AKU's Charter Acceptance 

March, 16 1983​

Your Excellency, The President
Your Excellency, The Governor of Sindh
Honourable Ministers,
Distinguished Guests,

In this Silver Jubilee year, celebrating my twenty-fifth anniversary to the accession to the Imamat of the Ismaili Muslims. I have been called upon to make many speeches on many subjects, in countries as diverse as Portugal, Singapore and Tanzania. But important and happy as these Jubilee occasions have been, this is the event which can with the greatest certainty be called historic. Modern communications, the radio, the newspapers, all the media, urge us to believe that each day brings momentous events. Happily this is not so, or we would be producing far more history than we can comfortably consume. Today, however, is historic in the true sense. The Charter which His Excellency the President has been gracious enough to grant the new Aga Khan University creates the first university inspired by my family since Al Azhar was founded enterprise, in which individual endeavour is encouraged and in which citizens can feel secure and confident of improvements in their future prospects.

When the principles of the Aga Khan University were presented to Your Excellency, you espoused them and made them your own. You have always listened to proposals, both on this and other subjects, with great open-mindedness. No one could have been more willing not simply to find mutually acceptable solutions to problems, but also to implement agreements promptly. In so far as the creation of the Aga Khan Medical College and the transformation of that college into the Aga Khan University were concerned, Your Excellency has epitomised how the enabling environment can be created. Without your understanding and encouragement we would not be assembled here today.

Although this University is new, it will draw inspiration from the great traditions of Islamic civilisation and learning to which Your Excellency has referred.

At the height of this civilisation, academies of higher learning reached from Spain to India, from North Africa to Afghanistan. One of the first and greatest research centres, the Bayt-al-Hikmah established in Baghdad in 830, led Islam in translating philosophical and scientific works from Greek, Roman, Persian and Indian classics. By the art of translation learning was assimilated from other civilisations. It was then advanced further and in new directions by scholarship in such institutions as the Dar Al Ilm, the Houses of Science, which during the 9th and 10th centuries spread to many cities; through colleges like those of Al Azhar in Cairo; Qarawiyin at Fez in Morocco; Zaytouna in Tunis; and the eminent Spanish centre of Cordoba, founded between 929 and 961.

Everywhere, whether in the simplest mosque schools or in universities, teaching was regarded as a mission undertaken for the service of God. Revenue from endowments provided students with stipends and no time limit was set for the acquisition of knowledge. Above all, following the guidance of the Holy Quran, there was freedom of enquiry and research. The result was a magnificent flowering of artistic and intellectual activity throughout the Umma.

Muslim scholars reached pinnacles of achievement in astronomy, geography, physics, philosophy, mathematics and especially in medicine. The great British scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, remarked that if he was able to see further than his predecessors, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Among those giants, who made possible the scientific revolution in Europe, were Ibn Sina, whose ‘Canon of Medicine’ was a standard text for 500 years; Al-Idrisi, the geographer; Ibn Rushd, the philosopher, and a host of other Muslim scientists who had produced the notion of specific gravity, refined Euclid’s theories, perfected solid geometry, evolved trigonometry and algebra, and made modern mathematics possible by developing Indian numerals and the concept of the zero as a numeral of no place , an invention crucial to every aspect of technology from that time onwards to the present day. Their Socratic principles of education, so sympathetic to Muslims and so characteristic of the great Islamic teaching institutions of the golden age, are still – and are likely to remain – universally accepted practices of advanced teaching.

It is no exaggeration to say that the original Christian universities of the Latin West, at Paris, Bologna and Oxford, indeed the whole European Renaissance, received a vital influx of new knowledge from Islam: an influx from which the later Western colleges and universities, including those of North America, were to benefit in turn. It is therefore most fitting that Harvard, McGill and McMaster Universities should today be associated with the Medical College which is the first faculty of the Aga Khan University, and that President Bok and other members of the Harvard faculty are advising us on the development of the University as a whole. Making wisdom available from one country to another is truly in the finest tradition of Islamic learning.

