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Aga Khan Calls for Freedom in the Civilisation Debate


Aleppo, Syria, 6 November 2001 - "A bustan whose glory would stem from the value and legitimacy of the pluralism of the infinite manifestations of culture in the human community."

His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, this evening used the metaphor of an orchard to symbolise the intellectual space that offers hope and optimism in the face of "the many issues and pressures facing Islamic countries and communities."

The Aga Khan, who was presiding over the presentation ceremony of the 8th Aga Khan Award for Architecture, was addressing a distinguished international audience of hundreds gathered in the resplendent Throne Room of the centuries-old Citadel of Aleppo - at the heart of this ancient crossroads of commerce and civilisations.

Pointing to a new dimension in the civilisation debate, the Aga Khan said "Many Muslims today, of which I am one, carry with them a memory of the historical achievements of Islamic civilisations," but, he asked, "what is the significance of this historical memory for the Ummah (the global community of Muslims) in the contemporary world?" "If we find pride in our past, but are troubled by how it relates to the present and the future, what are our ways forward?" These challenges, said the Aga Khan, require "careful thought and discussion within the Ummah." It was a debate, he said, that must occur in a way that "provides freedom for full exchange."

President Bashar Al Assad of Syria, in a speech read on his behalf by Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa Miro, warned that "cultural and intellectual isolation is a negative phenomenon" and reminded the audience that "architecture translates all human needs, of cities, buildings, establishments, castles, relations among individuals and groups, family, artisan, faiths, customs, feasts, as well as of life in peace and war."

"Persistent confusion about the existence and legitimacy of different communities of interpretation within Islam," said the Aga Khan, " is another source of misunderstanding. No one in the West sees Christianity as an undifferentiated monolith, and yet this is the commonly held perception of the peoples of Islam, while the reality is quite different. Pluralism in the practice of Islam and its expression in the cultures of Islamic civilisations have been validated by nearly 1400 years of history, including the history of its art and architecture."

Recalling "the power of Islam as a crucible for the spirit and the intellect, transcending boundaries of geography and culture," the Aga Khan spoke of "the Muslim eagerness to learn and adapt and share and bequeath an enhanced understanding of man and the universe." He went on to recognise that "this heritage of respect for difference is admirably sustained in Syria today in the value it attaches to diversity, pluralism and positive and productive relationships between different segments of society." "It is also a testimony to the Quranic ideal of a vibrant humanity, rich in pluralism, and yet constituting a single human community."

Describing the origins of the Award twenty-four years ago when "the gap between past accomplishment and current practice was massive," the Aga Khan explained how the Award addressed problems that are "global in nature and significance," and involved "distinguished scholars and professionals in different fields and of different faiths," a Master Jury, "free to refine its own definitions as it conducted its deliberations about the hundreds of projects that had been nominated" from across the Islamic world.

Illustrating the learning emerging out of the Award process, the Aga Khan cited two lessons. "One is that the technical issues of the built environment cannot be considered in isolation from the cultural and spiritual values of a society. The second is that these values have to be related at one and the same time to the historical traditions of Islam, in all their diversity, and to the fresh challenges posed by the opportunities and needs for living in the modern world."

Identifying linkages between technical issues and spiritual values and between historical traditions of Islam and challenges of modernity would, the Aga Khan said, requires difficult and complex discussions. These would be most productive, he noted if they took place in a "bustan -- in which there would be no possibility of suffocation from the dying weeds of dogma, whether professional or ideological; where the flowers of articulation and challenging ideas could grow without restraint; where the new plants of creativity and risk-taking could blossom in the full light of day".

Based on the decisions of an independent Master Jury, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the world's largest architectural prize, worth a total of US$500,000, tonight honoured nine outstanding projects in its 2001 cycle: New Life for Old Structures (Various locations, Iran); Ait Iktel (Abadou, Morocco), Barefoot Architects (Tilonia, India), Kahere Elia Poultry Farming School (Koliagbe, Guinea), Nubian Museum (Aswan, Egypt), SOS Children's Village (Aqaba, Jordan), Olbia Social Centre (Antalya, Turkey), Bagh-e-Ferdowsi (Tehran, Iran) and Datai Hotel (Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia). For only the third time ever, the Aga Khan presented the Chairman's Award of US$100,000 to the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa in recognition of his lifetime contribution to the field of architecture.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was established by the Aga Khan in 1977 to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of Islamic societies.

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