The Aga Khan on Imamat and the Ismailis: A Selection of Excerpts from Speeches He Made in the 20th Century


September 1, 1885: The 7-year-old Aga Khan III at his enthronement ceremony as 48th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Ismaili Muslims in Bombay. He is surrounded by community elders. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, CopyrightSeptember 1, 1885: The 7-year-old Aga Khan III at his enthronement ceremony as 48th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Ismaili Muslims in Bombay. He is surrounded by community elders. Photo: © Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.


“Bombay, as you now have been reminded, has very close associations with my family. It was here, and here alone, that my grandfather was acclaimed as the forty-eighth Imam of the Shia Imami Ismailis. That was 73 years ago and at that time he was only eight years old. What tremendous changes have come about since those days! The Ismaili community has grown and prospered almost beyond recognition. Thanks to my grandfather’s guidance and wisdom, Ismaili families are to be found today all over the world, living peaceably beneath the flags of many nations, owing allegiance to a wide variety of governments.”


“As I address you, I turn to pay my respects to the memory of your late Imam. Many, many memories come to our minds as we think of him. He achieved in his life, for our community, that which could only have been accomplished normally in a period of many generations. The tributes that the world has paid him, bear honest testimony to his real life and work. He will always be my ideal and example and I shall do my best to follow faithfully in his footsteps.”



 “Ismailis are Shia Muslims who believe that the successor to the leadership of the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Mohammed was the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and that this leadership, in both spiritual and temporal matters, was to continue by heredity through Ali in the Prophet’s family. 

“Ismailis live in over twenty-five different countries including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Syria, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, south-west China, Australia, Indonesia, and of course Malaysia and Singapore.”


 “The Ismailis have a history that spans 1400 years. As many of you know they belong to the Shia Muslim Community, one of the two major branches of Islam, the Sunni being the other. The Sunni hold that there was no designated successor to the leadership of the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Muhammad. The Shia believe that, although revelation ceased at the Prophet’s death, the need for the community’s spiritual and temporal guidance continued. The authority for this guidance devolved first on Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, and subsequently passed to those male descendants designated in turn. The Ismailis are one of a number of Shia Muslim persuasions that grew out of the issue of succession. My responsibilities as a descendant and as the present Imam of the Ismailis concern not only interpretation in matters of faith to a broad diversity of people residing in more than 25 countries, but also relating that faith to the conditions of the present.”


Aga Khan Dar es Salaam installationOctober 19, 1957: His Highness the Aga Khan at the Takht Nashini in Dar-es-Salaam. Photo: Ilm Magazine, July 1977.


It gives me particular pleasure to be here in Dar es salaam, celebrating the twenty fifth anniversary of my Takht Nashini. It was here on the site of the Upanga Jamatkhana, the foundation stone of which I laid three days later, that the first of the Takht Nashini ceremonies took place in 1957.

“It was here too that my grandfather, Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah Aga Khan, celebrated his Diamond Jubilee.

aga-khan-iii-npg-03His Highness the Aga Khan III facing the scale at his Diamond Jubilee weigh-in ceremony held in Dar es Salaam on August 10, 1946. Photo: National Geographic, March 1947.

“The Takht Nashini ceremony bore witness to my newly inherited leadership of the Ismaili Community. I was then twenty years old and, like any young man, looked forward to great progress in the world. Indeed, since then tremendous changes have affected all of us here today.”


The New Prince Karim Aga Khan Iv In Switzerland After The Death Of The Aga Khan Iii. Portrait du prince Karim AGA KHAN IV devant une photographie de son grand-père l'AGA KAHN III. (Photo by Philippe Le Tellier/Paris Match via Getty Images)A portrait of the new 49th Ismaili Imam taken shortly after he succeeded his late grandfather to the throne of Imamat on July 11, 1957 at the age of twenty. A framed portrait of the late 48th Imam who served the community for 72 years is seen in the background. Photo © Philippe Le Tellier/Paris Match via Getty Images.


“Why am I, as the Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, concerned with the development problems?

“Islam is not passive. It does not admit that man’s spiritual needs should be isolated from his material daily activities. A Muslim must play an active role in helping his family and the brotherhood of believers. The object is not to achieve status, wealth, and power, but to contribute to society’s overall development. This implies a moral responsibility to help its weaker, less fortunate members.

“It is in this clear context that I must concern myself with the social and material well-being of the Ismailis and the societies in which they live, today that represents more than 25 countries.

