THE THOUGHTS OF HAZRAT IMAM SULTAN MUHAMMED SHAH AGA KHAN II (Excerpts from “Memoirs of Aga Khan” and other collections of speeches and writings)


Life is a great and noble calling; not a mean and grovelling thing to be shuffled through as best as we can, but a lofty and exalted destiny.


Of one fact, my years in public life have convinced me: that the value of a compromise is that it can supply a bridge across a difficult period, and later having employed it, it is often possible to bring into effect the full-scale measures of reform which, originally, would have been rejected out of hand.


In the seventh century of the Christian era, there was a rapid and brilliant new flowering of humanity's capacity and desire for adventure and discovery in the realms of both spirit and intellect. That flowering began in Arabia its origin and impetus were given by my Holy ancestor, the Prophet Muhammed, and we know it by the name of Islam. From Arabia the tide of its influence flowed swiftly and strongly to North Africa and thence to Spain.


Ibn-Rushd, the great Muslim philosopher, known to Europe as Averroes, established clearly the great distinction between two kinds of apprehensible human experience: on the one hand, our experience of nature as we recognize it through our sense, whence comes our capacity to measure and to count (and with that capacity all that it brought in the way of new events and new explanations); and on the other hand, our immediate and imminent experience of something more real, less dependent on thought or on the processes of the mind, but directly given to us, which I believe to be religious experience. Naturally, since our brain is material, and its processes and all the consequences of its processes are material, the moment that we put either thought or spiritual experience into words, this material basis of the brain must give a material presentation to even the highest, most transcendent spiritual experience. But men can study objectively the direct and subjective experiences of those who have had spiritual enlightenment without material intervention.

It is said that we live, move and have our being in God. We find this concept expressed often in the Quran, not in those words of course, but just as beautifully and more tersely. But when we realize the meaning of this saying, we are already preparing ourselves for the gift of the power of direct experience. Roumi and Hafiz, the great Persian poets, have told us, each in his different way, that some men are born with such natural spiritual capacities and possibilities of development and they have direct experience of that great love, that all-embracing, all consuming love, which direct contact with reality gives to the human soul. Hafiz indeed has said that men like Jesus Christ and Muslim mystics like Mansour and Bayezid and others have possessed that spiritual powers of the greater love; that any of us, if the Holy Spirit ever present grants us that enlightenment, can, being thus blessed, have the power which Christ had, but that to the overwhelming majority of men this greater love is not a practical possibility, We can, however, make up for its absence from our lives by worldly, human love for individual human beings, and this will give us a measure of enlightenment attainable without the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Those who have had the good fortune to know and feel this worldly, human love should respond to it only with gratitude and regard it as a blessing and as, in its own way, a source of pride. I firmly believe that the higher experience can to a certain extent be prepared for by absolute devotion in the material world to another human being. Thus from the most worldly point of view, and with no comprehension of the higher life of the spirit, the lower, more terrestrial spirit makes us aware that all the treasures of this life, all that fame, wealth and health can bring are nothing beside the happiness which is created and sustained by the love of one human being for another. This great grace we can see in ordinary 1ife as we look about us among our acquaintances and friends.

But as the joys of human love surpass all that riches and power may bring a man, so does that greater spiritual love and enlightenment, the fruit of that sublime experience of the direct vision of reality which in God’s gift and grace, surpass all that the finest, truest human love can offer. For that gift we must ever pray.

No, I am convinced that through Islam, through the ideal of Allah, as presented by Muslims, man can attain this direct experience which no words can explain but which for him are absolute certainties. I am certain that many Muslims, and I am convinced that I myself, have had moments of enlightenment and of knowledge of a kind which we cannot communicate because it is something given and not something acquired.

