It is important to note that what happens in North America, culturally, economically and politically, cannot fail to have worldwide repercussions — which is why the Museum will aim to contribute to a deeper understanding among cultures and to the strengthening of cultural pluralism: essential to peace, and to progress, in our world.

The developing political crises of recent years, and the considerable lack of knowledge of the Muslim world in many Western societies, are surely related. This ignorance spans all aspects of the peoples of Islam: their pluralism, the diversity of their interpretations of the Qur’anic faith, the chronological and geographical extent of their history and culture, as well as their ethnic, linguistic and social diversity….

This lack of knowledge manifests itself in a particularly serious way in Western democracies, where the public is often ill-informed about the Muslim world — an ignorance which then impacts the formulation of national and international policy vis-a-vis the Muslim world.

No honour is like knowledge. No belief is like modesty and patience, no attainment is like humility, no power is like forbearance, and no support is more reliable than consultation. — Hazrat Ali Ibn Abi Talib (c. 599-661)

Museums have a strong educational impact: they present evidence of material cultures, without intermediaries, in a direct way that appeals to people both on emotional and intellectual levels.

Throughout history, and sadly even today, fear of “the other” has torn apart communities along racial, religious, linguistic and ethnic lines. Understanding “the other” requires a level of dialogue and knowledge which institutions such as museums can foster. Museums have a strong educational impact: they present evidence of material cultures, without intermediaries, in a direct way that appeals to people both on emotional and intellectual levels. The need to bridge the growing divide of misunderstanding between East and West is pressing and, therefore, I have chosen to establish a museum of Islamic art, the Aga Khan Museum, in Toronto, Canada.

Canada has for many years been a beacon to the rest of the world for its commitment to pluralism and its support for the multicultural richness and diversity of its peoples. It is precisely this diversity that sustains the moral and dynamic coherence in public life that Canada has so successfully constructed, and is predicated on the ethic of respect for human dignity. The country has fully embraced pluralism as a foundation for its strength and growth and I am convinced that this is absolutely necessary for the stability of an interdependent world.

The Aga Khan Museum, designed by the renowned Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki and to be built in several phases, is conceived primarily as an educational institution in the field of Islamic art and culture, a specific mandate unique in North America. It will be dedicated to presenting Islamic arts and culture in their historic, cultural and geographical diversity, with the aim of fostering knowledge and understanding both within Muslim societies and between these societies and other cultures. The search for knowledge is a fundamental aspect of the faith of Islam and has been central to the rise of Muslim civilisations. I think of the words of Hazrat Ali, the first hereditary Imam of the Shia Muslims, and the last of the four rightly guided Caliphs.

The virtues endorsed by Hazrat Ali are qualities which subordinate the self and emphasise others: modesty, patience, humility, forbearance and consultation. What he is telling us is that the best path to knowledge is to admit first what it is we do not know, and to open our minds to what others can teach us.

The virtues endorsed by Hazrat Ali are qualities which subordinate the self and emphasise others: modesty, patience, humility, forbearance and consultation. What he is telling us is that the best path to knowledge is to admit first what it is we do not know, and to open our minds to what others can teach us. At various times in world history, the locus of knowledge has moved from one centre of learning to another. Europe once came to the Islamic world for intellectual enrichment — and even rediscovered its own classical roots by searching in Arabic texts; therefore it is fitting that the Aga Khan Museum, an institution whose aim is to share knowledge and to educate about Muslim civilisations, will be located in Canada, a country made up of immigrants and peoples from all over the world, with different traditions and faiths sharing common values.

It is important to note that what happens in North America, culturally, economically and politically, cannot fail to have worldwide repercussions — which is why the Museum will aim to contribute to a deeper understanding among cultures and to the strengthening of cultural pluralism: essential to peace, and to progress, in our world.

The developing political crises of recent years, and the considerable lack of knowledge of the Muslim world in many Western societies, are surely related. This ignorance spans all aspects of the peoples of Islam: their pluralism, the diversity of their interpretations of the Qur’anic faith, the chronological and geographical extent of their history and culture, as well as their ethnic, linguistic and social diversity.

Many today across the Muslim world know their history and deeply value their heritage, but are also keenly sensitive to the radically altered conditions of the modern world. They also realise how erroneous and unreasonable it is to believe that there is an unbridgeable divide between their heritage and the modern world.

The need for better understanding across cultures has never been greater — or more pressing. It is important that the diversity of cultures — and the inherent pluralism that characterises many societies today — be acknowledged as a vital asset and a prerequisite for progress and development. We must also recognise that we have a common heritage, built on centuries of cultural and commercial exchanges, and must do our utmost to value and protect what is greatest in this common humanity.

Insofar as civilisations manifest and express themselves through their art, museums have an essential role to play in teaching an understanding, respect and appreciation for other cultures and traditions …The Aga Khan Museum will have a unique responsibility to engender this understanding, based on a refreshed, enlightened appreciation of the scientific, linguistic, artistic and religious traditions that underpin and give such global value to Muslim civilisations.

What might be the role of museums in promoting understanding between East and West? It is a very important question to which I shall not try to give a comprehensive response, but I should nevertheless point out that the Muslim world, with its history and cultures, and indeed its different interpretations of Islam, is still little known in the West. This lack of knowledge manifests itself in a particularly serious way in Western democracies, where the public is often ill-informed about the Muslim world — an ignorance which then impacts the formulation of national and international policy vis-a-vis the Muslim world. Be that as it may, Muslim and non-Muslim societies must, as a matter of urgency, make a real effort to get to know one another, for I fear that what we have is not a clash of civilisations, but a clash of ignorance on both sides. Insofar as civilisations manifest and express themselves through their art, museums have an essential role to play in teaching an understanding, respect and appreciation for other cultures and traditions and in ensuring that whole populations are given fresh opportunities to make contact with each other, using new, modern methods imaginatively and intelligently to bring about truly global communication.

The Aga Khan Museum will be a resource for the large Muslim population living in Canada and the United States. It will be a source of pride and identity, showing the inherent pluralism of Islam, not only in terms of religious interpretations but also in terms of culture and ethnicity. These aspects are important because there is no doubt whatsoever that the Muslims of North America will play an important role in their own societies and in the development of states and populations within the ummah.

It is especially at times when ignorance, conflict and apprehension are so rife that institutions, in the Muslim world and in the West, have a greater obligation to promote intellectual openness and tolerance and to create increased cultural understanding. The Aga Khan Museum will have a unique responsibility to engender this understanding, based on a refreshed, enlightened appreciation of the scientific, linguistic, artistic and religious traditions that underpin and give such global value to Muslim civilisations. I am convinced that our ability to honour authentic symbols of pride and identity — and to share their beauty and their power with one another — can be a tremendous force for good. This is indeed my hope.

His Highness the Aga Khan IV

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