Aga Khan (``honorable chief'' in Mongol) is a hereditary title used since the early nineteenth century by the spiritual head of the Ismaili religious community, a progressive-minded offshoot of the Shiite sect of Islam. The Persian king Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834) bestowed the title on his son-in-law Hasan Ali Shah, who was believed to be descended from the Prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima. The consort of the Aga Khan bears the title Begum Aga Khan. ``Begum'' denotes a Muslim woman of his rank.

Aga Khan I (Hasan Ali Shah)
(1800-1881) was the governor general of the important province of Kerman in southern Persia and son-in-law of Fath Ali Shah. Hasan fell out with the next ruler, Mohammed Shah (r. 1834-1848), because of a palace intrigue. A futile recourse to arms and attempt to seize the throne in 1840 forced him to flee to Bombay. En route, with several hundred followers, he rendered signal service to the British in their campaigns in Afghanistan and Sind and as a reward was granted a large pension and permitted to settle permanently in Bombay (the home of a major colony of Ismailis known as Khojas). He was confirmed in his title of Aga Khan and position of world leader of the Ismailis by the Bombay High Court in 1866. He continued to be of great service to the British by helping to subdue the frontier tribes and by the enormous influence he wielded over his coreligionists in India and throughout the East. He was given the title of ``His Highness'' by the British government and continued to exercise his priestly functions until his death in 1881.

Aga Khan II (Ali Shah)
(d. August 1885) succeeded his father in 1881 but died four years later. He remained faithful to his father's beliefs and practices, strengthening the British tie by accepting a post on the Bombay Legislative Council.

He is remembered for his hunting skill and his scholarship in Persian letters. His wife, the mother of Aga Khan III, was a sister of the last of the absolute Persian monarchs, Nasr-ed-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896).

Aga Khan III (Aga Sultan Sir Mohammed Shah)
(1877-1957) was born in Karachi, India (now Pakistan), on Nov. 2, 1877. Eight years later, on his father's death, he became the 48th imam or religious leader of the Ismailis.

The pro-British tradition of the family was deepened first by his English tutors and later by his close association with major political personalities, including Queen Victoria. His Islamic training was also carefully attended to, and the resultant blend of two cultures equipped him for both the sacerdotal and social functions of his position. Owing to his early assumption of responsibility and the strong influence of his highly educated mother, Aga Khan III became an essentially serious, reflective person whose primary concern was for the welfare of his people. In 1906 he was one of the founders and first president of the All-India Muslim League which later helped to create the independent nation of Pakistan. He rendered outstanding service to the Allied cause in World War I and worked energetically for the League of Nations. He was appointed India's chief representative three times and was Assembly president in 1937. Throughout his life he sought to advance the cause of Indian independence as well as Pakistani nationalism. His love of sports and horse racing (he won the Epsom Derby five times) and the massive wealth he had inherited obscured his contributions to Islam, for example, the vast expansion of the Muslim University at Aligarh and the upbuilding of the material status of his coreligionists.

The famous ceremonies in which he was weighed against gold (1936), diamonds (1946), and platinum (1954) were misinterpreted by foreigners. Actually, the Aga Khan used an ancient Indian religious ritual to celebrate the principal anniversaries of his imamate and donated the money raised from them to cooperative business ventures, low-interest funds, etc., available to all Ismailis. This was consistent with his belief that self-help and financial independence were the foundation of human dignity and that charity is one of an Ismaili's first duties.

By living mostly in Europe Aga Khan III felt he avoided giving preference to any one group of Ismailis. He was married four times; his first wife was a cousin, his second an Italian, his third and fourth were French. He published his memoirs in 1954. In 1956 he endowed the Aga Khan Professorship of Iranian Studies at Harvard University. He died on July 11, 1957, in Geneva, Switzerland, and was buried in Aswan, Egypt.

Aga Khan III set forth his political views in India in Transition (1918), where in several respects he anticipated the British Commonwealth concept. Perhaps the truest clue to his thinking may be found in the reasons he gave for designating his grandson Prince Karim, rather than one of his two sons, to succeed as Aga Khan IV. Prince Aly Khan, the older of the two sons of Aga Khan III and the father of Prince Karim, was noted as a habitué of international society and for a second marriage to the American actress Rita Hayworth. Prince Aly was Pakistan' s chief representative at the United Nations from 1958 until his death in an automobile accident near Paris in 1960. Before Prince Aly's death, Aga Khan chose Prince Karim as his successor, he said, because he thought it in the best interests of his people to be led ``by a young man brought up ... in the midst of the new (atomic) age, and who brings a new outlook on life to his office.''

Aga Khan IV (Prince Karim al Hussaini Shah),
(1936- ), the elder son of Prince Aly Khan, was born on Dec. 13, 1936, in Geneva, Switzerland. When chosen 49th imam of the Ismailis in 1957, he was a student at Harvard majoring in Oriental history. After investiture in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika, and travels to make contact with his people, he resumed his studies at Harvard in 1958. Upon graduating in 1959, he set up a ten-year scholarship for African students at Harvard. In 1979 he established the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.