islamic revelations

Aga Khan

Article by Marisa Bartolucci From Sept 1997 issue of Magazine Metropolis


The man behind the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. He is descended from Muhammad through the Prophet's youngest daughter Fatima and her husband, the Prophet's chosen heir and cousin, Ali. After Muhammad's death, the Ismailis believe Ali became their spiritual leader; the Imamat continues through his male line.

Ali's descendants, known as the Fatimids, founded Cairo in the tenth century, making it their capital. Their 200-year-long dynasty marked one of the great flowerings of Islamic culture, due in part to its patronage of scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, jurists, artists, and poets-the work of these brilliant thinkers influencing Europe's scholars and intellectuals for centuries. Bent on territorial expansion, the Fatimids brought all of North Africa, Syria, and Sicily under Islamic control. But they were overthrown in the twelfth century by Saladin, the great Muslim commander who had defeated the Crusaders, then waging their own "jihad" for Jerusalem. The Ismailis regrouped in Persia, flourishing until the thirteenth century, when their lands were overrun by the Moguls. Today, 20 million faithful are scattered throughout the Muslim world, in Asia (particularly India and Pakistan), North and East Africa, and the Middle East; there are communities in the West as well.

Since the days of the Fatimids, Ismaili Imams have encouraged intellectual freedom and tolerance. For them, like the Aga Khan today, the Koran and its teachings were open to each individual's interpretation and could never be dictated. The Ismaili Imamat neither defines spiritual not political practice. These are up to the individual. All the Aga Khan asks is that Ismailis believe in Allah and be good citizens of their countries.

While the Ismailis are a Shia sect, they are entirely different from Iran's fundamentalist, U.S.-hating Shi'ites. Their hostility arises not so much from their Muslim faith, but from its translation into nationalist politics. For at the crux of Islam is the conviction that Din and Dunya (Faith and World) are inextricably linked; thus, all Islamic political and social action should be in accordance with the ethical framework of the Koran. For the Ismailis, this is an ideal world scenario. But for the fundamentalist Shi'ites, it is a real world goal, and Western materialism and its illicit freedoms threaten its achievement. Islam then is not necessarily antidemocratic, nor antagonistic to either Judaism or Christianity. In fact, Abraham is considered one of Allah's prophets, as is Jesus.

Prince Karim assumed the Imamat when he was a 20-year-old undergraduate at Harvard in 1957, after the death of his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, a respected Indian statesman and former president of the League of Nations. His father, Prince Aly Khan, was Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations, though he's probably better known as the flamboyant playboy who married Rita Hayworth; the Aga Khan's mother was the daughter of an English lord. His own ex-wife was a British model, and his three children have all been educated in the United States. Attempting to enhance the status of women, the Aga Khan often travels in the Muslim world with his Harvard-educated daughter, Zahra, who works on social development issues for the Imamat. Although deeply involved with Ismaili communities throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, he makes his home in an eighteenth-century chateau in Chantilly, France. A man who belongs to both the East and West, the Aga Khan defies just about every Western stereotype of an Islamic religious leader.

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