The Ismailis, the community led by the Aga Khan, this month signed an agreement to build a cultural and education centre behind King's Cross train station at one of Europe's biggest redevelopment projects.
Ismaili community expands in London
LONDON //Amid a noisy debate about the merits of multiculturalism, particularly the position of Muslims, leaders of the 14,000-strong Ismaili community in Britain are quietly planning their expansion across central London.
Already proud possessors of an architecturally-iconic religious and social meeting place in South Kensington, the community led by the Aga Khan this month signed an agreement to build a cultural and education centre behind King's Cross train station at one of Europe's biggest redevelopment projects.
The Aga Khan, Prince Karim Al Hussein, is the spiritual leader of Ismailis, who constitute one of the main offshoots of Shia Islam.
Completion of the new centre will take several years and its approval stands in contrast to almost a decade ago, when the Aga Khan had to abandon plans for an Islamic art museum at another site because of opposition by officials who favoured the expansion of public health facilities.
"We've always lived comfortably side-by-side with others in British society," Amin Mawji, president of the UK's Ismaili Council, said in an interview at the South Kensington centre. "I wouldn't say we're particularly close to the British establishment. But we add to the pluralistic tradition of British society."
The community has been lauded in Britain for its charity and professionalism. Mr Mawji, like other Ismaili leaders, is a volunteer as well as a partner at the accountancy firm Ernst & Young.
Ismailis liked to characterise their voluntary work as simply part of their faith, not "philanthropy" which, in the West, often implied an extra rather than central activity, said Salma Lalani, who is te group's communications co-ordinator in addition to her full-time job as a criminal barrister.
The main focus of Ismaili expansion was within international development, said Mr Mawji. He pointed to last week's opening in Nairobi of a new heart and cancer centre, the Aga Khan University Hospital. School and health care facilities are opening all over Africa, Central Asia as well as in more traditional Ismaili strongholds in the subcontinent and Asia, he said.
In Britain, he viewed the faltering economy as one of the main challenges facing Ismailis along with the rest of society. "The level of public funding for public services is being reduced and the downturn is longer and deeper than in previous decades," said the London School of Economics graduate, who grew up in Mombasa. "Our community has a large proportion who are entrepreneurs so being able to navigate the economic climate is an important factor for us."
The new Kings Cross centre will include a new university building and student accommodation, offices for the Institute of Ismaili Studies and the Aga Khan Foundation, and space for exhibitions and concerts showcasing the community's history and culture.
"One of our most important values is self-help and making a contribution to society," said Shiraz Kabani, who is vice-president of the Ismaili Council as well as head of operations for finance and development at the Institute of Ismaili Studies.
The institute conducts research and offers graduate programmes in Islamic studies and humanities. Curricula in ten languages for other Ismaili institutes around the world are produced in London.
"We're not focused on doctrine but rather take a civilisational approach," said Mr Kabani. "We take an ethical approach on how to be a good Muslim."