The Ismaili Community Upholds Values, Supporting Education, Health and Development

10/27/2013 05:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

On a spirited and sunny Sunday morning on October 13, 2013 in Fremont, California, 650 men, women and children enthusiastically participated in The PartnershipsInAction Walk focused on Ending Global Poverty - raising $ 275,000. This is an initiative of the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. and its volunteer network which started 19 years ago in key US cities. (Approximately 15 million of the world's Muslims, the Ismailis, follow the leadership of His Highness Karim Aga Khan.) The families in the audience enthusiastically applauded the mayors of local cities from San Jose to Fremont and were then treated to two exceptional keynotes, Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women and Jason Doherty, founder of the Daraja Academy which he runs with his wife, Jenni Doherty in Nanuki, Kenya.

Kenyan born, Dr Kanyoro, well acquainted with the work of the Aga Khan in her country of birth, punched out her point: "Poverty is not natural. It is a man made problem." Dr. Kanyoro did not mince her words: "Poverty has the face of a woman and illiteracy bears the face of a girl." So she says: "Let's pull up our socks, put our hands in our pockets and deliver literacy to every boy and girl." And she warns: "There should be no discrimination - this is important." She assured her audience that better education would result in less poverty and freedom from violence.

Jason Doherty gave a heartwarming speech on The Daraja Academy in Nanuki, Kenya which educates girls from 30 tribes and gives them a new lease on life through education. The students get top scores, many attend university, several get internship opportunities at the Serena Hotels, and pursue a range of jobs. Doherty, an athlete with a vision, a strategy, a good heart and a passion to make life better for the underprivileged is dedicated to his mission with his wife, Jenni.

These community bonding events generate funds where every dollar raised is directed towards projects in food security, health, education and economic development. All administrative costs are paid by His Highness the Aga Khan even as the Foundation reaches out to the world's most vulnerable populations regardless of race, religion, politics or gender - how fabulous is that? Parochial - the Ismailis are not!

Among the fascinating Ismaili professionals at the walkathon is Shanila Sayani, a 38 year old development consultant who explains what her faith means to her: "We practice Islam, it is a way of life, not just a religion. It requires us to focus on human dignity, self reliance and consultation with people who are generous and considerate." The Aga Khan believes that "there is no distinction between faith and your life," and he advises his followers to balance between the two poles of duniya (the world) and din (the faith)" explains Shanila. He advises people to participate in Islam and in the ethics of Islam. She particularly appreciates the community of Ismailis with whom she shares a common vision and purpose.

Another refreshing perspective was provided by Moez Virani, originally from Kenya and now a resident of San Francisco. Moez is a private equity professional, whose family was originally from Kenya but has lived in the Bay Area for 35 years. It is clear what attracts him to Ismailism and the Aga Khan: "Ismailism is a faith that preaches tolerance, promotes pluralism, and believes in generosity towards the less fortunate. It is a faith that encourages the use of intellect in all ways, and is a faith that is based on finding a balance between the spiritual and the material. It is not overpowering or all consuming. You have the right to choose how much or how little you practice the faith." Moez values "the progressiveness of the faith, the lack of dogma, and individual choice so believers can process faith and spirituality for themselves." He highlights the equal treatment of women and men by the faith even as he cherishes the emphasis on girls' education promoted more than 80 years ago by the current Aga Khan's grandfather.

In a world turned upside down by jihadis, the Ismaili values of tolerance, pluralism and a balance between the material and the spiritual are a refreshing counterpoint to the interpretations of Islam which promote violence and toxic behavior.

I am a Midnight's Child, born in Mumbai in the immediate aftermath of India's independence in 1947, following the bloodbath caused by the partition between India and Pakistan. In post-independence India, religion was subdued and sober. It was still important but private. I loved the spiritual, respectful Islam that I grew up with - it oozed with tolerance for other people and other faiths - and it was effectively faith blind. But 9/11 and jihadism hijacked the tolerant, peaceful Islam of my youth. Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah, Aga Khan III, presented the marriage proposal to my maternal grandfather which resulted in my parents' marriage. Yet, I practice a hybrid Islam, straddled between the Sunni Islam of my paternal grandparents and the Ismaili Islam practiced by my maternal grandparents. The story I love the most about the late Aga Khan is his enlightened vision for girls because he is one who said: "If you have a daughter and a son, educate your daughter first!" How enlightened is that?

Projects supported by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) demonstrate a long term commitment to development -through a faith blind lens in a secular country. AKDN is values based, methodologically sound and supports projects until the work gets done in a community; there are no 3-5 year funding limits imposed on many projects. I have the highest respect for the work of the Aga Khan Foundation and its network of organizations. The Aga Khan is not only a spiritual leader; he is a development guru par excellence! Maybe, I had to go full cycle to rediscover my roots to fully appreciate His Highness' state of the art development work in India.

And here's what I like about the Ismailis and how they practice their faith: The supporters and the Aga Khan organizations invest in human development - for men, women and children.

PartnershipsInAction support programs that work to alleviate global poverty in over 25 countries around the world. Since 1995, events have raised over $54 million nationwide with over 410,000 participants. The Partnership Walk is conducted in ten major American cities annually. 100% of donations go directly to projects supported by the Aga Khan Foundation. Projects are identified and implemented by local communities, targeting areas of greatest need and providing long-term sustainable solutions - like revitalizing a rural economy, ensuring clean water and sanitation, strengthening community-based organizations and educating new generations of girls and women.

Khadijah's daughters is a blog by Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin, board president of Invest in Muslim Women, a non-profit project of the Global Fund for Women. Invest in Muslim Women focuses on the economic empowerment of Muslim women, justice and peace. The blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad's first wife and the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist