Vancouver's Ismailis: Who are these modern-thinking, successful Muslims, and where did they get their Midas touch?
“My main mosque is my car,” jokes Mossadiq Umedaly, an Ismaili Muslim. And what a lavish “mosque” it is: a silver Porsche Turbo he tools around in daily as he commutes from his West Vancouver home to Burnaby’s Xantrex Technology Inc., the power-technology company he plans to build into the next Ballard Power Systems. His goal isn’t all that far-fetched. Umedaly and former Ballard CEO Firoz Rasul, also Ismaili, first met as 16-year-olds in an Outward Bound school at Mount Kilimanjaro. Reunited decades later in Burnaby, with Umedaly as Ballard’s CFO, they raised that company’s value to a cool US$6 billion in 1998.
As chairman of both Xantrex and Premier Campbell’s Alternative Energy and Power Technology Task Force, Umedaly is lucky Ismaili prayer is less ritualistic than daily prayers in many Muslim traditions. As he puts it: “If I’m in a business meeting, I can’t stop everything and say, ‘Look, I have to kneel on the floor and pray.’” Umedaly says three prayers a day (often in his Porsche) and pays visits to a jamatkhana, or house of prayer and community. There, he joins other Ismailis to revere Allah and to hear readings in English or Gujarati taken from writings by the Ismaili spiritual leader, a man called His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, or the Aga Khan. In the prayer hall, Ismailis meditate and sing spiritual poems called ginans. They also donate up to 12 per cent of their income in cash, without expecting a tax receipt. Privacy is crucial; outsiders are not allowed to observe Ismaili rituals and all seven jamatkhanas in Greater Vancouver are inconspicuous by design. Driving past the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre on Canada Way, you’d never guess this Burnaby site was designated by the Aga Khan as one of only three “high-profile” jamatkhanas in the world (the others are in Lisbon, Portugal, and London, England). In fact, you might not notice it at all. Designed by Bruno Freschi and opened in 1985, the fortress-like structure is graced with copper domes and a sunken courtyard garden – a symbol of earthly paradise. But this “paradise” and the three-storey building are barely visible from the road. The structure was largely dug below ground and “hidden deliberately,” says Farrah Jinha, an Ismaili PR professional who used to give tours of the centre. “It’s very much assimilated into the community.” Hidden deliberately. This jamatkhana could be a metaphor for the local Ismaili community, whose low profile belies its tremendous impact on the B.C. economy. Larco Group of Companies owner Aminmohamed Lalji and his kin are routinely listed among Canada’s 100 richest families in magazines such as Canadian Business; Report on Business magazine estimated his wealth at $884 million. Abdul and Shamim Jamal, who started out with a chicken farm in Chilliwack, now privately own and/or operate 14 seniors’ facilities under the Retirement Concepts banner with their son Azim. Among other real estate holdings, Noordin and Farida Sayani privately own five of the 17 Executive Hotels and Resorts, a chain they founded and run with their son, Salim. And for every Lalji, Jamal, Umedaly and Sayani (all of whom live in West Van mansions), there are countless Ismaili realtors, bankers, medical doctors and lawyers in B.C., including Liberal Mobina Jaffer, who in 2001 became the first Canadian senator to be sworn in on the Koran. You didn’t know she was Ismaili? How about CTV/TSN sports reporter Farhan Lalji? Or UBC alum Nadir Mohamed, now based in Toronto as president and COO of the communications division of Rogers? Islam-a-phobia in the West, especially after 9/11, could explain why Ismailis don’t advertise their faith. But Ismailis of Indian background have been living in B.C. in significant numbers since the early 1970s. And like many other Muslims, they have about as much in common with Islamic extremists as George W. Bush does. “It is not natural for people to blow themselves up,” says Umedaly. “We as a society should be wondering how we have put people in the situation that they do so.” So why haven’t Ismailis played a more public role as modern-thinking Muslims? The Vancouver Sun’s religion reporter, Douglas Todd, has often bemoaned the community’s secrecy during his decade of trying to cover Canada’s Ismaili. (That community by the way, has close to 75,000 members in