April 26, 2002

Ismailis' tradition of charity

By Michael Binyon

ISMAILIS, a Muslim group comprising 17 million followers worldwide, are an influential, liberal and articulate minority in the Islamic world who form part of the Shia tradition - those who claim that only a descendant of Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, could be an imam or leader of the community.

The Ismailis' stronghold is in India and Pakistan, and they have traditionally been led by the hereditary Aga Khan, who claims direct descent from the Prophet. Prince Karim Aga Khan, the present spiritual leader, has been active in promoting Ismaili studies through a series of centres in European and other big cities.

In 1977 the Harvard-educated Prince Karim, head of a vast business empire, opened the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, a strikingly modern building designed by Sir Hugh Casson in Kensington, which has become a centre of postgraduate studies, academic conferences, development work and publications.

The Ismailis have a tradition of philanthropy. The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development is one of the richest Muslim charities. A centre was opened recently in Lisbon. In February the Aga Khan paid $300,000 (207,000) to set up a nurses' university in Uganda. Two years ago he proposed buying the former Royal Army Medical College site next to Tate Britain to create cultural and educational centres; but he was in competition with the Chelsea College of Art, which eventually acquired the building. The site opposite Parliament, which would be even better placed, would have been used to display manuscripts, ceramics, metalwork and paintings covering all periods of Muslim history from the private collection of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who was to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. [follow-up]

> The Aga Khans have long been associated with wealth, glamour and, before the Second World War, scandal. The Aga Khan III, Prince Karim's grandfather, who died in 1957, was an international figure who advised European royalty and served as the president of the League of Nations in Geneva during the late 1930s.