A man with an estimated $3 billion net worth and a private island, known for his horse racing and philanthropy, is also the 49th spiritual leader of a small sect of Shia Islam known as Ismailism. His name is Shah Karim al-Husayni but is better known as Aga Khan IV, and he is believed by his followers to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. The Aga Khan was born in Switzerland, raised in Kenya, attended Harvard University, and was appointed Imam of the faith by his grandfather on July 11, 1957, when he was only 20 years old.
The branch of Islam that he presides over, Ismailism, is practiced by approximately 12-15 million adherents in regions scattered all over the world. It is of the larger Shia branch of Islam, one of the two main branches that constitute the religion. Shias, including Isma’ilis, believe in the hereditary succession of the Prophet’s leadership.
Isma’ilis, unlike other Shias, however, believe that the seventh successor of the Prophet was a man named Isma’il ibn Jafar. His lineage resulted in separation from the larger Shia community and eventually to the leadership of the current Imam, the Aga Khan, who makes the Isma’ilis the only group in Islam to have a living, hereditary religious leader.
The Isma’ili sect is not a typical religious group. The population is scattered in all corners of the world, with heavy concentrations in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, as well as Syria and Iraq, but also African countries such as Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, and even in Oceania and North America.
While they are so thoroughly dispersed, Isma’ilis do not constitute a majority in any country in the world. They have no common language or culture with the exception of their faith, this acting as the principle that holds them together. Despite their minority status in countries across the world and their dispersion, Isma’ilis, impressively, all follow nearly identical practices, and are all overseen by the same man, the Aga Khan. Why and how is this?
The Aga Khan is a wealthy man. His personal riches are said to come from four sources aside from dues given to him by the members of the Isma’ili community. They are his family inheritance, inherited real estate investments, inherited personal businesses, and his own real estate and tourism investments. These contribute to his ownership of many luxuries, such as his private island, jet, helicopter, and mansion in Portugal.
However, they are not the reason the Isma’ili faith is so connected. The aforementioned religious dues that Isma’ilis pay to the Aga Khan go towards community events that bring together members from across the world. These include programs such as college expeditions for teen Isma’ilis, global expeditions during the summer and winter months in which Isma’ilis meet and discover new places, annual local and regional events such as sports tournaments and festivals, as well as huge celebrations to commemorate certain anniversaries of the Aga Khan’s own reign. In addition to the consistent attendance at events held at local religious centres, events such as these keep Isma’ilis close and intertwined with one another through the work of their leader, the Aga Khan.
In addition to his efforts in keeping the Isma’ili community united, the Aga Khan runs his own non-profit organization called the Aga Khan Development Network or AKDN. Its aim is to improve the quality of life and foster self-reliance in underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa. It employs 96,000 people in over 30 countries and consists of over 1,000 programs and institutions. AKDN works mainly in and around Isma’ili regions, however it aspires to grant opportunities for all people, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. It has provided approximately 5 million people with health care annually and has documented over 9,000 building projects in total.
What has emerged from a small, minority religious group diffused over all parts of the world sounds almost incomprehensible. But, is it too good to be true?
The Aga Khan is the man who built this modern-day Isma’ili network from the ground up. He is also the one who created the faith-based community that we see today and his efforts in development and philanthropy cannot go unnoticed. Unfortunately, however, he is old. On December 13, 2020, the Aga Khan turned 84 years of age. He has been the Imam for nearly 64 years. No one knows who the next Imam will be, and since the title is hereditary, the Aga Khan has a limited number of options.
The next Imam will be inheriting tremendous responsibility following the current Aga Khan’s death. He must be able to balance all aspects of the Isma’ili faith and navigate an ever-changing society during his tenure. He must also be able to handle the immense amount of monetary obligation given to him through his family and his title without letting it consume him.
Furthermore, he must live up to the name of his predecessor in the departments of philanthropy, networking, leadership, and most importantly, religion. The Isma’ili population will only grow in the coming decades and, as a result, so will the successor’s importance. The core of the faith is in his hands and without him, Isma’ilis have no leader and nothing holding them together in their respective regions of the world. There is a lot of pressure on the current, as well as the next Imam, as they have to ensure the continuation of the prosperity of the Isma’ili faith for the coming generations.
Having said that, Ismailism will not fail with a bad leader. No matter who the current Imam chooses, the faith will most likely hold itself together in the coming decades. The infrastructure in place in the community cannot be tarnished unless it is purposefully taken apart. No sensible Imam would do that. As for a monarch, positions of leadership are hard to turn down, much less throw away.
An Imam, even if he does not believe in what his title stands for, will still uphold it because its grandeur has no alternative. Aside from wealth, the praise, the glory, and the loyalty that any future Imam would oversee are elements that, if given to someone by blood, one would seldom expect dismissed. He will inherit the role of a monarch, without the formalities of a monarchy or the laws of a state. He will be greeted with an authority that no revolution or military can challenge. He will be loved and cherished with ample opportunities to succeed and minimal opportunities to fail.
Ultimately, what holds Isma’ilis together in the present and will continue to hold Isma’ilis together into the future is, in fact, the Aga Khan – not the man himself but rather the belief, power, and trust granted to his position by the Isma’ili population. Embedded in his position are catalysts for the success of the Isma’ili community, specifically, the use of faith-based power to give back to the group from which that authority is originally derived.
Neither the faith nor altruism of the Ismai’li comunity should be expected to cease due to the balance that previous and current Imams have created and enforced regarding the benefits of community and the prerequisite obligations of religion. The Isma’ili community has constructed an imperfect – yet self-reinforcing – power structure and, through this, in spite of great transformation, Ismailism has continued to thrive.
Edited by Helia Mohkber.
Santhindu Wijesooriya is a first-year student at McGill University. He plans to double major in International Development Studies and Political Science while minoring in Finance. Santhindu is currently a Staff Writer for Catalyst and looks to grow his knowledge and experience in International Development through this.