Islamic Religious Leader: Aga Kahn

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Figure 1.--This photo was taken in Nairobi, Kenya (1937). Kenya was one of the Indian Ocean colonies with a Ismaili community. It shows the Prince Aly Salman Khan, father of Aga Khan IV, the 49th and current Imam of the Ismaili Muslims. The photo was taken during the celebrations of Golden Jubilee of his father, the 48th Imam Mowlana Sultan Mohamed Shah. It looks to have been taken at a school, but we do not know the name of the school. In the photo everybody is wearing western style suits. However the boys sitting on the floor in front of the Prince are all barefoot.

Aga Khan means something like "chief commander" in Persian. It is the title of the imam (spiritual leader) of an Islamic sect known as Nizari Ismailis. The title was originally granted by the Persian Shah (emperor) Fath Ali (1818). The Ismailis are Shias. Shias and Sunnis are the two major divisions of Islam. The fundamental difference between the two sects is that Shias are convinced that the imam must be a descendant of the prophet Mohammed through the two sons (Hasan and Husain) of the Prophet's daughter Fatima. The Ismailis trace their origin to the followers of Ismail, a descendant of Husain (8th century). A branch of the Ismailis, the Nizari Ismailis emerge as a regional power in Persia. They controlled several strong fortresses (11th century).

Aga Khan I (1818-81)

Hasan Ali Shah (1800-1881) as a young man was the first Ismaili who received the title Aga Kahn. He married a daughter of Shah Fath Ali. The Shah bestowed the title Aga Kahn on him (1818. This gave him the status od a prince in Persia. Upon the death of Faith Ali, Aga Khan I rebelled in an effort to seize the throne. The rebellion failed as Fath Ali's successor successfully defended his throne. The Aga Khan fled across the border to British India (1840). The British welcomed him because relations with Persiaere strained and it was helful to develop support among disident Prsians. The Aga Than supported the British during the First Afghan War (1839-42). The British seized control of Sind (1853). Sind is a costal province, essentialy the Indus delta currently located in southeastern Pakistan. The British granted theAga Kahn a pension and the title of Highness. The Aga Kahn proved useful for the British. Their war in Afghanistan and hostile relations with Persia gave the impression that they were anti-Muslim which would complicate relations with Muslims in the developing Raj. Close relations with the Aga Kahn helped to defuse this image. This was a particular concern in western India (Modern Pakistan). A sunsrantial Ismaili population lived in the Sind. Many were known as Khojas. They were descendants of converts made by missionaries sent by the Persian-based Ismailis from Persia (14th century). The Khojas were heavily made up of the merchant trading class with business contactscinland (Karachi), fown the coast (Bombay) and across the Arabian Sea to East Africa and other trading centers in the Indian Ocean. The Aga Kahn worked with the Khojas to transfor this loosely connected trading community into a tightly organized group. He achieved great status. His heredity traced back to the Prophetvthrough Fatima gave him emense prestige. They contributed as part of the tenets of the sect an eighth of their income. This payment ws a form of thithing, but it went to the Aga Kahn and over time built us his immense wealth.

Aga Kahn II (1881-85)

The Aga Kahn's son, Ali Shah, became Aga Kahn II. He died in 1885 after only 4 years as Aga Kakn.

Aga Kahn III (1885-1957)

Sultan Sir Muhammad Shah was born in Karachi, then part of the British Raj (1877). He was the son of Ali Shah who was not yet Aga Kakn II. As a boy only 8 years old, he succeeded his father, Aga Khan II, as imam. It was under his time as Aga Kakn within the British Raj that the position of Aga Kahn achieved its greates influence and prestige. He became aecognized international figure. His considerable charm, emense wealth, and inteligence made him a popular figure who moved freely in European society. This in many ways was far removed from thecrelogious austerity of his followers. He counted friends among the political, business, and artistic elites. This included England's King Edward VII. He was particularly interested in horse racing. Here there was an extended family tradition. The Aga Khan's thoroubreed stables stables were among the finest in the world. And his horses won many famous races around the world, including The Derby. His association with Edward VII led to important appointments in the British Raj. After World war I, attempted to convince the British government to moderate its dealings with Turkey which had fought with the Central Powers, but had little success. He also was unsuccessful in becoming a major player in the developing Indian nationlist movement. It is Ghandi and the Congress Party that emerged as the major force pressing for independence. Gandhi attempted to work for a unified Muslim-Hindu line pressing the British for independence. The Aga Kahn with ties to the British and Europans never emerged as a major nationalist figure. He continued to have considerable influence among the Muslim minority. And this caive influence by Ghandi and Congress. The Aga Khan was largely succesful in uniting Indian Muslims and he was their choice as spokesman at the Imperial Round Table Conferences in London to discuss India's future (1931-33). Muslims were becoming increasingly concerned about their future in a future Hindu-dominated India. The Aga Kahn pushed for separate representation for the different minority groups under a new constitution. The result was the British Communal Award (1933). Congress saw his role as an increasingly divisive force, impeding the independence movement. The Aga Khan was his country's delegate to the new League of Nations. He was elected president of the League (1937). The Aga Khan did not live in India. He instead lived mostly in France France. He seemed to be mostly atuned to French culture. This also helped to prevent him from from being too closely identified with either the British or any one of the Indian Ocean countries where he had followers. The Aga Kahn married four times. The first marriage was unsucessful. He married a cousin, whom he divorced after what he called "a sour sham of marriage." His other wives were Europeans. He married the ballerina Theresa Magliano (1908). This marriage produced one son, Aly Khan. After Theresa's death (1926), he married Andrée Carron (1929). He divorced her during World War II (1943). They had one son--Sadruddin. His last wife was Yvette La Brousee (1944) He died in Geneva, Switzerland (1957).

Aga Kahn IV (1957- )

As Aga Kahn III aged, commentators assumed he would chose his oldest son, Aly Khan, as his successor. To considerable surprise he chose Prince Karim, Aly Khan's son. He announced that he believed it was in the interest of the Shia Moslem Ismaili community. He thought "a young man brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office as imam."


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Created: 12:54 AM 2/27/2009
Last updated: 12:54 AM 2/27/2009