October 28, 1969


It was 12 years ago, Dar es Salaam in October 1957. Prince Karim, His Highness Aga Khan IV was to be installed as successor to his grandfather in the first of a series of elaborate ceremonies to be held that year throughout Africa and Asia.

As personal aide to His Highness, I had gone ahead as part of an advance party and was greeted by the local leaders who told me that a serious problem had arisen. The only other such ceremony in living memory has taken place 72 years before in Bombay, when Aga Khan III had succeeded to the Imamate.

Not surprisingly, there was some doubt about the form the service would take and it seemed that an acute difference of opinion had arisen as to which verses of the Koran should be included. There was clearly nothing to be done but to await a ruling from the Aga Khan himself.

It was an unforgettable scene and took place in one of the state rooms of Government House where the Aga Khan was guest of the Colonial Governor at that time, the late Lord Twining. The Ismaili leaders were seated, as is their custom, cross-legged in a semi-circle around their young Imam and the two factions elaborated their different points of view.

To a non-Muslim the arguments were difficult to follow, but it was clear to me that a strong difference of opinion existed and that the Aga Khan would be called upon to resolve a ticklish point of theological doctrine.

This was the first occasion on which he had been called to exercise the responsibilities bequeathed to him by his grandfather. Still an undergraduate at Harvard, he looked very young, a trifle pale and tense as he listened to the rival claimants. There was a pause as they finished. Then the Aga Khan asked a question which obviously puzzled his followers. "Who," he asked, "will recite the verses you wish me to decide upon?"

A chorus of voices assured him that a young man from Zanzibar had been procured for the recitation and that his fame as a psalmodist of the Koran was acclaimed far and wide.

"If that is so," said His Highness, "let this young man suggest those verses in which his ability is most outstanding and thereafter I shall decide which particular chapters and verses will be selected."

It was a solution that delighted everyone. The opposing factions accepted it gladely, for neither had lost face. The choirboy for certain would sing as he had never sung before -- which in truth he did the following afternoon. It was a decision which reflected the instinctive simplicity of true wisdom and first revealed to me that I was serving no ordinary man.

I have related this tale before, and if I repeat it today it is because I know of no other anecdote which more aptly illustrates his wisdom and judgement.

In six weeks' time the Aga Khan will be 33, and already he has been leader of the Ismaili community, 20 million strong in 33 different countries, for more than 12 years. They have been years of tumultuous activity both within and outside the community and there have been many occasions when Ismailis have had good cause to be thankful for this quality in the Imam.

In times past, the Aga Khan's grandfather could deal with any political problem which arose in the score or so of countries where the community then lived by a single call on the Colonial Office in London or the Quai d'Orsay in Paris. The vast majority of Ismailis made their lives beneath the ample and secure umbrellas of the former French and British colonial empires.

It is a very difficult story to-day. The old empires have been replaced by a dozen or more newly independent countries, each with its own sensitivities, its changing political leaders and philosophies of government. For the Ismailis, therefore, this has been a period of constant adaptation and change.

The Aga Khan cannot and does not concern himself with day-to-day political affairs. But it is clearly impossible for him to escape involvement altogether, especially in times such as these. He has applied himself to the task with typical thoroughness and, principally through personal contact with political leaders all over Africa and Asia, he has succeeded in resolving the great majority of problems which have arisen.

He has done this essentially by leading the Ismailis steadily away from the old communal outlook in their secular affairs and towards an increasingly active participation in the social, business and welfare activities of the countries in which they reside.

In an age when minorities all over the world are burdened, bullied and oppressed, the Ismailis can still hold their heads high -- a quite remarkable achievement.

Eight years ago I wrote of the Aga Khan that his "his deep sense of religion, his judgement of men and finally his remarkable powers of concentration are the three qualities I would select to justify the conclusion that this man will have an impact upon the world at least as great as his grandfather had." It is an observation which has stood the test of time.

At 32, the Aga Khan is naturally more mature, more certain of himself and his ideas than he was in 1961. He remains an essentially serious, thoughtful, and sometimes introspective personally enlivened by constant flashes of infectious gaiety and the fabulous family charm which captivates everyone he meets.

The Aga Khan's deep feeling for his religion also remains, I am convinced the key to his character -- and the one most overlooked by the Western world where the Calvinist concept of holiness (as almost the opposite of happiness) dies hard.

The years have toughened and hardened him a little, perhaps -- the work has nearly always been relentless -- but never to the point where his basic gentleness and kindness have become obscured. He still has a boyish passion for gadgets of every variety; as well as fast cars, boats and aeorplanes. In his work he has adopted most of the pharphernalia of the modern business tycoon and is a fervent believer in computers, market research and management consultancy.

It is with these modern tools of commerce that he leads his community into the final decades of the twentieth century. It is the Aga Khan's determination never to be satisfied with anything but the best which kept them very much on their toes.

And now he becomes a married man ... It is an event which his followers as well as his friends have long desired for him. The burden of his office is unlikely to diminish and it will be a universal wish that the Begum Salima can share it with him.

Source: Daily Nation Wedding Souvenir by Michael Curtis

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