His Highness the Aga Khan, the Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, became Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims on July 11, 1957 at the age of 20, succeeding his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan. He is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the first Imam, and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. Son of Prince Aly Khan and Princess Tajuddawlah Aly Khan, the Aga Khan was born on December 13, 1936, in Geneva. He spent his early childhood in Nairobi, Kenya, and then attended Le Rosey School in Switzerland for nine years. He graduated from Harvard University in 1959 with a BA Honors Degree in Islamic history.
Like his grandfather Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan before him, the Aga Khan has, since assuming the office of Imamat in 1957, been concerned about the well-being of all Muslims, particularly in the face of the challenges of rapid historical changes. In Islam’s ethical tradition, religious leaders not only interpret the faith but also have a responsibility to help improve the quality of life in their community and in the societies amongst which they live. For His Highness the Aga Khan, this has meant a deep engagement with development for over 50 years. Building on institutions started by his grandfather, the Aga Khan created the agencies of the AKDN as a contemporary endeavour of the Ismaili Imamat to realise the social conscience of Islam through institutional action. For more information on the AKDN, please see the About AKDN page and the Frequent Questions page.
View of Islam
The Aga Khan has emphasised the view of Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith, one that teaches compassion and tolerance and that upholds the dignity of man, Allah’s noblest creation. In the Shia tradition of Islam, it is the mandate of the Imam of the time to safeguard the individual’s right to personal intellectual search and to give practical expression to the ethical vision of society that the Islamic message inspires. Addressing, as Chairman, the International Conference on the Example (Seerat) of the Prophet Muhammad in Karachi in 1976, the Aga Khan said that the wisdom of Allah’s final Prophet in seeking new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods provides the inspiration for Muslims to conceive a truly modern and dynamic society, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam.
During the course of history, the Ismailis have, under the guidance of their Imams, made major contributions to the growth of Islamic civilisation. The University of Al-Azhar and the Academy of Science, Dar al-Ilm, in Cairo and indeed the city of Cairo itself, exemplify their contributions to the cultural, religious and intellectual life of Muslims. Among the renowned philosophers, jurists, physicians, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists of the past who flourished under the patronage of Ismaili Imams are Qadi al-Numan, al-Kirmani, Ibn al-Haytham (al-Hazen), Nasir e-Khusraw and Nasir al-Din Tusi.
Achievements of the Fatimid Empire
Achievements of the Fatimid Empire dominate accounts of the early period of Ismaili history, roughly from the beginnings of Islam through the 11th century.
Named after the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, the Fatimid dynasty created a state that stimulated the development of art, science, and trade in the Mediterranean Near East over two centuries. Its centre was Cairo , founded by the Fatimids as their capital. Following the Fatimid period, the Ismaili Muslims’ geographical centre shifted from Egypt to Syria and Persia . After their centre Alamut (in Persia), fell to Mongol conquerors in the 13th century, Ismailis lived for several centuries in dispersed communities, mainly in Persia and Central Asia but also in Syria, India and elsewhere. In the 1830s, Aga Hassanaly Shah, the 46th Ismaili Imam, was granted the honorary hereditary title of Aga Khan by the Shah of Persia. In 1843, the first Aga Khan left Persia for India , which already had a large Ismaili community. Aga Khan II died in 1885, only four years after assuming the Imamat. He was succeeded by the present Aga Khan’s grandfather, and predecessor as Imam, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan.
A Tradition of International Service
In recent generations, the Aga Khan’s family has followed a tradition of service in international affairs. The Aga Khan’s grandfather was President of the League of Nations and his father, Prince Aly Khan, was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations. His uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, was the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations’ Coordinator for assistance to Afghanistan and United Nations’ Executive Delegate of Iraq-Turkey border areas.
The Aga Khan’s brother, Prince Amyn, joined the United Nations Secretariat, Department of Economic and Social Affairs following his graduation from Harvard in 1965. Since 1968, Prince Amyn has been closely involved with the governance of the principal development institutions of the Imamat. He is Director of the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and a member of the Board of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) and Chairman of its Executive Committee. Prince Amyn was also deeply involved in the establishment and the development of the Tourism Promotion Services (TPS). He is also a Director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).
The Aga Khan’s eldest child and daughter, Princess Zahra, graduated from Harvard in 1994 with a BA (Honours) Degree in Development Studies, and is the Head of the Social Welfare Department (SWD). She has policy and management responsibility for the health, education, and planning and building service companies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). She also plays a key policy role with respect to the other social development institutions of the Network.
Prince Rahim was born on 12 October 1971, in Geneva, Switzerland, and is the second of His Highness the Aga Khan’s four children. Prince Rahim is an executive Director of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) -- the economic development arm of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). A graduate of Brown University, Rhode Island, USA with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Comparative Literature awarded in 1996, Prince Rahim received his secondary education at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. In 2006, Prince Rahim completed an executive development programme in Management and Administration at the University of Navarra IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. Prince Rahim travels regularly to Asia and Africa to oversee the industrial plants, hotel properties and financial institutions, including microfinance programmes, of the Aga Khan Development Network.
The Aga Khan’s second son, Prince Hussain, graduated from Williams College (USA) with a Bachelor of Arts degree and has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) where his main area of study was Economic and Political Development with a regional focus on the Middle East and North Africa.
His youngest son Prince Aly Muhammad was born in 2000.
Recognition for the Aga Khan's Work
Over the years, the Aga Khan has received numerous decorations, honorary degrees, and awards in recognition of the various dimensions of his work. He has received civilian decorations on one or more occasions from the governments of France, Portugal, Côte d'Ivoire, Upper Volta, Madagascar, Iran, Pakistan, Italy, Senegal, Morocco, Spain, and Tajikistan. In October 1998, on the occasion of the Award Ceremony of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, he was presented with the Gold Medal of the City of Granada.
His Highness has been awarded honorary degrees by universities throughout the world. He has also received numerous awards and prizes from various professional organisations in recognition of his work, ranging from nursing to architecture.
The title His Highness was granted by Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain in 1957, and His Royal Highness by His Imperial Majesty the Shah of Iran in 1959.
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