Ismailis and the Aga Khan

[Please also refer to my posts of 5.20 and 5.28 for an introduction to the history of Islam.]

The Tajik Pamirs and northern Pakistan share not only mountainous terrain and certain ethnic/cultural links but also religion: Ismaili Islam. The Ismailis are Shiite Muslims who believe that the true seventh Imam was a man named Ismail rather than his younger brother Musa, as the Twelver Shiites (such as those of Iran) believe. While during certain periods, such as the Cairo-based Fatimid Empire, Ismailis were a powerful force, today they form a small minority of Muslims, often scattered in remote mountainous terrain.

The historical distinction between Ismailis and other Shiites may seem minor, but, over time, this simple succession dispute has led to a universe of divergence, as Ismailis have become among the most progressive of the Islamic sects, in stark contrast to the Shiites of Iran. Indeed, the distinction between Ismailis and other Muslims has grown so great that one (Sunni) Kyrgyz woman in Tajikistan told us that the Tajik Pamiris were not even Muslim. Of course, despite the strong lingering of pre-Islamic beliefs and traditions the Ismaili Pamiris are in fact Muslim, as are the Ismaili Hunzas of northern Pakistan, but it is true that the Ismaili worldview of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is clearly a world apart from some other sects of Islam, and, to this outsider, far more appealing.

This difference is perhaps no more apparent than in Pakistan. In the fabled lands of Hunza in northern Pakistan, the population is largely Ismaili, having converted in the 1830s, while the rest of the country is largely Sunni and, to a lesser extent, Twelver Shia. In Hunza areas, it is common to see local women out and about living their lives, and to interact with them on a socially equal basis, as in the West. Just a couple hours south, it is essentially impossible to even see a woman in public, because they live in seclusion, public life being the exclusive domain of men. The Hunza Valley is exceptionally safe, a haven of calm befitting the beautiful landscape; a couple hours south, sectarian violence necessitates battlefield levels of policing by armed soldiers. In the Tajik Pamirs, whenever a local person spoke of religion, he or she stressed the unity of humanity and faith, in sharp contrast to some religious who see people of other faiths as fundamentally misguided and dangerous.

Flag of the Ismailis, Hunza Valley, Pakistan

All of this is thanks, I believe, largely to the stewardship of the living Imam of the Ismaili faith, the Aga Khan. That’s right–while Twelver Shiites believe that the twelfth Imam was the last, the Ismailis believe in a line of succession that has survived to this day from Mohammed to Karim al-Hussainy, the forty-ninth Imam and the current leader of the Ismaili faith, generally referred to by his hereditary title, Aga Khan IV.

I do not know too much about the history of the Ismaili Imams, but as of the nineteenth century the Imam of the Ismaili faith already had some prominence in Iran, acting as a governor of some localities. The forty-sixth Imam was granted the title of “Aga Khan” (an Iranian-Turkic royal title) by the Shah of Iran. The family later moved to British India, where the 48th Imam, also known as Aga Khan III, played a significant role in the establishment of the Muslim League and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Aga Khan III also served as the President of the League of Nations, the pre-United Nations body that existed between the two world wars. His son acted as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

Karim al-Hussayni (Aga Khan IV) was born in Switzerland in 1936, grew up in part in Kenya and attended Harvard, where he studied–get this–Islamic history. When it was time for his grandfather Aga Khan III, in accordance with Ismaili custom, to choose a successor from the family, he chose his grandson Karim rather than Karim’s father to be the 49th Imam because he believed that it was good for the Ismaili faith to have a younger Imam who had grown up in the atomic age. The Aga Khan currently lives in France carrying on his family’s distinguished history of public service with the work of the Aga Khan Foundation, one of the largest privately run development organizations in the world. I’ll discuss the Aga Khan Foundation a bit later, but first I wanted to convey a sense of the Aga Khan’s spiritual leadership of the Ismaili faith–the following excerpts from the website of the Aga Khan Development Network put it succinctly.

The Aga Khan has emphasised the view of Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith: one that teaches compassion and tolerance and that upholds the dignity of man, Allah’s noblest creation. In the Shia tradition of Islam, it is the mandate of the Imam of the time to safeguard the individual’s right to personal intellectual search and to give practical expression to the ethical vision of society that the Islamic message inspires. . . . [The] wisdom of Allah’s final Prophet in seeking new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, provides the inspiration for Muslims to conceive a truly modern and dynamic society, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam.

