Cairo, Egypt, 15 June 2006 - His Highness the Aga Khan, Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), today delivered the commencement address at the American University in Cairo, calling for a renewal of the tradition of intellectual exchange that characterised periods of progress in the Islamic world.
The Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Aga Khan’s ancestors, the Fatimids, founded the city of Cairo in 969–974 (358–363 Hijri), naming it al-Qahira (“the victorious”).
The Aga Khan was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.
Speaking before 421 students, their parents and guests, the Aga Khan cited examples of dynamic intellectual exchange that led to the flowering of the arts and sciences during the 8th century Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, the 10th century Fatimid Empire based in Cairo, the Safavid era in Iran and the Ottomans in Turkey, as well as between European and Islamic civilisations.
“At various times in world history, the locus of knowledge has moved from one centre of learning to another,” the Aga Khan said. “Europe once came to the Islamic world for intellectual enrichment—and even rediscovered its own classical roots by searching in Arabic texts.”
“I believe that pattern must be our model today,” the Aga Khan continued. “In keeping with our past traditions, and in response to our present needs, we must go out and find the best of the world’s knowledge—wherever it exists.”
The application of that knowledge was equally important, the Aga Khan said, and pointed to the vital role that civil society could play in helping societies adapt to an age of “knowledge workers”. “In such a time,” the Aga Khan continued, “we need to depend less on governments and more on what I call the institutions of civil society. These civil institutions are normally private and voluntary—but they are committed to the public good. They include entities dedicated to education and research, labour and commerce, health and the environment, culture and religion.”
The Aga Khan commended the American University in Cairo for being a place for creative and constructive interaction between East and West, saying “its success has inspired those who see the future as one of intercultural cooperation and collaboration, rather than intercultural clash.”
AUC’s president, David D. Arnold, said that the Aga Khan had “worked tirelessly throughout his life to better the lives of people around the world”. Remarking on the construction of Al-Azhar Park in Cairo, President Arnold said, “We have seen in Egypt how Al-Azhar Park, which is one of the most notable projects in the region, has touched the lives of many and brought a much-needed recreation area for the people of Cairo.”
The origins of Al-Azhar Park project date to 1984, when the Aga Khan Award for Architecture organised a conference on the subject of The Expanding Metropolis: Coping with the Urban Growth of Cairo. Completed in 2005, the US$ 30 million Park project transformed the derelict Darassa site, a 30-hectare (74-acre) mound of rubble adjacent to the Historic City. Egypt’s First Lady, Madame Suzanne Mubarak, inaugurated the Park in 2005. The Park attracts several thousand people per day. During Ramadan, over 10,000 visit the park daily.
Today, the project has evolved well beyond the Park to include the restoration of 1.5 kilometres of the 12th century Ayyubid wall and the restoration of landmark buildings, including the Khayrbek Complex and the Umm al-Sultan Shaaban mosque. Socio-economic initiatives in the neighbouring Darb al-Ahmar district include housing rehabilitation, microfinance, apprenticeships and healthcare.
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Notes: His Highness the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). A Harvard graduate in Islamic history, the Aga Khan, succeeded his grandfather as Imam of the Ismailis in 1957.
The Aga Khan is the founder of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of private, non-denominational development agencies working to empower communities and individuals to improve living conditions and opportunities, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East. The Network’s nine development agencies focus on social, cultural and economic development for all citizens, regardless of gender, origin or religion. The AKDN’s underlying ethic is compassion for the vulnerable in society. Its annual budget for philanthropic activity is in excess of US$300 million.