With all the attention that has been recently showered on Toronto's Aga Khan Museum, which opened its doors to the public on September 18th, it is easy to forget there is another gem located on the same 17-acre site. This equally impressive structure is not overshadowed because of its architecture; for it is equally bold, including as its centerpiece a crystalline canopy perched asymmetrically on a curved base designed by the celebrated Indian architect Charles Correa with his daughter Nondita. Rather, much of its lack of buoyancy in the press has come from its very purpose and function which remains a mystery to many, including Muslims. At the very least, most commuters who see its reinterpreted iridescent dome on their sojourn from the city's downtown corridor have been intrigued by its bold design but perplexed as to its purpose.
This enigmatic structure, The Ismaili Centre, the second in Canada, and the sixth in the world after London, Vancouver, Lisbon, Dubai and Dushanbe, is the most recent iteration of a space-of-tradition known as the jamatkhana. The word, stemming from Persian roots, signifies a place for communal gathering and serves that purpose for the vast majority of Ismaili Muslims around the world, a community of millions spread throughout more than 25 countries. While the Ismaili Centres include a jamatkhana - a space for the private devotions of Shi'a Islam's second largest community, their purpose and function is much more grand and ambitious. If the other Ismaili Centres are anything to go by, scattered across the globe where there is a notable presence of Ismaili Muslims, then the most recent node in its network will go well beyond its most obvious function as a site for the community's prayer gatherings.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and His Highness the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims walk through the Ismaili Centre Toronto shortly after formally opening the building on September 12, 2014. Photo: Zahur Ramji / AKDN
Its namesake sites in London and Vancouver have hosted significant lecture series which have seen former heads of state, diplomats, media personalities and major commentators on relevant global issues engaging audiences of diverse backgrounds and faiths. The Dubai Centre has been the home to notable art exhibitions including a retrospective of the royal documentarian photographer, Noor Ali Rashid, whose images of the Emirate in the 1960s exposes its pre-urban character and sheds light on its transformation to the city-state it has become today. The Centre in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe has hosted Nawruz celebrations, the annual spring festival commemorating the arrival of the new year and the renewal it brings with it. The Centre in Portugal has provided the venue for the signing of international protocols and memoranda of understanding as well as entertained visitors with world-class concert performances. With a large state-of-the art social hall and an airy exhibition space built into Toronto's Ismaili Centre, it is only a matter of time before its own programming agenda takes flight and carves a niche for itself in the city.
Different from a mosque, or masjid as it is often referred to in many parts of the Muslim world, the jamatkhana is one of a landscape of spaces-of-faith used by Muslim communities around the world for their practices. These include: the khanaqa, ribat and zawiya used by mystically-oriented Muslim communities, the ashurkhana, husayniya or tekke which are sites commemorating the month of Muharram associated with the Prophet's grandson Husayn; the cemevis of Turkey, France and Germany used by Alevis Muslims; the zikrkhana of Pakistan's Zikri community and the majlis and khalwa of the Druzes, amongst countless others. In addition to this sit countless shrines and tombs peppered throughout the Muslim world which memorialize and honor the devotions of many Muslims - men and women - and their proximity to the Divine.
The diversity of the Muslim world is immense and oftentimes the religious practices and spaces of smaller or minority groups lack the spotlight allocated to the mosque. This is somewhat different from today's political arena, where the reverse is often true. Here, minoritaran voices, because of their economic prowess or belligerent tactics, garner the attention of media outlets and audiences around the world especially in Europe and North America. The Muslim world goes beyond the pale of Shi'a and Sunni and includes many groups who feel that their own understanding and experience of being Muslim does not easily fit within those binary categories - categories that have been co-opted and narrowed by different players and often understood solely as religio-political fissures in Islam, and incorrectly as homogenous entities. Likewise being Sunni or Shi'a today involves a constant dialogue with the past while at the same time rearticulating and reformulating what being Muslim means in the contemporary world.
The Ismaili Centre Toronto, like its namesakes before it, speaks both to a confidence about being Muslim while at the same time acknowledging Islam's diverse expressions, forms and manifestations. Similarly, creating internal spaces within the building, which by design are a conduit for exchange and dialogue, will open up the building as an important venue in the city and country, assisting to break down impressions that Islam is foreign or anathema to the experience of being Canadian. Like all good civic monuments, the Ismaili Centre Toronto along with the Aga Khan Museum and the soon-to-be-opened park which seamlessly joins them, are likely to become important contributers to Toronto's intellectual and cultural life, bridging communities and engaging conversations, something not only important, but increasingly essential to the fabric and diversity of urban life.
In this way, the building is more than simply a feat of structural engineering or modernist aesthetic. It is testament to the values of a community, the city which has embraced it and the country it calls home.