FACE TO FACE WITH THE AGA KHAN
INTERVIEWED BY ROGER PRIOURET
(TRANSLATED FROM FRENCH BY DR.ABDUL SULTAN HASSAM)
I expected the Aga Khan to be a Parisian at heart, like his grandfather and father before him, with "high society" manners, living in luxury and idle for most of the time.
Going into his apartments on the Quai aux Fleurs is a surprise therefore. The grey stone walls are covered with vast sombre tapestries. All the furniture is very dark, almost black. I have seen few places so austere - and even, why not say it - so sad. As for the man himself, he reflects a little of the atmosphere of his apartment. His conversation likewise. Undoubtedly a millionaire, he has his place among millionaires, not only in Paris (where he meets his old student friends) but also in St.Moritz in Switzerland where he socialises with the most powerful people in the world. On the morning of one of his trips abroad, the array of his luggage is impressive indeed.
But this heir of an amiable grandfather, whom he admired, and an idle father, who influenced him little, has the life-style and language of a man of calling. An acute awareness of his religious role, and humanity, as the leader of a Moslem community which is a minority throughout Islam and envied everywhere, consisting mainly of trading people.
The fierce loyalty at the heart of this community results in enormous financial resources for him and, in fact, a little of the same sort of responsibilities as the great American foundations. It is essential therefore to know how to handle wealth and to economize with judicious investments, finally he must be able to give it away. Education at Harvard was invaluable to him. He must, however, fulfil his role in countries rife with turmoil, where the power structure is changing, where prison, banishment and even death are commonplace.
The Aga Khan is discreet about the extent of the funds at his disposal. Like the Vatican he releases no accounts for his official nor personal fortunes.
Q. You are the leader of the Ismaili community but it is difficult for the Frenchman to see the relationship of this community to the Moslem community as a whole.
A. The Moslem religion is divided into two main branches: the Shiites and the Sunnites. Within these two there are a multitude of divisions.
The Ismaili community is a sect of the Shiite branch. The fundamental difference between Sunnites and Shiites is the problem of the succession of the Prophet Muhammed, also of the direction in which believers must progress, and finally of the structure of the Moslem state. Shiites believe that the religious control of the Moslems goes back to Ali, who was the nephew of Mohammed and also his son-in-law. This power has descended through Ali's ancestors on the male side. Among the Shiite Moslems there have been controversies over the genealogy and the true succession over the centuries. Ismailis are Shiite Moslems and my family descends from Ali. I am the forty-ninth Imam after Him. In western countries there is a certain confusion between Ismail and Ishmael, the latter was a Prophet of the Old Testament, while Ismail was the sixth Imam in direct succession from Ali.
There are between twelve and fifteen million Ismailis in the world. I don't know the exact figure. They are so widely dispersed that it is difficult to count them.
They are to be found today in about twenty-five countries. Firstly there is a large Asiatic zone, which is made up of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, where Ismailis are numerous: then there is an important concentration on the eastern side of Africa from Uganda to Madagascar. There is a third zone which is the result of African migrations westward and which, little by little, has stretched into Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, the Ivory Coast, etc. In the Middle-East there are also quite large numbers of Ismailis in Syria. But the main concentrations are the first two, that is in Asia and Eastern Africa.
It is always necessary to take into account the changes going on at this moment in the world, and certain revolutions in Africa have forced Ismailis to leave the continent and settle, mostly in Canada and to a lesser extent in the United States.
Q. What is your role as head of the community?
A. It is two-fold. The Imam must direct Ismailis on the practice of their religion and constantly interpret the Qur'an for them according to our theology. On the spiritual plane, the Imam's authority is absolute. Ismailis believe therefore that what the Imam says is the only true interpretation possible. This is fundamental to our religion - perhaps something similar is found in the case of the Pope in the Catholic religion.
That is not all. The Imam is at all times responsible for aid and assistance to Ismailis in their material life. Not directly, but in the sense that he helps them to follow the necessary institutions for their material progress.
