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Surprise ‘Global’ Award from Urban Land Institute

Neal Peirce / Oct 28 2011

For Release Sunday, October 30, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce

Above: Aga Khan

Who is the Aga Khan? And why is he being honored?

It’s the question that 6,000 developers from around the United States (plus many from around the world) must have been asking last week as they assembled in Los Angeles for the Urban Land Institute’s 75th anniversary celebration. The organization’s highest honor, they heard, was not, as in previous years, going to a familiar U.S. property developer, planner or far-sighted political leader (last year Chicago’s retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley).

Rather, the prestigious J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development was being awarded to Shah Karim-al Hussayna — a man better known as the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, a sect of 12-15 million believers worldwide who revere him as a direct descendant of and legitimate heir to the Prophet Muhammad.

And why this selection? The ULI award cited the Aga Khan’s “strong leadership, over more than 40 years, in a stunning variety of development and philanthropic endeavors largely benefitting poor and marginalized communities in Asia and Africa struggling to improve their living conditions.”

A point of clarification: this writer was a member of the ULI awarding jury, at the organization’s invitation. We concluded that in this year of the Arab Spring, at a moment of perilous transitions in the relations between Western and Muslim communities, the time was ideal to honor the Aga Khan. First, because of his remarkable record in furthering quality design and physical development, with great sensitivity to communities’ unique histories and cultures.

And secondly, we hoped the award to this thoughtful and effective Muslim leader might be a bridge to broadened exchange of ideas and community building practices between Western and Islamic cultures.

The Aga Khan was born in 1936, schooled in Europe, and became the 49th hereditary leader of the Ismailis in 1957, while a student at Harvard. (His father, Prince Aly Khan, an infamous playboy best known for his brief marriage to Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth, was predictably passed over — a decision made by his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan).

Energetic from youth, the new Aga Khan skied at the 1962 Olympics in Innsbruck, made the cover of Life magazine in 1958, and interviewed President Kennedy in the White House. In 1977 he endowed a Center for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT.

A skeptic might say the Aga Khan has it easy. His family fortune places him on lists of the world’s wealthiest individuals. And he receives a 12.5 percent tithe from his sect’s millions of followers as they follow the ethic of Islam that requires members of the faith to contribute to improving the quality of human life. This income — $625 million in 2010 — flows to the Aga Khan Development Network, which he founded more than 40 years ago.

What’s striking is the breadth of activities this money, heavily focused in the world’s developing countries, supports. There are funds to promote entrepreneurial activity in fragile economies. Cash flows flow to rural development, health, education and strengthening civil society. There are microfinance programs in 20 countries. Planning and building services are provided to improve village planning, housing and construction. There’s an Aga Khan University that offers medical and education field courses at ten campuses in nations ranging from Kenya to Afghanistan, Egypt to Uganda.

Stewardship of the built environment — quality architecture combined with respect for local history and tradition — has been a major focus of the Aga Khan’s activities for decades. The work’s been essential in the Muslim world, where the historic cores of many cities have deteriorated seriously over time.

An example is provided by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which worked to restore a noted historic monument that draws many tourists — the 900-year old Altit Fort in Hunza, Pakistan. But there was a problem: residents had been abandoning traditional housing in the village and building new houses on valuable arable land. So the trust financed a water filtration system to draw people back to the traditional settlement.

Al-Azhar Park in Cairo, sponsored and financed by the Aga Khan’s Trust for Culture and listed as one of the world’s 60 great public spaces by the Project for Public Spaces.

The Aga Khan last year explained such strategies to NBC News: “I discovered the cultural dimension of the Islamic world was an extraordinarily powerful trampoline for development. The populations of these cultural sites are often the poorest in the country. So acting in culture, you’re actually developing the quality of life for the poorest people who’ve been recently urbanized.”

Or on another occasion: “We are increasingly aware that the quality of our buildings can transform the quality of our lives, both spiritual and material.”

At a time when xenophobic voices in the United States thoughtlessly bundle Muslim faith with its fringes of terrorist extremism, the Urban Land Institute’s award to the Aga Kahn represents the value and wisdom of a thought- and value-based approach in a mature society. The country (and world) need far more, not less, of the same.

Comments from ULI Leadership:

From 2011 ULI J.C. Nichols Prize Jury Chair James DeFrancia, principal of Lowe Enterprises, Aspen, Colo.:

The J.C. Nichols Prize recognizes distinguished contributions to community building. Such contributions can, and do, come from many sources and cultures. Through the Aga Khan Development Network, progress and improvements to communities have been undertaken in over 30 countries. The Aga Khan has further been an advocate of standards of excellence through his Award for Architecture. His Planning and Building Services agency has also improved design, construction, sanitation and environmental sustainability. The efforts of the Aga Khan have strengthened both communities and society at large.

From Patrick L. Phillips, ULI Chief Executive Officer:

The jury made a great choice. The work of His Highness the Aga Khan and the AKDN exemplifies the holistic approach to community building that is central to ULI’s culture and ethos. As we commemorate our 75th anniversary year, this award reinforces several things about where ULI is today: we’re a global organization; our mission resonates in emerging markets as well as developed ones; and we’re interested in expanding our view and our impact beyond our traditional constituencies.

