Prince Karim Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of more than 20 million Ismaili Muslims succeeded his grandfather, Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah, to the Imamat on July 11, 1957 at the age of 20.
Every year on July 11, murids around the world arrange religious activities in Jamat Khanas where they reaffirm their allegiance to the Imam of the time.
When one talks about philanthropy, our minds might run straight to Hollywood celebrities, but the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims has a special niche in that category, writes Edwin Nuwagaba.The Aga Khan was born Prince Karim in 1936 in Geneva and declared healthy despite being premature. He is the son of Prince Aly Khan and his wife Princess Tajudaulah (Joan Yarde-Buller), daughter of Lord Churston. After spending his early childhood in Nairobi Kenya, where his early education was done by private tutoring, he attended Le Rosey School in Switzerland and graduated from Harvard University with an honours degree in Islamic history in 1959. Aga Khan IV succeeded his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, to the Imamat on July 11, 1957 at the age of 20.
He is the 49th Imam of the Shia Imami Nizari Ismailis, the largest branch of the Ismaili followers of the Shia faith and is the alleged direct descendant of the Islamic prophet Mohammad through his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the first Imam, and his wife Fatimah, Mohammad’s daughter.
The Aga Khan, (third right) has not only shown clear headed and focused leadership to his followers, but has stretched out a generous hand to people outside his religion. As soon as he was crowned imam, he founded the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), whose work is mostly in Asia and Africa. The network is a group of development agencies whose interest lies in the environment, health, education, architecture, culture, microfinance, rural development and disaster reduction.
AKDN conducts its programmes without regard to faith, origin or gender and is said to be one of the world’s largest private development agencies. But the Aga Khan has expressed concern about the work of the AKDN being described as philanthropy.
“Reflecting a certain historical tendency of the West to separate the secular from the religious, they often describe the work of the AKDN either as philanthropy or entrepreneurship. What is not understood is that this work is for us part of our institutional responsibility it flows from the mandate of the office of Imam to improve the quality of worldly life for the concerned communities.”
However, this has not stopped him from giving and reaching out to the poorest of communities. But to be able to sustain abilities to give, he conducts his philanthropic work with a business mind.
The Aga Khan married his first wife, the famous model Sarah “Sally” Frances Croker-Poole, who assumed the name HH Begum Salima Aga Khan, on October 22, 1969 (civil) and October 28, 1969 (religious) at his home in Paris. The couple were married for 25 years and have three children: Princess Zahra, born September 18, 1970, Prince Rahim Aga Khan, born October 12, 1971 and Prince Hussain Aga Khan, born April 10, 1974. They divorced in 1995.
The Aga Khan married his second wife, Gabriele Thyssen, (fourth right)who assumed the name Begum Inaara Aga Khan. “Inaara” is derived from Arabic nur, meaning light. They have a son, Prince Aly Muhammad Aga Khan, born 7 March 2000 and a stepdaughter, Princess Theresa of Leiningen.
While he is a Muslim leader, this suave man passes for a moderate one and for that he has been criticised by extreme Muslims. Instead of traditional robes, he often wears suits, a trait that was influenced by his long stay and studying in the western world. But that, in the first place, is the reason his grandfather chose him as leader. In his own words, the old man said that having seen the changes that were taking place in the world and the numerous discoveries most notably of atomic science, it was in the interest of the Ismaili community for him to be succeeded by a man who had grown up and developed in the new age. In fact, his grandfather skipped the Aga Khan’s father, who was in direct line of succession. It is because of this that the Aga Khan has sometimes been referred to as Imam of the Atomic Age by Ismailis.
He has individually contributed donations to human causes more than any individual and most countries. And he is known by economists to take big risks. While other venture capitalists tend to shy away from third world countries, he has invested largely in countries like Uganda, recently investing in hydro electric production at Bujagali Falls.
His other investments in Uganda include Industrial Promotion Services, Kampala Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd, Leather Industries of Uganda Ltd, Uganda Fishnet Manufacturers Ltd, West Nile rural Electrification Co., Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust, Diamond Trust Bank, The Jubilee Insurance Company, The Monitor Publications Ltd, Aga Han Hospital Kampala, Aga Khan schools, and Tourism Promotion Services (Uganda) Ltd (Serena hotels and resorts) among others. Yes, all this may sound like straight business, but the Aga Khan does it differently from popular tycoons. He makes money, but it is not his topmost priority.
What motivates him is embedded in his famous 1983 quote in India: There are those who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both means and the motivation to improve their circumstances. Unless they can be touched with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will only sink into apathy, degradation and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that spark.” Spoken like a true leader.