This becomes most important when there is a crisis, like the recent one in Uganda, or the one in Burma in the nineteen-sixties. The major groups of Ismailis are in countries in the process of development. They often find themselves face-to-face with dramatic problems and the Imam must intervene to advise them.
Naturally, the Imam cannot manage this alone. The Ismaili community is divided structurally. Each country is divided into provinces and each province has a council chosen by the Imam on the proposal of the preceding council. More precisely - the outgoing council presents three lists to the Imam, who then makes his choice.
Provincial councils are under the authority of the national councils which look after the welfare of countries as a whole.
The national council is mostly under the authority of a council which is made up of groups of countries and could therefore be called a regional council. There is a council for the African continent. We have another which covers Canada, the United States and Western Europe.
There are no regional councils in Asia however. The provincial councils and, where they do not exist, the national councils are in direct contact with the Imam.
You must realize that all the men who work on these councils do so free of charge. They take the necessary time off from their professional and family life.
To each council is attached a tribunal whose members are all Ismailis and who apply the Ismaili family laws where national legislation allows tradition religious tribunals.
Q. There is a legend that you receive each year your own weight in gold or diamonds?
A. That is certainly a legend. My grandfather was the forty- eighth Imam for more than three quarters of a century. The believers wished to mark the success of his reign by four Jubilees. He was given the equivalent of his own weight in gold, then in money, then in platinum, then in diamonds. These funds, received symbolically by him, have been the basis of new institutions for the Community. He did not keep them.
One example of these institutions: the Aga Khan Platinum Jubilee Hospital of Nairobi, which contains two hundred and fifty beds, and which is open to all, whatever their race or religion, was built in 1957 with the funds provided by that Jubilee.
It is not necessary to confuse - my grandfather never did and nor have I - personal fortunes and the resources of the religious community. For like all religions the Ismaili community has its funds. The management and disposition of these funds is left entirely to the Imam, depending on the needs of the community.
There are, therefore, a network of institutions created by the Imam. That goes for the day nursery in a small African province as well as the bank or assurance company, in the same way to the industrial promotions society or the tourist board; all organisations which help Ismailis to better themselves. In a parallel way there is a network of services, which you would call social services and which include education, medicine, housing...
There is also a philanthropic department; but, in fact, we never leave anyone totally in charge of that. It's a principle which we are trying to maintain. If someone finds themself in difficulty, they are helped. Take, for example, a family thrown out of Uganda, who leave with nothing for Canada. We make them a loan at a minimal rate of interest, but they have to try to repay it, little by little, when their situation is improved. We see that the child of that family has schooling but he must eventually try to repay the cost of his studies. If he repays it one is delighted, for this helps others: if he doesn't we do not force him. In general we are not an organization which contents itself with charity.
All of these things form a large part of my work. It is not always the same, without problems, for the Ismaili community suffers all the crises of the countries of which it is a part. I have no holidays. If war is declared between India and Pakistan, or there are troubles in the Middle-East, or Africa, something must be done at once.
Q. From where do you control these activities?
A. From Paris and from Switzerland. I am frequently in France. My main offices are in Paris, but all the financial administration of the Community is in Switzerland, where there are a group of people who work, sometimes directly for me, sometimes through a society - the IPS-Switzerland - whose business is economics.
The activities of IPS deserve an explanation. When my grandfather died, Ismailis were occupied mainly with commerce. I considered this situation dangerous. A community whose material existence depends on a single activity is subject to political pressures. History shows how such sects and minority groups fare.
I set myself a task when my grandfather died in 1957.
Q. Your father did not take the title?
A. No, my grandfather named me when I was twenty. I was at University then.
I interrupted my studies, therefore, to train for my new function. I found an alarming situation, caused mainly by decolonisation which was obviously going to disrupt so much of the everyday life of Ismailis and their means of existence.
I suddenly had two goals: the first, education, had to be immediate and substantial to allow these families of tradesmen to regain a professional mobility which would correspond to their physical displacement in case of a crisis. It was essential, if these folk had to emigrate, that they found doors open to them. A huge effort on the education scheme was made in Africa and Asia between 1957 and 1970.
