Few people in history are remembered as a visionary, a political heavy-weight who presided over a party that led to founding of a nation-state and at the same time, served as spiritual leader of a large Muslim community spanning over 3 continents.
Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III, is one such unique person. Born on 2nd November 1877, he became the Imam of Shia Ismaili Muslims at the tender age of eight. Though he is often recalled as a leading figure in the Pakistan independence movement, his most important contributions have been far more diverse than this.
Throughout his life, he championed the cause of unity amongst all faiths, but when it came to the rights of Muslims to be recognized in British India, he was a leading figure. It was he who suggested a separate electorate for Muslims in India, back in 1906 in his meeting with the Viceroy.
This was a corner stone in the struggle leading to formation of Pakistan; unlike the European democratic structure which relies on joint electorates where people vote irrespective of their religions. In that scenario, Muslims would have remained down-trodden by the Hindu-dominated Congress, with no legislative representation or role in government.
But as British reforms accepted this long standing demand, the All India Muslim League (AIML) went on to win all of its reserved seats in center and almost all in provinces in the 1945 elections. This landmark victory paved the way for Pakistan against the narrative of Congress, which was calling for the independence of a united India under Hindu domination. Such was the vision of this great man who happened to be the first president of AIML as well. In addition, he held various positions in the international and national forums, representing and protecting interests of Muslims and leading them in turbulent times towards their ultimate aim of creating Pakistan.
To him, Pakistan was not a destiny but journey that had just begun, with a role to play in international community. Just after independence, not only did he praise the “miraculous efforts” of Jinnah in his speech but he talked about what needs to be done ahead. He said, “We must, with our energy, heart and soul with faith in Islam and trust in God, work for the present and future glory of Pakistan and give help to the unfortunate Muslims who still suffer under foreign dominion”. And in this role, he termed Pakistan as “the greatest Muslim state in the world.
Sir Aga Khan was convinced that Pakistan is a divine gift as he outlined the role of the newly formed country. “Muslims must strive for protection of faith, independence, and progress in all lands! Allah has given this leadership to Pakistan and Pakistani Muslims. May we be equal to destiny, is my prayer”. His words have profound impact on Islamic thought, society and culture, the traditions of social service, the building of not-for-profit institutions and raising awareness on issues such as health, education, importance of women in every walk of life.
One such example out of many others are the DJ (Diamond Jubilee) schools built through the funds raised at his Diamond Jubilee, celebrating 60 years of his being Imam. Sir Aga Khan’s royal stature, numerous official and state titles and close relationship with governments across Europe in particular Britain did not deter him from driving a personal-led fund-raising campaign to establish what became the great Aligarh Muslim University – the hallmark of the independence movement providing leadership armed with modern education. This shows how humble this man was, who left no stone unturned to achieve what he thought was indispensable for Muslims to achieve their ambition of independence.
Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah led a life full of successes in all fronts he looked upon, enlightening the many generations to come through his numerous books and speeches. He died on 11th July 1957 and is buried in Aswan, Egypt. If there’s one word that can somehow summarize the lessons to be learned from his life is struggle, so aptly put in his one of his most quoted and beautiful quotes – “Struggle is the meaning of life; defeat or victory is in the hands of God. But struggle itself is man’s duty and should be his joy.”