“A solid foundation”: Impact of an Aga Khan Schools education

30 May 2023

Publishing on topics from models of development in Borneo to gender in Islam, Professor Zayn Kassam is also an award-winning teacher, an expert on mediaeval Islamic and Indian philosophy and now Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies and Head of its Department of Academic Research and Publications. How did a literature student from Kenya end up working at the intersections of Islam, gender, philosophy and the environment?

Zayn began her academic life with the Aga Khan Primary Schools in Kisumu, Mombasa and Nairobi and the Aga Khan High School, Nairobi (Class of 1972). With an education system inherited from Britain, there was an emphasis on exam performance. “This meant not only taking copious notes and paying attention in class, but also learning good study habits and making learning part of your daily practice. If you have this openness of curiosity to learn about new things, it actually keeps you engaged, animated and learning all your life, so you’re constantly thinking of new ways of doing things.

"I felt that openness was fostered when I was there. Instead of learning being a chore, you think ‘Look at this amazing world that we have – how can I figure out the mathematics of it? The physics, science, aesthetics of it?’

“We were in mixed classes with brown and black students from all faiths. And that social mingling broke down the separation of different races in Kenya under colonial rule and laid the foundation for beginning to eradicate racial prejudice. It was also marvellous to have diversity of faith: amongst my classmates were Sikhs, Hindus, Parsis, Christians, Sunnis, Ithna Ashari Shi’is, and Nizari and Bohra Ismailis. We treated each other as friends, not looking at whether they belonged to different faiths or that some ran to school barefoot while others came in Mercedes-Benzes. It fostered a sense of connection across differences.”

By the time Zayn reached the upper forms, the curriculum was becoming decolonised. “I remember reading literature from South Africa, from Kenya, from Nigeria and that was marvellous because it really gave you a sense of being able to recognise yourself in the literature you were reading.

"We had a phenomenal teacher for English, Mr Elias. He was a dapper, very self-contained person who would walk into the classroom and begin talking and you were just mesmerised. He would discuss what Caliban really was and bring home how otherisation takes place, bring a poem of Yeats to light by thinking about the Easter Uprising. So, he really connected you to the realities that grounded poetry and yet tried to rise above them, showing the dauntless human spirit. And beginning to see the deeper meanings is partially what led me to the kinds of texts that I studied at university. How do I make sense of life? What underpins it, what is its meaning, what are its purposes and how have the great thinkers thought about these issues?”

After school, Zayn began studying literature in Canada. Encountering an unfamiliar line from Sylvia Plath, “through a glass darkly”, and being told by her professor that it was from the Bible, she wondered what other references she might be missing. She decided to switch to religious studies to better inform her understanding of literature.

“When I started taking courses in religious studies, I saw that several of my interests came together: the love of literature because, of course, the sacred texts are literary texts; philosophy, with the purpose of life questions that you study in religious studies as well; and you draw on history because no ideas take place in a vacuum. Literature and philosophy engage the real conditions in which people live. I focused on Islamic philosophy for my master’s and then Islamic and Indian philosophy for my PhD.”

Six years after graduation, when Zayn was working at Pomona College in California, the 9/11 attacks happened and she found herself increasingly called upon to educate people about Islam. “That turned me towards public scholarship and showed me that the classroom is also an activist space where you actually can do something about the ignorance and preconceptions that people have about Islam and Muslims.

“I'd always had an interest in the environment, partially sparked by Prince Sadruddin’s Bellerive Foundation. But after 9/11, I began to read deeply into politics in the Middle East and what would lead to a horrific act like that, and I came across the importance of energy for production. And reading about oil helped me to see that actually climate change and environmental degradation is a far larger threat to sustaining life on this planet. That led me into teaching courses on religion and the environment because this is something we really do need to pay attention to.

“Gender and environmental studies are, of course, where inequalities and justice issues are found. So, it's no surprise that I ended up as Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Pomona. And then the Institute found me and brought me here, giving me a more direct opportunity to serve our community.

“I look back to my days in the Aga Khan Schools and think: I could so easily have been what they call an ‘at risk’ girl child, born in what was then called ‘the third world’. I don't think I could have navigated life and done the things I've done and taught at one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the United States and then ended up here if it hadn't been for the very solid foundation that the Aga Khan Schools system gave me. My classmates taught me to be comfortable amongst people coming from diverse cultures and economic classes, and my classes gave me a love of learning and a strong study ethic. If it hadn’t been for the things I learnt both inside and outside the classroom, and the amazing teachers I had, none of this would have been possible in quite the same way that it was.”

This profile is part of an alumni profiles series in collaboration with the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Read more of our alumni profiles here.

  • Professor Zayn Kassam, Class of 1972, Aga Khan High School, Nairobi