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  • His Highness the Aga Khan, Chancellor of the Aga Khan University, presents a Diploma in Nursing to Leila Moora from Kenya at the University's 16th Convocation in Karachi, Pakistan.
    AKDN / Gary Otte
Aga Khan speaks on education and the future of the Ummah

Karachi, Pakistan, 6 December 2003 - "When people of a distinctive faith or culture feel economically powerless or inherit clear injustice from which they cannot escape, or find their traditions and values engulfed culturally, and their societies maligned as bleak and unjust... they risk becoming the victims of those who would gain power by perverting an open, fluid, pluralistic tradition of thought and belief into something closed and insular."

"It would be wrong to see this as the future of the Ummah."

His Highness the Aga Khan, Chancellor of the Aga Khan University (AKU), today recast the role of a modern university rooted in a centuries-old tradition of learning as it faces the contemporary challenges of the Muslim world. He was speaking at the 16th Convocation of the University in the presence of Pakistan's Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali and over 3,000 guests including the Governor and Chief Minister of Sindh, diplomats, academicians, and donors from over 15 countries. Two hundred and forty graduates from six countries of Asia, Africa and North America included 79 newly qualifed doctors, 114 nurses and 34 recipients of a Master's degree in Education.

"There are those," said the Aga Khan, "who know their history and deeply value their heritage, but who also ... realize how erroneous and unreasonable it is to believe that there is an unbridgeable divide between their heritage and the modern world." The Aga Khan felt that those with an educated and enlightened approach are "of the firm and sincere conviction that their societies can benefit from modernity while remaining true to tradition." "They," said the Aga Khan, " will be the bridge which can eliminate forever today's dangerous 'clash of ignorance' ... where peoples of different faiths or cultural traditions are so ignorant of each other that they are unable to find a common language with which to communicate."

Prime Minister Jamali, in his remarks, said that "higher education was critical to economic and social development in the country" recognising AKU as an important "dialogue partner." He also noted the significance of theUniversity's growing international role and its support for Pakistan's burgeoning opportunities for opening channels of trade and humanitarian support within the region.

"Muslim universities," said the Aga Khan, "have a unique responsibility: to engender in their societies a new confidence ... based on intellectual excellence, but also on a refreshed and enlightened appreciation of the scientific, linguistic, artistic and religious traditions that underpin and give such global value to our own Muslim civilisations - even though it may be ignored or not understood by parts of the Ummah itself." He recalled that even as heir to one of the greatest civilisations the world has known, the Muslim world "has inherited from history not of its own making, some of the worst and longest conflicts of the last hundred years, those of the Middle East and Kashmir."

Speaking of a "sense of vulnerability that is especially powerful in the Muslim world," the Aga Khan observed that it was "especially at times when ignorance, conflict and apprehension are so rife, that universities, in both the Muslim world and in the West, have a greater obligation to promote intellectual openness and tolerance, and to create increased cultural understanding."

In the face of "perils, and voids of understanding," the Aga Khan spoke of a duty to tackle new challenges with particular urgency. Insisting that "faculty be challenged as a matter of university policy to expand the boundaries of human knowledge," he said that research at AKU would focus on "fields that will contribute much to the quality of human life in the coming century." "This naturally follows the precepts of Islam that the scientific application of reason, the building of society and the refining of human aspirations and ethics should always reinforce one another." He cited, in particular, AKU's applied research strengths in community health sciences and its productive relations with scientists and federal and provincial policymakers in fields such as nutrition, educational testing, maternal and child health, immunization strategies and vaccine development and epidemiology.

"Large problem areas from human development, and bio-ethics, to economic growth, and human settlements, desperately need systematic thought and information," said the Aga Khan, " and, whether through an Institute of Public Policy, or through policy units in existing departments, or even fully developed new faculties, AKU will pledge its energies and imagination to advancing effective public policy."

Providing an overview of AKU's internationalisation, the Aga Khan referred to the University's expansion into six countries and its collaboration with the University of Central Asia. These include Advanced Nursing Studies Programs in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and collaboration with Intermediate Medical Education Institutes in Afghanistan and with the Ministry of Education in Syria. The Aga Khan also referred to a planned Institute for Educational Development in East Africa which would support a new network of schools of excellence beginning in the region and extending elsewhere in Africa and Asia.

The Aga Khan warned of the consequences of the fact that "there is too little public sustenance for and debate about contemporary Muslim architecture and literature - and relatively little of the cinematic and musical talent from Turkey, Egypt and Iran that is now beginning to be recognised. These would mean "a younger successor generation that is intellectually unchallenged and culturally undernourished." Beyond that, he said there was "a one-way flow of scholarship and popular culture from the West, which in turn, receives all too little that is creative and interpretative, scholarly and artistic, from the Muslim world." It was to help "become a magnet and a concentration of Muslim scholars" that the AKU's Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations had begun its work in London.

The Aga Khan also sketched the plans for the University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences that was establishing a residential campus on 600 acres in Karachi. The campus will cater to some 1400 undergraduates and provide a broad curriculum covering the sciences, economics and information technology as well as world history, Asian languages, elements of Muslim civilisations, history of South Asian and Persian-speaking cultures.

Later in the day, the Aga Khan inaugurated new facilities costing a total of over US$12 million. The Khimji Building for Cardiac Services including a Coronary Care Unit, three operating theatres. The Karimi, Noor and Arman Rupani Residences will help meet the needs for safe on-campus housing for women. He also laid the foundation for an Oncology Services Building.

The Aga Khan continues his visit to Pakistan.

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The University has so far graduated 3,168 doctors, educators and nurses drawn from all over Pakistan but also from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, Holland, India, Kenya, the Kyrgyz Republic, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. Through its needs-blind policy and Educational Support Programme, AKU ensures that deserving students are granted admissions irrespective of their economic background. Forty-five per cent receive some form of additional financial assistance through scholarships and loans. The University has disbursed some US$3 million, benefiting 3,820 students since its inception.

The Aga Khan Development Network 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. 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.