Canada, according to the Aga Khan’s Secretariat in France, and about 11,000 in Greater Vancouver.) His frustration reached a peak after the Aga Khan paid a brief visit to Vancouver in June 2005. “Ismailis are happy to highlight the Aga Khan’s many valuable charity projects,” wrote Todd. “But try to dig below the polished surface of their tight-knit community, and the door is invariably shut.” Well, maybe not invariably. Few among the 20 or so Ismailis approached for this BCBusiness article declined to be interviewed. And contrary to Todd’s experience, local Ismailis were generally open about their spiritual beliefs, their personal lives and the secrets behind their often staggering financial success. Ismailis tend to be charming, well dressed and exceedingly gracious; they might insist on giving you a lift or picking up the tab for lunch. And lunch, at their suggestion, is more apt to be at the sumptuous Wedgewood or Sutton Place hotels than at one of Vancouver’s few Ismaili restaurants (where African dishes such as fried cassava root might be followed by Indian tandoori chicken). [pagebreak] Ismailis of a certain age speak with the eloquence and diction of the highly educated; many attended Aga Khan schools in East Africa and completed their PhDs in Europe. Before their expulsion from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin, they were bankers, lawyers and coffee plantation barons. “We were referred to as the Jews of East Africa,” says lawyer-turned-real-estate-broker Farouk Verjee, “and that’s a compliment, by the way.” Hanif Muljiani was eight years old when his family arrived penniless in Vancouver in 1972. His father, formerly the principal of the Muljianis’ privately owned school in Uganda, worked as a parking lot attendant and took other menial jobs – a typical story for B.C.’s Ismailis. “To come here and have to start again, literally from scratch – it’s quite a humbling experience,” Muljiani recalls. He paid his own way through university and became a chartered accountant. At 42, Muljiani is now president and owner of The Portables, a company that supplies display booths and marketing services, and recorded revenues of $13 million in 2005. If Ismailis didn’t lose their Midas touch after their exodus from East Africa, it’s likely because their role model is a multibillionaire. The Aga Khan owns a bank in Pakistan, plantations in Kenya and a chain of luxury hotels, not to mention his own jet, stables of racehorses and an estate outside Paris. In all, his holdings generate an estimated US$1.36 billion in sales annually, according to a November 2005 Bloomberg.com article. For Ismaili Muslims, the Aga Khan’s riches do not detract from his role as their spiritual leader, or imam, who they consider a direct descendant of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. “The beauty of Islam is it doesn’t see a distinction between the secular and the religious; you don’t have to be doing good and be poor,” explains Umedaly. The Aga Khan, 69, has devoted much of his life to good works. After receiving an honorary Companion of the Order of Canada last year, he was awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy for health, education and development initiatives in strife-torn countries undertaken by the Aga Khan Development Network, which disburses about US$300 million annually for such projects. Ismailis follow in his philanthropic footsteps – literally. In Vancouver, the annual Ismaili Walk for Kids raised $200,000 last year for a United Way children’s program. The 2005 annual World Partnership Walk, a countrywide Aga Khan Foundation Canada event, raised over $4 million for development initiatives in Asia and Africa. [pagebreak] “I think one of the reasons the Ismaili community is so very successful in business is because we have been inspired by Aga Khan’s work – in all aspects, like the philanthropy, the promoting of architecture and art, and his focus on business as well as spirituality,” says Farida Sayani, managing director of Executive Hotels & Resorts, who personally raised about half a million to fund the BC Cancer Agency’s new research centre on West 10th Avenue in Vancouver. “We’re always connected with him, spiritually and mentally, and in other ways.” Ismailis rely on their spiritual leader to interpret Islam for contemporary times. “In the Muslim world, there are sections that are very orthodox and there are sections that are very advanced and allow the freedom to the women to