Address by Mr Firoz Rasul

President, Aga Khan University

Bismillah -ir -rahman -ir -rahim
Chief Guest Dr Joshua Silver
Chairman, Ambassador Saidullah Khan Dehlavi
Members of the Board of Trustees
Provost Dr William Doe
Faculty and Staff of the University
Graduands and Students
Distinguished Guests,

Good afternoon.

Welcome to the Graduation Ceremony of the Class of 2009 of the Aga Khan University's Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations. To the graduates and to their families: congratulations!

This is a day of celebration as you pass an important milestone.

Today you will be conferred with a degree that recognises your advanced scholarship in an area that is opening up new frontiers of research and understanding about the historical and contemporary lives of the diverse peoples that follow the faith of Islam. The study of Muslim Civilisations, including the rich heritage, cultures, traditions and practices, have suffered much from the absence of such broad, insightful thought.

Congratulations to each one of you for joining a select but growing group who will change this deficit.

You are graduating at an interesting point in history - a time when Europe is facing a crisis in ethically literate leadership.

The recent Swiss legislation on minarets and the current debate in France on the wearing of the niqab point to a deep rooted struggle. We are seeing people with seemingly open-minds and pluralistic values taking these positions. Why? As we are learning, this is the result of misunderstanding and even fear. This is not a clash of civilisations. This is a phenomenon which our Chancellor, His Highness the Aga Khan, has called a "clash of ignorance".

So the question for us today is: At a time when societies are grappling with these challenges, what is the role of a University?

Quoting our Chancellor of the Aga Khan University from a speech made at the University of Alberta in June 2009:

"it is the responsibility of educators everywhere to help develop 'ethically literate' people who can reason morally whenever they analyse and resolve problems, who see the world through the lens of ethics, who can articulate their moral reasoning clearly - even in a world of cultural and religious diversity - and have the courage to make tough choices."

Today, we see that the world is evolving beyond economic to cultural globalization; some have even said this is cultural hegemony. Through the entertainment media and the Internet, traditional knowledge in the form of art, music as well as oral and written knowledge are under threat from being overwhelmed or reinterpreted through a different lens. In this situation, the original intent of a University - that of objective scholarship and self-critical contribution to knowledge is vitally important.

As an international University, inspired by the humanistic ideals and the intellectual tradition of Islam, our goal is to contribute to the generation of knowledge in a manner that remains true to the vision of AKU and its Chancellor.

We aim to create ethically literate leaders who value pluralism, can reason morally when challenged and who rely on an ethical framework within which to use knowledge to develop human capacities, improve the quality of life and help society address the challenges presented by the emerging knowledge society within the framework of the values and ethics of their faith.

Let me take a moment to demonstrate three distinct ways in which AKU is meeting this goal:

First, by providing the means to understand our changing world.

This is at the heart of the learning and research at ISMC.

At the Institute, scholars and researchers are working to broaden perspectives on the past and present and to introduce students to the history of ideas in Muslim civilisations as well as the challenges faced by Muslim societies within the contemporary world context. These are issues of bioethics, ethical finance, acceptable technology and the teaching of evolution, to name a few.

As you have had the fortune to experience over the past two years, the MA programme highlights the diverse approaches to understanding the history of Muslim cultures and their modern challenges. It has encouraged you to respect that there are many ways of knowing the world, and to go beyond the dichotomies of 'the East' and 'the West' because the challenges we face go beyond such simple views. This approach is at the heart of the work of our Chief Guest, Dr Joshua Silver, who I look forward to hearing from today.

Secondly, AKU recognizes knowledge as a means to bridge differences:

The Academic Planning teams for the new Faculties of Arts & Sciences in Arusha, Tanzania and Karachi, Pakistan are incorporating traditional knowledge systems in their new curriculum to build a regionally relevant curriculum. Using the Indian Ocean as a metaphor, they will explore issues of resilience, environmental degradation and governance challenges that are common to countries across this region - stretching from South Asia to East Africa.

Finally, AKU is applying knowledge to improve quality of life.

We are working to improve access to higher education for bright and talented students, regardless of their academic background. Recognizing that many highly able students are disadvantaged because of socio-economic circumstances, we are exploring ways to bridge gaps in students' knowledge and English language competence through supplementary programmes.

We are also developing innovative uses for technologies to offer distance learning options to reach remote and rural populations. One example of these efforts is our new admissions tests developed with the AKU Examination Board.

Without compromising on assessment standards, these tests have been designed to reduce the bias against gifted students from marginalized backgrounds by testing for aptitude and skills, not rote memorization of facts.

As you can see, AKU's mission is to develop leaders, ethically literate leaders, and you are a part of that mission.

In the MA programme from which you are graduating, you have studied contemporary Muslim contexts, explored Muslim history and traditions, embraced new language skills and mastered many of the tools of social research. The programme has given you the means to discover knowledge, consider different perspectives, and analyze its implications in society.

As you go forward to the next challenge, I encourage you to use the knowledge and ethical framework you have developed over the past two years.

Do not shy away from the morally challenging and intellectually puzzling questions of the day.

We will follow your progress with pride, and look forward to the successes you will bring to yourself, to your family, your University and to the broader world.

Thank you.​​​​​

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