Vancouver Sun
9 June 2005

Aga Khan is everything to his followers


Billionaire. Philanthropist. Intellectual. Connoisseur. Person of reverence. The Aga Khan IV — who will be in Vancouver Friday for a giant closed-door spiritual event at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre — is a unique religious leader. Although his theological authority is often compared to that of the Roman Catholic Pope, he also represents something markedly different: An intriguing blend of the sacred and worldly.

Intensely private, like many of his followers, the Aga K han is the undisputed leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, whose numbers have been estimated by scholars at anywhere from three million to 15 million. His full title is Prince Karim Aga Khan IV.

His followers believe the Aga Khan — a British citizen whose home is a large estate in Aiglemont, France — is the 49th direct descendent of the seventh-century founder of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed. But 99 per cent of the world’s one billion Muslims would disagree, rejecting the Aga Khan’s spiritual authority.

Unlike the Pope (or the Dalai Lama), the Aga Khan is not celibate. His ancestors were famous for their elegant wives and lavish lifestyles. The Aga Khan IV has been married twice to glamorous women and divorced twice, which has helped make him a target of the buzzing paparazzi.

Unlike recent popes (or archbishops of Canterbury), the Aga Khan is also a businessman whose wealth has been estimated at more than $3 billion.

The Aga Khan, 67, a balding man with a refined demeanour, is as comfortable in elite corporate boardrooms, top political offices and scholarly forums as he is performing his duties as a religious leader and teacher.

A friend of the late prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Aga Khan IV often expresses a special fondness for Canada, where many Ismailis came in the 1970s to escape persecution in East Africa, especially at the hands of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Ismaili officials say there are as many as 70,000 of the Aga Khan’s followers in Canada, with up to 15,000 in Greater Vancouver.

A large number of Canadian Ismailis are prosperous. Yet about half the world’s Ismailis live in India and Pakistan, along with other poor countries where many struggle economically.

The Aga Khan IV, who sees Canada as a global model for tolerant multiculturalism, is a champion of easing poverty — and creating a planet in which different Muslims and people of diverse world views accept and learn from each other.

This week the Aga Khan, who received an honorary Companion of the Order of Canada on Monday, committed himself to setting up an institute for dialogue in Ottawa.

In the past few years he has also promised to spend millions of dollars to start an as-yetunbuilt centre for pluralism in Ottawa and an institute of Islamic art in Toronto.

He was in Toronto on Wednesday to lead religious events at the Canadian National Exhibition, a private gathering virtually unknown to Toronto’s media.

The Aga Khan’s Vancouver event on Friday, which organizers tried to keep quiet, will provide a rare opportunity for more than 25,000 Ismailis from western North America to honour him and receive his spiritual guidance.


It is difficult for outsiders to discern what exactly goes on inside the tight-knit Ismaili community, since those with lots of questions are often politely rebuffed.

Unlike at most Muslim mosques, non-Ismailis are not allowed into Ismaili religious services, including at Burnaby’s architecturally exquisite place of worship, known as a jamatkhana.

Some B.C. Ismailis have told The Vancouver Sun that adherents have been told at their jamatkhanas not to speak to the media about the Aga Khan’s visit, even though it was announced to Ismailis around the continent a month ago.

The creator of an unofficial website that had been providing information on the Aga Khan’s visit said he was asked last week to shut it down for “security” reasons. After repeated phone calls over two weeks, the B.C. Ismaili Council’s spokesman, Farid Damji, took until Tuesday to confirm the Aga Khan would indeed be at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre on Friday.

One of the few B.C. Ismailis who agreed to go on the record about the Aga Khan is Ali Lakhani, a Vancouver litigation lawyer who also publishes a respected spiritual journal called the Sacred Web. Emphasizing he was speaking on a non-official basis, Lakhani said the Aga Khan IV generally tries to avoid publicity, especially anything to do with his wealthy lifestyle or certain aspects of religion.

Simon Fraser University professor Derryl MacLean, a specialist in Islam, says Ismailis often make a distinction between their public efforts in education and philanthropy and their religious lives, which they consider private.

Both MacLean and Lakhani say the “quietest” attitude that Ismailis take toward their faith comes out of a centuries-old concern about persecution, since Ismailis have never really had a country, a safe haven, to call their own.

There may also be worries about the Aga Khan’s safety in Vancouver. “Given the times we live in,” Lakhani said, “and that he’s a Muslim leader who has spoken out against certain extremist forms of Islam, it wouldn’t surprise me if security was a big concern.”


But Ismailis are proud to highlight the Aga Khan’s extensive philanthropy in Canada and around the globe. He is formal head of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a series of relief and charity agencies, which in Canada often work closely with the federal government.

The AKDN says it spends about $280 million Cdn a year on international development, urban conservation, health, education and culture, mostly in developing countries.

