February 8 - 14, 1985

The Unknown Aga Khan by Michael Legus in L'Express (8-14 Feb. 1985)

At Aiglemont, near Chantilly, where in a park of 100 hectares, he has had both residence and his offices built, it is common to see the Prince Karim Aga Khan IV taking his tray in the restaurant of his firm, and going to eat while reading his mail. "He is a glutten for work. He is exhausting," his 95 employees say about him. His name amongst them is "H.H". standing for "His Highness".

His Highness shows another image than the one made up by the press: lucky racegoer of a happy property developer of paradisical holidays in Sardinia. A businessman, then, this man who yearly spends six hundred hours of his time in a plane and complains about not enough time with his three children. Yes, outwardly. For the last twenty years, hasn't he invested 150 million dollars in the Third World, in Kenya, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, to mention only the main countries? But only outwardly. Because his investments are firstly, hospitals, dispensaries, universities, schools, dwellings. When it is truely concerning business, i.e. banks, insurance companies, newpapers, factories, hotels; and hundred firms in all employing 10,000 people this business is not there to provide him with his own profit. Paradoxically, its purpose is a mission of a spiritual kind which devolves on the Imam, i.e. the religious leader and the protector of the Ismaili's belonging to the Shia community founded in the eighth century and nowadays spread over three continents. In 1957 when he was 20 years old and was studying at Harvard, the responsibility of twelve million people came upon him. The question was how without any secular power, would it be possible to look after their well-being and their safety living within dissimilar States of Asia and Africa going through the historical spasms of de-colonialzation and the economic crises?

The Prince Karim has solved these intricate problems in carefully preventing the Ismaili's from considering themselves as priviledged minorities living within their country of origin and by giving the access of the hospitals and the schools to all their fellow countrymen, without any distinction of race or religion. The profits are constantly used within the country in order to make a contribution to the general development of their countries of residence and without exploiting them. Success is the main result. However, the (rare) failure is compensated with the soliditary of the entire community. When in 1972 Amin Dada threw Asians out of Uganda, the Ismaili's received huge loans for their settlement in the United States and in Canada.

Political sublety, generosity, business acumen. However, there is also an artistic sense in "H.H", who in 1980, set up an award of 500,000 dollars intended for those architects of the world who have restored or have built a palace, mosques, airports or water towers according to the Ismailic style of the great epochs. Here is a detail that reveals his temperament: instead of cutting down a huge oak tree growing at the edge of the Aiglemont Park, he ordered that the outside wall should pass around it.

Is there any Karim mystery? One may find the key about this lover of Europian Middle Ages and Ismailic furniture and objects, living with his wife - English born in New Delhi as Sarah Crooker Poole and now called Begum Salimah - in a modern house with oriental gardens; in the synthesis of the West and the East, of tradition and modernization. His grandfather, in his will, twenty years ago, incidently wished to have as a successor "a young man brought up in the modern times and who would carry his mission with a new spirit". He had chosen him.

Both his mother and his grandfather were from the west, thus it is normal that Karim if half-western. He has a taste for technology: his dream, he says would have been to be an engineer. He has a good effective sense which is the only criterion for selecting his associates, who belong to 16 different nationalities. When in 1984, he set up a foundation for the economic development of the third world, he qualified it as a "secular institution".

In the same way, when in Pakistan he inaugurated a school for the nurses, he didn't hide his intention to promote the status of women.

He is also fond of sport. In Switzerland where he finished his first years of schooling, he was competing with the national team of yawl. As a skier, he was selected for the Olympic games at Innsbruck. For he enjoys doing things thoroughly. His grandfather's death, followed by his father's - Ali Khan, who died in a car crash at Suisnes - left him the head of two stables. He was not at all interested in horse races. Never mind, he tried his best to become a first class racegoer, and is today, the owner of 500 horses.

His other half has roots in another universe, in the tradition given to him by his grandfather. The old wise man full of political prescience, played a pacifying role during the independence of India. In Europe and in America, one only remembers what he received from his followers for his jubilees: his weight in gold, platinum and diamonds. One forgets that the fortune collected was amongst other things, used for the development of Kenya.

After that, Karim inherited the specific influence of Ismailism, an unknown Islamic branch that wishes to make the spirit triumph over the world and to liberate the intellect; a doctrine which has drawn from Aristotelian philosophy, a gnosis and an exotericism that aims to harmoniously unify the faith and the mind in order to integrate man with the universe.

The result of this double influence (East and West) shows where the man stands and also his methods of action. Karim is modern when he demands the profitablity of his enterprises. However, he is a traditionalist when he considers the accumulation of capital as an end.

Moreover, as an occidental, he realizes the necessity of helping the third world, but it is as somebody who identifies with the third world that he deplores the finance of their aid through a loan that leads to a burden of debts. He is then a Westerner and gathers funds to catalyse investments. After that, as an Easterner again. The Muslim speaks to recommend cautiousness and pragmatism. "I have learned to be scared of going too fast. The most important thing is to be sure of the quality of what we do".

A behaviour that is going against blind charity. Whoever is cured in one of the princes' dispensary ought to give a small offering, even if it is a little. "What is free is not worth anything" comments one of his associates. A philosophy and wisdom that is also aimed at intellectuals. Here is how the Aga Khan IV, in 1983, defined the aim of the university that is financing in and which will carry his name: "To allow the students to acquire learning and the spiritual knowledge essential for the balance of this "learning" what if such a comment was also worth elsewhere, here?

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