Aga Khan (Persian: آغا خان ) is the hereditary title of the Imam (spiritual and general leader) of the Nizārī Muslims( الطائفة الإسماعيلية), a sect of Ismā'īlī Shīˤa Islām that formed in 765 C.E. when the followers of Ismail bin Jafir (721 - 755 C.E.) split away from the Musa al-Kazim (745 - 799 C.E.).
The Aga Khans are known throughout the world for their philanthropic efforts and establishment of various educational and medical organizations in the service of humanity and God. The Aga Khans have built schools, hospitals and other agencies to help the poor and marginalized. Today, the Aga Khan Foundation gives numerous awards and grants to recognize and promote humanitarian and scientific achievement in various fields.
The title "Aga Khan" was first used in 1818 when the Shah of Iran, Fath Ali (1771 - 1834 C.E.), appointed Aga Hasan Ali Shah as Aga Khan I. Since that time, there have been three additional leaders holding this title: Ali Shah (1830 - 1885), Sultan Sir Mohammed Shah (1877 – 1957), and the current incumbent, Karim al-Husayn Shah (b. 1937).
The title "Aga Khan" combines the Turkish military title Agha with the Turkic, Mongolian and Persian/Pashto polyvalent title Khan, meaning roughly "Commanding Chief." In Persia's Qajar court protocol, Khan was commonly used for commanders of armed forces and provincial tribal leaders.
The Aga Khan is the leader of the Nizārī (Arabic النزاريون) community, a sect of Ismaili Shīˤa Islām. These Ismailis and the Twelvers both accepted the same initial Imams from the descendants of Muḥħammad and thus shared much of their early history. However, a dispute arose on the succession of the Sixth Imam, Jafar Sadiq. The Ismailis became those who accepted Jafar's eldest son Ismail bin Jafar as the next Imam, whereas the Twelvers accepted a younger son, Musa al-Kazim. The Fatimid Regent appointed al-Mustansir's younger son al-Musta'li as caliph and as a result, an-Nizār died in prison when he attempted to claim the throne by rebellion. In 1818, the title of Aga Khan was bestowed upon Aga Hasan Ali Shah, the 46th Imam of the Ismailis, by Fath Ali (1771-1834 C.E.), the Shah of Persia. The Aga Khan claimed to be descended in direct line from the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Additionally, the Aga Khan traced his descent from the royal house of Persia. His ancestors had also ruled in Egypt as caliphs of the Fatimid dynasty.
Before the Aga Khan emigrated from Persia, he was appointed by the Persian ruler, Fat′h Ali Shah Qajar, to be governor-general of the important province of Kerman. His rule was noted for firmness, moderation and high political sagacity, and he succeeded for a long time in retaining the friendship and confidence of his master the Shah, although his career was beset with political intrigues and jealousy on the part of rival and court favorites, and with internal turbulence. He was sentenced to death when the Shah of Iran discovered Aga Khan's claim to be God's Mazar on Earth, the title was also cancelled by the Shah. He fled from Persia and sought protection in British territory, preferring to settle down eventually in India, making Bombay his headquarters.
At that period the First Anglo-Afghan War was at its height, and in crossing over from Persia through Afghanistan the Aga Khan supported the British army. Some years later he rendered similar conspicuous services in the course of the Sindh campaign, when his help was utilized by Charles James Napier in the process of subduing the frontier tribes, many of whom acknowledged the Aga's authority as their spiritual head. Napier held his Muslim ally in great esteem, and entertained a very high opinion of his political acumen and chivalry. The Aga Khan reciprocated the British commander's confidence and friendship by giving repeated proofs of his loyalty to the British government, and when he finally settled down in India, his position as the leader of the large Ismaili section of Muslim British subjects was recognized by the government, and the title of His Highness was conferred on him, with a large pension.
After settling in Bombay under the protection of the British government, the Aga Khan was formally recognized by the British Raj in 1877 due to his help in suppressing a regional rebellion against the British, thus the Aga Khan became the only religious or community leader in British India granted a personal gun salute; all other salute dynasties were either rulers of Princely States, or Political Pensioners holding ancestral princely titles in states abolished by the Raj.
From that time until his death in 1881, Aga Khan I led the life of a peaceful and peacemaking citizen, and continued to discharge his sacerdotal functions, not only among his followers in India, but towards the larger religious community found in distant countries, such as Afghanistan, Khorasan, Persia, Arabia, Central Asia, and even distant Syria and Morocco. He remained throughout unflinchingly loyal to the British Raj, and by his vast and unquestioned influence among the frontier tribes on the northern borders of India he exercised a control over their unruly passions in times of trouble, which proved of invaluable service in the several expeditions led by British arms on the northwest frontier of India. He was also the means of checking the fanaticism of the more turbulent Muslims in British India, which in times of internal troubles and misunderstandings finds vent in the shape of religious or political riots.
He was succeeded for a short time by his eldest son, Shah Aly Shah' (شاه علي شاه أغا خان الثاني) who became Aga Khan II. Aga Khan II only led the community for a few years until his death in 1885. He was the 47th Imam. He was granted a knighthood of the Order of the Indian Empire and won a seat on the legislative council of Bombay. The couple's only child, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, became Aga Khan III.