To a certain extent I have found that the following verses of the Quran, so long as it is understood in a purely non-physical sense, has given assistance and understanding to myself and other Muslims. However, I must warn all who read it not to allow their material, critical outlook to break in with literal, verbal explanations of something that is symbolic and allegorical. I appeal to every reader, whether Muslim or not, to accept the spirit of this verse in its entirety:

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth; His light is as a niche in which is a lamp, and the lamp is in glass, the glass is as though it were a glittering star; it is lit from a blessed tree, an Olive neither of east nor of the west, the oil of which would well-nigh give the light though no fire touched it, - light upon light - Allah guides to His light whom He pleases, and Allah strikes out parables for men; and Allah all things doth know.

(Chapter xxiv "Light", 35)


The present condition of mankind offers surely, with all its dangers and all its challenges, a chance too - a chance of establishing not just material peace among nations but that better peace of God on earth. In that endeavour Islam can play its valuable, constructive part, and the Islamic world can be a strong and stabilizing factor provided it is really understood and its spiritual and moral power recognized and respected.


But having known the real, the Absolute, having understood the Universe as an infinite succession of events, intended by God, we need an ethic, a code of conduct in order to be able to elevate ourselves toward the ideal demanded by God.

Let us then study the duties of man, as the great majority interpret them, according to the verses of the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet. First of all, the relations of man to God: there are not priests and no monks. There is no confession of sins, except directly to God.

A man who does not marry, who refuses to shoulder the responsibilities of fatherhood, of building up a home and raising a family through marriage, is severely condemned. In Islam there are no extreme renunciations, no asceticism, no maceration, above all no flagellations to subjugate the body. The healthy human body is the temple in which the flame of the Holy Spirit burns, and thus it deserves the respect of scrupulous cleanliness and personal hygiene. Prayer is a daily necessity, a direct communication of the spark with the universal flame. Reasonable fasting for a month in every year, provided a man's health is not impaired thereby, is an essential part of the body's discipline through which the body learns to renounce all impure desires. Adultery, alcoholism, slander and thinking evil of one's neighbour are specifically and severely condemned. All men, rich and poor, must aid one another materially and personally.

The rules vary in detail, but they all maintain the principle of universal mutual aid in the Muslim fraternity. This fraternity is absolute, and it comprises Men of all colours and all races: black, white, yellow, tawny; all are the sons of Adam in the flesh and all carry in them a spark of the Divine Light. Everyone should strive his best to see that this spark be not extinguished but rather developed to that full "Companionship-on-High" which was the vision expressed in the last words of the Prophet on his deathbed, the vision of that blessed state which he saw clearly awaiting him. In Islam the faithful believe in Divine justice and are convinced that the solution of the great problem of predestination and free will is to be found in the compromise that God knows what man is going to do, but that man is free to do it or not.

Wars are condemned. Peace ought to be universal. Islam means peace, God's peace with man and the peace of men, one to another. Usury is condemned, but free and honest trade and agriculture - in all its forms - are encouraged, since they manifest a Divine service, and the welfare of mankind depends upon the continuation and the intensification of these legitimate labours.

After death Divine Justice will take into consideration the faith, the prayers and the deeds of man. For the chosen there is eternal life and the spiritual felicity of the Divine vision. For the condemned there is hell, where they will be consumed with regret for not having known how to merit the grace and the blessings of Divine mercy.


Islamic doctrine goes further than the other great religions, for it proclaims the presence of the soul, perhaps minute but nevertheless existing in an embryonic state, in all existence - in matter, in animals, trees, and space itself. Every individual, every molecule, every atom has its own spiritual relationship with the All-Powerful Soul of God. But men and women, being more highly developed, are immensely more advanced than the infinite number of other beings known to us. Islam acknowledges the existence of angels, of great souls who have developed themselves to the highest possible planes of the human soul and higher, and who are centres of the forces which are scattered throughout the Universe. Without going as far as Christianity, Islam recognizes the existence of evil spirits which seek by means of their secret suggestions to us to turn us from good, from that straight way treated by God’s finger for the eternal happiness of the humblest as of the greatest - Abraham, Jesus, Muhammed.


The Sunnis are the people of the Sonna or tradition. Their Kalima or profession of Faith is, “There is no God but God and Mohammed is the Apostle of God.” To this the Shia add: “And Aly, the Companion of Mohammed, is the Vicar of God.” Etymologically the word “Shia” means either a stream or section.

