Family’s donation enhances Islamic studies

The generosity of the Lakhani family and their involvement with York University was celebrated at a reception held Jan. 26, at the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto. The Lakhanis, in response to the growing demand for courses and scholarly research on Islam, have donated $1 million to the York University Foundation to establish, over a six-year period, the Noor Chair in Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Arts.

Right: Avie Bennett (left), chairman, Historica Foundation of Canada and chancellor emeritus, York University; Hassanali Lakhani (LLD ’05); Kharim Lakhani, president, Shawneeki Golf Club and member of the York University Foundation Board of Directors

The Lakhanis’ most recent gift builds upon their initial donation of $500,000, which funded the Noor Fellowship in Islamic Studies in 2003. This fellowship enhanced York’s offerings in Islamic studies, and has strengthened the relationships between York University, the Noor Cultural Centre and Toronto’s Islamic community.

Robert Drummond, dean of the Faculty of Arts, thanked the Lakhani family and explained the importance of establishing the Noor Chair in Islamic Studies. “The goal of the Chair is to increase cultural understanding with a focus on Islamic religion, culture and civilization, while recognizing the diversity of the Islamic world and its relationship with other religions,” he said.

The Noor Chair in Islamic Studies will allow the University to bring a dedicated scholar in the field of Islamic studies to York students. It is expected that the first Chair will be filled within the next year.

Habibah Ahmad, a fourth-year humanities and women’s studies student at York who is focusing on the study of Islam, expressed her appreciation to the Lakhani family on behalf of all students at the University. “I’d like to thank the Lakhani family for their generosity and support in the cultivation of an Islamic studies presence at York,” she said. “Your support is a source of inspiration, growth, guidance and hope for the University and for the community.” Ahmad also recited three meaningful passages from the Qur’an, which focus on the Islamic faith’s emphasis on charitable giving.

Left: Paul Marcus (left), president and CEO, York University Foundation; Samira (Lakhani) Kanji, president, Noor Cultural Centre; Habibah Ahmad, York student; Robert Drummond, dean of York’s Faculty of Arts; and Lorna R. Marsden, York’s president and vice-chancellor

The Lakhani family work together in the hotel industry and jointly own a golf course north of Toronto. The senior members of the family, Hassanali (LLD’05) and Noorbanu Lakhani, who came to Canada in 1988, have been giving back to the Toronto community ever since. They established the Noor Cultural Centre, named after Noorbanu, the family matriarch (the Chair is also named in her honour), as a focal point of Muslim learning and activity and to foster openness, diversity and intellectual development within the Islamic community and the Greater Toronto Area. In 2005, York University presented Hassanali with an honorary doctorate recognizing his leadership in the community and his commitment to philanthropy.

“We are truly grateful to the Lakhani family for their vision with this generous gift,” said Lorna R. Marsden, York’s president and vice-chancellor. “By building bridges between York, the Noor Cultural Centre and the community, the Lakhani family has done something wonderful for students, scholarship and research. Thank you.”

Right: Listening to the presentations are Abdul Lakhani (left), Selina Lakhani, Khadija Kanji, Noorbanu Lakhani, Hassanali Lakhani (LLD ’05) and Ghalib Iqbal, consul general of Pakistan

Marsden then quoted Hassanali’s 2005 convocation address, in which he formally accepted his honorary LLD. “He said, ‘I was told that I was being awarded this honorary doctorate because of my life-long contributions to philanthropy. I’ve known the word philanthropy for many years because I’ve heard it describe many generous people who have given to society, but I’ve never considered myself a philanthropist. I have simply given when the desire to enable something I considered close to my heart was so great that it caused me not a second thought to give’.'”

York’s largest program in the Division of Humanities, with nearly 200 majors, is its Religious Studies Program. In September of 2003-2004, a new Graduate Program in Humanities admitted its first students, who are studying in one of three available fields: the comparative study of cultures, religious studies, and the cultural context of science and technology. This program makes the establishment of a new research Chair in Islamic Studies even more relevant and timely.

“The Division of Humanities places a large emphasis on teaching about all religions and bringing people from all faiths together to learn about Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other religions,” said Martin Lockshin, Chair of York’s Division of Humanities. “It is our hope that the academic bridges we are building at York, will translate into bridges being built within our communities.”

Paul Marcus, president and CEO of the York University Foundation, called the reception a celebration of three elements. He congratulated the Noor Cultural Centre for being a venue of Islamic scholarship that reaches out in the name of diversity and the traditions of the Qur’an. He commended York University for maintaining its tradition of reaching out to all of Toronto’s communities. And, he praised the Lakhani family for being wonderful role models to so many and passing down the values of passion, giving back and tolerance.

Samira (Lakhani) Kanji, president of the Noor Cultural Centre and spokesperson for the Lakhani family, addressed her family’s reasons for establishing a Chair in Islamic studies at York. “Our family was impressed with the far-sightedness and objectives that were impelling York to seek an expansion of Islamic Studies and we quickly realized that our philosophies were convergent, and that together, we could achieve something that would have broader reach than if we acted singly,” she said. “The Noor Chair is the product of the marriage between two like-thinking, highly compatible partners, who will go on to promote knowledge, understanding and goodwill — between people of different faiths, and even people of the same faith who sometimes show the least tolerance for internal diversity.”

Future collaboration between the Noor Cultural Centre and York includes a planned series of lectures and community-oriented courses, such as teaching of the Arabic alphabet and the Qur’an, as well as interfaith events intended to foster cultural exchange.

Also at the event were Karim Lakhani, member of the York University Foundation Board of Directors; his brother Abdul Lakhani; Avie Bennett, chancellor emeritus of York University; Ghalib Iqbal, consul general of Pakistan; and the architects of the Noor Cultural Centre, Raymond Moriyama (who is also chancellor of Brock University) and Daniel Teramura. Kathleen Wynne, MPP, Don Valley West, and Yasmin Ratansi, MP, Don Valley East, were present as well.

This article was submitted to YFile by Allison Berg, communications officer, York University Foundation.