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Born Prince Karim Aga Khan, the Aga Khan IV is the eldest son of Prince Aly Khan, (1911–1960) and his first wife, Princess Tajuddawlah Aly Khan, formerly the Hon. Joan Barbara Yarde-Buller (1908–1997), the eldest daughter of the 3rd Baron Churston. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, on December 13, 1936, Prince Karim was declared healthy despite being born prematurely. The Aga Khan's brother, Prince Amyn, was born less than a year later. Their parents divorced in 1949, in part due to Prince Aly Khan's extramarital affairs, and Prince Aly Khan shortly after married Rita Hayworth – with whom he had a daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, the half-sister of Aga Khan IV. The Aga Khan IV also had a half-brother, Patrick Benjamin Guinness (1931–1965), from his mother's first marriage, as Joan Yarde-Buller was previously married to Loel Guinness of the banking Guinnesses.
Prince Karim spent his childhood in Nairobi, Kenya, where his early education was done by private tutoring. His grandfather, Aga Khan III, engaged Mustafa Kamil, a teacher from Aligarh Muslim University, for both Prince Karim and Prince Amyn. Prince Karim later attended the Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland, the most expensive boarding school in Europe, for nine years where he ended up with, in his words, "fair grades." As a youngster Prince Karim would have preferred to attend MIT and study science, but his grandfather, Aga Khan III, vetoed the decision and Prince Karim attended Harvard University.
When his grandfather passed away, the young Prince was thrust into the position of the Aga Khan (IV), and he went from being not only a university student but also to replacing his grandfather as the new Nizari Ismaili Imam. He says about it: "Overnight, my whole life changed completely. I woke up with serious responsibilities toward millions of other human beings. I knew I would have to abandon my hopes of studying for a doctorate in History." The Aga Khan IV graduated from Harvard in 1959, two years after becoming the Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History (with Cum Laude honors) and his varsity H for soccer.
The young Aga Khan was a competitive downhill skier, and he skied for Iran (at that time led by the secular Shah) in the 1964 Olympic Games. Riots broke out in East Africa during the time of the games and the Aga Khan was accordingly besieged with cables and questions from East African Nizari Ismaili leaders, some of whom had flown to Innsbruck, asking their imam for guidance. Specifically, his followers wanted to know whether they should try to hold on to their interests in East Africa or instead return back to India and Pakistan.
Paul Ress, of Sports Illustrated, writes that the young, contact lens wearing Prince turned Aga Khan IV, having responsibility to go with his wealth, did not live the playboy lifestyle of his father. He did, however, relish "...speed on water as well as on snow, highways and in the air..." and increased the speed of his 72-foot yacht (the Amaloun) by almost 20%. Noting he could no longer afford to risk his life on a piste (ski run), the Aga Khan also habitually drove at 90 to 145 miles an hour, "road permitting." Ress writes about traveling to Chantilly in one of the young Prince's Maseratis. The chauffeur, Lucien Lemouss, slowed to 80 miles per hour as they fell in behind a slower moving Ferrari, and the young Prince had the chauffeur pull over, took over the driver's seat, and swiftly passed the Ferrari.
I take all sorts of precautions when I go out with friends. I have taught myself not to show any emotion in public places. I never sit next to a woman with whom the press is trying to link me. Here in Gstaad I go often to a bistro outside the village for a fondue because the proprietor will not let anyone take pictures in his establishment. I stopped going to certain Paris theaters because I discovered they were tipping off the press to my presence. I realize that I may seem extreme on the subject, but do not forget that my mail has been stolen and my servants bribed. Close personal friends have taken private snapshots of me in my home and then sold them to magazines. I have been blackmailed on the telephone. All I desire is to have my private life respected. Is that unreasonable?
