Education, in its broadest sense, is an integral part of the ethics of the Ismaili interpretation of Islam.
In The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning (London, 1997) Heinz Halm cites how at the Dar al-‘Ilm in 11th-century Cairo, Qur’an readers, astronomers, grammarians and philologists, as well as physicians, delivered lectures. He also records that the Imam-Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah had ordered that manuscripts from all fields of science and culture be placed there, and that people from all walks of life would come to use the facility.
“Some,” the Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi said, “came to read books, others to copy them, and yet others to study.” This same vision underpins the founding, in our times, of The Institute of Ismaili Studies, the Aga Khan University, the University of Central Asia and the 300-plus schools and educational programmes run by the Aga Khan Education Services.
And yet, until recently, the Ismailis have been one of the least understood of Muslim communities. Indeed, their detractors circulated many medieval legends and misconceptions about their teachings and practices. But as modern scholarship has demonstrated, this has been primarily the result of their persecution outside their territorial boundaries and the consequent need for self-preservation. It is, after all, victors who write the history books.
With the recovery and study of large numbers of Ismaili manuscripts and sources since the 1930s, historians and other scholars have made tremendous progress in sifting – and more comprehensively evaluating – fact from fiction in many aspects of Ismaili history and thought. This is no better illustrated than in the recent publication of the second edition of Farhad Daftary’s The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines (Cambridge, 2007).
As a result of migratory movements, the Ismaili Muslims in modern times have come to settle far and wide across the globe. Like the Muslim Ummah as a whole, the Ismailis represent today a rich diversity of cultures, languages and nationalities. The community’s traditions fall within four broad geographic and ethnographic groups: Arab, Persian, Central Asian and South Asian. Settlements in Africa comprise primarily Ismailis of South Asian origins, while recent settlements in the West comprise Ismailis from all the above traditions.
The Ismaili community in the United Kingdom started to settle here in the early sixties, first as a community of students which grew rapidly in the 1970s, following the end of British colonial rule in East Africa and the rapid political change in those countries. Today the community in the United Kingdom is well settled and integrated across the country, with engagement in tertiary education in excess of 95%.
The Ismaili Centre in London was the first religious, social and cultural space specially designed and built for the Ismaili Musilm community in the West. Part of an international family of Ismaili Centres, including counterparts in Vancouver, Canada, and Lisbon, Portugal, The Ismaili Centre in London fosters friendship, understanding and dialogue through its various activities.
Most recently, it hosted Spirit & Life: Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection, which was inaugurated by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. The Centre hosts regular tours for the general public and participates in the annual Open House, Open Gardens Day and Exhibition Road Music Day. Its conference rooms, exhibition and lecture facilities are used by public and private institutions both religious and secular whose sense of social conscience reflects the community’s own ethical values and a strong spirit of volunteerism.
Under the leadership of the Aga Khan, the Ismailis have continued to espouse the view of Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith and one that teaches compassion, tolerance and upholds the dignity of man, God’s noblest creation.