- Religion and Philosophy
Who is the Aga Khan?
Aga Khan is the title of the imam, or spiritual leader, of the Ismaili sect of Shiite Muslims, which is estimated to have 20 million adherents in Africa and Asia. The title is hereditary, based on a claim of direct descent from Mohammed's daughter Fatima, through the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt. It was first used by the 46th imam, Hasan Ali Shah (1800-1881), who was given the title by the shah of Persia. He rebelled against the shah's successor in 1838, was defeated, and fled to India in 1840. There his title was confirmed by the British, who in turn enjoyed his support. After the short rule of Hasan's son Ali Shah (died 1885) as Aga Khan II, the title passed to Sultan Sir Mohammed Shah (1877-1957), then only eight years old.
Born in Karachi on November 2, 1877, Aga Khan III received both a traditional Muslim education and a modern European one. He grew up as one of the many Indians whose background was in both the Asian and European worlds and who were interested in bridging the gap between them. As a result, he was instrumental in raising the level of Muslim education and in introducing reforms in the treatment of Muslim women. He also participated in Indian politics, serving in the viceroy's legislative council from 1902 to 1904. In 1906 he led a delegation to the viceroy asking for separate representation for Muslims. This principle of granting separate electorates to minorities stemmed from the Muslims' concern for their future in a Hindu-dominated India. The delegation also established the Muslim League, which carried the seeds of Muslim separatism and eventual creation of Pakistan.
In World War I the Aga Khan supported the British. Afterward, however, he took an intermediate role in Indian politics, supporting neither the anti-British agitation nor Muslim communalism. In 1929 he was president of the All-India Muslim Conference in Delhi, and in 1930-1931 chairman of the British-Indian section of the round-table conference in London. In 1932 and from 1934 to 1937 he represented India at the League of Nations, serving as Assembly president in 1937. During World War II he lived in Switzerland.
Thereafter, although much of his time was spent in international society and in breeding race horses, he was active in attempts to raise the material well-being of his followers. Some of his great wealth was returned to his community through grants, and he advocated the creation of cooperative enterprises by Ismaili Muslims. He died in Versoix, Switzerland, on July 11, 1957. In selecting his successor, Aga Khan III had passed over his two sons, Aly (1911-1960) and Sadruddin (born 1933), in favor of Aly's son Karim Al Hussaini Shah.
Karim, Aga Khan IV, was born in Geneva on December 13, 1937, and was educated at Le Rosey School in Switzerland. After a tour of Ismaili communities in East Africa, he enrolled at Harvard to study engineering but changed to Arabic and Oriental history. He was invested as Aga Khan IV on July 13, 1957, and after another tour of Ismaili communities he returned to Harvard, where he received a B.A. degree in 1959. He continued, in his grandfather's tradition, to work for improvement in his followers' welfare, establishing a central bank in Damascus to provide funds for development projects.