The Aga Khan married his first wife, former British model Sarah ("Sally") Frances Croker-Poole, who assumed the name Begum Salimah Aga Khan, on October 22, 1969 (civil) and October 28, 1969 (religious), at his home (at that time) in Paris, France. The couple were married for 25 years, during which they had three children.The Aga Khan agreed to pay £20 million in a divorce settlement, and Begum Salimah sold jewels she received as gifts, including the Begum Blue diamond, for £17.5 million The Aga Khan and Begum Salimah had one daughter and two sons together:
The Aga Khan married for the second time with Gabriele zu Leiningen, who assumed the name Begum Inaara Aga Khan, at his walled compound and chateau, Aiglemont, in Gouvieux, France, on May 30, 1998. However, a little over six years later – on October 8, 2004 – an announcement was made that the Aga Khan and Begum Inaara were to seek a divorce. Begum Inaara was to receive a settlement amount of £50 million - overturning a lower court ruling of one-fifth of this amount, after the French court overseeing the settlement at the time found the Aga Khan exclusively at fault for adultery. It was revealed in the court that Begum Inaara had hired a private detective to track the Aga Khan's movements with the air hostess. An intra-marriage liaison of the Aga Khan with Beatrice von der Schulenburg, whom the Aga Khan has been close to for five years and whom it is expected the Aga Khan would marry following completion of the divorce with Begum Inaara, was also highlighted by the Begum's lawyers. However, the £50 million settlement was contested by the Aga Khan to France's highest court, shortly after being announced. As a result, divorce proceedings are still ongoing (potentially taking several years to resolve), but, the Aga Khan is said to remain legally married to Begum Inaara in the meantime. By Begum Inaara, the Aga Khan has a son:
Following the death of his grandfather, Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah Aga Khan (the Aga Khan III), Prince Karim, at the age of 20, became the 49th Imam of the Nizari Ismailis and Aga Khan IV, bypassing his father, Prince Aly Khan, and his uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who were in direct line to succession. In his will, the Aga Khan III explained the rationale for choosing his eldest grandson as his successor (which marked the first time in the claimed history of the Nizari Ismaili chain of Imamat that a grandson of the preceding Imam – instead of one of the sons of the preceding Imam – was made the next Imam):
In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world has provoked many changes, including the discoveries of atomic science, I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Nizari Ismaili community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age, and who brings a new outlook on life to his office.
In light of the request expressed in his grandfather's will, the Aga Khan IV has sometimes been referred to by Nizari Ismailis as the "Imam of the Atomic Age." The will of the Aga Khan III added that the next Aga Khan, in the first several years of his Imamat, should look to the Aga Khan III's widow for guidance on general matters pertaining to the Imamat:
I DESIRE that my successor shall, during the first seven years of his Imamat, be guided on questions of general Imamat Policy, by my said wife, Yvette called Yve Blanche Labrousse Om Habibeh, the BEGUM AGA KHAN, who has been familiar for many years with the problems facing my followers, and in whose wise judgment, I place the greatest confidence.
Upon taking the position of Imam, the Aga Khan IV stated that he intended to continue the work his grandfather had pursued in building modern institutions to improve the quality of life of the Nizari Ismailis. Takht nashini (installation of the new Imam) ceremonies occurred at several locations over the course of 1957 and 1958. During this time, the Aga Khan emphasized to his followers the importance of fostering positive relations with different ethnicities – a message highly appropriate considering the racially tense atmosphere in East Africa at the time between blacks and South Asians. During the Aga Khan's installation ceremonies in the Indian subcontinent, the Aga Khan stressed his commitment to improving the standard of living of Nizari Ismailis and encouraged cooperation with individuals of other religions. The main themes that the Aga Khan emphasized to his community during these first few months of his Imamat were material development, education, interracial harmony, and confidence in religion
In 1972, under the regime of the then President Idi Amin of Uganda South Asians, including Nizari Ismailis, were expelled. The South Asians, some who whose families had lived in Uganda for over 100 years, were given 90 days to leave the country. The Aga Khan picked up the phone and called long-time friend, then Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau's government agreed to open its doors, and thousands of Nizari Ismailis subsequently immigrated to Canada. The Aga Khan also undertook urgent steps to facilitate the resettlement of Nizari Ismailis displaced from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, as well as Burma, to other countries. Most of these Nizari Ismailis found new homes – not only in Asia, but, also in Europe and North America. Most of the initial resettlement problems were overcome remarkably rapidly by Nizari Ismailis due to their educational backgrounds and high rates of literacy, as well as the efforts of the Aga Khan and the host countries, and the moral and material support from Nizari Ismaili community programs.
In view of the importance that Nizari Ismailism places on maintaining a balance between the spiritual well-being of the individual and the quality of his or her material life, the Imam's guidance to his community deals with both aspects of the life of his followers. The Aga Khan has encouraged Nizari Ismailis, settled in the industrialized world, to contribute towards the progress of communities in the developing world through various development programs. The Aga Khan has described his role as Imam as being partly to uplift the material and spiritual well being of Nizari Ismailis – a duty which requires an understanding of Nizari Ismailis in the context of their geographic location and their time. He elaborated on this concept in a 2006 speech in Germany stating: "The role and responsibility of an Imam, therefore, is both to interpret the faith to the community, and also to do all within his means to improve the quality, and security, of their daily lives & the people with whom Ismailis share their lives." This engagement of the Aga Khan with Nizari Ismailis is said to extend to the people with whom the Nizari Ismailis share their lives, locally and internationally.
