Happy Birthday

aga khan, aga khan iv, imam
Jan Bauer, Paul White/AP

Happy Birthday, Karim Aga Khan IV, Leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims

December 13, 2009
by Isabel Cowles
Aga Khan IV is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. The Aga Khan succeeded his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, to become the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. He has spent his life working to strengthen the Muslim community through his belief that the ethic of Islam “requires members of the faith to contribute to improving the quality of all human life.”

Karim Aga Khan IV's Early Days

Karim Aga Khan IV was born to Prince Aly Khan and Princess Tajuddawlah Aly Khan on December 13, 1936 in Geneva, Switzerland. For four years during World War II, he lived with his brother and parents in Nairobi, Kenya, where he received a religious education. At the end of the war, the family returned to Europe. He attended Le Rosey School in Switzerland where he concentrated on learning Arabic, Urdu and Islamic history. Upon graduation, he enrolled at Harvard and earned a BA Honors Degree in Islamic history in 1959.

In 1954, under the direction of his grandfather, sitting Imam Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, the Aga Khan and his brother, Prince Amyn, traveled to the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent and East African countries to observe traditions of the Muslim faith.

Three years later, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan died, leaving these instructions: “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 as Imam.” For those reasons, he appointed his grandson Karim, instead of his own son, to succeed to the title of Aga Khan.

The Aga Khan took a year off from Harvard to visit a variety of Ismaili communities before his appointment as Imam. He was named to the position at ceremonies held in Nairobi, Bombay, Kampala, Dar-es-Salaam and Karachi.

The Aga Khan's Notable Accomplishments

Since becoming Imam, the Aga Khan has worked to facilitate the well-being of Ismaili Muslims and their communities, which are found in 25 countries worldwide. To implement these initiatives, the Aga Khan created the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), an organization that is divided into nine separate agencies including The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, Aga Khan University and the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance.

In addition to serving as a spiritual leader for the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, the Aga Khan has also developed and personally maintains a fortune in excess of $1 billion. Most of Khan’s investments are in Africa and Asia. According to The Independent, these small and medium-sized enterprises were “set up as engines of employment to promote economic self-reliance among the poorest people.” In addition, the Imam heads the world’s largest private aid agency, the Aga Khan Development Foundation, which offers developing countries $300 million a year for rural development, education and health care.

The Rest of the Story

The Aga Khan is regarded by the Ismaili Muslims as the final authority on interpreting the Quran. According to CNN, one religious scholar even remarked that he is “more powerful than the pope.” The Aga Khan recently visited the United States to promote his agenda of narrowing the gap between the Western world and Islam—a project he has approached through partnerships with American universities. One of the main themes the Aga Khan has focused on when describing the difficult relations between Islam and the West is a “clash of ignorance,” rather than a clash of cultures, beliefs or faiths.

In a 2006 interview, the Aga Khan articulated his beliefs about Islam and the West, referring to Islam as “a faith of reason,” stating that he believes Islamic terrorism results from “[u]nsolved political conflicts, frustration and, above all, ignorance. Nothing that was born out of a theological conflict.”

Most Recent Features