Encyclopaedia Articles

Aga Khan

Aga Khaninfo-icon is the title inherited by the modern imams of the Shi‘a Nizari Ismaili Muslims. The title was first granted by the Iranian ruler Fath ‘Ali Shah to Imaminfo-icon Hasan ‘Ali Shah (1804 –1881), who also served as governor of Quminfo-icon, Mahallat, and Kirmaninfo-icon. Forced to leave Iran, he settled eventually in British-ruled India. His son, Imam Shah Ali Shah, Aga Khan II (1830 –1835), was imam for four years and was succeeded after his death by his eight-year-old son who became well-known internationally as Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III (1877 – 1957). He guided the community into the twentieth century by locating social welfare, educational, economic, and religious institutions within the framework of a structured community constitution to promote better organisation and governance. His leadership played a crucial role in enabling the community, some of whose members had migrated from India to Africa, to adapt successfully to historical change and modernity.

In addition to his responsibilities as imam and spiritual leader for the welfare of his followers, Aga Khan III played an important role as a statesman in international and Muslim affairs. He was president of the League of Nations from 1937 to 1938 and also played an important role in the political evolution of the Indian sub-continent. Deeply committed to social reform and education among Muslims of Africa and Asia, he assisted in the creation of several institutions such as schools, hospitals, and the East African Muslim Welfare Society. He was also an eloquent advocate for the education of women and the advancement of their social and public role. In addition to other writings and speeches, he wrote two books, India in Transition (1918) and his Memoirs (1954). He died in 1957 and is buried in Aswan, Egypt.

Aga Khan IV, Shah Karim al-Hussaini, was born in 1936 and was educated in Europe and at Harvard University. During his leadership, a worldwide community emerged successfully through complex and turbulent changes. The Ismailis, who live in some thirty countries and represent a rich cultural and geographical diversity, acknowledge the spiritual authority of the imam and have responded actively to his guidance. This has enabled them to build further on inherited institutions and to create common purpose in their endeavours through well-coordinated local, national, and international institutions.

Aga Khan IV also created the Aga Khan Development Network, to promote a humanitarian, intellectual, and social vision of Islam and tradition of service to society. Its international activities have earned an enviable reputation for their commitment to the development of societies, without bias to national or religious affiliation, and to the promotion of culture as a key resource and enabling factor in human and social development. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the Trust for Culture promote concern and awareness of the built environment, and cultural and historical preservation. Various institutions of higher education, such as the Aga Khan University, University of Central Asia, and The Institute of Ismaili Studies, promote scholarship and training in a wide variety of fields.

The Aga Khan’s leadership and vision continue to be reflected in the increasingly significant global impact that these community institutions and networks are having in the fields of social, educational, economic, and cultural development.


Aziz, K. K., ed. Aga Khan III: Selected Speeches and Writings. London: Kegan Paul International, 1998

Daftary, Farhad. The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 1990

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the Encyclopaedia of Islam and Muslim World, Vol. II, pp. 24-25, ed. Richard C. Martin, MacMillan Reference Books, New York, 2003