The Ismaili Imamat: Contemporary Period

Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khaninfo-icon III's life of seventy-two years as Imam, the longest in history, spans a remarkably crowded era of momentous significance. It was an era that saw a far-reaching transformation in the human condition that affected all areas of human endeavour: social, political, cultural, intellectual and scientific. It was an era that witnessed both the peak and the dismantling of the European imperial adventure. His pre-occupation throughout was the welfare of his diverse, far flung community, but his compass also extended to Muslim progress in India and elsewhere, as well as to the plight of the ordinary person everywhere, summed up in his all-pervading concern for respect for human dignity.

The latter half of the nineteenth century was a period of great anxiety and fear for Indian Muslims. They were ill-prepared to face the new challenges or to take advantage of the new opportunities of social uplift and political representation that were beginning to emerge. A recent government report had described Muslims as educationally backward. To safeguard their interests, the Aga Khan led a long and successful campaign for the principle of separate Muslim representation in the Indian legislature. However, as with other Muslims of forethought, it was the fight against ignorance that became his passionate priority.

From every platform, he advocated free, universal, practically oriented primary education; improved secondary schools for Muslims, and a generous provision of government and private scholarships to enable talented Muslim students to study in Britain, Europe, America and Japan so that "they may learn the various processes in the lives of the great industrial commonwealth".

He strove hard to ensure that the benefits of education were equally enjoyed by Muslim men and women. When a family's economic resources were constrained, he placed greater emphasis on the education of the daughter. An educated mother would educate the family. He likened men and women to the two lungs in a body. To weaken one lung was to weaken the entire body.

It was in pursuit of his educational vision that the Aga Khan successfully dedicated himself to the project of transforming the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh into a leading Asian University. He envisaged Aligarh University as "an intellectual and moral capital" for Muslims, a university which would "preach the gospel of free inquiry, of large-hearted toleration and of pure morality".

The Aga Khan's crusade for education was never parochial. He warmly welcomed the proposal for the establishment of the Hindu University of Benares, declaring his belief in the good that would result from "every movement that gave greater intellectual variety to the country. Such intellectual endeavours would in time turn out more tolerant Indians". Nor was his interest in education confined to India. He supported, for instance, the creation of the Gordon Memorial College in Sudan, which later evolved into the University of Khartoum.

The plight of the indigenous Muslims in Africa worried the Aga Khan a great deal. Their educational backwardness ill prepared them for economic, social, cultural or political progress. In an evocative address to the East African Muslim Conference at Mombasa, Kenya in 1945, he threw down an earnest challenge to the well-to-do non-indigenous Muslims. Outlining a plan of action to avert tragedy, he pledged to contribute a pound for every pound that non-Ismaili Muslims donated. By the time of his death in July 1957, the East African Muslim Welfare Society had built many scores of schools, mosques, health clinics and a higher education polytechnic in East Africa largely as a result of his generosity and continuing advice.

The Ismaili Imamatinfo-icon is completely above, and independent of, all politics and political allegiances. Yet, it was his profound commitment to the Islamic ideals of brotherhood of man, peace among nations and respect for human dignity which impelled Aga Khan III's role as a statesman on the world scene. He sought amity among different communities in India, Africa and elsewhere. His vigorous defence of Turkey against European encroachment after the First World War was motivated by a desire for a just and equitable peace, and out of a genuine concern that a truncated Turkey would provoke outrage against the West in the entire Muslim world. He played an important role in the political evolution of the Indian subcontinent, and was a delegate to the Round Table Conference in London in the 1930's. As the President of the League of Nations from 1937 to 1939, and through other fora, he called for peaceful solutions to problems, for the emancipation of Muslim and other nations from the colonial yoke, and for mutual understanding among nations of one another's cultures as the basis of lasting peace.

Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III's involvement in world affairs began a family tradition of international service. His elder son, Prince Aly Khan, served as Pakistan's Ambassador to the United Nations. His younger son, the present Aga Khan's uncle, Prince Sadruddin, has been UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Coordinator for assistance to Afghanistan and Executive Delegate of the Secretary-General for a UN humanitarian programme for Iraq-Kuwait, Iraq-Iran, and Iraq-Turkey border areas. The present Aga Khan's brother, Prince Amyn, entered the United Nations Secretariat following his graduation from Harvard in 1965, before joining the Aga Khan's Secretariat in 1968 and becoming significantly involved in the Imamat's development activities.