Your Excellency has paid tribute to the contribution which my grandfather, Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah Aga Khan, made to the University of Aligarh. Aligarh’s achievement rested on engendering true Muslim values, in particular the maintenance of a balance between the spiritual and the material in all matters. In Islamic belief knowledge is twofold. There is that revealed through the Holy Prophet (Salla’llahu Alayhi Wa Aliyi Wa Sallam) and that which man discovers by virtue of his own intellect. Nor do these two involve any contradiction, provided man remembers that his own mind is itself the creation of God. Without this humility, no balance is possible. With it, there are no barriers. Indeed one strength of Islam has always lain in its belief that creation is not static but continuous, that through scientific and other endeavours, God has opened and continues to open new windows for us to see the marvels of his creation. For many of my generation the greatest technological miracle of this century has been sending men into space and a remark by an astronaut on one of the first flights in space has always remained in my mind. Looking down upon the earth he had just left he said emotionally ‘It’s one world’. He was not a Muslim. But his remark substantiated two fundamental aspects of our Faith: the limitlessness of God’s power and the brotherhood of man.

This is the inspiration which guided the great Islamic centres of learning in the past and which must guide the Aga Khan University in the future.​

This vital point established, what form should a Muslim Third World University take? What considerations should shape its role? Are historical precedents valid?

At various times and various places in history there have emerged societies which have combined impressive tangible achievements with broad and coherent visions of the meaning and purpose of the world and of humanity. In these periods great universities have appeared and flourished. That they have both risen and fallen with civilisations is because they are expressions of the purpose of those civilisations. However they have not been solely concerned with the ultimate philosophical and theological questions underpinning civilisation. They have characteristically been the training ground for the many professions serving the day-to-day needs of mankind. The importance of this function has been one of the major reasons for the Third World’s rapid creation of new Universities in recent decades.

Indeed, during the second half of the twentieth century universities have been internationally recognised as influential to an extent unparalleled since the fourteenth century. They have become focal points of national expectation, especially in the Third World, where political leaders, eager to reinforce independence with locally-based economic growth, have looked to them to provide the necessary professional manpower. Equally, ordinary citizens have seen universities as the direct route to advancement for their children.

The result has been a vast expansion in institutions of higher learning. Third World enrolment in them rose on average ten percent a year during the 1960s and even faster during the 1970s, though here in Asia the rate of expansion has moderated. Worldwide, the pressures which have ensued have proved inexorable and, in many cases, uncontrollable. Universities have consumed a heavy proportion of national expenditure. The supply of qualified teachers has fallen short, while secondary schools have often put forward students who are insufficiently prepared for the higher intellectual demands of a University.

Above all, most Third World Universities have found themselves face to face with a fundamental problem: how to reconcile local needs with loyalty to international standards.

All too often they have failed on both counts. They have allowed students to pursue arts or law degrees irrespective of either long-term national requirements or immediate job opportunities. At the same time academic standards have declined under the weight of numbers, cost and poor tuition.

Today disillusion has set in. Courses are disrupted by student unrest; academic criteria are challenged; failure is attributed to modern Western models of Universities being inappropriate to developing countries with additional blame being thrown on Western materialism for corrupting values. Where does the truth lie?

The truth, as the famous Islamic scholars repeatedly told their students, is that the spirit of disciplined, objective enquiry is the property of no single culture, but of all humanity. To quote the great physician and philosopher, Ibn Sina:

‘My profession is to be forever journeying, to travel about the universe so that I may know all its conditions.’

It is these journeys of the mind which our students must make, for what is the study of science but man’s endeavour to comprehend the universe of God’s creation, the immediate world around him and himself? The laws of science are not bounded by cultures, nor should there be any basic conflict between loyalty to high academic standards and service to practical development needs. A good doctor, lawyer, economist, manager or engineer is not simply a person committed to social good; he or she must have acquired the searching curiosity and the disciplined habits of mind which enthusiasm and commitment cannot alone supply, but which the modern university can. There is no weakness in principle with the university as it has evolved today. The weaknesses lie rather in universities having resources too limited for their task, in the kind of faculties they have established, in the curricula they have offered, above all in the standards they have set themselves.​​

The overall aim of the Aga Khan University will be to make clear and rational judgements as to which foreseeable future needs of the developing countries require new educational programmes and, having identified those openings, to address them by the appropriate means, setting the highest standards possible, whether in teaching, in research or in service.