grow,” says Sayani. “For example, you see this a lot in the Croatian community, the Iranian community and others, as well.” The Aga Khan’s championing of higher education and independence for women has directly impacted Sayani’s life. She went into business in the mid-1980s at the urging of her husband, Noordin, who was able to get some of the family’s capital out of Uganda before it was seized. “He found a nice piece of land [in Richmond] and he thought that it would be just tidier for me to get a nice boutique hotel to manage. At that time my youngest son was 14 and I was ready to get into the workforce, and so that idea really appealed to me,” she says. The first Executive Hotel opened just in time for Expo 86 and was marketed as a high-end hotel at an affordable price. “It was not a very common thing to open an all-suite hotel, which was ahead of its time and very successful,” says Sayani. Those first 80 rooms have multiplied to 850, divided among Executive Hotels in the Vancouver area. “To start your own creation and see it fly high, it’s very energizing.” Other Ismailis describe her as brilliant, but Sayani is quick to share the praise. “My husband is a very smart business person and, given the opportunity, I excel in my own way, too. The strength of both of us is our success.” Ismailis are not ones to brag about their accomplishments; humility is paramount in their faith. But that may not be the whole story. In this small and tight-knit community, everyone knows everybody else – and is eager to know how much others make. “We’re a very competitive community,” Verjee says, chuckling. “There can be a lot of envy.” There is also remarkable community support for aspiring entrepreneurs. The Ismaili Council for British Columbia, which has counterparts worldwide, is divided into boards responsible for various aspects of the community’s well-being. Muljiani chairs the economic planning board. To be financially successful, he says, “You need role models, enough security to take risks, mentors, a drive to succeed and a belief in higher education. Our community has every single one of those.” He describes a hypothetical family of four with two incomes of $45,000 a year. “Try and buy a home, and it’s tough in Vancouver,” he says. “If we can help get them up to $60,000 or $70,000, their quality of life improves and they are able to give back.” Support from the council might include career-planning and skills development, seminars on financial planning, mentorships and events that emphasize business ownership as a proven means of increasing prosperity. The global network of well-heeled Ismailis is an added boon to some entrepreneurs. Verjee, who founded Chase Realty in Vancouver 26 years ago, brokers major commercial real-estate deals with offshore clients, many of them Ismaili. “A lot of investors in the Muslim world want to invest in Canada and not the U.S., and I have connections in that world,” he says. Although he reports annual sales in the $20-million-plus range, he doesn’t dream of co-investing. “Most of the people I deal with are so big, they don’t need a little fly [like me] with them.” At the centre of this global network is the enigmatic figure of the Aga Khan. Entire websites are devoted to his speeches, photos, achievements and marriages (he is twice-divorced). The Ismailis’ fascination with their leader may be no different from the Catholics’ devotion to the Pope, except that certain Ismailis believe the mere sight of His Highness in person is a hajj, or spiritual pilgrimage. To revere the Aga Khan “is not correct,” says Verjee, “but who are we to tell people how it should be?” For fundamentalist Muslims, however, even the remote possibility that god might take human form is blasphemy; they dispute the Aga Khan’s ancestral link to the prophet Muhammad and have denounced the Ismailis throughout history. Umedaly recalls a conversation he had with a Muslim cab driver soon after the Aga Khan’s last visit to B.C. “These Aga Khan-ers,” the cabbie apparently scoffed, “these are not real Muslims.” Umedaly says he responded by “educating him, because it is important to do so. But he was quite adamant that if you have any modern interpretation of religion, then you are a traitor to it.” Akbarally Meherally, a former Ismaili living in B.C., claims that Ismailis glorify the Aga Khan in private. He has even started an online registry of disgruntled former Ismailis, but the rants on his website (mostmerciful.com) smack of