The Aga Khan is one of several Shia signatories of the Amman Message which gives a broad foundation for defining those denominations of Islam that should be considered as part of the wider Muslim Ummah.
During the Pope Benedict XVI Islam controversy, he said:
I have two reactions to the pope's lecture: There is my concern about the degradation of relations and, at the same time, I see an opportunity. A chance to talk about a serious, important issue: the relationship between religion and logic.
When the current Nizari Ismaili Imam, the Aga Khan IV, was asked about his view on the consumption of alcohol in a 1965 interview with the Sunday Times, he said the following:
Our belief is that the thing which separates man from the animals is his power of thought. Anything that impedes this process is wrong. Therefore alcohol is forbidden. I have never touched alcohol. But this, to me, is not a puritan prohibition. I don't want to drink. I've never wanted to drink. There's no pressure being placed on me by my religion.
During the time of the 46th, 47th, and 48th Imams (Aga Khan I, Aga Khan II, and Aga Khan III) of the Nizari Ismaili community, respectively – and particularly prior to the creation of the independent country of Pakistan (a major hub for Nizari Ismailis) in 1947 – virtually all available sources of information indicated that the position of the Imam in Nizari Ismailism was that of the incarnation of God and/or the manifestation of God. According to the 1866 Khoja Case (also known as the "Aga Khan Case"), presided over by Justice Sir Joseph Arnould in the High Court of Bombay, and where the Aga Khan I served as defendant, the Imam was described as "...an incarnation of God..." to his community of followers. This assertion was reaffirmed in the 1908 Haji Bibi Case, presided over by Mr. Justice Russell in the High Court of Bombay, where the Aga Khan III served as defendant. In this latter case, the Imam was referenced by virtue of the thrice daily main prayer of the Nizari Ismaili community, the Holy Du'a, as:
...God, the High, the Great, the Merciful, the Magnanimous, the Good, the Great Holy Providence (Who is) in the district of Chaldea, in Persia, in human form, descended from the seventy-seven Patras (ancestors) and who is the forty-eighth Imam (Spiritual Chief) the tenth Naklanki Avatar, our Master, Aga Sultan Mahomed Shah [the given name of Aga Khan III], the Giver.
It was also revealed in the Haji Bibi case that the Holy Du'a had gone unchanged since the time of the 46th Imam (Aga Khan I), other than for accounting for changes in the name of the Imam as one passed and a new one was introduced. Additionally, the Aga Khan III wrote in a public letter entitled "I Belong to No Country," in 1934, that:
I am a direct descendant of the Prophet and a large number of Muhammadans numbering about 20 millions acknowledge me as their head. They pay me tribute and worship me, who have the blood of the Prophet in my vein.
As well, the Aga Khan III's elder brother, Shihabu'ddin Shah al-Husayni, is said by Russian orientalist Wladimir Ivanow to have written a treatise called Risala Dar Haqiqati Din ("The True Meaning of Religion"). Ivanow first translated the treatise into English in 1933, now being published by The Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education board for Canada (printed by SamcoPrinters.com). Part of the treatise states:
It suffices to know that in every epoch or a (millennial) period of time there is, and always was a manifestation of God, from the time of Adam, and even before Adam, and till the time of the Final Prophet. It is present even now in the world [in the form of the Nizari Ismaili Imam], as it was said to you.
Further, in the mid-20th century, Norman Lewis wrote, "The Aga Khan is the spiritual and temporal head of the sect and possesses attributes of divinity." Meanwhile, in a paper discussing the theology of East African followers of the Aga Khan, H.S Morris quotes a Nizari Ismaili that was living in East Africa and educated in England, but, who had never visited India, as saying:
Our Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, is like your Jesus Christ. Even Hindus believe that God will never leave the world deserted, we believe that God, that is Vishnu, descended to earth in Ali [as the Tenth Avatar] and has never left us. When the Imam dies the Light moves on to his son: it follows like the sacred blood—like the King. The King never dies.
