Aga Khan (chief commander) is the title of the imam, or spiritual leader, of the sect of Moslems known as Nizari Ismailis. The title was granted in 1818 by the Shah of Persia.
The Ismailis are Shias, one of the two great sects of Islam. Unlike the Sunnis, the major group, the Shias believe that the imam must be a descendant of the prophet Mohammed through Hasan and Husain, the sons of his daughter Fatima. The Ismailis, who trace their origin to the 8th century, were formed around the followers of Ismail, a descendant of Husain. One branch, the Nizari Ismailis, established itself in Persia in a number of strong fortresses in the 11th century.
Aga Khan I
Hasan Ali Shah (1800-1881) had the title Aga Khan bestowed on him for his services to Fath Ali, the Persian ruler, whose daughter he married. The Aga Khans thus have the status of princes of the royal house of Persia. Aga Khan I rebelled against Fath Ali's successor and had to flee to India in 1840. He was welcomed by the British rulers of India as an ally since they were then on bad terms with Persia. In return for his support during the war against Afghanistan (1839-1842) and in the conquest of Sind, he was given a pension and the title of Highness.
The British valued the Aga Khan's support, as they hoped this would show the large Moslem population of India that they were not anti-Moslem, even though they were making war on Moslem countries. The Aga Khan's support was of particular importance in western India, where there were considerable numbers of Ismailis. Most belonged to the group known as Khojas, descendants of converts made in the 14th century by missionaries sent by the Ismailis from Persia. These converts belonged mainly to the trading classes, with businesses centered in Karachi and Bombay but with links to East Africa and other points along the coast of the Indian Ocean. Aga Khan I used these trading links to knit the Khojas into a tightly organized group. Because they regarded him as a semidivine figure, they were willing to pay, as the tenets of the sect demanded, about an eighth of their income to him. This became the Aga Khan's source of immense wealth. His son Aga Khan II, Ali Shah, died in 1885 after only 4 years in office.
Aga Khan III
Aga Khan III, Sultan Sir Muhammad Shah (1877-1957), was born on Nov. 2, 1877, in Karachi. At the age of 8 he succeeded his father, Aga Khan II, as imam. Under him the office reached its greatest influence. The Aga Khan enjoyed international fame, and his personal charm, great wealth, and intelligence made him a popular figure in European society. His friendships with the great and famous in politics, business, and the arts were enhanced by his devotion to horse racing. This was a family tradition, and the Aga Khan's stables were among the finest in the world. His horses won the Derby three times, in addition to many other famous races.
To outsiders the Aga Khan's luxurious style of living and his enthusiasm for horse racing seemed incongruous with his position as the spiritual leader of his people. It must be remembered, however, that he did not hold office by virtue of his own spiritual merit; the office itself was sacred, and his inheritance of it by direct line from the Prophet assured his sanctity. Nor did his followers regard the pleasures that he enjoyed with such gusto as unbecoming an imam. On the contrary, these were precisely the pleasures they believed all men should enjoy. Furthermore, as a public man he worked for causes of importance to Moslems everywhere, and as imam of the Ismailis he was deeply concerned with their welfare.
The Aga Khan's highly placed friends in England, including King Edward VII, were responsible for his first major public appointment—membership in 1902 in the Council of the Viceroy of India. This honor was a continuation of the attention the government of India had paid to his family, and for the next 40 years he was closely involved with Indian politics, especially when Moslem interests were affected. His good standing with the British, as well as his natural dignity and charm, led to his choice by Moslem groups in India as their spokesman and representative.
