By Sher Rahmat Khan
Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III was born on November 2, 1877, in Karachi. He was the 48th Imam of the Isma’ili Muslims, a visionary leader of the South Asian Muslims and one of the founding fathers of Pakistan.
The long career of over 50 years’ active engagement with the affairs of Muslims in Indian subcontinent as well as abroad saw Aga Khan III providing political, educational and social leadership to the Muslims. He thus played a key role in shaping our recent past. During his 72 years long period of Imamat, he succeeded in initiating a process of institutionalization and progress in his own community.
His Royal Highness Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan’s personality, his contributions to the Muslims of British-India, the range of issues he faced and the solutions he offered, the variety of fora where he raised his voice for the Muslims and his tireless struggle give him a unique place among the leaders of 20th century.
Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah’s first national public appearance was his presidential address to the All India Muhammadan Educational Conference in Delhi in 1902. In just four years, his leadership was well established, and the 28-year-old Aga Khan III was entrusted with the challenging task of leading the Simla Deputation. The Deputation consisted of 35 members from all over India, including some senior stalwarts. It started a new chapter in the constitutional life of the Indian Muslims, because they, for the first time, presented their demands to the government systematically and the same were accepted by the British authorities. Just two months after the Simla Deputation, in December 1906, the all India Muslim League was founded in Dacca.
Aga Khan III was appointed the President of this nascent Muslim political party. Thus, for the first time, the Muslims of British-India had a political forum of their own, which could raise their concerns to the government, represent them within and outside the country and create socio-political awareness. Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan continued to nourish the Muslim League and remained its president till 1913. The Aga Khan also remained a patron of the London Muslim League and made it a platform to fight for the rights of the Muslims.
Along with Muslim League, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah raised his voice for the Indian Muslims on many other forums. Besides negotiating with the British authorities, he was also conscious of the British public opinion. The Muslim leader wrote over 50 articles and letters to The Times and other British Journals to influence the British public opinion in favour of the Indian Muslims. Opposing the Nehru Report, he wrote two detailed articles for The Times London, which were published on 12th and 13th October 1928. He also represented the Muslims of India in the Round Table Conference held in London. Aga Khan raised his voice for the British-India in the League of Nations, and became its president in 1937.
Besides providing political leadership, Sir Aga Khan also served the educational cause of the Muslims. Education was a passion for Aga Khan III. He was convinced that illiteracy was the key reason of Muslim deprivations in India; therefore, using the platform of various organizations, he stressed the importance of education for the Muslims of British-India. Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah played a key role in turning the Muhammad Anglo Oriental (MAO) College into Aligarh University. In fact, Sir Aga Khan’s association with Aligarh Movement goes back to 1896, when he, at the age of 19, visited the MAO College. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan welcomed him in the historic Strachey Hall, and the Aga Khan extended his full support to Sir Syed and the Aligarh Movement.
The Aga Khan made an exhausting yearlong tour to all over India to collect donations for the Aligarh University. The tour was significant not only for the large amount of donations that was collected, but also because the educational issues of the Muslims reached every Muslim home throughout the British-India. The tour must have inspired interest in modern education and brought home the importance of the establishment of modern educational institutions. After the establishment of the University he became its founding pro-chancellor and continued to support it with his generous donations throughout his life.
The Aga Khan family’s interest in education goes back to several centuries. His ancestors –the Fatimid Caliphs – founded the al-Azhar University in Cairo, which is one of the oldest universities of the world and presently a prestigious centre of Islamic sciences. They also established the largest library of medieval era with a collection of over 1,600,000 books. While his father, Aga Ali Shah, Aga Khan II established community schools in Bombay in 1882, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah established Aga Khan Schools in different parts of the British-India and Africa in 1905. His love for education has reached unprecedented zenith under the leadership of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah’s grandson and successor, Prince Karim, Aga Khan IV – the 49th Isma’ili Imam, who established hundreds of schools, number of academies of educational excellence in the two continents and two major universities, one of them has campuses in three continents.
Aga Khan III was a global leader, though the Muslims of India were the focus of his attention, he did not ignore the sufferings of the Muslims of other parts of the world. His Royal Highness continued to argue for the rights of the people of Turkey through his speeches and writings. On November 8, 1921 he wrote a letter to The Times and appealed to the British “to conclude peace with Turkey upon just and equitable basis.” The Aga Khan also took active part in the Khilafat Movement and in 1919, he led a delegation of prominent Muslim leaders from India to a hearing with the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George to plead the case of Turkey. When the great powers singed accord with Turkey on the latter’s own terms in Lausanne in 1923, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah was present there to see the happy moment of Turkey’s triumph. At that occasion he issued a message to the worldwide Muslims about the peace treaty and appreciated the steadfastness of the Turks.
Throughout his life, Aga Khan III worked for the Muslim unity. On one of his visits to Europe, he met the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul. This historic meeting between the Sunni Caliph and Isma’ili Imam was indication of Aga Khan’s efforts to bring together Muslims of different interpretation. Which is also evident in his writings, speeches and socio-political contributions. The theme of Muslim unity and respect for each other consistently runs through all his teachings to his own community. In a message to his Isma’ili followers, on February 20, 1955 he wrote from Cairo, “[There is] no reason why other Muslims, who believe differently, should not be accepted as brothers in Islam and dear in person and prayed for and never publicly and privately condemned, leave alone abused.” Similarly, in one of his messages to the Muslims published in a newspaper on August 9, 1950, he wrote, “Muslim unity is possible only if all the communities of interpretations respect each other.” These words of His Royal Highness are true today as these were 65 years ago.
After the establishment of Pakistan, Aga Khan III sent a message to the people of the country on August 17, 1947 and said, “We must with all our energy, heart and soul with faith in Islam and trust in God, work for the present and future glory of Pakistan.” The members of his own community have taken the message of their spiritual master wholeheartedly for the last 67 years and they contribute a lot to the wellbeing and stability of the country. Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah paid several visits to Pakistan as an expression of his love and commitment to the country, and provided his support to the newly-established Muslim country throughout his life.
Aga Khan III’s Golden Jubilee (1937), Diamond Jubilee (1946) and Platinum Jubilee (1954) were celebrated to commemorate his 50th, 60th and 70th years of Imamat, respectively. Large amount of money was collected in these Jubilees by his Isma’ili followers, the Aga Khan spent it for the wellbeing of the people. Some of the earliest schools established in distant parts of Gilgit-Baltistan are Diamond Jubilee schools, which were funded from the money collected for the Diamond Jubilee of Aga Khan III in 1954. The impact of these schools is obvious as some of these valleys have highest literacy rate in Pakistan.
One July 11, 1957, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah left this world for eternal abode. According to his own wish, he was buried in Aswan, Egypt, a place where his ancestors established a glorious empire one thousand years ago. He appointed his grandson, Prince Karim, the Aga Khan IV, his successor. To further his vision of holistic human development within the context of Islamic ethics, Prince Karim Aga Khan has established the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). This group of development agencies work to improve the quality of life of people in diverse regions, focusing on the environment, health, education, architecture, culture, microfinance, rural development, disaster reduction, the promotion of private-sector enterprise and the revitalisation of historic cities.
Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah was an exemplar of leadership in challenging times, guiding sub-continental Muslims through challenging times. His emphasis on tolerance, humility, education and unity remain relevant even today.