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Aga Khan’s vision for an educated Ummah

Khadija Ladhani

The 2nd of November 2022 marks the 145th birth anniversary of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III (1877-1957). While he was first and foremost known as the hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims since 1885, over his tenure as Imam, he increasingly became known for his significant contributions to the social, cultural, political, economic and educational growth of all Muslims in the Indian subcontinent.

Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah was an ardent supporter of the educational advancement of Muslims and played the role of educational reformer through his work with Sir Syed Ahmed Khan towards the cause of Aligarh University. Writing about the dedication of Aga Khan III, Willi Frischauer writes in The Aga Khans, “Here was a chance to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor who had founded al-Azhar, the first Muslim university, which greatly appealed to the young Aga Khan. He decided to put up money for the cause and persuaded wealthy friends to contribute… he missed no opportunity to plead for this cause.” It was through his work during this time that he is also known as one of the founding fathers of Pakistan.

Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah championed training in science and technology and advocated for Muslims to receive high-quality education. He felt it was imperative that Muslims of the subcontinent wholeheartedly commit themselves to the pursuit of modern education, for it was education that allowed the Ummah to achieve its splendour during the Golden Ages to ensure that the Muslim community contribute to political and social arenas of the Indian subcontinent.

Working for the community for over 70 years, Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah set up the groundwork for the current education system of the Aga Khan Schools in Pakistan, establishing over 200 schools during the twentieth century. One of the first, set up in 1905 in Gwadar, Balochistan, he pioneered the Diamond Jubilee Schools, or DJ schools, many of which were founded throughout Pakistan’s northern regions to ensure the education of young girls.

Today, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), under the leadership of Prince Karim, Aga Khan IV, continues to play an instrumental role in enhancing the level of education in the region and the country. Aga Khan III’s ideals of reaching a Golden Age of prosperity are reflected in the quality of work currently done by these institutions to support the development of the poorest and most remote areas in Pakistan. Beyond Pakistan, the AKDN works through a wide network of agencies and institutions to alleviate poverty and improve the quality of life of Muslims around the world, as well as those of the larger communities in which they live. Within Pakistan, the network’s focus on research and innovation has proved exceptionally useful as Pakistan faces the aftermath of COVID-19 and the devastating floods in 2022.

One part of the network globally recognized for its quality is the Aga Khan University (AKU), where experts in the field work on cutting-edge research across a multitude of health risks. Through its innovative approaches, the university has been engaged in tracking the evolution and spread of new Covid variants in Pakistan, and as a long-term solution is working in partnership with other stakeholders to ensure increasing numbers of routine childhood immunization.

For the recent flooding, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) played an integral role in terms of disaster preparedness and response. Since 1998, its teams have helped communities monitor and manage multiple natural hazards while they prepare and respond when disaster strikes, in order to build back better. By combining local knowledge and field surveys with geographic information system (GIS) data, satellite imagery, remote sensing and geospatial data, AKAH has developed detailed disaster management and hazard risk maps for 677 villages across Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. Through their weather monitoring and early warning systems, which cover almost 400 villages across Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, members of local teams and communities effectively monitor weather patterns and detect incoming issues early on. These early warning systems play an instrumental role in saving the lives of thousands of people during the recent floods in Pakistan, which left a third of the country under water. Through early detection and quick mobilization, 9,000 people were evacuated from the affected areas and healthcare camps were established, which treated over 100,000 people.

The impactful work done today by AKU, AKAH and other agencies within AKDN all began in 1905 through the initial efforts of Sir Sultan Mohammad Shah. His vision of an Ummah, one that is equipped with scientific education and technology, has proven essential in saving hundreds of lives during the current floods, COVID-19 and through other calamities that Pakistan has faced over the years. Whether in good times or bad, through proactive and reactive endeavours, AKDN works to achieve sustainable improvements in the quality of life of the people it serves. The seed that was sown over a century ago by Aga Khan III, and nourished through Aga Khan IV, has given Pakistani people the opportunity to reap those benefits for years to come.

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