The AKDN is most active in strife-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and parts of Africa, where many Ismailis make their home.

Combining charity with financial investment, the AKDN has 140 projects, large and small, on the go — including rural hospitals, schools, factories, luxury hotels, eco-tourism resorts, heritage restoration programs and water and sanitation systems.

“The Ismaili community in Canada, and especially Vancouver, has done very well here,” says MacLean. “The Ismaili community is growing in consequence. And not just for themselves. Like the Aga Khan, they are taking a leading role in philanthropy. They are well-organized and very generous.”

Much of the Aga Khan’s personal wealth has come from Ismaili tithing, a voluntary cash donation of up to 10 per cent of one’s income.

A portion of tithing also goes directly to helping other Ismailis in poverty-stricken countries, including through AKDN.


While Ismailis are glad for their Aga Khans to be known for their generosity, they’ve been less happy in the past century when the media probed the private lives of their religious leaders.

The current Aga Khan has endured embarrassing publicity surrounding two hard divorces. He has three children from his first marriage to a British fashion model. But after their divorce in 1995, his ex-wife fought for the right to retain more than $30 million in jewelry.

The Aga Khan is now in the midst of a divorce from his second wife, a German pop singer with a law degree. He also receives significant publicity because of his legendary racehorses. No headlines were bigger than those in 1985 when his prized racehorse, Shergar, insured for $12 million, was kidnapped and never seen again.

But the media fascination with the Aga Khan IV’s lifestyle has been mild compared to the negative publicity that surrounded his playboy father, Prince Aly Khan, who married American actress Rita Hayworth and died in a fiery auto crash outside Paris in 1960.

Indeed, the Aga Khan IV was given his title when he was 20 years old because of his father’s wayward lifestyle. The current Aga Khan’s grandfather, the Aga Khan III, skipped over Prince Aly Khan and in 1957 passed the official lineage to the man who now tours the globe dispensing aid and advancing a “civil society.”

In this way, the current Aga Khan is less like his father and much more like his grandfather, a statesman who in 1937 served as president of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations.

The Aga Khan III, despite being seen by some Muslims as the leader of an heretical branch of Islam, was respected in the West for his efforts to urge Muslims to support the Allied cause in the First World War. He also served as a mediator between the British and Gandhi before India’s independence.

Despite the Aga Khan III’s diplomacy, senior citizens in the West probably best remember him for historic photos taken when followers publicly placed him on scales in India and matched his considerable weight in precious metals and gems.


The Harvard-educated Aga Khan and his aides often make a point of bringing forth his intellectual and social causes, which include pluralism.

“I don’t believe that societies are born pluralist,” he said this week in Ottawa, where he’s promised to build a centre for the study of pluralism. “Pluralism has to be omnipresent in civil society ... it’s got to be part of the way a society is constituted.”

In Africa last month, the Aga Khan spoke out for a more professional and free media. The latest new centre the Aga Khan has committed to build in Ottawa, called The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, is devoted to diplomacy. The Aga Khan says it will be designed with “openness and transparency” to symbolize how it will be a home for “ constructive exchanges that mutually broaden moral and intellectual horizons.”

He also committed Ismailis in 2002 to establishing in Toronto one of the world’s foremost collections of Muslim art. It’s not yet begun construction.

Most famously, the Aga Khan IV is a high-profile connoisseur of architecture, once remarking he would have enjoyed designing buildings as a profession.

The Aga Khan program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology has educated a generation of architects and planners.

ISMAILI DOCTRINE Who is the Aga Khan to his followers?

He is an imam who has said he’s both a community leader and interpreter of the Muslim faith.

His adherents believe he is a direct descendent of Ali, the sonin-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, with special inner spiritual authority.

The Ismailis are a small offshoot of the Shia branch of Islam. Shias make up about 15 per cent of all Muslims, compared to the Sunnis, who make up 85 per cent.

However, both schools of Islam disagree with the Ismailis over their designation of the Aga Khan as Mohammed’s rightful successor.

At a doctrinal level, the Ismailis are noted for their emphasis on following a philosophical and esoteric spiritual path.

According to some scholars, Ismaili tradition teaches the world is divided into those who see the world on an everyday level and those who understand the “inner light” of divine reality.

Ismailis, says Lakhani, don’t think the Aga Khan IV is divine. But they do believe he has special spiritual authority and insight.

Some Ismailis express devotion to the Aga Khan, but others mainly see him as an inspirational guide. MacLean says Ismailis believe the Aga Khan can help lead them to gnosis, an inner knowledge of the true nature of divinity.

Spiritual leader

LUCAS OLENIUK/TORONTO STAR The Aga Khan will be in Vancouver Friday for a private spiritual event at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre.