In introducing Professor Nanji, the Director of PISAI, Justo Lacunza-Balda, emphasised the efforts of the IIS to promote understanding within the Muslim and wider world through its courses and publications, and noted that the mission of PISAI consists of “promoting the understanding, improving the relations and exploring ways of religious and cultural interaction between Christians and Muslims”.
Professor Nanji began his address by evoking an often forgotten cultural dimension of the historic contacts and exchanges in medieval times between the Muslim and Western Mediterranean worlds. The historic Church of S. Bartolomeo dell’ Isola in Rome contains a lustre decorated bacini ascribed to the Fatimid period. Similar artefacts from the period of Muslim rule and influence in the region, including the Fatimid era, are found in numerous other Churches and collections in Italy and other European countries.
He spoke further of the values that had inspired periods in history, when Muslims, Christians and Jews shared a commitment to higher learning, exchange and mutual enrichment by tapping into sources of knowledge, not separated by artificial constructs such as “east” and “west”. Academic institutions like the PISAI and the IIS were reminders that such a spirit is in dire need of revival and reaffirmation.
Professor Nanji also quoted from recent remarks by his Highness the Aga Khan at the Evora University Symposium in Portugal:
This country and this university know from your own history how Islamic and Christian cultures met in this part of the world many centuries ago and how enriching their interactions were for both traditions. This is a good time and place to emphasize the manifold blessings that come when peoples decide to stop shouting at one another, and instead begin listening and learning.
In placing the research and educational mission of the IIS, within a broad academic and contemporary context, Professor Nanji highlighted the fact that the contemporary Ismaili community reflected the diversity of the Muslim Ummah as a whole and therefore the spectrum of work done at the IIS engaged the study of Ismaili and Shi‘i history and traditions within the context of the Muslim world as a whole and the larger issues that linked faith and society across diverse religious communities and traditions globally.It was important at this time of conflict, distortion and misunderstanding between traditions and cultures that the study of the past and the experiences of mutual influence reinforce the value of openness, pluralism and historic awareness. The potential for dialogue and mutual exchange had become a necessity but it needed appropriate tools of intellectual enquiry and the shared value of engaging communities through research and education.
Professor Nanji elaborated on the academic and educational programmes of the IIS, linking them to the larger educational endeavours of the Ismaili Imamat and the Aga Khan Development Network; emphasising that activities linked to human well-being also contribute to the promotion of greater cultural interaction and understanding across the full range of their involvement in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.
Following his discussion of the research initiatives at the IIS, Professor Nanji concluded his presentation by referring to the words of the Fatimid scholar Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani and his interpretation of the symbolism of the Cross in Christianity. Al-Sijistani sought to understand the symbol from the point of view of the Christian tradition but also extended his interpretation to broaden the meaning to a much wider ecumenical context. Perhaps it was in such spirit of open, cross cultural inquiry, Professor Nanji concluded, that we can begin to forge a vocabulary for our troubled times.