conspiracy theories. The Aga Khan publicly declares he is not a deity. As for the title His Highness, it is not a sign of ego run amok, but a moniker bestowed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in 1957, when the Aga Khan was 20. (Although he has two sons, he has yet to name a successor; some Ismailis believe his daughter, 35-year-old Princess Zahra, should inherit the title.) Harvard-educated, the Aga Khan was born in Geneva to an English mother and a half-Indian, half-Italian father. By all accounts, he is a spiritual leader who emphasizes intellect and independent thought. Frequency of attendance at jamatkhanas and lifestyle choices such as drinking alcohol are individual decisions. As Muljiani explains, “Nobody says, ‘You can’t do this or that or you will go to hell.’” Ismailis keep their religious rituals private, either out of fear of persecution or due to the meditative nature of their prayer. “You’ve got a bunch of people and they’re all praying,” says Muljiani. “From a spiritual point of view, there’s a lot of energy and it’s all coming together. If there is someone there who is not a part of that, will that affect the psychic energy?” While the Ismaili faith can be esoteric behind closed doors, the Aga Khan, in his public speeches, is anything but. He promotes pluralism, tolerance and civil society – principles that couldn’t be more in line with Canadian ideals. “His Highness has said one thing to us,” says Jinha: “‘Do not impose our values onto others.’” Pluralism isn’t just a token concept for Ismailis. “Interfaith marriage is perfectly fine and accepted, which is actually counter to the general perception of Muslims,” says Irfhan Rajani, president of Apparent Networks. (Rajani’s wife is Chinese Canadian.) Muljiani, whose fiancée is Sikh, suggests the only challenge for interfaith marriages might be the Ismaili tradition of volunteering, which starts at age eight. “What if the belief in volunteerism isn’t as strong in another faith?” he asks. “Volunteering is very time-intensive and takes time away from your family.” [pagebreak] As interfaith marriage becomes more common in younger Ismailis, so does breaking out of the doctor/lawyer/tycoon mould. “The next generation looks at the arts and other things because they find sponsors in the preceding group,” says Umedaly, whose musician son, Farhan, has partnered with a Lebanese woman to market songs to Arabic countries. Last year, contemporary Ismaili artists presented a full-scale exhibition at the Roundhouse Community Centre on False Creek. And this spring, Ismailis took part in a show of traditional and contemporary art by Muslim Canadians at the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery in Victoria. Artistic, well educated, generous, successful – could this community be too good to be true? Well, the occasional Ismaili might be a little overzealous about making money. Senator Mobina Jaffer’s law firm, Dohm Jaffer & Jeraj, was sued in April 2005 by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Members of the Catholic order, who take vows of poverty, alleged that Jaffer charged the “unjustifiable” rate of $450 an hour for her legal services. In a sworn affidavit, Jaffer countered that the Oblates had previously suggested a fee reduction for outstanding legal bills and then sent a cheque for the negotiated amount. The matter is still in court. More disturbing is the case of Salim Damji, 36, who in 2002 pleaded guilty to defrauding fellow Ismailis in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary of more than $40 million in a teeth-whitening scam. He claimed to have a patent that would be sold to Colgate-Palmolive for more than $400 million. The Ismaili tithing system may also be vulnerable to fraud, as Douglas Todd reported in a 1995 Vancouver Sun article. Donations are collected on behalf of the Aga Khan and then distributed to charities. But unlike most Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations, jamatkhanas do not issue tax receipts. Up to 12 per cent of an Ismaili’s gross income can add up to a lot of cash, which is not subject to government tax audits. In 1989, a money-laundering scheme involving religious donations led to convictions in Texas and elsewhere against 12 U.S. Ismailis. Corruption happens in every community, of course. What’s striking about these incidents of controversy among Ismailis is how rarely they occur. Ismailis appear to be exemplary citizens and employers. One would be