toronto, the Ismaili Imamat, an architectural jewel in the heart of Ottawa and the Ismaili Centres in Toronto and Burnaby. In the works are the Aga Khan Garden in Edmonton and a park in Burnaby.

In 1985, a group of Ismaili women in Vancouver came together to raise funds to support the work of the Aga Khan. They got 1,000 other Canadians to join them in a walk to fight global poverty and raised $55,000. Today the World Partnership Walk, an annual event held in 10 cities across Canada has raised more than $100 million - making it the largest event in Canada in support of international development.

Last May, the Aga Khan together with David Johnston, Governor General of Canada officially opened the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. This centre of excellence will bring together the world’s best and brightest minds to promote the importance of valuing diversity and shape successful narratives of different people working in harmony toward common goals.

The Aga Khan is not only an honorary Canadian citizen.

He is a global ambassador of Canadian values who preaches the spirit of connection.

Today, across Canada and the world, as the Ismaili community pays tribute to their spiritual leader, take some time to reflect on these words by the Aga Khan: “Faith…is a force that should deepen our concern for our worldly habitat, for embracing its challenges, and for improving the quality of human life.”


Fabian Dawson is the former deputy editor of The Province in Vancouver and the editorial advisor to the Post group.




Pluralism in action


The Aga Khan is known for his progressive interpretations of Islam, in particular his interest in the elimination of poverty, his advocacy for women’s rights, and the promotion of tolerance and compassion in Islam. Cultural pluralism has been central to the Aga Khan’s global outreach strategy of establishing collaborative practices and building institutions that foster strong cultural linkages between Ismailis and their host communities.


Aga Khan Foundation Canada


Established in 1980, Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) has transformed the lives of millions in Africa and Asia. AKFC’s work demonstrates that change is possible when poverty is tackled on multiple fronts, over the long-term, and with communities in charge. AKFC believes that lasting progress depends on partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders overseas and in Canada – from local individuals and communities to local and international businesses, governments and non-governmental organizations. Many of its efforts are undertaken in cooperation with the Government of Canada, through Global Affairs Canada.


Aga Khan Museum


The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada is the first museum in North America dedicated to the arts of Muslim civilizations.  Opened in 2014, the Aga Khan Museum is home to over 1,000 masterpieces showcasing the arts of Muslim civilizations from the Iberian Peninsula to China. Its dynamic collection of manuscripts, scientific instruments, paintings, ceramics, and metalwork continues to evolve through new acquisitions. Its mission is to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage. It is also deeply committed to forging relationships with Canadian institutions and communities.


Global Centre for Pluralism


Through research, education and dialogue, the Centre seeks to advance understanding of the sources of inclusion and exclusion in Canada and globally. The Centre is a joint partnership between the Government of Canada and His Highness the Aga Khan. Inspired by Canada’s experience as a diverse and inclusive country, the Centre’s work advances global understanding of pluralism and positive responses to the challenge of living peacefully and productively together in diverse societies.


Focus Humanitarian Assistance (Canada)


Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS) has its first roots in Canada. It was initially established in 1994 by the Ismaili community under the guidance of His Highness the Aga Khan to respond to emergency situations arising out of natural or man-made disasters. FOCUS Canada also engages in resettlement and reintegration programmes for populations displaced by civil instability or conflict.


Parks and Gardens


The creation of parks and gardens has been an important part of AKDN's work in several rapidly urbanising cities in the developing world, including Cairo, Bamako, Kabul and Delhi. In appreciation of Canada's exemplary support for development programmes in these countries, the AKDN has presented several parks and gardens as gifts to Canadian cities in the hope that they will enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors alike.

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