Serenity in Central London: The Ismaili Centre

Majestic Building in Kensington Radiates Peace and Humility

Built from 1978- 1983 by the firm of Casson, Conder, and Partners, the Ismaili Centre is the religious and cultural center for the United Kingdom's 15,000 Ismaili Muslims. The first building of its kind in the West, it was commissioned by the current 49th Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, to raise awareness for the Shia Imami Ismailis. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

By Shellyza Moledina

 As I walk out of the dimly lit and seemingly empty Jamatkhana, I look back at the beautiful tranquility that seems to have settled over the majestic prayer hall.

As I look further, I realize that I am not alone. I see a lone figure knelt in the middle of the Darkhana Jamatkhana space. His green volunteer tie is loosened, and his face shows the ultimate serenity and peace. I often see him volunteering at the Centre, and I realize that for him, and for many other Ismailis in the United Kingdom, Ismaili Centre is their home.

The eye catching Ismaili Centre has a modesty lent to it by the spare stone cladding, in which vast amounts of stone are present, broken by very few narrow windows. The main visual interest is provided lower down, as shown above, with the beveled glass bay windows and metal panels but even these are dignified. Photo: Ilm Magazine, March 1984.

This Jamatkhana is home to people of all ages, while being the main stop over for Ismaili travelers from all parts of the world passing through London.

Naileen, a STEP teacher from Canada says “There is a powerful feeling I get when I approach the building; it radiates a duality of peace and humility, and yet majesty. The building is full of intricate details and more importantly, symbols – of Ismaili history, of our identity today, and of our relationship with the community.”

The interior of the building, mostly designed by Karl Schlamminger, carries a very strong reference to Islamic art and architecture, all the while modernizing it, streamlining it to fit with the exterior of the building. The first place one sees is in the main foyer, shown above, whose fountain and floor tiling clearly demonstrate the geometric patterns so favoured by Islamic art and design. The building is also laden with Qur'anic verses. The foyer is pentagonal and the fountain and columns throughout the building are heptagonal. One finds polygons in the skylights and light wells, as well as in other places. Its interior spaces seem to lead visitors inwards and upwards, inexorably towards the prayer hall on the third level, where serenity and peace reverberate through the whole environment. Photo: Ilm Magazine

When Mawlana Hazar Imam attended the opening ceremony of the Centre in 1985, he stated that the Centre would be a “token of understanding between East and West.”

Twenty five years later, the Centre has hosted high-profile events in its social hall and beautiful charbagh garden. The Centre has extended invitations to dignitaries from the around the globe, including very recently, our own Mawlana Hazar Imam and Prince Charles.

November 18, 2010: The Prince of Wales is greeted by His Highness the Aga Khan during a visit to the Ismaili Centre to join a reception to help celebrate its 25th anniversary. Photo: Anthony Devlin. Copyright: Press Association, Nottingham, UK. Please click photo for enlargement.

At the visit, Mawlana Hazar Imam commented that the Centre “still felt new” and asked numerous questions about the wellbeing of the British Ismaili community. Meanwhile, Prince Charles asked several questions about the voluntary service and shared values within the British Ismaili community.

This phenomenal lapis lazuli mosaic portrait of His Highness at the Ismaili Centre was done by the late Ismaili artist Gulgee. The artist had to pick through thousands of pieces of the blue stone, in varying colors and shapes and sizes, and arrange them in such a way that they formed a portrait of the Aga Khan. Gulgee described this art form as being similar to a giant jigsaw puzzle. Photo: Ismailimail.

I interview various members of the Jamat in the social hall, all gradually making their way towards the exit. They all speak to me of the same words when I ask what the Centre means to them.

“Ismaili Centre is my home,” says Roshan with a wide proud smile. Roshan, an elderly lady in volunteer uniform, was present when the Ismaili Centre opened in 1985.

Another gentleman tells me stories of community growth, technological advances, and growing attention of dignitaries since 1985. And yet, he also tells me of the sense of security and belonging present in the Centre that has not even slightly diminished since then.

