Karim Aga Khan

Imam

The summer before his senior year, Prince Karim Khan ’58 received unexpected news. His grandfather, His Highness Aga Khan III, had died, and his will named Karim—fondly known by his classmates as ‘K’—as his successor, making him Aga Khan IV. And so, at 20 years old, Karim became the leader of the Ismaili Muslims, a sect of Shia Islam with over 15 million followers who consider him a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

“The enormous responsibility that had come to me—I didn’t feel prepared for it,” the Aga Khan told the BBC that year. “It was a very, very heavy burden to take over.”

Celebrating his 50th year as the Aga Khan last year, the former Leverett House resident has become a bridge between East and West, traditionalism and modernity.

A spiritual Muslim leader based in France, the Aga Khan eschews the beard and black garb of traditional Islamic clerics in favor of a clean-shaven look and a coat and tie. In speeches across the world, he has pressed for more pluralistic attitudes to combat what he dubs the “clash of ignorances”—a retooling of professor Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.”

Ali S. A. Asani ’77, professor of the practice of Indo-Muslim languages and cultures, said that the Aga Khan has demonstrated that Muslim values and Western ideas are not incompatible.

“The Aga Khan shows that you can be Western, and you can be transnational, and you can still be Muslim,” said Asani, who is an Ismaili.

LEADER FOR AN ‘ATOMIC AGE’

According to the tradition, it would have been expected that Karim’s father, Prince Aly Khan, would assume the Imamate after the death of Aga Khan III.

But Aga Khan III, who had served as the president of the League of Nations between 1937 and 1938, dictated in his will that a young man with a modern attitude would be the right leader for the new “atomic age.”

Once Karim became the Aga Khan, the Islamic history concentrator no longer led a student’s life.

“[Aga Khan III] plucked K right out of the College,” said David H. Rhinelander ’58, one of Karim’s freshman roommates in Wigglesworth Hall. “He moved to a hotel and had to begin to run his empire while he was a student.”

In an interview in the independent documentary “An Islamic Conscience: The Aga Khan and the Ismailis,” the Aga Khan said he was “probably the only undergraduate in the history of that place that had two secretaries and a personal assistant.”

PERSECUTED YET PERSISTENT

The role of a spiritual leader believed to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad is exclusive to the Ismaili tradition in Islam.

Sunnis, the overwhelming majority of Muslims, do not follow a hereditary system of selecting leadership. By contrast, Shias trace a direct line from Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, and her husband Ali to a spiritual leader, or imam, with the power to interpret the faith.

While most Shias believe this imam disappeared in the ninth century and await his return, Ismailis believe in a “living imam,” the Aga Khan, who is vested with ultimate worldly and spiritual authority. Ismailis consider Karim the 49th imam and the fourth Aga Khan—a courtesy title meaning “great king” that was bestowed on the family by the King of Persia in the 1830s.

But this belief in a living imam has made Ismailis a target for radical mullahs, notably the Taliban in the 1990s, who decry them as heretical.

Asani, the Harvard professor who specializes in the Ismaili tradition, says that members of the sect have often lived as refugees and in hiding, giving the community a pluralistic mindset.

“Wherever Ismailis have spread, the externals of culture have not been important,” said Asani, who was the academic advisor to Princess Zahra Aga Khan ’94, the Aga Khan’s eldest daughter.

“One can express faith in any cultural context,” Asani added.

But as a result, Asani said some Muslims look at Ismailis—and their Aga Khan who resides in a chateau north of Paris—with suspicion.

“They say, ‘You’re too Westernized,’” Asani said.

‘A MESSAGE FOR THE WORLD’

Apart from being a symbol of modernity, the Aga Khan has also become a symbol of wealth, with a personal fortune estimated in the billions, a stable of thoroughbred horses, a lavish yacht off the coast of Sardinia, and two high-profile marriages.

But Ismailis do not see a contradiction between the Aga Khan’s worldly riches and his spiritual role.

“I think the notion comes from a Christian model that a religious person has to be an ascetic,” Asani said. “In Islam, you can be wealthy and worldly without being in conflict with your faith. But if you have wealth, you have to share it with those who need it.”

Asani said the Aga Khan has formalized the traditional Islamic obligation to serve the poor through the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of nine agencies with an annual budget of $330 million that work to empower the poor in Asia and Africa.

The network is largely funded b y a system of donations in which Ismailis donate a percentage of their income to the Aga Khan and the development network each year.

In recent years, the Aga Khan has overseen hefty development projects, from a sprawling park in the center of Cairo to a major telephone company in Afghanistan. The Aga Khan’s newest project is a system of 18 high schools called Aga Khan Academies in the developing world that will be based on the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

According to the Aga Khan’s spokesperson, Kris Janowski, His Highness travels 150 days out of the year for work as chairman of AKDN, which stands in contrast to His Highness’ image as a jetsetting socialite.

“He uses a jet to travel, but I would describe him more as a workhaholic than a jetsetter,” Janowski said. “He doesn’t go from party to party, sipping champagne. He goes from meeting to meeting, from official appointment to official appointment, and is working in between.”

The Aga Khan is known for his projects that use architecture to promote pluralism. In 1979, The architecture aficionado endowed a joint program between Harvard and MIT called the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture that aims to promote understanding of Islamic architecture in the West.

It is this role as cultural pluralist that spurred Harvard Divinity School stude nt Shamir Allibhai to focus his documentary “The Islamic Conscience” on the Aga Khan.

“The Aga Khan shows a side of Islam that hasn’t been told much since 9/11,” Allibhai said.

In the documentary, the Aga Khan explains his idea of a “clash of ignorances”—a reworking of the much-hyped “clash of civilizations.” He said he blames much of the friction between the West and the Muslim world on a shallow understanding of Islam in the West.

“It’s not part of the definition of an edu cated person,” he said.

But the Aga Khan added that much of the radical furor in the Middle East is not caused by faith, but by unresolved political issues.

His pluralistic vision is an influential one for many, said Asani. “It’s a message for the whole world.”

—Staff writer Nini S. Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@fas.harvard.edu.