Nina Hirji Kheraj

Chairman Dehlavi
Members of the Board of Trustees
President Rasul
Professor Pring
Dr Topan
Honoured faculty
Distinguished guests and the graduates of the class of 2010

Good morning

Ok - I’m not going to lie to you. I was a little bit pleased when I was asked to give the Valedictorian address for the class of 2010… until I realised that this meant I had to work towards yet another ISMC deadline and that I would have to endure the apprehension of speaking in front of you all today …. Every silver lining has its cloud!
But the challenge and honour was offered … and accepted … and so in the true ISMC spirit of research, I first set out to understand the purpose of a Valedictorian address - assuming it was just a glorified way of saying ‘Thank you’! And as with all good research - I discovered not at all what I was expecting. Apparently the purpose of this address is to inspire my fellow graduates.
My classmates come from Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Tunisia and Tajikistan; they speak 21 languages between them; they have been archaeologists, architects, psychologists, teachers, theologians … And now they are Masters in Muslim Cultures. I think the task of inspiring them is a pretty tall order.
But… I am reminded of an incident from my childhood. I was an 8-year-old school girl with pigtails, crooked glasses and scuffed knees studying at the British School in Tehran. One day I came home from school feeling a little uncomfortable about the unfair treatment of one of my classmates - I don’t recall what exactly it was -but I do recall that my parents made it very clear to me that if I believed in something I should have no fear in going to the highest authorities to have my voice heard. I don’t think my parents realised at the time that I had taken their guidance to mean that I had carte blanche to have an opinion on everyone’s business!
Imagining that I can inspire my classmates this morning might be a terrible presumption - but I do know that I can at least manage to proffer an opinion.
So we are now Masters of Muslim Cultures from the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations. Friends … I would suggest … that someone … somewhere … got either the title of the course or the name of this Institution terribly wrong.
You see - we took courses with titles like Facts and Values; The Construction of Knowledge; Globalisation, Development and Poverty. We studied the Traditions of Learning; Gender and Nation and examined the works of European philosophers. In my first term I did ask myself what on earth I was doing in a Muslim Cultures programme having to make a presentation on the Epic of Gilgamesh. Why was I studying civilisations that existed five thousand plus years before the advent of Islam? Surely the architects of this programme must have thought we were at the Institute for the Study of World Civilisations.
But then we also took courses in The History of the Quran; Formation of Muslim Thought; Muslim Responses to Modernity and Muslims in Western Contexts and were immersed - quite literally into a new language - for some of us Arabic, for others Farsi or Turkish.
So - maybe there wasn’t a mistake … and we are to understand that a civilisation cannot be studied in isolation - as if there is a discrete ring around it. Maybe we are to understand that history builds on itself and that to understand the context of the revelation of Islam we have to understand what came before. And to understand Muslim contexts today we need to understand not just Muslim History but world history, because Muslim civilisations and Muslim cultures did not and do not exist in a vacuum. Ideas and knowledge are fluid and they flow - like osmosis - in all directions.
Over varying times in history, civilisations have either been in ascendance - or not - and it is those with the prevailing power who control the access to our knowledge. They determine the lens through which we see the world and how we read its history. The story today is no different and we have been taught to question the lens through which the world is being presented - and just as importantly - to be aware of the lens through which we ourselves look at the world.
As we leave the embrace of the Institute, what kind of world are we emerging into and what will be our place in it? We are living in difficult times … but then perhaps all ages feel that. We are in an age where through a process of deliberate disinformation or accidental misinformation the world has a fissure running through it; where the media has forgotten what its function is and instead of trying to tell the complicated truth in order to inform, it constructs a simplified news world in which people are either with ‘us’ or against ‘us’; where we are frightened and threatened by difference; where we reduce ‘others’ to a stereotype with a few essential signifiers; and where those with power apply the norms of their own culture onto the ‘other’ who are then perceived as subordinate and deviant. The imperative for the creation of ISMC begins to become ever clearer.
And we had the courage to come to an institution which, after today, will have graduated only 38 students; whose Masters in Muslim Cultures is more than twice as long as those of other institutions in the UK and certainly more than twice as demanding; and whose programme is nascent…a baby in need of nurturing and care, whose reputation is not yet set but whose potential to offer an alternative to the dominant understanding of Muslim history, culture and civilisations is unparalleled.
At a time when higher education is not free, we have had access to generous scholarships. We leave here free of any contractual obligation and debt. But ISMC is part of the Aga Khan University which in turn is part of the Aga Khan Development Network. If AKDN is underpinned by the Muslim ethic of helping those most vulnerable in society, the money that was spent to educate us has a moral imperative attached to it because it might just as well have been used to provide the potential livelihood for a whole family. Someone … somewhere … must think we are worthy of the investment.
We are not expected or required to pay back the fiscal costs of our education - but we can pay it forward. Our education at ISMC has changed us and whatever we go on to do - we - each one of us - has a role to play in furthering the founding ideals of this Institution. We can contribute to a world where Muslim cultures and civilisations are better understood and valued, and where pluralism is recognised as an imperative for a peaceful world. It may require us to swim upstream and go against the tide, but we can make our voices heard. It is in our hands to make the piece of paper we have just been handed worthy of the power it represents.
That piece of paper is not just the result of our own endeavours. We owe gratitude to many. I would like to start with my classmates. Some of you may know that I was a member of the first cohort and after completing one year I took a sabbatical - not because the rigours of ISMC had worn me out but because life had come beckoning. The most important decision that I made was not the one to join ISMC in 2006 … but to have returned in 2009. I would like to thank my classmates for welcoming me into their class so warmly. Being a part of this cohort has been a stimulating experience and my learning has been as much a function of what you brought to the table as the formal teaching. The cultural diversity of our group has reflected the even wider diversity of the Ummah … and sometimes negotiating these diversities have also required UN-like diplomatic skills. But we recognised that by helping each other to be better and to do better; we take nothing away from our own achievements. Long may this support and concern for each other continue.
On behalf of our class, I also extend our appreciation to our honoured teachers who with their knowledge, wisdom, patience and guidance have led us - sometimes despite ourselves - to this day; and to our families and friends who have loved, supported and struggled with us, showed us patience and compassion, and perhaps even learnt a bit with us; but probably the most important and heartfelt thanks goes to our Chancellor - His Highness the Aga Khan - whose vision, generosity and unique perspective on the world is the reason we are able to stand in front of this audience today … and who defines what it means to be a part of one humanity.
Thank you.

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