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Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Aga Khan: faith and action - Adrienne Clarkson

My interest in His Highness the Aga Khan, and in his vision, dates back to 1957. Then, as a young university student, I read about Prince Karim, who had suddenly inherited his grandfather's mantle as the imam (spiritual leader) of the Ismailis. His grandfather had been a remarkable figure of worldwide renown. The young prince was still a student at Harvard, and I remember thinking, "How does he feel about inheriting this enormous responsibility as the leader of the Ismailis at the age of 20?"

In the early 1970s, I was well aware of the Ismailis who were fleeing East Africa and of our reception of thousands of them here in Canada. I was always grateful that our country, under the leadership of Pierre Trudeau, welcomed these people, who had found themselves in an extremely difficult and dangerous situation in the countries that they had called home.

When I became governor-general of Canada in 1999, I met a number of Ismailis in prominent positions in Ottawa and Toronto, and later in many other cities across Canada. But it was not until 2002 that I met His Highness, during one of his visits to Ottawa. Immediately, I was deeply impressed by this soft-spoken man who had given nearly five decades of his life to bettering society in very practical and meaningful ways. His contributions to education, health and cultural revitalization through architecture and town planning in the developing world were without equal. I was very happy to meet him several more times throughout my years in Ottawa and to participate in the Foundation Ceremony of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in June, 2005.....

The Aga Khan is not just a spiritual leader. As imam, he is responsible both for leading the interpretation of the faith and for helping to improve quality of life for all in the wider communities where Ismailis live. This dual obligation is often, I think, quite difficult to appreciate from the Christian viewpoint of the role that church leaders are expected to perform. In Islam, the worlds of faith and action, of ethical premise and society, are treated together. The Aga Khan sees his responsibilities as encompassing a strong commitment to the well-being and dignity of all human beings, regardless of faith, origin or gender.

The intersection of faith and society has led to initiatives that, over the past 50 years, have made a profound difference in the developing world. The Aga Khan Development Network has improved the lives of some of the world's poorest, most deprived and most diverse populations.


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