Convocation and Tenth Anniversary of the Aga Khan University

November 19, 1994​

Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim​

Your Excellency the Prime Minister, 
Your Excellency the Governor of Sindh, 
Honourable Chief Minister of Sindh, 
Dr Geraldine Kenney-Wallace, President of McMaster University, 
​Honourable Ministers, 
Your Excellencies,
Trustees, 
Faculty Members, 
Distinguished Guests, 
And Graduating Students, 

As-salaam-o-alaikum​

The University is honoured this morning by the presence of two women of very considerable distinction. With our Chief Guest, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, I gladly share an alma mater and a devotion to the advancement of this country. With our Keynote Speaker, Dr. Kenney-Wallace, we share a continuing collaboration of committed universities.

We are gathered here today in celebration – celebration of the success of the graduates, who have completed their rigorous courses of study, and of a university that has survived its own early challenges, and like the graduates, shows promise of important future work. That celebration should be joyful and reflective – joyful because of success and promise, reflective in the search for a deeper understanding, both of the needs of the people of the Muslim world and the developing world, and the role of institutions like this university in meeting those needs. 

The university can be a distinctly powerful institution. By its very design, it brings together the most advanced knowledge and adds to that knowledge. It trains the next generation of leaders of a society. The university builds on, but goes beyond, other important institutions. It adds to the education that a child has received in the family, formalising the educational process and providing the student access to expertise in the various disciplines. It adds to the education provided in schools, advancing the level of sophistication through an erudite faculty and adding the critical element of research. 

It enriches the potential of libraries, adding to those repositories of existing knowledge a community of scholars engaged in the public process of advancing knowledge. 

An institution dedicated to proceeding beyond known limits must be committed to independent thinking. In a university, scholars engage both orthodox and unorthodox ideas, seeking truth and understanding wherever they may be found. That process is often facilitated by an independent governance structure, which serves to ensure that the university adheres to its fundamental mission and is not pressurised to compromise its work for short-term advantage. For a Muslim university, it is appropriate to see learning and knowledge as a continuing acknowledgement of Allah’s magnificence. 

As one looks back over the history of learning and of advancement, one sees time and again that centres of learning flourished in strong, outward-looking cultures. Great universities and libraries benefited from the nurturing conditions provided by self-confident civilisations, and in turn, gave back to those civilisations the useful products of scholarship. The strong university was not a sign of government’s weakness, but rather of its aspirations and its strength. In the great expansion of the Muslim culture from the 8th through the 11th century, centres of learning flourished from Persia to Andalusia. 

I do not have to tell this audience about the glories of Al-Azhar established 1,000 years ago by the Fatimids. This audience knows full well about the foresight of Al-Ma’mun and the Timurid Empire in taking knowledge from all quarters and using it to benefit their society. As Ibn Khaldun wrote, and I quote, “The Muslims desired to learn the sciences of foreign nations. They made them their own through translations. They pressed them into the mould of their own views. They took them over in their own language, from the non-Arab languages, and surpassed the achievements of the non-Arabs in them.” 

We see today in North America and Europe the benefits of strong and independent universities that can harness the horses of knowledge, from whatever country, to the chariot of progress. The host country is not threatened by ideas from abroad – far from it. The benefits that accrue from exposure to new knowledge, and from the fullest training of the new generation, dwarf the little inconveniences that may arise from time to time from the independence that must be accorded those institutions to enable them to function effectively. 

All universities may do good, but some may do more good than others. At its best, the university is linked to the welfare of the society in which it is based. While taking knowledge from all quarters, such a university applies that knowledge to the solution of the pressing problems of the world, both at home and abroad. 

Pakistan, like other countries in the developing world, does well to consider the contribution that universities can make to the development of the country. One often hears the argument these days that, in the developing world, universities are either luxuries that serve the elite or of such low quality that they serve no one. Some agencies champion the view that elementary schools are far more cost-effective than universities, and so have urged governments to shift resources away from higher education. The thoughtful policy maker must consider whether this is the enlightened path towards national development. The path, indeed, has some things to recommend it. Elementary education is very important, for general citizenship and good parenting, not to mention preparation for university. It must be universal and effective, not compromised by shifting of funds to universities. And indeed, many universities in the developing world neither provide a good education nor forward research of quality or relevance to the developing world. But the present shortcomings of some universities are a very different matter from the need for, and potential of, universities generally. The policy maker must look beyond the present to envision the desired future, and then consider how to get from here to there. 

If, in the desired future, Pakistan were to be a leader in higher education, a generator of knowledge, a country of well-developed human capital, just how might one get to that future goal without exceeding the resources of a poor country? One way would be to seed the field with examples of excellence in higher education. If those examples could be created with limited cost to the state, so much the better. The private university can serve as just such seed corn. Private universities are freer than their public counterparts to experiment, to take chances, to explore new ways of reaching the full potential of the university in a country in great need of having that potential fulfilled. The state is not asked to risk much because the capital and the bulk of the operating expenses of such institutions are put up by private well-wishers. The state is only asked to create a fiscal and policy environment that enables the innovation to take place – to prepare the soil and provide a bit of the nourishment. 

The Aga Khan University is the earliest of these innovations in Pakistan. The trial is only ten years old, so it may be too early to draw firm conclusions about the results. But we should consider whether the early evidence is promising, because if it is, one might conclude that more innovation should be encouraged. We might consider whether giving to the university the right to set its own standards of admission has enhanced the quality of the student body. We might consider whether the protections so kindly granted by the Government of Pakistan to the university in its Charter have shielded it from undue interference. We might consider whether the independence and international character of the governing board of the university have strengthened its educational programmes and the constancy with which it pursues its mission. We might consider whether access to private sources of funding has enabled the university to mount more effective programmes of research and education that target the problems of Pakistan and the rest of the developing world. It is not for me to answer these questions for you, but for each of us – policy maker and citizen – to answer these questions for her or himself, for it is in that process of examination and reflection that a country builds good citizenship and good policy. It is in that process that the country’s educational programmes can be matched to national needs. 

