The Ismaili community’s dynamic 48th Imam: A very brief portrait of His Highness the Aga Khan, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah

[The following is an adapted and abbreviated version of Bashir Ladha’s extensive piece on His Highness the Aga Khan III which was first published on the occasion of his birth centenary in November 1977 in a special commemorative issue of Ilm magazine, Ismailia Association, U.K.  – ed.]


This thoughtful study of the late Aga Khan, 48th Imam of Shia Imami Ismailis, was done in clay by his wife, the Begum Aga Khan, Om Habiba. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS


His Highness the Aga Khan III, Hazrat Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah, was born on Friday, 2nd November, 1877 at “Honeymoon Lodge” in Karachi. His birth was an occasion of immense joy for the family and particularly his grandfather, Hazrat Imam Hassanali Shah, Aga Khan I, who named him “Sultan Mahomed.”

The young Aga Khan did not attend any public school, but his early education at home was intense. The scope of the curriculum set by his tutors and his far-seeing mother, Lady Ali Shah, covered Urdu, Persian, Arabic, English, French, Mathematics, Astronomy, Chemistry and Mechanics. He showed remarkable aptitude for learning. His natural intellect and interest also helped him to make remarkable progress in Western literature as well as in the study of the history of the ancient and modern worlds. He also acquired proficiency in philosophy and theology.

Recalling his course of studies, the Aga Khan wrote:

“I had already been grounded in Arabic and Persian literature and history, and first inspired thereto in childhood, to this day I take a special interest in historical studies connected with the early Caliphs. Under my English tutors, I gained an attachment, which also remains with me, to the writings of the more stirring and eloquent of the English historians and of the foremost novelists—particularly Gibbon, Thackeray and Dickens.”


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, Copyright.

When Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah succeeded his father Mawlana Aly Shah as the 48th Imam of Ismaili Muslims on 17th August, 1885, he was only in his eighth year but even at this tender age he administered the affairs of his followers with a maturity of wisdom which was very surprising.

Long before he had reached the age of fifteen, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah proved himself an able administrator of the affairs of his vast following. He visited the Jamats and resolved disputes with a legal acumen seldom found in those who are not lawyers. He worked incessantly for the benefit of his followers and not being content to lead the Ismailis in religious matters, he strove hard for their moral and material welfare with the result that, in the course of only a few decades, the Ismailis earned a reputation of being a progressive and forward looking community.


Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III, photographed in 1911, Copyright: National Portrait Gallery

Though his range of reading was wide, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah’s impressions of men and things were practical and not theoretical. His judgements were based not upon what he had read but upon what he had seen and heard. Lloyd George (Prime Minister of Great Britain during early 1920s) said of him:

“He is one of the best informed men I have ever met. His general information is astonishing. He is extraordinarily well read and possesses an intimate knowledge of international affairs in all parts of the world. He is widely travelled and is always moving round the capitals of Europe, in all of which he has influential intimates. His means of securing information were remarkable. He seemed to have touched upon all branches of literature and to be well versed in science. Altogether a very extraordinary person.”


Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, 48th Imam of Shia Imami Ismailis, in full regalia. Photo: Jehangir Merchant archives

Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah never tolerated anything that was detrimental to Islam and therefore he would not hesitate in the least to make his views known publicly. Islam was always foremost in his heart and he would always appeal to the Muslims in a beseeching and affectionate manner:

“My fellow-Muslims, I implore you, I beg of you, to work for the advancement of the whole of Islam, but never forget our intellectual debt to our Holy Prophet.”

Generally, very little heed was paid by the Muslims to Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah’s guidance and therefore, lamenting over this attitude, Qayyum A. Malick wrote in his book Guide, Philosopher and Friend of the World of Islam:

“Had world Muslims kept pace with the progressive views of Prince Aga Khan and had they showed some encouraging consciousness and appreciation of his leadership, the seeds of moral and material uplift sown by him almost half a century ago would have been bearing abundant fruit today. If the Muslims had thrown up a small body of trustworthy men, capable of working in unison according to a set program of general advancement under the leadership of His Royal Highness there should have been no occasion to bemoan our backwardness now.”

For the Ismailis, the period of his Imamat was an era which ushered in a complete transformation. A community hitherto unknown in any field, progressed rapidly to great heights within a matter of a few decades. What happened to Ismaili Community during his Imamat is nothing less than a miracle.

In his role as the 48th Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, set about to advance and consolidate the position of Ismailis at all levels. Under his guidance, a great spirit of social service, philanthropy and love for one another became a notable feature of the community. This attitude of mutual help among themselves and the smooth working of the welfare state created by the Imam won unmistakeable admiration of the leaders of other communities. Mahatma Gandhi once observed to Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah:

“I have been striving for so many years for the attainment of Swaraj (independence), but you have already brought the blessings of Swaraj to your people.”

While the Imam created numerous institutions to advance and consolidate education, health and general state of happiness and well being among his follower, he upheld a high mark of abiding values. True to the traditional and historically acknowledged trait of his Holy House, he put the spiritual goal as the prime and foremost essential of human life.


1923-08-05-invitiation-with-aga khan-quatrain verses
The top portion of the image, above the English translation, is a unique 1923 Gujarati invitation to a talk on Imamat. It includes a Persian quatrain on the top line. The quatrain had been handwritten by Aga Khan III in a personal diary belonging to Vazir Mecklai. Note: The English translation of the quatrain is not part of the invitation. Photo: A.M. Sadaruddin family collection of Africa Ismaili.

Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah’s advice on religious matters to his followers were extensive and elaborate. He touched on many themes during his seventy two years of Imamat including theology, spirituality, Imamat and ethics. Some of his messages to the Ismailis were:

“Qur’an was basic. Pir Sadardin [an Ismaili missionary] had come to their ancestors to lead them to the true faith. It was essential to have strong faith in the descendants of Prophet Muhammad and Hazrat Ali. If the faithful had love for the descendants of Ali, they had nothing to fear, and therein lay the whole mystery of faith. True faith was founded upon love and reason.”

“The faithful should come and pray in the Jamatkhana. Prayers must be said with understanding. Pray for others as this brings one nearer to God. By prayer one rises to a higher plane. If the faithful was far from Jamatkhana he should say his prayers wherever he was. Even if the body was unclean, prayers could not be missed. The soul was pure. Unity in the Jamat was important. All his murids were spiritual children of their Imam, who was their spiritual father and mother.”

“Harm done to another would cause immense pain to the Imam. Help each other. Serve the jamats. Service to jamats was service to their Imam. True mu’min (believer) was always happy and satisfied. True mu’min rejoiced at difficulties, for such sorrows and difficulties wiped away sins. True mu’min never feared death.

“That a true mu’min would always thirst for Imam’s Noorani Didar. True mu’min, after death, would earn salvation in Noor-e-Imamat.”


aga-khan-Golden Jubilee Casket by missionaries
March 1936: Photo taken in India on the occasion of the presentation of a casket by a group of Ismaili missionaries to Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah to mark the occasion of his Golden Jubilee. The Casket was created and donated by ‘Senior’ Missionary Alijah Moloobhai Allarakhia Jangbarwalla. Photographed by: Golden Art Studio; Photo: The Late Ameer Janmohamed Collection, London, UK.

During his long reign, the Ismailis celebrated his Golden (1936), Diamond (1946) and Platinum Jubilees (1954-56) as a symbolic affirmation of the spiritual ties that linked them with their beloved Imam. The Jubilee resulted in significant development for the Ismaili community. The greatest impact resulted from the proceeds that Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah gave back to the community from the Jubilee ceremonies of weighing him in gold, diamond and platinum. Numerous institutions for social and economic development were established, in the Imam’s words, “for the relief of humanity.”


A portrait of the Aga Khan Family of the mid 20th century: Next to the late 48th Ismaili Imam, Aga Khan III, is his grand daughter, Princess Yasmin. Standing from left to right – grandson Prince Amyn Muhammad, his two sons the late Prince Sadruddin and Prince Aly Khan holding daughter, and second grandson Prince Karim, the present Imam. Photo: Zul Khoja Collection, Ottawa.

Forty minutes past midday on 11th July, 1957 Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan III, passed away peacefully at his villa in Versoix, Switzerland, at the age of eighty leaving behind him a memorable history of his glorious and eventful life. His reign of seventy-two years of Imamat was the longest in Ismaili history.

The mantle of Imamat was transferred by Nass in the loving care of Mowlana Shah Karim al-Hussaini Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan IV, by the following will:

“Ever since the time of my first ancestor Ali, the First Imam, that is to say over a period of thirteen hundred years it has always been the tradition of our family that each Imam chooses his successor at his absolute and unfettered discretion from amongst any of his descendants whether they be sons or remoter male issue.

“….I appoint my grandson Karim, the son of my son Aly Salomone Khan to succeed to the title of Aga Khan and to be the Imam and Pir of all my Shia Ismailian followers.”

The passing away of Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah was a cause of great sorrow and sadness for Ismailis all over the world, but the Ismailis knew that the loving care and guidance of Noor-e-Ilahi would continue in Noor Mowlana Shah Karim al Hussaini, our beloved 49th Imam, who is now in his 62nd year of Imamat.

Upon succeeding, Mawlana Shah Karim Hazar Imam gave the following assurance:

“My grandfather dedicated his life to the Imamat and Islam, both of which came first, and above all other considerations. While I was prepared that one day I might be designated the Aga Khan I did not expect it so soon. I follow a great man in a great responsibility and he could have given me no more appreciated honour than to bequeath me this spiritual leadership. My life, as his, will be dedicated to the service of my followers.”

Date posted: November 2, 2018 (141st birth anniversary of Aga Khan III)


Bashir Fazal LadhaA graduate from the Institute of Ismaili Studie’s  first International Waezeen and Teachers Training Programme, Bashir Fazal Ladha has been with the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board (ITREB) for the UK since 1983 where he has contributed towards the religious education of the Jamat in numerous capacities – as waezeen, lecturer, and as a curriculum developer. In the literary sector, he contributed numerous articles to Ismaili literary magazines around the world, including UK ITREB’s defunct flagship magazine Ilm.

Alwaez Ladha aspires to write and publish works on Ismaili history and Ginanic literature. His other interests include reading, watching documentaries and listening to world music – from Bob Marley’s reggae songs to Indian classical music.


See Table of Contents for Barakah’s beautiful, thoughtful and wonderful articles and photos.

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This website, Barakah, is a special project by and is dedicated to the textual and visual celebration of His Highness the Aga Khan.


  1. This is my first time reading an article on Barakah. It is excellent. I look forward to more visits. Lots of prayers for you all.


  2. Thank you for sharing, always wanted to see what our 48th Imam looked like in his young days. Surely a very young age to become our Imam and yet even at 20 our beloved Hazar Imam was thought of to be very young.


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