For Ismaili Muslims, a Toronto milestone

Toronto - Two new Muslim attractions opening soon should help dispel negative stereotypes of Islam, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.

The country’s first museum of Islamic art is scheduled to open Thursday (Sept. 18) in the heart of Canada’s largest city, Toronto. An adjacent Ismaili center is expected to follow. Harper and the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, attended a ceremony last week inaugurating the $300 million complex, which sits on 17 acres of lush gardens and parkland.

The Aga Khan Museum will house some 1,000 artifacts spanning a millennium of Islamic history. The adjacent Ismaili Centre, Toronto, will include a prayer space and rooms for social, educational and cultural events.

“The center creates an understanding of the values, ethics, culture and heritage of Ismaili Muslims,” a statement from Canada’s 90,000-strong Ismaili community said.

Ismailis are an offshoot of Shiite Islam. They are spread across 25 countries but united in their allegiance to Prince Karim Aga Khan.

In opening the museum, Harper praised the Aga Khan, who “has greatly contributed to demystifying Islam, throughout the world, by stressing its social traditions of peace, of tolerance and of pluralism.”

In his remarks, the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary imam (spiritual leader) of Ismaili Muslims, lauded Canada for having accepted thousands of Ismailis who fled persecution in Africa and Asia.

When the Aga Khan set out more than a decade ago to build a landmark museum to house his family’s collection of Islamic art, he wanted to locate it in London. When those plans fell through, he chose Toronto because of the city’s large Ismaili population and his strong ties to Canada.

The connection grew stronger, and in 2010, the Aga Khan was named an honorary Canadian citizen, one of just six people on whom the honor has been bestowed.

The Ismaili Centre, Toronto, which is winning kudos for its modernist architecture, is the sixth in a network of such facilities in Vancouver, Canada; London; Lisbon, Portugal; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.