The Independant, UK - Profiles section
Simon O'Hagan
13 October 2002

The Aga Khan: A near myth

From the finest racehorses to the devotion of 15 million followers, he is used to every privilege and defers to nobody. But it's not necessarily a recipe for contentment and, when his plans are thwarted, there is always a price to pay

Nobody likes to be rejected, but when you are a billionaire spiritual leader unused to having people stand in your way, the consequences tend to be dramatic. Such is the case with the Aga Khan, who for the second time in 13 years has reacted to a perceived slight by turning his back on Britain and looking elsewhere for a welcome.

There is a clear parallel between what happened last week when the Aga Khan lost out in his attempt to set up a London centre for his Islamic art collection and an episode in 1989 when he became embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Jockey Club after two of his horses failed dope tests. Not a man to shrug off such experiences, the Aga Khan has announced that his priceless collection of paintings and artefacts – which he planned to house on a site owned by King's College, part of London University, until it refused to sell to him – will now find a home in Toronto, just as on the earlier occasion he took all his horses out of Britain in protest, and only recently returned them.

"There is a lot of pride there," a long-time associate says. "If he makes his mind up about something he will be very firm. He likes things his own way. It becomes a matter of honour, and he doesn't like it infringed."

As a fixture in the gossip columns, a byword for discreet opulence, and with the added frisson of a touch of the divine, the Aga Khan seems to exist in another realm altogether – self-styled citizen of the world, not quite royal but more than human, a man who is everywhere but comes from nowhere. Businessman, sportsman, jet-setter, philanthropist, and quasi-diplomat with an indeterminate role in the current crisis between Islam and the West, he is doted on by some 15 million Ismaili Muslims worldwide who are also understood to be one of the main sources of his incalculable wealth. You could spend a long time trying to reconcile all these roles.

Even those well versed in global hierarchies have difficulty explaining exactly who the Aga Khan is, the significance of his status, or how he manages to straddle both religious and secular worlds with such apparent ease. Comparisons have been made with the Dalai Lama, the head of Tibetan Buddhism, and with the Pope. But at the other extreme, the name evoked is George Soros, the man whose financial instincts help to shape entire economies.

To understand who the Aga Khan is – more to the point, why he is – requires a brief excursion into Islamic history. Islam, the religion based on the word of God as handed down to the prophet Mohammed, has two main divisions – Sunnism and Shiism. The second largest Shia community is comprised of the Ismaili Muslims, for centuries noted for their contribution to Islamic thought and culture. Their imams, or spiritual leaders – regarded as direct descendants from Mohammed – have carried the hereditary title Aga Khan since the Shah of Iran first conferred it on the 46th Imam in the 19th century.

When the present Aga Khan was born in Geneva in 1937 – as plain Prince Karim – he might not have expected to inherit the supreme title, then held by his grandfather, until he was well into adulthood. As it turned out, his playboy father, Prince Aly Khan, was deemed unsuited to the role (marriage to the Hollywood star Rita Hayworth may have had something to do with it), and the honour, or burden, fell to Karim when he was only 20, and an economics student at Harvard. "It came as a bit of a shock, and I don't think he really felt ready for it," an associate says. "One minute he was lining up to be a top businessman, the next he was responsible for the spiritual well-being of millions."

Not that these occupations have proved to be mutually exclusive. Ismaili Muslims don't believe material comfort is inconsistent with the practice of their faith – they might be characterised as the opposite end of fundamentalism – and in that respect the Aga Khan has certainly led by example. Yachts and horses – a love for the latter inherited from his grandfather – are his great indulgences. As a breeder of racehorses, with bases in Ireland and France, the Aga Khan commands more respect than that other great racing dynasty the Maktoums, who are happy to buy potential greatness. "He plans long-term," a racing associate says. "He's not in it for a quick return."

He keeps about 170 brood mares at his European headquarters at Aiglemont, an impeccable but unostentatious chβteau near Chantilly, the capital of French racing, some 20 miles from Paris. Shergar, legendary winner of the 1981 Derby, later to be kidnapped and never recovered, was the Aga Khan's greatest horse. Five years later came another Derby winner, the revered Shahrastani. More recently, Sinndar, winner of the 2000 Derby, touched similar heights. "I think the racing public like continuity," he has said. "They like to follow a set of colours like mine, to watch the sons and daughters of horses they remember."

