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Aga Khan

By:
Azim A. Nanji
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Aga Khan

The Nizārī Ismāʿīlī imams since the time of Ḥasan ʿAlī Shāh (d. 1881) have borne the title Aga Khan. The present imam, Prince Karīm al-Ḥusaynī, Aga Khan IV, is according to this tradition the forty-ninth hereditary imam of the community worldwide, descended directly from and succeeding the first Shīʿī imam ʿAlī and his wife Fāṭimah, the prophet Muḥammad's daughter.

The first Aga Khan served as Governor of Qom and Kermān in Iran before intrigues and conflicts at court caused him to leave in 1841. He went first to Afghanistan and then to British-ruled India, where he settled in Bombay. He and his successor, Aga Khan II (d. 1885), represent the transition to the modern period of Ismāʿīlī history.

Aga Khan III, Sir Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh (d. 1957), during his seventy-two-year imamate initiated major developments in Ismāʿīlī institutions, guiding and organizing the community through significant transitions in world and Muslim history. He was an international statesman and was appointed president of the League of Nations in 1937. He was a strong advocate of Muslim interests, a supporter of modern education for women, and an activist for global peace.

The present Aga Khan, born in 1936, spent his early childhood in Kenya and after school in Switzerland attended Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1959 with a degree in Islamic history. His headquarters are in France near Paris, where he is in contact with various communities, many of whom he visits regularly. Since becoming imam in 1957, he has consolidated and further developed community institutions, adapting a complex system of administration to a world of nation-states. Several hundred health, educational, social welfare, and economic institutions exist today to serve the worldwide Ismāʿīlī community and others among whom they live. The Aga Khan's teachings emphasize intellectual inquiry and social commitment in order to solve problems of faith, modernity, and continuity through institution-building; they also emphasize partnership with others in the countries in which Ismāʿīlīs live and cooperation among Muslims.

The Aga Khan has also sought, by creating major new institutions, to express his view that Islam is an all-encompassing faith that gives direction to every aspect of human life. In 1967 he established the Aga Khan Foundation, now a highly regarded international development agency, and in 1977 he launched the Aga Khan Award for Architecture to stimulate concern for a contemporary built environment drawing upon the diverse resources of Islamic culture. He inaugurated the Aga Khan University in 1985 as a center for higher education and research on the health-care needs of Pakistan and the developing world in general. The existence of the Aga Khan Development Network reflects the growing role of the imam in contextualizing the Muslim faith according to the circumstances of time and place and in balancing spiritual needs with material concerns. The emergence of Muslim and Ismāʿīlī communities in Central Asia, China, and the Western world presents new opportunities for the Aga Khan, as a Muslim leader, to mediate between the spiritual and ethical ideals of Islam and changing worldly contexts. See also AGA KHAN FOUNDATION; ISMāʿīLīYAH; and KHOJAS.

Bibliography

  • Aga Khan III. The Memoirs of Aga Khan: World Enough and Time. London: Cassell & Co., 1954. Autobiographical account of his life as imam and international statesman.
  • Daftary, Farhad. The Ismāʿīlīs: Their History and Doctrines. 2d ed.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Excellent and detailed survey up to modern times.
  • Daftary, Farhad. A Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
  • Kassam, Tazim R.“The Aga Khan Development Network: An Ethic of Sustainable Development and Social Conscience.” In Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust, edited by Richard C. Foltz, Frederick M. Denny, and Azizan Baharuddin, pp. 477–496. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Nanji, Azim A.“Sharīʿat and Ḥaqīqat: Continuity and Synthesis in the Nizārī Ismāʿīlī Muslim Tradition.” In Sharīʿat and Ambiguity in South Asian Islam, edited by Katherine P. Ewing, pp. 63–76. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1988. Explores these two organizing principles and their relation to Ismāʿīlī thought in the policies of the Aga Khans.
  • Purohit, Teena. The Aga Khan Case: Religion and Identity in Colonial India. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012.
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