The progress of the School of Nursing has already been mentioned. Its concept illustrates our aims and methods. The school derived from the serious shortage of qualified nurses in Pakistan, a shortage partly attributable to their low standing. The architectural quality of the school’s buildings is a visible affirmation of the inspiration of Islamic design and of the importance we attach to the nursing profession. The training programmes have been evolved with generous aid from Canada. Thus we have drawn successfully on the human and technical resources of both East and West. We hope next to introduce something which has never before been available in Pakistan, namely a degree in nursing. So the school is fulfilling precisely those aspirations which I have outlined for the University. It is meeting a carefully identified requirement, raising standards and introducing new concepts.

Having decided upon the curricula, our approach to learning will be in the high traditions of intellectual enquiry I have already described, teaching students not simply to memorise factual knowledge, but to use that knowledge to identify and to solve problems. We hope that the habit of applying logical and disciplined thought to questions and the appreciation of research will remain with our graduates throughout their lives.

The Charter which His Excellency the President has granted us establishes a number of important principles. The Aga Khan University will be open to all-comers regardless of colour, creed, race or class and my wish is that the only criteria which will count for admission will be merit and potential for leadership. The Charter further lays down that the purpose of the Aga Khan University will be the promotion and dissemination of knowledge and technology and that it will be a fully autonomous corporate body with freedom to govern its academic functions and the right to grant degrees.

Academic freedom is in the truest spirit of Islam. Without it excellence cannot be achieved. From the start of my grandfather’s association with the Muslim University of Aligarh he insisted that it should ‘preach the gospel of free enquiry, of large hearted toleration and of pure morality.’ That ideal will never lose its validity and I commend it to the Trustees of the Aga Khan University.

However, academic freedom also imposes responsibilities, both to the University’s defined academic mission and to society. Freedom must not be allowed to degenerate into licence, whether in universities or in society as a whole. When it has so degenerated it has invariably destroyed the very civilisations which gave it birth.

Throughout man’s history there have been periods when political stability and seemingly assured economic growth have tempted educational institutions to stray from their true academic tasks, and give rein to political involvement, social ambition or moral indulgence: in other words to allow freedom to lapse into licence. To maintain one’s own integrity at such times may be difficult and unpopular, but only by maintaining it can an institution of this kind justify the privileges it has been given and the faith placed in it by its founders.

The Aga Khan University has a number of constituencies to which the Charter encourages it to respond and with which it must keep faith: the Pakistan nation; the Islamic Umma; including my own Community; the Third World countries of Asia and Africa. As I have already indicated it must address itself to subjects relevant to the development and civilisations of these constituencies, if possible responding to challenges in an international context.

This is why the Charter specifically allows the University to establish faculties abroad. Whilst it is too early to say where these might be, it is my wish that this should become an international university, able to mobilise resources from other countries, to coordinate international research and to encourage the exchange of ideas between nations. We may find it appropriate to teach or research such subjects as the administration of social institutions; education, rural development; communications, in all its aspects; and architecture. Equally, we may wish to assist men and women who have successfully established themselves in politics, in government, in business or in the social services and who want to return to an academic institution briefly for advanced courses in political theory, public administration or any other of the many subjects directly related to improving their capability in the senior positions they occupy.

Such possibilities make it essential for the faculties and the curricula to be flexible. Accordingly the Charter permits the University to expand as need arises.

I have spoken of new initiatives and present deficiencies. Inevitably priorities will alter as the years and time and history unfold, and the University must be able to adapt itself to change. But one thing will remain constant: the mission of preparing graduates, men and women, to play constructive, worthwhile and responsible roles in society.

Your Excellency, it is with great emotion and pride that I have today accepted the Charter of the Aga Khan University from you. My hope is that this institution will bring credit upon the country which has given it birth and the men and women who have made it possible, first among them Your Excellency.

In everything we do we must look to the future, seeking always to think creatively, to innovate and to improve. I urge all those who are involved with the Aga Khan University now or in the years to come, whether they be Trustees, Faculty staff or students, never to forget that the future is in their hands. IT will be upon them that the performance and reputation of this University will depend and it will be through them that the University will, or will not, achieve the position among the world’s institutions of higher learning which its founders have envisaged. With their help let us pray that we should develop a guiding light, a light to be added to those many others which seek to illuminate the path to a better life for Pakistan for the peoples of the Umma and of the Third World.

Thank you.​