hard-pressed to find an Ismaili-run company in Vancouver that does not contribute to at least one worthy cause. Orbital Technologies, founded by Amyn Rajan, has set up endowments at SFU, UBC and UVic. Amir Ahamed’s Regency Auto Group is the title sponsor for World Partnership Golf, a series of charitable tournaments held in major cities across Canada. The B.C. edition of the tournament raised $140,000 last year, funds that were matched by the Canadian International Development Agency. And Amica Mature Lifestyles, run by the Manji family, delivered 900 Christmas gift baskets to needy seniors in 2005. From the start, Ismailis have immersed themselves in Canadian society to avoid becoming what Verjee calls “hyphenated Canadians.” The Aga Khan, a friend of the late Pierre Trudeau, recently strengthened his Canadian ties. A grand-scale Ismaili centre will rise in Toronto, as well as an Aga Khan museum to house the world’s largest collection of Islamic art. Ottawa will see construction of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat (a quasi-embassy and secular facility) and the Global Centre for Pluralism. “Canada is a very exciting place for Ismailis worldwide – it’s the place to be,” says Jinha. The exception might be the Aga Khan-related institutions in central Asia and farther east. Former eXI Wireless CEO Karim Khoja left Vancouver more than three years ago to head Afghanistan’s largest cell-phone provider, Roshan, a company 51-per-cent-owned by the Aga Khan Development Network. And Firoz Rasul of Ballard fame is now in Karachi completing a decade-long volunteer term as president of the Aga Khan University, an institution with teaching sites in more than a dozen countries. Rasul says he receives “a lot of phone calls and emails” in Pakistan from Ismailis eager to follow his lead. Both Hanif Muljiani and Mossadiq Umedaly (who worked as an administrator for seven years at the same Aga Khan university early in his career) say they’d like to pursue pro bono work overseas down the road. Meanwhile, Rasul is thinking of going into business with his daughters in Vancouver once his term in Karachi is up. “I have always had some interest in publishing and broadcasting, and in distance-education programs,” he says. Clearly he hasn’t lost that entrepreneurial itch. “I’ve got that in my blood,” he says with a laugh. [pagebreak] Ismailis at a glance
"Holy Highness: Billionaire Prince Karim Aga Khan IV has led Ismailis since 1957" Ismaili history is as colourful as a Persian tapestry. Here is a short version. Prince Karim Aga Khan IV became the present leader in July 1957, at age 20. His stepmother was Rita Hayworth, the second wife of his playboy father who was passed over as Aga Khan and died in a car crash outside Paris in 1960. And his grandfather is famous for the story in which his followers in India matched his 243.5-pound weight in diamonds to mark his 60th anniversary as the Ismaili spiritual leader in 1946. The Aga Khan claims direct descent from Islam’s prophet Muhammad through the prophet’s daughter, Fatima. The Fatimid rulers founded Cairo in 929 A.D.; later their descendants moved to Syria and Persia. After the Mongol conquest in the 13th century, they dispersed throughout central Asia, the sub-continent and farther east. The Ismailis are part of the Shia branch of Islam. Shias make up about 15 per cent of all Muslims; the rest are Sunnis. In the late 19th century, Indian-born Ismailis built communities in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, which were then part of the British Empire. After living there for generations, the Ismailis were expelled from Uganda in the early 1970s by dictator Idi Amin. Others left Kenya and Tanzania around the same time because of socialist political regimes and a general sense of insecurity. The present Aga Khan took steps to help them resettle in Europe, Canada and the U.S. Ismailis now number 12 to 15 million and live in 25 countries around the world. The Ismaili factor B.C. companies owned or operated by Ismailis >> Hotels and real estate: Larco Group of Companies Land developers specializing in hotel and retail properties throughout North America, and self-storage facilities in Vancouver. Holdings include Park Royal Shopping Centre, Whistler Village Centre and Larco Hospitality, which owns and/or manages hotels under such brands as Marriott, Renaissance and Hilton (e.g. Vancouver Airport Marriott and Renaissance Toronto Hotel Downtown). Owners: Aminmohamed Lalji