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The Memoirs of Aga Khan - Review and PDF of the Book

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Publication Type  Book Review
Year of Publication  1955
Authors  Tibawi, A.L.
Original Authors  Somerset, W.
Volume  XVII

305 pages

Key Words  Full Text Online; English

This page contains the Review of the Memoirs and also as attachment, the text in pdf format for the whole book


Foreword by W. Somerset Maugham London, Cassell; 1954 (xvii + 305 pages. Illus. Index 81/2 x 51/2. 21sh.)

Full Text  

This book is by a Muslim spiritual leader who is addressing his words not to his own followers or to Muslims in general but primarily to the English-speaking Western reader. The author has spent the greater part of his life in Europe, and naturally his book is more about Europe than any other single subject. It seeks to inform and, at times amuse the reader; but like many memoirs it seeks to exonerate the author. It is a wide and rich in range as the life of its author, and, like him, temperate, generous, and tolerant. Although the manuscript "has been prepared" for him, it seems at times that it would have gained much from certain rearrangement, pruning, and compression.

The book opens with an account of Aga Khan's childhood and youth, including the circumstances which led to his Imam of his sect as the age of eight, and the rigorous system under which he received his education, both religious and secular. Having acquired early an insatiable taste for reading, and apparently exhausted the possibilities of the family library; he was ten when he and a cousin organized expeditions to a local bookshop wherein one of them would engage the shopkeeper in conversation and the other would envelope a few volumes in the folds of his outer garment. But soon they were discovered, and presumably the young bibliophile was provided with ample, lawful supply for his reading. From the second chapter wherein Aga Khan describes his first European tour, the book starts to be a panoramic record of the life of a man who gradually transformed into a cosmopolitan personage, and whose interest in good living, beautiful women, horses, royalty, and titled people became increasingly manifest. But this is the usual picture of the Aga Khan in the mind of the general public. No doubt his memoirs paint this picture in vivid hues. But the other Aga Khan, the Imam of the Imami Ismailis, the ascetic and devout Muslim the political leader of the Muslim Indians before Jinnah, the staunch supporter of British rule in India, and the president of the League of Nations is so well portrayed in these memoirs that there is no danger of his being confused with the former.

The book is replete with, among other topics, slight, if intimate, touches on innumerable political events and many personalities, both in the East and in the West, during the last sixty years or so. It is difficult to read a book of such a variety without finding fault with fact or argument. Perhaps the most serious criticism that can be made concerns certain inconsistencies or misjudgements in the political parts of the book. A few examples will suffice here.

The Aga Khan says that the political guidance and advice he has always given to his followers, scattered as they are in many parts and subjects of different governments, is to be loyal to the State of which they happen to be citizens (p.187). This is no doubt a sound policy, but the Aga Khan himself violated it early in his career when after the outbreak of the First World War he issued a manifest (pp.134ff.), not merely to his own followers but to all Muslims, urging them not to heed the call of the Ottoman Caliph-Sultan for jihad. This is not to say that Turkey was right or wrong in siding with Germany against the Allies in 1914, or that the call for jihad on the part of the Sultan was wise or foolish. The point is how the Aga Khan's policy worked in practice.

However, when Turkey emerged from the war beaten and threatened with extinction the Aga Khan, together with other Indian Muslim leaders, used his influence to save it from this ugly fate. His brief reference to what actually happened in post-war years is neither accurate nor consistent, at any rate so far as the Arab countries are concerned. He says that "the British Empire in the years from 1918 onwards, fell heir - by accident rather than by intention - to that Near and Middle East hegemony so long exercised by the Ottoman Empire." As a matter of fact negotiations on the "division of spoils" were started among the Allies within a few months of the entry of Turkey into the war. The result was the secret agreements of 1915, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, to say nothing of the undertakings made to Sharif Husain and other Arab leaders from 1915 to 1918.

Thus before the end of the war Britain was more or less clear about her future spheres of influence in the Near East. The principles, such as they were, were certainly according to plan. It was only putting them into practice that was sometimes left to accident. The Aga Khan himself refers (p150) to these treaties and promises and recognizes that they were irreconcilable - irreconcilable, that is, as practical politics, but he says nothing about their moral validity. But in connexion with the failure of his efforts to secure Turkey's neutrality, he indulges instead in futile reflection on the consequences of one of the most fascinating "ifs" of history. If the Ottoman Empire had remained neutral as he, at the behest of the British Government, urged her to do, what would have happened to her, to her Arab provinces, and to her neighbours?

