VANCOUVER — Thousands of Ismaili Muslims gathered at B.C. Place in Vancouver Saturday to see the Aga Khan and celebrate his Diamond Jubilee as their spiritual leader.
For Ismailis, Aga Khan’s visit represents an opportunity to reflect on the tenets of a faith steeped in strong principles of volunteerism and support for humanitarian causes, said Samir Manji, president of the Ismaili Council for B.C. “It is a very significant event for all of us.”
Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, The Aga Khan IV, an honorary Canadian citizen and Companion of the Order of Canada, is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and the 49th Imam (spiritual leader) of 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims around the world, including 120,000 in Canada. They are a global, multi-ethnic, multicultural community whose members live in Central Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and North America.
In B.C., there are about 20,000 Ismailis. One of them is Sen. Mobina Jaffer, who welcomed Aga Khan to Canada earlier this week, along with Governor General Julie Payette.
Jaffer was also at B.C. Place Saturday. ”The Aga Khan expressed his wish that we, as Canadians, should serve humanity, share our time and knowledge with others, especially with those in the developing world,” Jaffer said of the Vancouver visit. “It was such a powerful message. I have taken it to heart.”
“I feel blessed,” said Kassamali Aziz, a former banker, who was at B.C. Place with his family. “Aga Khan has always promoted education, health and economic development, not just for his followers but for the society as a whole … He has provided true leadership.”
For Vancouver businessman Sam Hirji, the Aga Khan’s humanitarian work has been like “a guiding beacon.” Hirji arrived in Canada with little, after his family was forced out of Uganda in the 1970s by the dictator Idi Amin. He rebuilt his life from scratch in Canada under the guidance of the spiritual leader, who told his displaced following to grow and give back to Canada.
“It was a tough time for all Ismailis and I firmly believe it is our faith in the Aga Khan that has made us what we are today,” said Hirji.
“It is really hard to put into words,” what it means to see the Aga Khan, said Salima Manji, an entrepreneur and volunteer who’s been working countless hours preparing for the spiritual leader’s visit to Vancouver. “It fills your heart and your soul. It makes me appreciate my life and everyone in it and to be a part of this community. It’s very exciting.”
According to Manize Nayani, an instructional designer at Coast Mountain Bus Company, Aga Khan’s Diamond Jubilee is a rare and historic occasion for every member of the community.
“It is a time of reflection,” said Nayani. “An opportunity to take a meaningful pause and introspect on all things that we have to be grateful for, both as an individual and as a community.”
This mulaqat (meeting) is a lifetime transformation for me,” said Suman Kalani, a student at Simon Fraser University. “These spiritually uplifting memories are ones I will cherish forever.”
For the Aga Khan himself, engagement with development has been one of his hereditary responsibilities for almost 60 years. As the founder of Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of non-denominational agencies, he has worked to improve living conditions for people, especially in the developing world.
In Canada, institutions established by the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, an agency of the AKDN, include the Global Centre for Pluralism (in partnership with the Government of Canada), the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, the Aga Khan Museum, the Ismaili Centre and Park in Toronto, the Aga Khan Garden in Alberta, and a forthcoming park in Burnaby.
The Aga Khan’s reach by the numbers
60: Aga Khan has been the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims for 60 years. His Diamond Jubilee commenced July 11, 2017.
15 million: There are about 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims around, including 120,000 in Canada.
30/80,000: The Aga Khan Development Network works in various fields such as health, education, architecture, rural development and the promotion of private-sector enterprise in over 30 countries and employs about 80,000 people.
925 million: The AKDN spends US$925 million dollars annually on non-profit social and cultural development activities, mostly in developing countries. It operates over 200 health care institutions, 2 universities and 200 schools and school improvement programs.
100 million: In 1985, a group of women in Vancouver came together to persuade 1,000 other Canadians to join them in a walk to fight global poverty and raised $55,000. That first walk has now grown into an annual event, and is held in 10 cities across Canada with the support of thousands of volunteers, corporate sponsors and participants. 33 years later, the World Partnership Walk has raised more than $100 million – making it the largest event in Canada in support of international development.