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  1. Mansur Dhanani
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    An excellent writeup on the wonderful work being done by His Highness the Aga Khan and His various agencies. His emphasis on health and education particularly of women has done and continues to have a strong favourable impact in developing countries of the world.

  2. Bart Harvey
    Posted October 29, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Neal clearly explains the rationale behind a prestigious award by the ULI and hints at the bridges of cooperation and understanding that can help the world operate positively together across vast divides rather than in destruction as a result of exploitation of those divides.
    Here is a chance for the ULI through the Aga Kahn to show active leadership in examining appropriate land use, habitats, and development from Western and Eastern perspectives and for both sides to come out wiser in developing sustainable places most of our worlds’ population calls home.

  3. Patrick Herbst
    Posted October 30, 2011 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    A wonderful writeup and a spiritual light tower standing out in the sea of doomsday prophets and generalizing negative reports which are proliferating in these difficult times. And an encouraging signal for those that strive to see through the smokescreen. Keep up the good work!

  4. Posted October 30, 2011 at 3:40 am | Permalink

    This is a heart-warming award to our Imam and I have to confess as an Ismaili I could be biased, but you just have to look at the picture of the greenery of the Al-Azhar park amid the urban sprawl to realize what an insightful development that was, appropriately in the city the glorious Al-Qahira his ancestors built when they established the Fatimid Empire in the 11th century. At its height al-Fāṭimiyyūn (Arabic الفاطميون) stretched from the Maghreb to Yemen and brought together the best talents from people of many religions in its administration. That and the fact of being a minority sect within the minority Shia branch of Islam (12 percent of 12 percent) is where the Aga Khan derives his notions of pluralism and tolerance in this world bifurcating between the West and Islam and in the Middle East between the Shia and Sunni. Ironically there are practically no Shias in the Maghreb and Egypt where the Fatimid Empire arose – countries we now associate with the Arab Spring (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt) but they are a majority in the countries that experienced corollary unrest as part of the Arab Spring – Yemen, Bahrain, Syria. And of course Iran is all Shia (95 percent; 40 percent of the total Shia population), and for centuries after the fall of al-Fāṭimiyyūn until the modern era the Ismaili Imams lived in Iran. So there are lots of bridges the Aga Khan can build and he’s very active in Afghanistan (15 percent Shia) and Tajikistan (10 percent). The Aga Khan has also contributed in building purely “economic” infrastructure in the developing countries through his zero-profit fund for economic development, perhaps best exemplified by the construction of the Bujagali Falls dam in Uganda, 7 km downstream from the source of the Nile. Our power output will double progressively within a year and power outages be reduced, nuisance to individual households (I must hurry my laptop battery is running out!) but a great hindrance to growth and development. Ismailis all over the world are waiting with bated breath the announcement of the peace prize from Oslo!

  5. Posted October 30, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Great note, Neal. Here’s a postscript: At last week’s ULI Fall Meeting in Los Angeles, Mr. Luis Monreal accepted the award on behalf of the Aga Khan and announced His Highness’s intention to use the prize money, together with his own matching funds, to establish a pilot program devoted to exploring cross-cultural exchange of best practices and innovation in urban planning and development. It’s a superb example of where ULI wants to go in its next 75 years!

  6. Philip Langdon
    Posted October 30, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    This is an excellent and imaginative choice. Thanks, Neal, for telling us all about the Aga Khan and what he’s accomplished.

  7. Graeme
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Yes, many thanks Neil. Thoughtful, timely & fascinating. A pleasant contrast to the celebrities that we so often seem to vacuously promote and celebrate in the West.

  8. Nizam Rezahi
    Posted November 11, 2011 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    A good choice by ULI to Aga Khan who is the real spiritual leader of Ismailis, I hope all Muslim communities realize this.

  9. ramzan
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Very Good Choice His Highness is doing lot of work all over the world.

  10. Neal Peirce
    Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Message from Cliff Davis of Richmond, Virginia:
    I read your column re Aga Khan in the October 30 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and wanted to thank you. The antidote to hatred and ignorance is truth. In the West, we too often hear only of an Islamic world that is poverty-stricken, corrupt and seething in hatred. We need to be reminded that men and women from Morocco to Malaysia are working to make the world a better place, along with people elsewhere. Your timely column has helped to publicize one of them.

  11. Mansoor Ladha
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    At a a time Islamic militancy continues to threaten and terrorize the world, the Aga Khan portrays another face of Islam through his humanitarian work in international development, promoting education, health and culture throughout the world. I commend the institute in bestowing the award to the Aga Khan and in going beyond the U.S. borders for a candidate- a most deserving individual.

  12. Posted February 20, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Surprise ‘Global’ Award from Urban Land Institute
    This article gives me immense pleasure to know that the Aga Khan IV who is already a global figure known for his energy and resources he spends on philanthropic work got this Award. I add some websites about him: and as just two examples.

  13. Posted April 9, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I have visited noumerous times the Al Azhar Park of Cairo, planned and constructed Aga Khan’s Trust for Culture. It is a spectacular example of urban regeneration in the heart of old Cairo, literally a junkyard which become a jewel.

  14. Posted July 26, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    He had an intimate knowledge of Eastern and Western cultures and therefore played a significant role in the international affairs of his time.