The Prophet died without appointing a Khalif or successor. The Shia school of thought maintains that although direct Divine inspiration ceased at the Prophet’s death, the need of Divine guidance continued and this could not be left merely to millions of moral men, subject to the whims and gusts of passion and material necessity, capable of being momentarily but tragically misled by greed, by oratory, or by the sudden desire for material advantage. These dangers were manifest in the period immediately following our Holy Prophet’s death. Muhammed had been both a temporal and a spiritual sovereign. The Khalif or successor of the Prophet was to succeed him in both these capacities; He was to be both Emir-al-Momenin or “Commander of the true believers” and Imam-al-Muslimin or “Spiritual chief of the devout.” Perhaps an analogy from the Latin, Western world will make this clearer: He would be Supreme Pontiff as well as Imperator or temporal ruler.

Aly, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, the husband of his beloved and only surviving child, Fatima, his first convert, his bold champion in many a war, who the Prophet in his lifetime said would be to him as Aaron was to Moses, his brother and right-hand man, in the veins of whose descendants the Prophet’s own blood would flow, appeared destined to be that true successor, and such had been the general expectation of Islam. The Shias have therefore always held that after the Prophet’s death, Divine power, guidance, and leadership manifested themselves in Hazrat Aly as the first Imam or spiritual chief of the devout. The Sunnis, however, consider him the fourth in the succession of Khalifs to temporal power.

The Imam is thus the successor of the Prophet in his religious capacity, He is the man who must be obeyed and who dwells among those from whom he commands spiritual obedience. The Sunnis have always held that this authority is merely temporal and secular, and is expected only in the political sphere, they believe therefore that it appertains to any lawfully constituted political head of a state, to a governor or to the president of a republic. The Shias say that this authority is all-pervading and is concerned with spiritual matters also, that it is transferred by inherited right to the Prophet’s successors of His blood.


Of the Shias there are many subdivisions, some to them believe that this spiritual head-ship, this Imamat which was Hazarat Aly’s, descended through him in the sixth generation to Ismail from whom I myself claim My descent and My Imamat. Others believe that the Imamat is to be traced from Zaid, the grandson of Imam Hussein, the Prophet's grandson martyred at Kerbela. Still others, including the vast majority of the people of Persia, and Indian Shias, believe that the Imamat is now held a living Imam, the twelfth from Aly, who has never died, who is alive and has lived thirteen hundred years among us, unseen but seeing; those who profess this doctrine are known as the Asna Asharis. The Ismailis themselves are divided into two parties, a division which stems from the period when my ancestors held the Fatimide Khalifat of Egypt. One party accepts my ancestors, Nizar as the rightful successor of the Khalif of Egypt, Mustansir; whereas the other claims as Imam his other son, the Khalif Mustalli.

Often persecuted and oppressed, the faith of my ancestors was never destroyed; at times it flourished as in the epoch of the Fatimide Khalifs, at times .At times it was obscure and little understood.

After the loss of the Fatimide Khalifat in Egypt my ancestors moved first to the highlands of Syria and the Lebanon; thence they journeyed eastward to the mountains of Iran. They established a stronghold on the craggy peak of Alamut in the Elburz Mountains, the range which separates from the rest of Persia the provinces lying immediately to the south of the Caspian. Legend and history intertwine here in the strange tale of the Old Man of the Mountains, and of those hereditary Grand Masters of the Order of the Assassins who held Alamut for nearly two hundred years. In this period the Ismaili faith was well known in Syria, in Iraq, in Arabia itself, and far up into Central Asia. Cities such as Samarkand and Bokhara were then great centres of Muslim learning and thought.