The other goal was the diversification of economic activities in the community. For ten years a great number of young people have been trained in fields which have nothing to do with running business. They have gone into industry, tourism, and plenty of other professions.
This effort has been considerable, but has often been made more difficult by the turmoils which have affected the decolonized countries.
Q. How many collaborators have you in Switzerland?
A. Twenty to thirty people actually.
Q. And in Paris?
A. Ten or twelve. These figures seem tiny in comparison to the vast activity of the community. But I remind you that our organization is very decentralized. The true labour is done by the regional, national and obviously, if there is a crisis the people concerned are placed in direct contact with me when they don't know how to handle things.
Q. And your personal fortune?
A. I inherited it from my grandfather. He himself received it from his grandfather and had managed it extremely well. On his death this wealth was distributed between all members of the family.
Q. There were a lot of legatees?
A. Yes, his widow, my father and my half-uncle. When my father died, there were three legatees: my sister, my brother and myself. We each have our own personal business to manage therefore.
This inheritance is nothing compared with those, sometimes fabulous fortunes, that one hears of in the United States and elsewhere. It's true that I handle vast amounts; but the misconception comes in the confusion of my activities as the Imam and my personal affairs.
There is another point which is misunderstood in Europe. In the Christian tradition, religious leaders put aside everyday life. This division is virtually non-existent in the Moslem religion. The Prophet himself was a trader. Celibacy is virtually unknown. If you go to a Moslem country keep an eye on the Imam of the Mosque: he is married, has his business a hundred metres away from the Mosque, and gathers revenue in the form of offerings from the believers. He is the impartial manager of these funds.
Q. In what year were you born?
A. In 1936.
Q. You studied in England?
A. This is again a legend. I have never lived in England.
I was born in Switzerland. I lived there for the first two or three years of my life. Then I was in Kenya during the war. Then I went back to Switzerland, where I studied for nine years. After this I went to the University at Harvard.
I told you that my education was interrupted by my grandfather's death; but after a while I began it again and got my Bachelor of Arts with Honours.
This interruption wasn't harmful for I was enriched by the experience which I acquired in travelling to find direction in the management of community business.
Q. How do you spend most of your time?
A. It's difficult to say exactly for everything changes from day to day.
I always say this: one cannot change religion overnight. This evolution is a slow thing, and it is, therefore, an everlasting job with its own rhythm, usually a lot slower than the political and economic upheavals of the present time.
What takes me the most time is no longer the management of business as the Imam for, as I have told you, it is very decentralized. Above all I give advice.
My true problem, which takes up most of my time is the confusion in the developing countries. Immediate action is needed there. The lives of men are affected. Well, since 1957, there has been one crisis after another.
Q. Does the religious nature of the Ismaili community remain unchanged?
A. As far as I can tell, yes. In all Moslem countries, I would say yes also. As for telling you if that will continue, I will not risk such a prophecy.
Q. Do you go to all these countries?
A. I travel a great deal. I try to visit each of them at least once every two or three years. These trips are planned. They are determined by business appointments. They allow me to judge what is being accomplished directly. I believe that a two or three year rota is the best, for I can see things with a certain clarity. If my visits were further apart I would lose contact.
You must see that changes in the developing countries are not only disturbing for the populace: they also affect those who have to supervise a community. In Burma, for example, all bank notes were withdrawn from circulation in an hour. All bank accounts became worthless. You can imagine the effect on a community, most of whose members were, at that time, tradesmen.
Q. Is the Ismaili community well-to-do on the whole?
A. No, certainly not, there are well-off people who generally live in important urban centres and who have actually changed to new activities.
But there are also the poor. Take India, for example. You have Ismailis who are well-off and even some who are rich. On the other hand, in a region such as Kathiawar or, in Pakistan, in the Province of Sind, there are very poor people. There is the same difference in Iran between those who are businessmen in the cities and those who depend on agriculture for their existence.
Q. One has often heard of your activity in Sardinia. You are also the owner of a stable of race-horses.
A. Let us talk about horses first. With the education I had, I was totally disinterested in horse-racing until the death of my grandfather and father. It held no interest for me.