He presided over the meeting of the All-India Moslem Educational Conference in Delhi in 1904. His value for Moslem interests, even though he belonged to a sect regarded as heretical by the orthodox, was recognized by Mohsin-ul-Mulk, the head of the trust that ran the Moslem college at Aligarh. The Aga Khan became involved in the college's fundraising projects and its transformation into a full-fledged Moslem university. The Aga Khan's real entrance into the political life of Indian Islam came in 1906, however, when he led a delegation to the governor general to argue for special safeguards for Moslems in any constitutional changes that would take place in India. The Indian National Congress was demanding the introduction of representative government, and the Moslems were afraid that this would mean their domination by the Hindu majority. The governor general gave the Aga Khan's delegation an encouraging response, and the Moslem leaders then organized the All-India Moslem League to watch over their political interests. The Aga Khan was elected its first president in 1906 and retained the office until 1913. By then the league was becoming more critical of the British government, and the Aga Khan was anxious to maintain his political neutrality.
In the years immediately after World War I, the Aga Khan sought without much success to get the British government to deal not too harshly with Turkey, which had been an ally of Germany. He was also unable to make any contribution to Indian politics in the early 1920s, when Gandhi was seeking to work for Moslem-Hindu cooperation against the British by supporting the Khilafat movement, which was based on loyalty to the sultan of Turkey as the caliph, or spiritual leader, of Islam.
The Aga Khan's ability to bring together the various factions of Indian Moslems led to his choice as their spokesman at the Round Table Conferences, which were held from 1931 to 1933 in London to discuss India's political future. By this time the Moslems were not the only ones concerned about their fate if India should become free, and other minority groups were demanding protection from the "threat" of Hindu majority rule. Once more the Aga Khan used his diplomatic skills to press for separate representation for the different minority groups under the new constitution. The result was the Communal Award of 1933, which was regarded by the Indian National Congress, the major proponents of nationalism, as a divisive force in Indian politics. During these years the Aga Khan was his country's delegate to the League of Nations, and he was elected president of the League in 1937.
The Aga Khan was also very active as imam of his religious community. He saw the responsibilities of his office not as religious in the sense that they entailed a concern with theology and worship, but as social and economic, to strengthen the Ismaili community. He was particularly interested in the advancement of women, and he forbade those of his group to veil their faces, as did Moslem women in most countries. He used his great wealth to establish banks that lent money at low interest rates to his followers, thus encouraging trade and commerce. He also encouraged the construction of schools and hospitals in India, East Africa, and the Middle East, sometimes in cooperation with local governments. One widely publicized aspect of his career, the ceremony of weighing him on anniversaries against gold, diamonds, or platinum, was directly related to these philanthropic interests. The money raised on such occasions was used for furthering the social concerns of the group.
The Aga Khan spent most of his adult life in France, partly because of his enjoyment of French culture but also for the important political reason that this arrangement kept him from being identified too closely with any one of the geographic areas where he had followers.
He married four times. His first wife was a cousin, whom he divorced after what he called "a sour sham of marriage." In 1908 he married the first of his three European wives, the ballerina Theresa Magliano. They had one son, Aly Khan. After her death in 1926, he married Andrée Carron in 1929 and divorced her in 1943. They had one son, Sadruddin. Yvette La Brousee, whom he married in 1944, survived him. He died on July 12, 1957, in Geneva.
It had been assumed that the Aga Khan would appoint his oldest son, Aly Khan, as his successor to the office of iman, but he named instead Prince Karim, Aly Khan's son. He explained that he believed it was in the interest of the Shia Moslem Ismaili community that he be succeeded by "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."
Aga Khan IV, Prince Karim, was born in Geneva on Dec. 13, 1936. In contrast to his father, he was noted for his serious approach to life. He traveled to the different centers of the Ismaili community throughout the world to be acknowledged as "Imam of the Time."
Further Reading on Aga Khan
Aga Khan III wrote an autobiography, as Sultan Muhammad Shah, The Memoirs of Aga Khan: World Enough and Time (1954). His political views are in his India in Transition: A Study in Political Evolution (1918). Another useful source is Naoroji M. Dumasia, The Aga Khan and His Ancestors (1939). A relevant religious group is discussed in Syed Mujtaba Ali, The Origin of the Khojas and Their Religious Life Today (1936). S. M. Ikram, Modern Muslim India and the Birth of Pakistan (1950; 2d ed. 1965), places Aga Khan III in the context of the Indian nationalist movement.