The following is adapted from a speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Sept. 12 opening of the Ismaili Centre in Toronto.
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.
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. In addition, there are 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 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 organizational needs of the Ismaili community. But they will also, we trust, be filled with the sounds of enrichment, dialogue and warm human rapport.
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, symbolizing the spirit of enlightenment that will always be at the heart of the centre's life.
In its origins, in its design, and in its programs 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.
The 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 that was little more than half of the space 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. Sonja 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 that this building had little residual life, the spirit of friendship again was present and we were authorized 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 that the decisive role at critical junctures in this process was played by two remarkable women.
And so it was that things came together. I was able to join my late uncle's collection with part of the collection I had assembled for the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, and with some of my personal objects. But where should this collection be situated? After 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.
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.