Less successful was the Aga Khan's venture into hotel group ownership, his Ciga group losing millions before he sold it to Sheraton, but he can regard with pride his Costa Smeralda development on Sardinia, a playground for yacht-owning high society. The Aga Khan has also backed an Italian boat in its bid to win sailing's most prestigious competition, the America's Cup, and put more millions into competitive powerboating.

The Aga Khan's private life has proved costly too. In 1969 he married Sally Croker-Poole, a former debutante and model whom Tatler had once listed among the world's most beautiful women. They had three children – Princess Zahra, Prince Rahim and Prince Hussein – but the marriage foundered, and they were divorced in 1995. She was understood to have received a pay-out from him of £20m.

In 1998, he married the German-born lawyer, Princess Gabriele zu Leiningen, – on conversion to Islam his begum took the name Inaara, from the Arabic word for "light" – a member of the Thyssen dynasty, throwing a party at Aiglemont whose guest-list read like a Who's Who of European royalty (plus Sir Edward Heath and the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook).

These are the sort of occasions that keep diarists like the Daily Mail's Nigel Dempster in business, but the Aga Khan would undoubtedly prefer to be remembered for the Aga Khan Development Network, a programme of welfare and education he oversees in the 25 countries where Ismaili Muslims mainly live – East Africa and South-east Asia. In emphasising the need for education and encouraging equality between men and women, the Aga Khan can be regarded as a progressive figure. "He has worked to create a less mythological image of himself," a professor of Muslim studies says.

Free of obligations to any nation, the Aga Khan is in a unique position to foster peace through diplomacy. But the ventures he makes into such territory are necessarily cautious, for fear of being caught up in raw politics. A behind-the-scenes role he played in the aftermath of the Gulf War drew criticism that he was too compliant in his dealings with Saddam Hussein.

Reconciliation between East and West was said to be part of the thinking behind the Aga Khan's plan to house his art collection in London, which it was hoped would be a magnet for both academics and tourists. The Aga Khan's loss may well be London's, too.

Comment on this news:

Re: Simon O'Hagan's "The Aga Khan: A Near Myth"

Dear Sir/Madam:

I was in London on sabbatical this year and simply marveled at the city's riches in art, architecture, museums and cultural events. After visiting the Institute de la Monde Arabe in Paris, however, I thought that the one thing London lacked was a world class museum of Islamic Arts.

Thus, I was appalled to read Simon O'Hagan's characterization of the Aga Khan's decision to take to Toronto the multi-million dollar Islamic center he wanted to build on the Thames as the petulance of a powerful man who doesn't like his plans being thwarted.

Were it not for the Aga Khan's exceptional capacity for co-operation, negotiation and consensus building, the vast array of Aga Khan Development Network projects which depend on multilateral partnerships between governments, NGOs and the private sector would never have seen the light of day.

Instead of pointing the finger at the Aga Khan for taking his impeccable reputation and track-record as an enlightened, progressive and pragmatic Muslim leader to Canada, it might be more instructive (if less sensational) to describe the precise scope and nature of the Islamic center which was to include a Museum of Islamic Arts and the newly established research center, the Institute of Islamic Civilization.

The loss is hardly the Aga Khan's since his offer for the site owned by King's College was generous to a fault. If anything, Londoners have lost the opportunity to host a cultural space of creativity and excellence for Islamic aesthetics and intellectual inquiry at no cost.

One thing O'Hagan did get right: the Aga Khan's center would have been a magnet for academics and tourists alike. As the crossroads of the world, London would have been a brilliant location; but the multicultural ethos of Canada and its balanced foreign policy will provide fertile soil for this ambitious project. Better still, commentators will be interested in the substance of the Aga Khan's work rather than obsessed with his horses.

We have few enlightened Muslim leaders in this world. The least we could do is not to trivialize and caricature those who are busy building not destroying society.

Dr. Tazim R. Kassam
123 Buckingham Ave.
Syracuse NY 13210