and family Worth: An estimated $884 million Executive Group of Companies Management and development of boutique hotels and suites. Family company owns five hotels (four in Vancouver, one in San Francisco) and is part owner of two others; it also has a stake in the publicly traded Executive Inn Group Corporation. Owners: Noordin and Farida Sayani, and son Salim Worth: Projected revenue of $85 million in 2006 for the family-owned group of companies Mayfair Hotels and Resorts Privately owns and/or operates 10 hotels in Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo. Among the properties: Robson Suites, Hampton Inn & Suites and Landis Hotel & Suites in downtown Vancouver. CO-owners: Akber Kassam and Zack Bhatia Worth: N/A Pan Pacific Vancouver AAA-rated five-diamond, 504-room hotel. Owners: The Texas-based Mangalji family’s Westmont Hospitality Group, which has ownership interests in about 380 hotels worldwide. Pan Pacific’s asset manager is Zul Somani of Vancouver, who is a part owner of Vancouver’s Georgian Court Hotel, Granville Island Hotel and Le Soleil Hotel. Worth: N/A Sodican (BC) Ltd. Real-estate ownership and acquisitions; holdings include 64,000-square-foot office building in North Vancouver. Owners: Azad and Yasmin Shamji Worth: N/A >> Retirement homes: Retirement Concepts Private, 1,500-employee company; owns and/or operates 14 seniors’ facilities and three hotels. Owners: Abdul and Shamim Jamal, and son Azim Worth: N/A Amica Mature Lifestyles Inc. Publicly traded company. Manages, markets, designs and develops luxury housing for seniors. There are 15 Amica Wellness & Vitality Residences across North America, plus five in development. Owner: Manji family share is about 35 per cent. Worth: Communities under Amica management are valued at $300 million (2006), with revenues under management of about $70 million. >>Technology: Xantrex Technology Inc. Power electronics company with 500 employees; publicly traded as TSX:XTX with 29,922,185 common shares outstanding (as of March 31, 2006). Ismaili factor: Mossadiq Umedaly, chairman, and vice-presidents Nazir Mulji and Al-Karim Kara Revenue: US$143 million in 2005 Apparent Networks Software developer focusing on networking and connectivity; clients include Telus and IBM, Boeing and Bell Canada; 45 employees total in Vancouver and Seattle. Ownership: Co-founder and CEO Irfhan Rajani is significant investor-owner; other investors include Telus, IBM, BDC Venture Capital and GrowthWorks Capital. revenue: Last-quarter revenues grew 200 per cent year-over-year (as of Feb. 2006). Orbital Technologies Inc. Employee-owned software developer for larger companies such as Microsoft and Adobe; 90 per cent of business is with U.S. and European clients. Ismaili factor: Amyn Rajan, co-founder, president and CEO. Worth: Less than $10 million in 2005 >> Retail: Regency Auto Group Lower Mainland Toyota, Lexus, Nissan and Infiniti car dealerships with 140 employees. Owner: Amir Ahamed Worth: Annual sales in the $130 million range Sleep Shop Four Lower Mainland locations selling specialty mattresses and bedroom suites. Owners: Haji Manji and son Farouq Worth: Revenues surpassed $3 million in 2005 Shamin Jewellers Ltd. Independent jeweller with 4,600-square-foot showroom. Owner: Shahraz Kassam Worth: Revenues of $1.69 million in 2005 >> Miscellaneous: The Portables Integrated provider of trade show equipment and exhibits; 11 locations with 90 employees throughout Canada. Owner: Hanif Muljiani Worth: Revenues of $13 million in 2005 FNMH Architecture Designs airports, embassies, Ismaili centres, private residences and hotels worldwide. Headquarters in North Vancouver; branches in Pakistan and Nairobi. Owners: Farouk Noormohamed, architect, and wife Farida, interior designer Worth: Volume of construction at any give time equal to about $90 million Golden Boy Foods Inc. Western Canada’s largest manufacturer of peanut butter, with approximately 200 employees. Owner: Virani family Worth: Annual revenues estimated at more than $50 million Orko Silver Corp. Exploratory resource company with sole ownership in La Preciosa silver project in Durango, Mexico. Publicly traded as OK (TSX.V), with 56,826,471 shares outstanding. Ismaili factor: Officer Minaz (Mike) Devji was a driving force behind the sale of Canada’s Kemess deposit for $200 million in 1996. Worth: Company value approximately $45 million (compared to $8.32 million the previous year), based on shares trading at $0.79 in May 2006