Under the leadership of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, the first half of the twentieth century was a period of significant development for the Ismāʿīlī community. Numerous institutions for social and economic development were established in South Asia and in East Africa. Ismailis have marked the Jubilees of their Imāms with public celebrations. Although the Jubilees have no religious significance, they serve to reaffirm the Imamat's world-wide commitment to the improvement of the quality of human life, especially in the developing countries. The Jubilees of Aga Khan III were widely celebrated. During his 72 years of leadership (1885-1957), the community celebrated Aga Khan III's Golden (1937), Diamond (1946) and Platinum (1954) Jubilees. To show their appreciation and affection, the community weighed their Imam in gold, diamonds, and platinum, with the proceeds going to further develop major social welfare and development institutions in Asia and Africa. Thereafter, social development institutions were established such as the Diamond Jubilee Trust and the Platinum Jubilee Investments Limited which in turn assisted the growth of various types of cooperative societies. Diamond Jubilee Schools for girls were established throughout the remote Northern Areas of what is now Pakistan. In addition, scholarship programs, established at the time of the Golden Jubilee to give assistance to needy students, were progressively expanded. In East Africa, major social welfare and economic development institutions were established. Those involved in social welfare included the accelerated development of schools and community centers, and a modern, fully equipped hospital in Nairobi. Among the economic development institutions established in East Africa were companies such as the Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust (now Diamond Trust of Kenya) and the Jubilee Insurance Company.
Prince Karīm al-Hussainī became the present Aga Khan IV upon assuming the Imamat of the Nizari Ismailis on July 11, 1957 at the age of 20, succeeding his grandfather, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan (Aga Khan III). His father, Prince Aly Khan, was a high-profile celebrity in the mid-twentiethth century owing to his relationships with Hollywood stars, including a marriage to Rita Hayworth. He was passed over from the succession, and was later appointed Pakistan's permanent ambassador to the United Nations.
In his will, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah elaborated the conditions that led him to select his grandson as successor to the Ismaili Imamat:
"In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years due to the great changes that have taken place, including the discoveries of atomic science, I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shia Muslim Ismaili community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been 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."
The present Aga Khan became the leader in 1957. The period following his accession can be characterized as one of rapid political and economic change. Planning of programs and institutions became increasingly difficult due to the rapid changes in newly emerging nations. Upon becoming Imām, the present Aga Khan's immediate concern was the preparation of his followers, wherever they lived, for the changes that lay ahead. This rapidly evolving situation called for bold initiatives and new programs to reflect developing national aspirations.
In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, a major objective of the Community's social welfare and economic programs, until the mid-1950s, had been to create a broad base of businessmen, agriculturists, and professionals. The educational facilities of the Community tended to emphasize secondary-level education. With the coming of independence, each nation's economic aspirations took on new dimensions, focusing on industrialization and modernization of agriculture. The Community's educational priorities had to be reassessed in the context of new national goals, and new institutions had to be created to respond to the growing complexity of the development process.
Aga Khan IV continued the practice of his predecessor and extended constitutions to Ismāʿīlī communities in the U.S., Canada, several European countries, the Gulf, Syria and Iran following a process of consultation within each constituency. In 1986, he promulgated a Constitution that, for the first time, brought the social governance of the world-wide Ismāʿīlī community into a single structure with built-in flexibility to account for diverse circumstances of different regions. Served by volunteers appointed by and accountable to the Imām, the Constitution functions as an enabler to harness the best in individual creativity in an ethos of group responsibility to promote the common well-being.
Like its predecessors, the present constitution is founded on each Ismāʿīlī's spiritual allegiance to the Imām of the Time, which is separate from the secular allegiance that all Ismāʿīlīs owe as citizens to their national entities. The present Imām and his predecessor emphasized Ismāʿīliyya's allegiance to his or her country as a fundamental obligation. These obligations discharged not by passive affirmation but through responsible engagement and active commitment to uphold national integrity and contribute to peaceful development.
In view of the importance that Islām places on maintaining a balance between the spiritual well-being of the individual and the quality of his life, the Imam’s guidance deals with both aspects of the life of his followers. The Aga Khan has encouraged Ismāʿīlī Muslims, settled in the industrialized world, to contribute towards the progress of communities in the developing world through various development programs. In recent years, Ismāʿīlī Muslims, who have come to the US, Canada and Europe, mostly as refugees from Asia and Africa, have readily settled into the social, educational and economic fabric of urban and rural centers across the two continents. As in the developing world, the Ismāʿīlī Muslim community's settlement in the industrial world has involved the establishment of community institutions characterized by an ethos of self-reliance, an emphasis on education, and a pervasive spirit of philanthropy.
The current title holder, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, is the 49th Ismaili Imam, tracing his lineage to Ali, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, and his wife Fatima, the Prophet's daughter. The title "His Highness" was granted by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom in 1957, and "His Royal Highness" by the Shah of Iran in 1959.
The Aga Khan, heir to the family fortune and a society figure, is founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network' , one of the largest private development networks in the world. In Afghanistan, the AKDN has mobilized over $400 million in development projects, a large portion of which has come from the Network's own resources. AKDN continues to work with a variety of African and Asian countries to improve living conditions and to promote education.
From July 1982 to July 1983, to celebrate the present Aga Khan's Silver Jubilee, marking the 25th anniversary of his accession to the Imāmat, many new social and economic development projects were launched. These range from the establishment of the US $300 million international Aga Khan University with its Faculty of Health Sciences and teaching hospital based in Karachi, the expansion of schools for girls and medical centers in the Hunza region, one of the remote parts of Northern Pakistan bordering on China and Afghanistan, to the establishment of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in Gujarat, India, and the extension of existing urban hospitals and primary health care centers in Tanzania and Kenya.
These initiatives form part of an international network of institutions involved in fields that range from education, health and rural development, to architecture and the promotion of private sector enterprise and together make up the "Aga Khan Development Network."
It is this commitment to human dignity that inspires the Ismāʿīlī Imāmat's philanthropic institutions. Giving of one's competence, sharing one's time, material, or intellectual wherewithal with those among whom one lives, for the relief of hardship, pain or ignorance is a deeply-ingrained tradition which shapes the social conscience of the Ismāʿīlī Muslim community.
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