One of the most striking parts of the Ismaili Centre is the rooftop garden. With a burbling fountain, it has a view of the Victoria and Albert and Natural History Museums and other local buildings. The rooftop garden is the perfect place for quiet reflection in the middle of a busy urban sphere. Photo: Ilm Magazine, March 1984

The feeling of being-at-home in such a high-profile Centre is not unusual. I interview a woman in her thirties who tells me of the nostalgia she feels for the Centre. “We were brought up here, it encompasses our childhood and defined how we are as adults today.”

Her mother, quietly listening, tells me “It is a second home, it speaks of peace and serenity, and it is everything to us.”

Another view of the Ismaili Centre. Photo: Diane Earl, National Education Network Gallery, UK

Rahima, a young student tells me that she comes to Ismaili Centre to escape the hustle and bustle of busy Central london.

“It always makes me smile to know that I am welcomed here. I have been coming here since I was born and hold many great memories here, my first ever Dua recital, Arts Day, my sisters wedding, meeting Hazar Imam… My life would be empty without this wonderful place. It is more than a place of worship. It is part of my life.”

Date article posted on Simerg: December 8, 2010
Last updated: September 22, 2011

© Simerg.com

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Notes

Some of the photo captions have been compiled from The Buildings of England by Pevsner, Nikolaus, and Cherry, Bridget. London 3: North West. Ed. Pevsner, Nikolaus et al. London: Penguin Group. 1991. pp. 448-454, 465-466.

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Shellyza Moledina

About the writer: Shellyza Moledina is a 23 year old training community pharmacist currently situated in London, United Kingdom.

As a past Aston University Model United Nations and Debating society president, talent show frequent, and regular writer at Simerg, Shellyza expresses moments that inspire her through lyrics, poetry, and essay passages.

Shellyza places great importance on developing knowledge and skills, in order to help and inspire others. Her favourite topics of writing include spirituality, innocence, determination, hope, and learning.

Some of her poetry is featured in the Modern Artistic Expressions category of this Web site. Please click Shellyza Moledina: Mawla’s Eyes and other poems.

She also has her own blog, http://shellyza.wordpress.com which features book reviews, links to her two cyber-hit songs “Mowla’s Eyes” and “The Jubilee song” as well as compilations of poetry and essay projects.

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6 thoughts on “Serenity in Central London: The Ismaili Centre

  1. The article is written well and Shellyza receives all the compliments she deserves. However a small point is the foundation ceremony was done in 1979 with Lord Soames present when Mawla blessed us with a very momentous Padhramni. The construction began in 1980 and the Opening Ceremnoy was in 1985 by Baroness Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, and nominated as Silver Jubilee Project.

  2. In my life, since the opening of the Ismaili center my wish has been to see the centre. Inshallah, I will see it one day.

  3. Lovely pictures. This Jamatkhana reminds me of one of the jamatkhanas in the Karachi Malir area.

  4. Wonderful writing! To me what’s so special about this jamatkhana is that it’s right in the centre of London, yet everything is so tranquil the moment you enter it. When I first came to London the jamatkhana was at 5 Palace Gate. There were no more than 100 Ismailis in the whole of England then, 80 in London. (Hazar Imam spoke of that in his Golden Jubilee speech.) We were so homesick for “home” that we stayed glued to the footpath after prayers talking with long-lost friends. In that sense 5 Palace Gate, with Monsieur Tutti as the concierge, was very much home to us – and let’s not forget the upper floors were lodging rooms, rather like dharmshalas in East Africa.

    I wonder if you did a poll which Jamatkahan would win? In the diaspora countries the two in contention would undoubtedly be the London Jamatkhana and Vancouver (Burnaby). To me the best jamatkhana by far is the one in Kampala. It’s one jamatkhana where Hazar Imam, at the present time, gives a didar. That’s got to be something special.

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