“My grandfather Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah Aga Khan, was in many ways a pioneer in this domain. During his 72 years of Imamat, He established a network of medical and educational facilities, as well as economic development organization in Asia and East Africa.

“I became Imam in 1957 when the world was in the midst of the rapid passage from colonial rule to the emergence of the scores of independent sovereign states that we now rather confusingly lump together as the Third World. While the European empires in Asia and Africa were disbanded and these fragile nation states took their place, the institutions my grandfather had set up began to focus their energies on the construction of these new societies.”



“When I assumed the responsibilities of the Imamat in 1957 I was eager — as I still am — to see that the countries where my followers live are sound and stable; that they are countries with clear development horizons; countries where, following my grandfather’s example, I could help to underwrite the integrity of the State and to contribute to improving the quality of life for all communities, not just my own. I hoped to help bridge the gulf between the developed and the developing worlds. This aspiration, I felt, was particularly appropriate to the Imamat because of its commitment to broad social objectives without political connotations, save in its concern for the fundamental freedom of its followers to practice the faith of their choice.

“I have always urged Ismailis to be loyal to their countries where they live and to whatever Government is responsible for their security and their well-being. This respect for the integrity of nations, coupled with our fundamental aspiration to improve the quality of life in the Third World countries is, I believe, the reason why the role of Ismailis and the Imamat is today generally perceived as being a positive and constructive one.”



“The Imamat’s social and economic institutions here continue to be privately managed. But I should like to emphasise that our institutional endeavour is not to be confused with the less desirable aspects of unrestrained capitalism. The Ismaili Imamat has no single home country and so its activities are international and institutional as opposed to Governmental.

“The Imamat’s involvement with this private initiative, especially in the economic field, deserves explanation to anyone educated in the Augustinian Christian philosophy which tends to divide the spiritual from the material. Islam, by contrast, is a total religion guiding all aspects of a Muslim’s life. The faith establishes the moral framework within which material endeavour is to be encouraged and a ‘social conscience’ has always been a key part of our lives. Hence, as Imam, I am concerned with the encouragement of all forms of endeavour and — further — with the quality of its performance, because that affects the quality of human life. What is done must be done honestly, sincerely and well. We cannot afford to be incompetent, because if we are, we damage the people we seek to serve.”


aga-khan-and-diwan-ebooHis Highness the Aga Khan and the Late Diwan Sir Eboo Pirbhai share a moment in Los Angeles, USA, in 1983. Photo: The American Ismaili/Roshni.

NEW YORK, USA, JUNE 13, 1983

“Here assembled this evening are people from many different countries. People whose parents I have worked with, whose children I am working with, Inshallah, whose grandchildren I will work with. And, I think it is appropriate that I should express, in my office as Imam, my happiness and my gratitude, my pride, in working with such eminent leadership, with leadership which is committed to honorary service taken out of their daily lives which require of them hard work, commitment to their families, but on top of that they have found the time in the past, find the time today, Inshallah, will continue to find the time in the future, to serve the Jamat around the world.

“I think this is a source of unlimited strength and I believe that it is one of the most fundamental, one of the most important, one the strongest pillars on which we can build our future, and sometimes people who are not members of the Jamat ask me where the strength of the Jamat comes from and it is very difficult for me to explain to them that the strength of the Jamat, in many ways comes from this spirit of brotherhood, the spirit of service, the spirit of concern for people of the same faith, the same family.

“And I hope that this new and young Jamat in the United States, and the new and young Jamat in Canada, and the slightly less young Jamat in the United Kingdom and Western Europe will succeed in maintaining this tradition, strengthening it and making available to the Jamat around the world not only the traditional service, but that that traditional service should grow, that which is strong and that which is desirable from western society, from western technology and from western know-how.

“As we move towards the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, I say to myself that much must change but at the same time, little should change on the fundamentals of the unity of the Jamat and the service the leaders of the Jamat offer to the Jamat and to the Imam and I hope, therefore, that this young Jamat in this country which, after all, today represents the greatest concentration of human know-how in any part of the world, I hope that this young Jamat will be strong in its tradition, strong in its service and strong at what it can do for our Jamat around the world.

“Let’s hope that as we move to the year 2000 and onwards, we will build on a strong Jamat, which is not only as it was in the past located in the developing world, but which is strong and united in the developed world, in the United States, in Canada, in Western Europe.”

Date posted: July 11, 2017 (on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee of His Highness the Aga Khan).


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