a hyphenated reality: being canadian ismaili

the aga khan's palacetoday, a guest post by mehnaz from strawberry ghetto, to commemorate today’s visit to vancouver by his highness, the aga khan.


before vancouver hosts the world in 2010 for the winter olympics, this week canada is host to the international ismaili muslim community for the much anticipated visit of his highness the aga khan on the occasion marking his golden jubilee as the leader of this small community.

i often get the question, what is it like to be a canadian ismaili?

first of all, i am a canadian, as much as anyone else who lives in this fair country.  i cheer at the television when the canucks play, i wander over to english bay for the annual summer fireworks, i vote and i partake in the annual bout of insanity known as boxing day shopping.

i am also an ismaili.  the ismailis are a diverse community part of the shia branch of islam (the other branch being sunni) and currently reside in over 25 countries of the world.  they number in the millions around the world from europe and asia to africa and north america.  his highness the aga khan is the 49th hereditary imam or spiritual leader of the ismailis, who believe him to be a direct descendant of the prophet muhammad (peace be upon him).  in 1957, he succeeded the throne of imamat previously held by his grandfather sir sultan mahomad shah aga khan.  the ismailis pledge their allegiance to the imam and live their lives according to his guidance.

the ismaili history is a multifaceted one and canada has been part of the fabric of this history since the 1970’s when many ismailis arrived as refugees from east africa due to idi amin’s expulsion of south asians from uganda, and then again in the 1990’s after the war in afghanistan.  we have since called canada our home.  now the ismaili community boasts a rich civic and cultural life and actively engages in both cultural and economic life in canada.

sitting on the hyphen of the identity known as canadian – ismaili was always a challenge when i was a child.  a phrase i often learned to say when i was younger is “i’m sorry, i can’t. i have prayers on fridays.”  this didn’t result in a lot of friday nights out with friends.  but as i grew up, i realized that the continual theme that influences everything that i do, eventually leads back to the ethic that my faith has instilled in me: to help my fellow man despite creed, class or culture and transfer my opportunities and allow others the same.  this view allows ismailis to keep our finger on the pulse of spiritual life while at the same time fully engaging in the daily work of life, a balancing act that is both challenging and rewarding.

the golden jubilee of his highness the aga khan is a momentous occasion in an ismaili’s life (we don’t put banners up all over downtown vancouver for nothing!).  it is our chance to come together in the spirit of brotherhood and to welcome our fellow community members from around the world.  it is our chance to celebrate our commonality and our diversity.  it is our chance to eat until we collapse and then dance until we can’t walk.  and most of all, it is a chance for us to continue our allegiance to a faith and a way of life that is rich, and fulfilling and allows us to stand proudly on the identity known as “canadian ismaili”.

for those that are interested in learning more about ismailism, there are a variety of sources available listed below.

www.theismaili.org – the official website of the international ismaili community (good source of ismailism 101).

www.akdn.org – the aga khan development network, the nondenominational private organization dedicated to improving the lives of communities around the world.

www.iis.ac.uk – the institute of ismaili studies in the uk; home of scholarly work on ismaili history, philosophy and thought.

www.pluralism.ca – the global centre for pluralism in ottawa (currently under construction)

www.agakhanfilm.org – an islamic conscience: the aga khan and the ismailis (documentary on the history of the ismailis and the aga khan).


comment by isabella: i want to thank mehnaz for this contribution, for which i asked her way back when we met through the blogathon back in july.  it is fortunate that her contribution arrives on this auspicious day.  my first memory of the aga khan goes way back to the sixties, when he was an immensely sought-after, horse-racing bachelor but who even then showed a deep interest in making the world a better place.  the other day i flippantly called ismaili “the quakers of the muslim world” – but i think it’s not such a bad moniker.  from wikipedia:

the āgā khān has been particularly interested in the elimination of global poverty; the advancement of the status of women; the promotion of islamic culture, art, and architecture; and furthering pluralistic values in society. he is the founder and chairman of the aga khan development network, one of the largest private development networks in the world, which works towards social, economic, and cultural development in asia and africa.

and lastly, since in my november posts, i always want to make a connection to NaNoWriMo, here are some books written by ismaili authors that mehnaz recommended:

anar ali – baby khaki’s wings

sikeena karmali – a house by the sea

m.g. vassanji – the in between world of vikram lal

image of the aga khan’s palace by RCCHALC


  1. Thanks so much, Isabella for posting this up. Much appreciated. And for your warm wishes as well 🙂

    Nancy – Yes, lots from Kenya and Tanzania as well!

  2. Thanks for posting this Isabella, and thanks for writing this Mehnaz. I too am a Ismaili-Canadian and am proud to wear the hyphenated term. Canada is a perfect example of what the Ismaili ethic reflects: a society built on tolerance and understanding that uses its diversity as a strength and not a weakness, that embraces the role of civil society and the importance of everyday citizens to make a difference in the lives of their brothers and sisters around them.

    Sameer Vasta’s last blog post..Wide change.

  3. I’m a ‘Roman Catholic-Canadian’, but I know many Ismailis. One thing that strikes me is how ‘Western’ they are about so many practices…especially, compared to Salafi Muslims.

    Something I’m curious about: does your sect not have a prohibition against alcohol?

  4. Hi Adam,
    Yes Quran in general prohibits us from consuming alcohol and it has its base in social and cultural settings of Pre Islamic Arabia. In Pre Islamic Arabia there were three bad wibes or as we call call it the three “W’s” which needed attention. Namely treatment given by arabs to Wine, Women and Wealth. Prophet (pbuh) restricted alchohol or matter of fact any substance which may stop you from thinking rationally (i.e. drugs included), worked towards and promoted equality of man and woman, and implemented a system of zakat (offering part of your income to the less fortunate in society).
    Hope this answers your question.

  5. I’m not a canadian ismali, and have never heard about this notion! but since I’ve read your post, some things became clear to me, so much i appreciate new knowledge! so keep up writing like this, I’m waiting fo ryour new post!

    Mia – Seo Sem’s last blog post..Free Links: The Three Principles

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