It was on my grandfather's death that I asked myself this question: here is a traditional activity; should I interrupt it or not? I had doubts of all the obligations which I had taken over on my grandfather's death, and I asked myself if they were compatible with the interest I was able to muster for horses. And then I became determined. Finally I understood that it would be a pity for a valid traditional enterprise to die after three generations. The stable continues therefore.
I knew nothing of horses and have tried to learn. What was originally a sport has now become an industry bringing in very important sums.
Q. Don't you lose money? A stable isn't generally considered to be a profitable activity.
A. It is, you know, an activity which has no equivalent elsewhere. In it one can plan nothing.
Q. How many horses do you have?
A. Between 180 and 200.
Q. That is a very valuable asset.
A. It has also become an industry. I would even say an industry with its problems of man-power, syndicalism, marketing, etc.
Q. But do you win or lose finally?
A. I follow the money problems of the stable attentively. I can tell you that I have reached a difficult financial balance after fifteen years. I have had very bad years and very good years. Altogether, I haven't lost any money but attained a balance which is, in my opinion, a very fine success.
Q. And Sardinia?
A. That is altogether a different thing.
Horse-racing has become my hobby. Sardinia is an enterprise. After my father's death, I sought a place in which to isolate myself. I created a small newspaper consortium for East Africa.
Q. For the community?
A. No, it would have been dangerous to state a political point of view. It was for myself.
It was in working on these papers that I found one day some photographs of Sardinia. And without having been there, I bought something there in July or August of 1960. It was to me a unique landscape of an unassuming quality. It was in December of 1960 that I went there and found I had been deceived. It was like a game reserve; the habitation was bad and there was neither running water, nor electricity, nor any industry of any sort. I was unhappy to have invested in this place and thought to myself that my grandfather would never have done it without first seeing it.
Q. He was important to you?
A. Enormously. He was the head of the family and took all important decisions as far as I was concerned more so than my father. He was the true family leader in the Moslem sense.
Q. Did he have a great deal of affection for you?
A. I believe so. In any case I had a lot for him; and equally a lot of respect, for he was altogether a very remarkable man.
My first thought, on arriving in Sardinia, was to remember him and what he would have said to me, for he hated making an investment without seeing where it was going.
I went back to Sardinia in April 1961; this time, being spring the weather was more pleasant. At once I made up my mind to go back there in July of the same year with a boat and a few friends, and, during this holiday, I literally fell in love with Sardinia - with its tranquility, with its extraordinary colour, with the marvellous sea around it.
I bought then an estate of about thirty acres. The lawyer who made the deal wished to go into partnership. Other landowners came. They asked me to become the President of a consortium. I accepted. And that was really very important. It was necessary to create all the necessities for holiday-makers, not only for us but for the buyers.
Q. This has become an important business.
A. Yes, very important. It is a huge investment, with real- estate and industrial development, and also tourism.
When I began, I didn't think that it would become an asset to the Ismaili community. After a few years, I perceived that I had taken on, among the members of my staff in Sardinia, people with knowledge who were consequently able to help the community. Also I have employed people in Sardinia who have learnt the business of tourism on other projects and have directly inspired our community.
Q. You also have a personal interest in tourism outside of Sardinia.
A. Yes, in Tunisia, in Africa and now in Pakistan. In Kenya, the community has contributed much to a tourist industry whose prosperity is already evident.
Q. Who looks after your personal fortune?
A. It is not a fortune which demands a lot of managers. My grandfather was once asked whether he was among the richest men in the world. He answered: "I am not among the hundred, nor even the thousand, nor even among the ten thousand richest men in the world."
Q. Is it an estate in terms of land?
A. No, it is widely spread out.
Q. But there must be somebody to manage it?
A. There are many people and I co-ordinate them.
Q. Have you many children?
A. Three, a daughter and two sons.
Q. Are you preparing them to succeed you?
A. I hope I have time to think about it. My dauther is only four. The elder of my sons is three and the other only a few months.