American University of Beirut

The Aga Khan

The Aga Khan, His Highness Karim Aga Khan IV, direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad through his cousin and son-in-law Ali, the first Imam, and his wife Fatima, the Prophet's daughter, is the hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of 15 million Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, who live mainly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, but also in western Europe and North America.

The 49th Ismaili leader was named Imam in 1957 by his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, who passed over his own son in favor of his grandson as heir because he wanted to be followed by a "young man who has been brought up in the midst of the new age." Born in 1936, the Aga Khan IV was educated in Nairobi and Switzerland. He was an undergraduate at Harvard in 1957 when he was called upon to succeed his grandfather as leader of the global Ismaili community. He interrupted his studies at Harvard for 18 months in order to tour the countries of the Imamate and to be installed in many enthronement ceremonies in such places as Dar-es-Salaam, Nairobi, Kampala, Karachi, and Bombay. Despite his accession to this elevated position of such responsibility, the Aga Khan IV returned humbly as a university student to Harvard where received his BA with honors in 1959. He subsequently received honorary degrees from such universities as McGill, McMaster, Wales, Brown, London, and others.

Stories of opulent villas, fine racing horses, and weight matched in gold and diamonds, come with the name Aga Khan, but the Aga Khan IV is best known as a philanthropist seriously engaged in supporting the lives and development of Muslims all over the world - continuing his family's tradition of service in global affairs. The present Aga Khan is an avid philanthropist, standing at the head of a network of service institutions focused on the "have nots" of the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. His philanthropic institutions and foundations in the fields of education, health, social and economic development, and culture reach almost every corner of the globe through the Aga Khan Foundation, the Aga Khan Development Network (devoted to raising money for the reconstruction of Afghanistan), the Aga Khan Health and Education Services, and the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development.

His Highness has been a generous advocate of education: he is founder and chancellor of the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, which boasts an Institute for Educational Development and a Faculty of Health Sciences. In his commencement address at MIT in 1994, he stressed MIT President James Killian's emphasis on the need for "better linkages between science and the humanities." Today he says that in education there is a need to retain "that broad humanism that rests upon both science and the liberal arts," but also a need to draw more upon "the wisdom of different cultures."

Foremost in his pursuit of cultural encounters is his involvement in urban development, housing, and Islamic culture centering on architecture. Striving to preserve the spirit of Islam in architecture, he established the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT and Harvard in 1979, a program linked to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and the Historic Cities Program. Focusing on restoration and the preservation of the values and practice of architecture, the MIT/Harvard program involves both research and teaching in the architecture of the Islamic world, and strives to create ties between MIT and Harvard and universities throughout the Muslim world.

Driving these concerns is the Aga Khan's desire to foster mutual understanding between East and West and between Islam and the West. He deplores the lack of understanding between the two sides, but sees the West's misunderstanding of Islam as more weighty. In that same MIT commencement address he declared, "The Islamic world is remarkably poorly understood by the West - almost a terra incognita." The economic power and the religious diversity of the Islamic world, representing nearly one-quarter of the world's total population, he said, must be rigorously and openly addressed. He urges the universities in the West to help "build a bridge across the gulf of knowledge which separates the Islamic World from the West."

The Imam is tireless in his efforts to improve the welfare of his far-flung community. In an interview with Paris Match in 1994, he described his mission as encompassing "theology, the social sectors, economics, culture, and even the environment. . . We do not content ourselves only in giving, but we also try to teach local populations to provide for their own needs." The "ethics of self-help" remains a strong conviction. He concluded: "I have no other ambition than to be the prince of a happy Islam. But we are not there yet."

The Aga Khan does not shrink from the political upheavals and changes encompassing the world of the twenty-first century. Declaring no conflict between democracy and Islam, he insists on recognition of the social and political roots of terrorism. "When we know the real causes of what drives people to desperation," he said in a 2004 interview, "then we can get a grasp on it." For him "diplomatic and economic solutions" have priority.

The Aga Khan's human sympathy and humanitarian activity have been broadly rewarded. Since the early l960s, he has received numerous orders of merit (Mauritania, Portugal, Iran, Pakistan, Italy, Senegal, France, Spain), and more recently his contributions to architecture have been widely recognized by the University of Virginia, 1984; Morocco, 1986; Great Britain, 1991; the United States, 1992.

A staunch defender of tolerance and pluralism,  the Aga Khan continues to support unfailingly "diplomatic and economic solutions" in order to achieve justice for the resolution of worldwide conflicts.

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