A little later in the thirteenth century of the Christian era, Ismaili religious propaganda penetrated into what is Sinkiang and Chinese Turkestan. There was a time in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when the Ismaili doctrine was the chief and most.-influential Shi’ite school of thought: but later with the triumph of the Saffevi Dynasty in Iran particularly in its northwest province, (Azerbaijan) the Asna Ashari, or Twelfth Imam sect, established its predominance. Remnants of the Ismaili faith remained firm and are still to be found in many parts of Asia, North Africa and Iran. The historical centres of Ismailism indeed are scattered widely over all the Islamic world.

In the mountainous regions of Syria, for example, are to be found the Druzes, in their fastness in the Jebel Druze. They are really Ismailis who did not originally follow my family in their migration out of Egypt but remained with the memory of my ancestors, Al Hakem, the Fatimide Khalif of Egypt, but they established their doctrines on lines very similar to those of the Syrian Ismailis, who, in present time, are my followers. Similar Ismaili “islands” exist in southern Egypt, in the Yemen and of course in Iraq. In Iran the centres are around Mahalat, westward toward Hamdan and to the south of Tehran; others are in Khorassan to the north and east around about Yezd, around Kerma, and southward along the coast of the Persia. Gulf from Bandar Abbas to the borders of Pakistan and Sind, and into Baluchistan. Others are in Afghanistan, in Kabul itself; there are many in Russia and Central Asia, around Yarkand, Kashgar, and in many villages and settlements in Sinkiang. In India certain Hindu tribes were converted by missionaries sent to them by My ancestors, Shah Islam Shah and took the name of Khojas; a similar process of conversion occurred in Burma as recently as the nineteenth century.

In 1845 my grandfather reached Bombay where - as Mr. Justice Arnold expressed it, “He was received by the cordial homage of the whole Khoja population of this city and its neighbourhood.” For a year or two from 1846 he was in Calcutta as a political prisoner because Muhammed Shah had remonstrated to the British Government about his presence in a port of such ready access to Persia as Bombay. However, in 1848 Muhammed Shah’s reign came to an end, and my grandfather settled peaceably in Bombay and there established his Darkhana or headquarters. Not only was this a wise and happy personal decision, but it had an admirable effect on the religious and communal life of the whole Ismaili world. It was as if the heavy load of persecution and fanatical hostility, which they had had to bear for so long, was lifted. Deputations came to Bombay from places as remote as Kashgar, Bokhara, all parts of Iran, Syria, the Yemen, the African coast and the then narrowly settled hinterland behind it.

Since then there has been no fundamental or violent change in the Ismaili way of life or in the conditions in which my followers can pursue their own religion. At present no deputations come from Russia, but Ismailis in Russia and in Central Asia are not persecuted and are quite free in their religious life.

With Sinkiang, Kashgar and Yarkand we have no communication at present, since the frontier is closed - no more firmly against Ismailis than against anyone else - but we know that they are free to follow their religion and that they are firm and devoted Ismailis with a great deal of self-confidence and the feeling that they constitute by far the most important Ismaili community in the world. From Iran representatives and commissions come and go; from Syria they used to come to India regularly, but now from time to time members of my family go to Syria, or my Syrian followers come and visit me in Egypt. Not long ago I went to Damascus where a great number of my followers came to pay their respects. A considerable measure of local responsibility prevails; questions of marriage and divorce, for example, are entirely the concern of the local representatives of the Imam. At times prosperous communities among the Ismailis help less prosperous ones in respect of similar institutions. I issue general instructions and orders; but the actual day to day administrative work of each local community is done by the Imam’s representatives.

The head-ship of a religious community spread over a considerable part of the world surface - from Cape Town to Kashgar, from Syria to Singapore - cannot be sustained in accordance with any cut-and-dried system. Moral conditions, material facilities, national aspirations and outlook and profoundly differing historical backgrounds have to be borne in mind, and the necessary mental adjustments made. There is therefore great variety and great flexibility of administration.

Ismailism has survived because it has always been fluid. Rigidity is contrary to our whole way of life and outlook. There have really been no cut-and dried rules; even the set of regulations known as the Holy Laws are directions as to method and procedure and not detailed orders about results to be obtained. In some countries - India and Africa for example - the Ismailis have a council system, under which their local councilors are charged with all internal administrative responsibility, and report to me what they have done. In Syria, Central Asia and Iran, leadership, as I have said, is vested in hereditary recommended leaders and chiefs, who are the Imam's representatives and who look after the administration of the various Jamats, or congregations.