Aga Khan III's abiding concern, throughout his career, was the welfare of his own Ismaili community. It was his inspiring leadership as much as their enthusiastic response to his guidance that enabled the community to enter a period of remarkable progress in the areas of health, education, housing, commerce and industry. To meet the needs of the community in South Asia and East Africa, networks of health clinics, hospitals, schools, hostels, cooperative societies, investment trusts, savings and building societies and insurance companies were established. The period of his Imamat was a critical one in the modern history of the Ismaili community. His leadership enabled it to adapt to historical change.

He built on the Muslim tradition of a communitarian ethic on one hand, and responsible individual conscience, with freedom to negotiate one's own moral commitment and destiny, on the other, to create new organizational structures as a way forward into the twentieth century. In 1905, he ordained the first Ismaili Constitution for the social governance of the community in East Africa. It gave the community a form of administration comprising a hierarchy of councils at local, national and regional levels. It also set out rules of personal law in such matters as marriage, divorce and inheritance; as well as guidelines for mutual cooperation and support among the Ismailis and their interface with other communities. Similar constitutions were promulgated in the Indian subcontinent. All of them were periodically revised to address emerging needs and circumstances.

This tradition has continued under the leadership of his successor. Aga Khan IV, the present Imaminfo-icon, has extended the practice to other regions, from the United States, Canada and several European countries, to East and South Asia, the Gulf, Syria and Iran, following a process of consultations within each respective constituency. In 1986, he promulgated a Constitution that, for the first time, brought under one aegis, the social governance of the worldwide Ismaili community, with built-in flexibility to account for diverse circumstances of different regions. Served by volunteers appointed by, and accountable to, the Imam, the Constitution functions as an enabler to harness the best in individual creativity, within an ethos of group responsibility, to promote the common weal. Like its predecessors, the Constitution is founded on each Ismaili's spiritual allegiance to the Imam of the time, which is separate from the secular allegiance, which they owe as individual citizens to their respective national entity. While the Constitution serves primarily the social governance needs of the Ismaili community, its provisions for encouraging amicable resolution of conflicts, through impartial conciliation and arbitration, are being increasingly used, in some countries, by non-Ismailis also.

The contemporary period

Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III passed away on 11th July, 1957, having designated his grandson, Prince Karim, to succeed him as the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shiainfo-icon Ismaili Muslim community settled in over twenty-five countries, mostly in the developing world, but now also with a substantial presence in the industrialised world. Prince Karim Aga Khan IV was twenty years old at the time of his accession. In recognition of his position as the leader of an important Muslim community spread widely within the Commonwealth and beyond, Queen Elizabeth extended to him the dignity of His Highness. He graduated from Harvard University with an honours degree in Islamic history two years later in 1959.

Within less than a decade and a half of his succeeding to the Imamat, almost the whole of Africa achieved independence. Significant political changes also occurred in Asia. The process of change was punctuated by serious crises: the expulsion from Burma of its non-indigenous residents; the civil war in Pakistan which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh; the expulsion of the entire Asian population from Uganda under the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin; and the exodus from Mozambique of its non-indigenous populations due to the almost complete breakdown of law and order in the period leading to the country's independence.

More so than his grandfather, therefore, Aga Khan IV has had to deal with multiple governments, each with its own aspirations. Adaptation to change, at an acceleratingly faster pace, has been a consistent feature of the period since 1957. Newer crises have arisen: the eruption of violent ethnic animosities, as in Tajikistan, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the continuing brutalization of Afghanistan. As with the earlier crises, urgent humanitarian measures have had to be taken including, when necessary, resettlement of dislocated populations either within the regions concerned or in Europe and North America. It is because of these rapid changes in the local and national circumstances in which the Ismaili community has lived worldwide since 1957, that Aga Khan IV has avoided his direct personal involvement with international agencies such as the United Nations, and has replaced the direct personal roles that were held in the past by his grandfather and other members of his family by new relationships between these agencies and the apex entities of the Ismaili Imamat.

Under the leadership of Aga Khan IV, the institutions of the Imamat have, thus, expanded far beyond their original geographical core and scope of activities. The impulse that underpins them, and shapes the social conscience of his community, the Aga Khan has explained in his many pronouncements, remains the unchanging Muslim ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society. Many new institutions have been founded reflecting the present complexity of the development process. The Aga Khan Foundation, including the Aga Khan Rural Support Programmes, and the Mountain Societies Development Support Programme, the Aga Khan University, Aga Khan Health Services, Aga Khan Education Services and the Aga Khan Planning and Building Services operate in social development. Economic activities are the province of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development with its affiliates in tourism and industrial promotion and financial services. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture co-ordinates the Imamat's cultural activities. Under its aegis are the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Historic Cities Support Program. Problems related to building in the developing world are the Trust's special focus of concern, particularly in societies in which Muslims are present.