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  • Architect Rami El Dahan shows His Highness the Aga Khan and His Highness Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Deputy Chairman of the Dubai Executive Council a model of the proposed Ismaili Centre, Dubai.
    AKDN/Gary Otte
Aga Khan announces first Ismaili Centre in Middle East

Dubai, UAE, 13 December 2003 - His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, today announced the first Ismaili Centre to be built in the Middle East.

The Ismaili Centre, Dubai, when completed, will be comparable in scope and standing to existing major centres in London, Vancouver and Lisbon, the one underway in Dushanbe and the one in advanced planning stages in Toronto.

The foundation ceremony was attended by His Highness Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Deputy Chairman of the Dubai Executive Council and President of the Department of Civil Aviation representing Sheikh Mohammaed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai. The Centre, a project likely to cost in the region of US$18 million, is to be built on 13,200 square metres of land gifted by the Crown Prince.

Addressing a distinguished gathering including national and civic leaders, religious dignitaries and diplomats, the Aga Khan expressed the "humble prayer that, when built, the Ismaili Centre in Dubai will be a place for contemplation and search for enlightenment, where people come together to share knowledge and wisdom. It will be a place of peace, of order, of hope and of brotherhood, radiating those thoughts, attitudes and sentiments which unite, and which do not divide, and which uplift the mind and the spirit."

"At a time when the search for mutual understanding remains essential to assuring peace and stability," said the Aga Khan, "the creation of spaces that will enable that search becomes a greater imperative than ever." The Centre, the Aga Khan said, "was conceived, and will be established, for that very purpose, amongst others."

"The Centre," said the Aga Khan, "would provide facilities to promote cultural, educational and social programmes from the broadest, non-denominational perspectives within the ethical framework of Islam." "Amongst them," he said, "will be an Early Learning Centre where the Aga Khan Education Services, a philanthropic agency, will draw on its own extensive experience in many parts of the world to offer broad, holistic, early childhood education on a secular and non-denominational basis at the highest standards of excellence." It would, he continued, serve as a resource to support the work of the Aga Khan Development Network which is active in the Middle East and Gulf region in the areas of urban development, conservation, restoration, education, healthcare, microfinance, higher education, culture and rural development.

The Aga Khan described the Centre as "a symbol of the confluence between the spiritual and the secular in Islam". Situating one of the functions of the Ismaili Centre in the tradition of Muslim piety, the Aga Khan noted that "a prominent feature of the Muslim religious landscape has been the variety of spaces of gathering co-existing harmoniously with the masjid... Historically, serving communities of different interpretations and spiritual affiliations, these spaces have retained their cultural nomenclatures and characteristics, from ribat and zawiyya to khanaqa and jamatkhana. The congregational space incorporated within the Ismaili Centre belongs to the historic category of jamatkhana, an institutional category that also serves a number of sister Sunni and Shia communities, in their respective contexts, in many parts of the world."

Explaining that "like its functions, the Centre's architecture will reflect our perception of daily life whose rhythm weaves the body and the soul, man and nature into a seamless unity," the Aga Khan noted that Egyptian architect Rami El Dahan had drawn inspiration from the Fatimid mosques of Cairo. "Guided by the ethic that whatever we do, see and hear, and the quality of our social interactions, resonate on our faith and bear on our spiritual lives, said the Aga Khan, "the Centre will seek to create, Insh'allah, a sense of equilibrium, stability and tranquility".

"This sense of balance and serenity," he said, "will find its continuum in the wealth of colours and scents in the adjacent Islamic garden which the Aga Khan Trust for Culture will help develop as a public park.

"Through its design and functions," said the Aga Khan, "this Centre, like its predecessors, will reflect a mood of humility, forward outlook, friendship and dialogue. Above all, this Centre is being conceived in the ethic of respect for human dignity. It will, therefore, aim to empathise with, and to expand our intellectual, cultural and moral horizons."

In addition to offering facilities for lectures, presentations, seminars and conferences relating to the Aga Khan Development Network's areas of activity, the Ismaili Centre will host recitals and exhibitions that will serve to educate wider publics about the breadth of Islam's heritage.

Later, the Aga Khan met with His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Minister of Defence, United Arab Emirates. The two leaders also visited the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House and the Dubai Museum.

The Aga Khan continues his stay in Dubai as part of visit to the Middle East and Gulf region.

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The Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, is a direct descendant of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He succeded his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan to the Imamat in 1957 at the age of 20. The Ismailis live in over 25 different countries, mainly in Central and South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as well as in Europe, North America and Australia.

During the course of history, the Ismailis have, under the guidance of their Imams, made significant contributions to Islamic civilisations, the cultural, intellectual and religious life of Muslims. The University of al-Azhar and the Academy of Science, Dar al-Ilm, in Egypt and indeed the city of Cairo itself, are testimony to this contribution. Among the renowned philosophers, jurists, physicians, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists of the past who flourished under the patronage of Ismaili Imams are Qadi al-Numan, al-Kirmani, Ibn al-Haytham (al-Hazen), Nasir e-Khusraw and Nasir al-Din Tusi.

Like his grandfather before him, the Aga Khan, has always been concerned about the wellbeing of all Muslims, particularly the impact on them of the challenges of the rapidly evolving world. Addressing as Chairman, the International Conference on the Example (Seerat) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in Karachi in 1976, he noted that the wisdom of Allah's final Prophet in seeking new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, provides the inspiration for Muslims to conceive a truly modern and dynamic society, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam. In a number of the countries where they live, the Ismailis have evolved a well-defined institutional framework through which they have, under the leadership and guidance of the Imam, established schools, hospitals, health centres, housing societies and a variety of social and economic development institutions for the common good of all citizens regardless of their race or religion.

The Aga Khan is the Imam of the Nizari branch of Ismailis which is distinct from the Mustalian branch that includes communities of the Sulaymani Bohra tradition who live in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and of the Daudi Bohra tradition who also live in the Gulf region.

In the Middle East and Gulf region, the larger Nizari Ismaili communities are found in Syria and the United Arab Emirates, with smaller presences in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

The AKDN is a group of private, non-denominational development agencies whose mandates range from the fields of health and education to architecture, rural development and the promotion of private-sector enterprise. Its agencies and institutions, working together, seek to empower communities and individuals, often in disadvantaged circumstances, to improve living conditions and opportunities, especially in Africa and Asia.They collaborate in working towards a common goal - building institutions and programmes that can respond to the challenges of social, economic and cultural change on an ongoing basis. Active in over 20 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America, the Network's underlying impulse is the ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society and its agencies and institutions work for the common good of all citizens, regardless of origin, gender or religion. The Network's agencies are active in the Gulf and Middle East regions in the areas of urban development, conservation, restoration, education, healthcare, microfinance, higher education, culture and rural development.