This process of identifying needs and matching educational programmes to them is not a task for national government only. It is a critical task for this university. Two years ago I asked a group of thoughtful people to look seriously at the directions in which the Aga Khan University might develop over the next 25 years – the important problems that need to be addressed, the comparative advantages that a private, international university might have in addressing them, the lessons that should be learned from the university's first ten years. This group, named the Chancellor’s Commission and chaired by His Excellency Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, has recently given me its report. 

At the time that I gave the charge to the Chancellor’s Commission, I did not know the extraordinary outpouring of support that the university’s current fund raising campaign would release. I am deeply moved by the generosity of the friends of the university, many of whom are here today. You combine, in overflowing measure, the fine Muslim traditions of love of education and readiness to help others. 

I should like to tell you some of the Chancellor’s Commission’s thoughts for I think that its members have shown real insight into the role that a university like this can play in addressing the needs of the Muslim world and the developing world. 

Looking broadly at the state of higher education and research, the Commission struck several themes. It advised that in the overcrowded field of university education, the Aga Khan University could only justify its worth through distinctive quality. With growing concern about poor quality elsewhere, however, AKU had an increasing opportunity to influence practice through adherence to the highest standards of education and management. 

The Aga Khan University has established itself as an autonomous university with a particular focus in health sciences. Recently, it has extended into education with the opening of the Institute of Educational Development. The thrust of AKU's work in its first decade has been on professional education. Elsewhere in the world, many institutions of higher education have not grown beyond one or two professional faculties. Without denigrating their utility and accomplishments, it must be said that universities of high distinction have broader concerns. In the modern world, the sciences have come to have a particular importance. It is doubtful that any university can now be genuinely distinguished without being strong in the sciences, and this of course means that they must be strong in scientific research. The weakness of research in the developing and Muslim worlds is well documented. AKU has made important early steps toward the creation of a strong research programme. In the future development of AKU, however, a concentration on graduate study and research would further its ambition to be an international university of wide consequence for the developing and Muslim worlds. 

Events, both within and outside the Muslim world, in the last decade have meant that AKU faces a more challenging vocation as a Muslim university than it did at its founding. Activist Islamic movements have voiced their principled opposition to the Western world – its values and personal behaviour. The antipathy of militant Islamic movements to forms of government in Muslim countries built on Western models has likewise been profound. These reactions seem related to frustrations over failures, and disappointments at the benefits, brought by modern secular knowledge and institutions. The force of religious ideas is welcome and can be expected throughout the world in the coming decades. But the need for enlightened expression of what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century will be, if anything, increased. A Muslim university could usefully counter some of the stymieing tendencies that have appeared in the last years by emphasising more enlightened and tolerant conceptions that, from our beginning, have been mainsprings of Muslim culture and world outlook. AKU, as a Muslim university, could be a useful model for those seeking to combine secular education with Islam. 

The Commission suggests that this goal might well be met by the creation of an Institute for Islamic Civilisations located in Europe. Is it not by locating such a faculty in the Western world that we can best affect the Western world’s view of us? Such an institute would be the locus not just of education in the accomplishments of Muslim societies in regard to the arts and humanities, but also research and analysis of many matters that now gravely concern the Muslim world and the world at large – such matters as the building of civil societies in Islamic contexts, the special problems of governance in Muslim societies, or the relationship of Islamic values to economic, scientific and technical performances, which are of fundamental importance. They have not received as thoughtful and persistent attention from within the Muslim world as they must. The utility of this Institute ought not to be confined to the Muslim world and its own problems. There is the potential in the Islamic heritage to help modern societies cope with the confusions, the disillusionments, and moral vagaries that afflict them. 

The Commission outlines other academic disciplines that the university might in time take on –economic growth, human development, the liberal arts, architecture. They will be the stuff of good discussions within the faculty and within the Board of Trustees in the coming months. But I do wish to emphasize some important themes that cut across the specific disciplinary boundaries. 

The Commission reaffirms the importance of addressing the challenge of development in each of the specific areas of its activities. The problems of development will not soon disappear from the countries of Asia and Africa in which AKU has particular interest, so these problems will continue to be worthy objects of dedicated work. The Commission points out the need for the university to take full advantage of the potential of modern communications and information handling in developing this institution in the coming years. As the university develops programs in other countries, the need to be on modern “information highways” will be all the more evident. The university must also avail itself of modern technology and understanding of learning methods so as to develop superior educational support in the institution. Finally, the university must continue its vigorous commitment to improve the professional opportunities and status of women and understanding of their situation and problems in contemporary societies. 

The School of Nursing has been a leader in Pakistan and the developing world in this regard, but we must ensure that the problems of women and the wisdom of women permeate the work of all parts of the university. 

We are building here on a great tradition of Muslim education and engaged in important work. Those many of you, who have contributed of your labour and your intellect and your substance to this effort, can take some considerable satisfaction in what has been accomplished to date. Indeed, I want to emphasize my deep thanks for that dedication and generosity, just as I want to congratulate today’s graduates. But a distinguished university is not built in a decade, nor indeed in a generation. The task of educating the next generation is never over. The solution of one set of society’s problems only opens the possibility of solving the next. The ongoing nature of the challenge is a sign not of failure, but of success. We should celebrate today and reflect, using the time of reflection to gather our energy for the great, but worthy task ahead. 

Thank you.