British Columbia

Ismaili community adapts birthday celebrations for spiritual leader, the Aga Khan

On Dec. 13, the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims turns 84. Thousands of British Columbians are expected to tune in to online events on an occasion usually spent embracing, praying and feasting.

The spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims turns 84 on Sunday

Shirin and Shiraz Chatur will be joining thousands of other Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims on Dec. 13 for virtual celebrations to mark the 84th birthday of their spiritual leader. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Burnaby, B.C., couple Shirin and Shiraz Chatur look forward every year to Dec. 13, when they celebrate the birthday of their spiritual leader with prayer, feasts and festivities. This Sunday is no exception.

The birthday of the Aga Khan — who turns 84 this year — is one of the most important dates in the calendar for approximately 100,000 Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims across the country. It is an occasion to celebrate and reflect on the benevolence of their leader and how they, too, can give back.

While those celebrations usually bring community members together in person, COVID-19 public health restrictions have rendered it impossible for 2020. However, despite the physical distancing requirements, hundreds of community volunteers have worked to make sure people are still connected virtually.

Shelina Dilgir, spokesperson for the Ismaili Council for B.C., is one of those many volunteers.

Shelina Dilgir, spokesperson for Ismaili Council for B.C., says connecting with people virtually has been, in some ways, a way to get to know community members better as conversations can be deeper than small talk during in-person events. (CBC)

When the pandemic first began, the global Ismaili community launched its own television streaming program, which has beamed content into homes since March. Dilgir said over 300 virtual programs have already taken place and have included seniors' aerobics classes and health and financial informational programs.

"It's amazing that after all these months, the drive and the momentum and the passion continues to be there," said Dilgir.

To mark their spiritual leader's birthday, Dilgir said festive programming will begin Friday, leading up to the Sunday occasion and will include cooking shows, musical performances and arts and crafts segments to engage families with children.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau sit for a photo with the Aga Khan before a reception to mark his Diamond Jubilee as 49th Hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims at Rideau Hall in Ottawa in May 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

The Chaturs say the virtual celebration is giving them hope in an otherwise bleak time.

"It makes up for what we're missing," said Shiraz Chatur.

While they will not be able to gather this year for morning prayers at their local Jamatkhana — Ismaili Muslim places of worship — connecting with people virtually is offering some solace.

The pair plan on having a family Zoom celebration where, according to Shirin Chatur, they will make rounds of phone calls to friends and family instead of dropping by dressed in their finest, as is usually the custom.

"I'm a bit sad that we can't meet with our friends, that we can't hug and kiss them," said Shirin Chatur, who will nonetheless be cooking a celebratory meal at home.

When the pandemic began, The Ismaili TV, a television streaming service, was set up by the global Ismaili community and, according to spokesperson for the Ismaili Council for B.C., over 300 programs have already been produced ranging from religious to arts and crafts content. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

And Dilgir says those living alone have not been forgotten.

She and many other volunteers have been reaching out to those among the 15,000 members of the community in B.C. who may need help with supplies or just need someone to talk to.

In the spirit of the day, she said volunteers will also be dropping off donations to women's shelters in the province.

"His Highness, the Aga Khan, has spent his entirety of his life giving back [to] those who are less fortunate, those who are marginalized — really promoting global peace and pluralism," said Dilgir. "It's our opportunity to pause and reflect on all that he has done and to renew our faith and commitment.

With files from Zahra Premji