On the subject of Zionism (pp150-2) the Aga Khan is today still as muddled as most English politicians were in the period between the two wars. Before the turn of ...............Russian Jewish scientist who was also a Zionist. Zionism was represented to the Aga Khan by his Russian friend as "peaceful and progressive settlement in the Holy Land of a limited number of Jews from Europe," who would engage in agriculture, and the capital needed for land purchases would be provided by wealthy Jews. "I thought," says the Aga Khan, "this sort of Zionism useful and practical; it contained no hint of the establishment of a Jewish national state." It is doubtful if at that time the Aga Khan thought of a Jewish national state. Nevertheless, he undertook to submit Zionism proposals on the lines stated above to Abdul Hamid II through his ambassador in Paris. The proposals were then turned down by the Sultan. But apparently the lessons of mandatory Palestine, Jewish terrorism during the last years of the mandate, and the conduct of Israel since 1948 are all lost on the Aga Khan. Otherwise he would scarcely be expected to add this gratuitous reflection, "I must say its rejection has always seemed to me one of Abdul Hamid's greatest blunders."

The Aga Khan is on firmer ground when he tries to assess the background of the emergence of Pakistan. On the cultural level the seeds were sown in the Anglo-Muslim College (later the University of Aligarh) (p.36) and on the political level the Congress was considered as early as the beginning of the century as "incapable of representing India's Muslims". The unity imposed by the British Raj was already cracking (p.75), resulting in the formation of the Muslim League and finally the sovereign state of Pakistan.

Another subject of which the ga Khan shows himself an acute judge is what he call the mental and spiritual alienation of the British ruling classes from India's educated classes (p.27). He traces the origin of the change from an atmosphere of social ease and equality between the British and the Indians (he means, of course, the upper classes) in the eighties to an atmosphere of exclusiveness and arrogance created by the British in the nineties. He attributes the change, among other reasons, to the imposition of a colour bar conceived not.........arbitrary measure of the white ma's intellectual and spiritual superiority. The imposition of the colour bar itself was the result of what Aga Khan calls fear of loss of prestige and the consequent loss of self-confidence on the part of the British.

But what contributed to the appearance of this fear the Aga Khan does not attempt to explain. Somerset Maugham, in the foreward, is inclined to attribute the change of attitude to the operation of Lord Aton's dictum that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolute.' Be that as it, it is certainly oversimplification to assert, as the Aga Khan does, that with out this social embitterment the severance of the Imperial connexion and the independence of India and Pakistan would have been less drastic than happened in 1947.

And yet, with all its interesting touches on these and other subjects, the book is disappointing in certain ways. The serious student of Islam or Ismailism will find little or no fresh light thrown on either subject. Of course this is not the main object of the author, but considering the type of reader it seeks to inform and the fame of its author, one cannot help thinking that the book has missed a unique opportunity. For example, the philosophical bent of Ismailism and its resilience in adversity should have found some place in such a book by such an author.

Even the chapter entitled ‘Islamic Concept and my Role as Imam' which is advertised by the publisher and hailed by Mr. Somerset Maugham as ‘the most important chapter in the book,' is written in such a manner that the following passage finds a prominent place in it : "The influence of Aisha, the young and beautiful wife of Muhammad, a rancorous enemy of Fatima and of Ali, procured the election of her own father, Abu Bakr..."The passage is quoted from a judgement of a Bombay High Court English Judge given in 1866 upholding the right of the Aga Khan's family to their spiritual title. This is the Aga Khan's way of explaining to the European reader how Ali was excluded from the succession to the Prophet. That is one........more philosophy and less controversy in this book.

On the lighter side, the book has a great deal of entertaining and colourful material, though it is doubtful whether all this material is intended to be so by the author. For example, the Aga Khan's dislike of Arabic calligraphy in early childhood (p.12) his frugal diet at the present time (p.14) his reticent attempt to correct various estimates of his wealth (pp.313-15), and his verbose overstress of the fact (p.207) that before he proposed to her his third wife had a dressmaking shop and had not worked as an assistant in a confectionery. "She had never in her life had anything to do with chocolates" he says with unconscious humour. And yet the Memoirs are silent on a question which must come to the minds of many readers : Why does the Aga Khan reside where he does away from any community of which he is the spiritual head? The only clue one finds is a laconic confession that during his first European tour in 1898, " I lost my heart to the French Riviera"(p.104)

But all these are blemishes from which no book and author can be free. They do not detract in any way from the value of the book as a candid self-portrait of a prominent contemporary.

Part1_Book 8 MEMOIRS of AGA KHAN (English).pdf5.16 MB
Part2_Book 8 MEMOIRS of AGA KHAN (English).pdf6 MB
Part3_Book 8 MEMOIRS of AGA KHAN (English).pdf6.17 MB
Part4_Book 8 MEMOIRS of AGA KHAN (English).pdf6.18 MB
Part5_Book 8 MEMOIRS of AGA KHAN (English).pdf6.1 MB
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Part7_Book 8 MEMOIRS of AGA KHAN (English).pdf6.28 MB
Part8_Book 8 MEMOIRS of AGA KHAN (English).pdf5.54 MB
Part9_Book 8 MEMOIRS of AGA KHAN (English).pdf678.38 KB

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