The key to the dignified life that Islam espouses is an enlightened mind symbolised in the Quran’s metaphor of creation, including one’s self, as an object of rational quest. “My Lord! Increase me in knowledge,” is a cherished prayer that the Quran urges upon all believers, men and women alike. . . . This spark of divinity, which bestows individuality and true nobility on the human soul, also bonds individuals in a common humanity. Humankind, says the Quran, has been created from a single soul, as male and female, communities and nations, so that people may know one another. It invites people of all faiths, men and women, to strive for goodness.

The message is one that I find exceptionally sympathetic. The Aga Khan stresses compassion and tolerance, the opposite of the sectarian and other chauvinism and violence seemingly promoted by some Islamic sects. He stresses individual rights and freedom of conscience. He believes in the intellect and “new solutions” rather than stale dogma, which can cause many religions to turn cruelly reactionary and conservative. He recognizes that the religious message, the gift of the prophets, is meant to “inspire” and cannot necessarily by itself solve the world’s problems, and that the most important thing is to retain “fundamental concepts” and “goodness.” The worldview is overwhelmingly universalist, a belief in the brotherhood of man and not just Shiites or Muslims.

The Aga Khan’s religious message also goes to compassion for the weak, a message common to many religions but often paid only lip service.

At the heart of Islam’s social vision is the ethic of care of the weak and restraint in their sway by the rich and powerful. The pious are the socially conscious who recognise in their wealth, whether personal talent or material resources, an element of trust for the indigent and deprived.

Traveling in Ismaili areas has given me a great deal of respect for the Aga Khan precisely for his commitment to improving life of the poor. He recognizes that his flock, the Ismailis, live in remote circumstances at the edge of the Muslim/civilized world, and literally helps build bridges to connect them to each other and to the outside world. The Aga Khan works through partnerships with, and funding from, all sorts of other entities including multilateral organizations and governments, adding to the available pool of resources from the Aga Khan personally and private contributions (including those of wealthier Ismailis). The Aga Khan is sadly uncommon in being a world spiritual leader who also looks after his followers’ material well-being.


While areas of geographical focus are chosen based on the presence of local Ismaili populations, the Aga Khan Foundation provides all services on a non-discriminatory basis without regard for religious affiliation, ethnicity or gender. The mission of the Aga Khan is far broader.

[The] combined mandate [of the Aga Khan Development Network, or AKDN,] is to improve living conditions and opportunities, and to help relieve society of the burdens of ignorance, disease, and deprivation. . . . The impulses that underpin the Network are the Muslim ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society and the duty, guided by the ethics of the Islam, to contribute to improving the quality of all human life. The pivotal notion in the ethical ideal of Islam is human dignity, and thus, the duty to respect and support God’s greatest creation, Man himself.

Not only is the Aga Khan’s (and his grandfather-predecessor’s) mission impressive, but the organizations have shown incredible results. For example, the Hunzas benefit from significantly higher levels of social development (such as health and education levels) than the rest of Pakistan. Everywhere you see Aga Khan projects–schools, clinics, dams and canals, restorations of historical sites, etc. To hear locals speak of the Aga Khan is moving. Doesn’t it seem unlikely that an eighth century schism could have such real world consequences in the twenty-first, and make Ismaili areas of Pakistan such havens of peace and prosperity while other parts of the country burn with religious strife? The Hunzas converted only in the 1830s–had they not, how different may life in northern Pakistan be today, without the leadership and development assistance of the Aga Khan?

The Aga Khan is, in one word, inspiring. What would it be like to be born and educated in Europe, to attend Harvard, and be a living Imam? A man of the twentieth century, and with the political burdens of public service, but also a descendent of Mohammed and a spiritual leader? I do not know as much as I would like to about the man, but could he have made any better use of his position?

4 thoughts on “Ismailis and the Aga Khan

  1. This is a great and honest depiction of Agha Khan and his affairs.However, unfortunately there are certain ignorant people within the Muslim community itself that are either jealous of Agha Khan’s leadership or have discrimination against him. Agha Khan’s prevails the true message of Quran and presents the real image of Islam.

  2. Very well written. As an Ismaili born in the West, the Aga Khan’s message does stand in stark contrast when compared to other Muslim sects. The Aga Khan has been very keen for us to adapt ourselves in the Western world whilst keeping true to our Ismaili values and morals. May God bless you and yours.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *