|ARTS & CULTURE|
|Prince Karim’s ascension to being the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of millions|
By PRANAY GUPTE|
(c) Earth Times News Service
In 1957, when Prince Karim was 20 years old and a student of Islamic history at Harvard, word arrived that his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III, had died of a heart attack at the age of 80. "I had no expectation of being in a position to fulfill his responsibilities," Karim says.
Sir Sultan, the spiritual leader of Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims—generally known as the Ismailis—whose sect of Shia Islam was founded in 765 A.D., had been ailing for some time, and Prince Karim and his brother Price Amyn had spent time with their grandfather prior to his death.
Unbeknownst to Karim, his grandfather—the 48th Imam, or head, of Ismaili Muslims—had willed that he would not be succeeded as head of the Ismailis by either of his two sons, Prince Aly Khan (who at one point was married to the actress Rita Hayworth) and Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (who later went on to become the UN High Commissioner for Refugees). According to Shia doctrine, the Aga Khan has the prerogative to appoint as his successor any of his male descendants.
"In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world … due to the great changes which have taken place … I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shia Muslim Ismaili Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up in the midst of the new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office of Imam," Sir Sultan—who had twice served as the President of the League of Nations—wrote in his will.
And so Karim was summoned to the family's estate in Geneva—where he had been born on December 13, 1936—for his coronation as Aga Khan IV. He returned to Harvard to continue his studies, however, and from his dormitory room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Karim served as the head of the Ismailis, who then numbered about 10 million in 25 countries, mainly in Central and South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, but also in Europe, North America and Australia. Prince Karim had received no formal training in Ismaili leadership. He had spent his early childhood in Nairobi, Kenya, and then attended Le Rosey School in Switzerland before entering Harvard.
"The context in which I was functioning was very much the short term and focused on religion," the Aga Khan said in a recent interview at his home outside Paris. "The short term was driven by short-term political issues—decolonization, the cold war—those were the issues you were dealing with all the time. One had a sense of direction—one had a sense of aspirations and hopes, of course, about the basic issues of human society and development. But I would never have been able to predict specifics. I inherited the office 12 years after the Second World War. And much of what was happening in 1957 was, in some way or the other, related to the Second World War; it was also related to the cold war. And therefore I was looking at a kaleidoscope of issues—institutional issues, social issues, economic issues—and the problem was that, although my grandfather was the Imam, the institutional capacity around him was practically nonexistent because most institutions at that time were extremely fragile."
Those sectarian institutions may have been fragile, but Sir Sultan had always been mindful of the need to promote economic development within the Ismaili community. Over the centuries, although dispersed around the world, the Ismailis had fostered an ethos of self-reliance, unity and a common identity. Under Sir Sultan's guidance in particular, they established schools, hospitals, health centers and housing cooperatives that often benefitted not only their own community but the larger societies where they lived.
"Since 1957, what's really happened is that the office of the Imamate has developed the capacity to act in a number of areas—in areas of culture, in areas of economics, in areas of development," the Aga Khan said. "This gives the institution of the Imamate the capacity to act in a logical and positive manner. We have developed the capacity to re-harness institutions and people and communities who were part of our societies in the '50s, and we want them to become part of our society again today to help us build. There has been a process over 42 years now of building systems to cope with and manage the dramatic changes in the world around us."
The Ismailis developed a reputation over the years of active engagement in social, economic and cultural issues of their societies. In Cairo, for example, Ismailis helped set up the world-famous Al-Azhar University in 969 A.D. They produced philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists. Their sect of Shia Islam was always considered more liberal and tolerant than almost any other in the Muslim world—and has sometimes drawn the ire of fundamentalist Islamicists.
The Aga Khan worries about the general state of Islam, and makes frequent references to the "plurality of tradition in Islam." He said: "It is an area where enormous wisdom, enormous knowledge, enormous sensitivity has got to be there. That process is one of the issues that will go well past my lifetime. Well past my lifetime. And, you know, it's something which I inherited, that I have worked with—as you know, I have a degree in Islamic History and, therefore, I am comfortable in thinking about these issues. But they are highly sensitive. In the long run, the question is: What is the context in which human society will function and the Ismaili community will function? And I think the whole notion of relevance is a massively important issue. It's going across all faiths. Not just the Islamic faith. Not just the Islamic interpretation. It's going across all faiths today."
And what's at the root of this soul-searching in modern-day Islam, as he sees it? "There is a clear search for ethical contexts," said the Aga Khan. "And my sense is that could be a little bit of a reaction to maybe some of the excesses in the material context. You know, it's clear that uncontrolled freedom becomes license. It's an issue that keeps coming up all the time. And it's one which needs very, very deep reflection. It's probably the most challenging issue that I have to address today—more so since the life sciences have evolved, since communications have evolved."
To better cope with the bewildering changes engendered by globalization and world politics—and to ensure that his successor isn't caught by surprise as he was 42 years ago—the Aga Khan has persuaded his two sons and daughter to join his Secretariat in Gouvieux, France. Princess Zahra Aga Khan, 28, is married to a Briton, Mark Boyden, and concentrates on social issues. Prince Rahim Aga Khan, 27, and Prince Hussain Aga Khan, 25, are both involved in the Aga Khan's entrepreneurial projects.
"When you're 20 and in university, you don't expect to find yourself overnight in the situation that I inherited in 1957," the Aga Khan said. "Insofar as any one of my children could be exposed to the future responsibility in the institution—and that will be the case—I would like the boys, but also my daughter, to be knowledgeable about what is happening. But there's something much more important than that. I'm 62. I have been in this position for 42 years. Now I learn from the younger generation. They think in different terms than I do. They have different competencies than I do. They have a different vision of how new technologies can work for us. So bringing my children on board is a very intimate way of accessing the talents of younger people. And insofar as the Aga Khan network, you know, it's an ongoing institution, I would like to continue to be able to mobilize young people and benefit from their knowledge and competencies. So I don't want to give the impression that this is simply an internal family issue. I have learned a lot and continue to learn. And I'm sure that will be the case in the future—learning from other young people, not just my own children."
How tolerant is he of his children's reported independence of views? The Aga Khan smiled. "I can tell you I'm very tolerant in the sense that, because they all have had a good education, because they think clearly, I enjoy the process of dialogue," he said. "And most often we come to a consensus view because we go through a rational process. And you know that an infinite part of the sheer interpretation of Islam is the rational process. And I attach enormous importance to that because it's a significant part of the way we live and work. So I encourage that. I mean clearly everyone who works with me, whether it be colleagues at the top level or my children, starts from a different set of considerations and knowledge. But in the end we have to try and work as an institution that achieves results. You can't really do that if there is no consensus on where you're going. And this isn't a corporate environment. It is an institution that seeks to function through consensus. And the only way to do that is to give everybody the opportunity to express a view. It may be right or wrong, and the decision-maker—for the moment—is me. Insofar as my children and I can discuss things, and do discuss things, I enjoy that."
Courtesy: Earth Times, Jun 21, 1999