However, since a certain number of undefined years after the formation of the independent country of Pakistan (a major hub for Nizari Ismailis, as indicated earlier) in 1947, and particularly since the advent of the 49th Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, the Aga Khan IV, in 1957, the bulk of the public information available on the position of the Imam in Nizari Ismailism indicates that the position may be viewed as 'less divine' than during the lives of previous Nizari Ismaili Imams – or, even, not divine altogether. For instance, in 1967, Thomas Thompson, of Life Magazine (now Time Magazine) wrote: "His [Karim Aga Khan's] authority is roughly analogous to that of the Pope in Roman Catholicism, and he is considered the only mediator between his people and God. The Aga Khan is not considered divine." Additionally, in response to a December 1983 Life Magazinearticle, the Aga Khan IV's representatives stated that it was incorrect for Life Magazine to interpret him as either "a living god," or as a "spokesman for Allah." The same response stated that the oneness and uniqueness of Allah (compared to Allah's creation), Tawheed, is a fundamental principle of Islam.
In 1987, while writing how the Aga Khans III and IV had modified Khoja Nizari Ismaili religious practices, which contained "mystical-Indian" Hindu aspects, to conform more with "prophetic-Arabic" Islamic practices, Ali S. Asani noted that the Khoja group of Nizari Ismailis accepted the changes in part because of their strong belief and trust in the guidance offered by their "divinely-appointed" Imam.
There may be a difference between the publicized position of the Imam in Nizari Ismailism, as per the present Aga Khan and his representatives, versus the position he occupies in the private worship services of Nizari Ismailis (which are not open to the public nor other Muslims). For instance, a report was issued at the 1975 Ismailia Association Conference – a meeting of the Aga Khan with senior Nizari Ismaili council leaders from several countries – to address the question of the divinity of the Imam. It mentioned: "The Imam to be explained as the 'mazhar' [meaning 'manifestation' or 'reflection'] of God, and the relationship between God and the Imam to be related to varying levels of inspiration and communication from God to man." Multiple prominent Nizari Ismaili websites have publicly indicated that the position of Imam is that of the bearer of a unique concept, common to certain denominations of Shia Islam, referred to as (the eternal) Noor of Allah ("Light of God"). It is unclear whether the Noor of Allah is a portion of God that the Aga Khan is believed by Nizari Ismailis to bear, or the same as God. Additionally, The Encyclopedia of Ismailism, by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin, a Nizari Ismaili, states that: "The Imam is the mazhar (manifestation) of God on earth as the electric bulb is a device of manifestation of electricity, which itself is invisible. The bulb plays the same role as the body of the Imam. Thus, the Imam is held to be the manifestation of the divine light, which is ever-present in the world." Additionally, Alnaz Jiwa, a Toronto lawyer who describes himself as a "devout" Nizari Ismaili, compared the Aga Khan's role in Nizari Ismailism to that of Jesus in Christianity, as part of motions involving the Aga Khan Copyright Lawsuit in the Federal Court of Canada in August 2010. Thus, multiple sources that come from inside the Nizari Ismaili community strongly indicate that the Aga Khan IV is viewed by Nizari Ismailis as the incarnation of God or manifestation of God, or as having a portion of God inside of him (and thereby being divine) – as was the case with his grandfather (based on available historical information), the Aga Khan III. This is despite the Aga Khan IV's own indications to the contrary in the public eye.
From July 11, 1982 to July 11, 1983 – to celebrate the present Aga Khan's Silver Jubilee, marking the 25th anniversary of his accession to the Imamat – many new social and economic development projects were launched. These range from the establishment of the US$450 million international Aga Khan University with its Faculty of Health Sciences and teaching hospital based in Karachi, the expansion of schools for girls and medical centers in the Hunza region (one of the remote parts of Northern Pakistan bordering on China and Afghanistan that is densely populated with Nizari Ismailis), to the establishment of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in Gujarat, India – and the extension of existing urban hospitals and primary health care centers in Tanzania and Kenya.
July 11, 2007 to December 13, 2008 marked the 50th Anniversary of the Aga Khan's reign of Imamat (Golden Jubilee). On this occasion, leaders representing Nizari Ismailis from different areas of the world gathered at the Aga Khan's residence to pay homage to the Imam. As part of the Golden Jubilee, the Aga Khan made official visits to various countries – using the visits to recognise the friendship and longstanding support of certain leaders of state, government, and others, to the Aga Khan and his Nizari Ismaili community, as well as to lay the foundations for certain future initiatives and programmes. Areas of the world visited included the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Aga Khan also organised a Nizari Ismaili sports meet in Kenya, and teams of Nizari Ismailis from different areas of the world came to play in this event.
The countries visited included: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, Madagascar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, the United States of America, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, India, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Syria, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic, Canada, Singapore and France.