From all, parts of the Ismaili world with which regular contact is possible, a constant flow of communications and reports comes to me. Attending to these, answering them, giving my solutions of specific problems presented to me, discharging my duties as hereditary Imam of this far-scattered religious community and association - such is my working life, and so it has been since I was a boy.

Much of the work of the Ismaili councils and of the Imam's representatives nowadays is purely social, and is concerned with the proper contractual arrangement of matters such as marriage and divorce. On this subject I should perhaps say that nowhere in the world where Ismailis are now settled is there any persecution of them or interference with their faith and customs except if and when the general laws of the country are contrary to institutions, such as plurality of wives. It is generally overlooked that among Ismailis no one can take a second wife or divorce his first wife for a whim or - as is sometimes falsely imagined in the West - some frivolous or erratic pretext. There are usually, to our way of thinking, some very good reasons for either action.

To beget children is a very proper need and desire of every marriage; if after many years of married life there is still no issue, often a wife herself longs to see her home brightened by the presence of children with all the laughter, hope, joy and deep contentment that they bring with them. In other instances there is so profound a difference of character that a divorce is found to be the best solution for the happiness of both parties. But in every case whether a second wife is taken or a divorce is granted - the various councils or (where there are no councils) the representatives of the Imam have an absolute duty to safeguard the interests of the wife; if a second wife is taken, it is a matter of seeing that full financial protection is assured to the first wife, or if there is a divorce, of seeing that there is a generous, adequate and seemly monetary settlement. It is important that it should be realized among non-Muslims that the Islamic view of the institution of marriage - and of all that relates to it, divorce, plurality of wives and so on is a question solely of contract, of consent and of definite and mutually accepted responsibilities. The sacramental concept of marriage is not Islam’s; therefore, except indirectly, there is no question of its religious significance, and there is no religious ceremony to invest if with the solemnity and the symbolism which appertain to marriage in other religions, like Christianity and Hinduism. It is exactly analogous to - in the West - an entirely civil and secular marriage in a registry office or before a judge. Prayers of course can be offered - prayers for happiness, prosperity and good health - but there can be no religious ritual beyond these, and they indeed are solely a matter of personal choice.

There is therefore no kind of marriage in Islam, or among the Ismailis, except the marriage of mutual consent and mutual understanding. And as I have indicated, much of the work of the Ismaili councils and of the Imam’s representatives in all our Ismaili communities is to see that marriage are properly registered and to ensure that divorce, though not a sin, is so executed that the interests of neither party suffer from it, that as much protection as possible is given to women, and most of all that the maintenance of young children is safeguarded.

The past seventy years have witnessed steady, stable progress on the part of the Ismailis wherever they have settled. Under the Ottoman Empire, in the reign of Abdul Hamid, there was a considerable degree of persecution. Like several other minorities in his empire, they suffered hardship, and many of their leaders endured imprisonment in the latter years of his despotic rule. With the Young Turk revolution, however, the period of persecution ended. An now, in spite of all the vast political shifts and changes which the world has undergone, I think it may reasonably b claimed that the lot of the Ismailis in general throughout the world is a fairly satisfactory one; wherever they are settled their communities compose a happy, self-respecting, law abiding and industrious element in society.


What has been my own policy with my followers? Our religion is our religion, you either believe in it or you do not. You can leave a faith but you cannot, if you do not accept its tenets, remain within it and claim to “reform” it. You can abandon those tenets, but you cannot try to change them and still protest that you belong to the particular sect that holds them. Many people have left the Ismaili faith, just as others have joined it throughout the ages. There has never been any question of changing the Ismaili faith; that faith has remained the same and must remain the same. Those have not believed in it have rightly left it; we bear them no ill-will and respect them for their sincerity.