We have no notion of the accumulation of wealth being evil … It’s how you use it. The Islamic ethic is that if God has given you the capacity or good fortune to be a privileged individual in society, you have a moral responsibility to society.

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Interviewer: James Reginato in Aigelmont

His Highness Prince Karim, the fourth Aga Khan and 49th hereditary Imam of the world’s 15 million Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, remains a paradox to many people. The Pope of his flock, he also possesses fabled wealth and inhabits a world of marvellous chateaux, yachts, jets, and Thoroughbred horses. To he sure, few persons bridge so many divides between the spiritual and the material; East and West; Muslim and Christian as gracefully as he does.

Though he has no political territory, the Aga Khan is virtually a one-man state and is often received like a head of state when he travels. As Imam he is responsible for looking after the material as well as spiritual needs of his followers, who are scattered in more than 25 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. His projects, however, benefit people of all faiths.

One of the rare opportunities to catch a glimpse of him occurs on a certain Sunday in June, in Chantilly, at the annual Prix de Diane, which for more than a century has been the most prestigious horse race in France. It takes place pretty much in his backyard, at the historic Hippodrome de Chantilly, just a few kilometres from Aiglemont. Dating from 1843, the Prix de Diane is the high point of the Continental horse-racing calendar, on the turf and off. Members of France’s top horse-owner clans, such as the Wildensteins and the Wertheimers, typically appear, along with sheikhs from Qatar and Dubai, and glamorous women in heavily feathered headgear.

Had it not been for the Aga Khan, however, this storied racetrack would probably not exist today, and its surroundings might be hiding to ruin. In a highly unusual arrangement, the Aga Khan adopted, you might say, the entire 20,000-acre Domaine de Chantilly, which also contains one of France’s foremost but relatively unknown cultural treasures, the Chateau de Chantilly. Somewhat ironically, he is using expertise gained in his development projects from Kabul to literally Timbuktu to rescue this lush swath of France.

“His Highness will see you now,” an assistant informs me in the cool white marble lobby of the Secretariat, then ushers me down a long corridor and through what appears to be a heavily fortified door. (Though his closest friends call him “K,” the Aga Khan, 76, is referred to by most of his associates as “His Highness,” “H.H.” for short.)

The Aga Khan’s private office is a large room of minimalist modern design, with one unexpected feature. Colourful, highly polished spheres — geological specimens from around the world appear to be floating on the walls, wizard-like.

It’s a little bit of what’s beautiful under the earth (,His Highness explains as he sits down for a rare interview). This one is from Madagascar, that’s from Brazil (,he elaborates).

On a Saturday morning he is wearing an impeccably tailored suit with a tie. He has a courtly charm and speaks in a captivating low voice.

Last summer marked the 55th anniversary of his Imamat. It was an inheritance no one — himself included — expected him to receive when the news was announced on July 11, 1957 during a reading of the will of his grandfather His Highness [Sir] Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III. It was the first time in the family’s 1,300-year history that a generation — Karim’s father — had been skipped over. Though historians have written about the events of that day, Prince Karim has rarely publicly commented on his own feelings.

It was a shock, (he reveals today,) but I don’t think anyone in my situation would have been prepared.

He was a junior at Harvard, where his room-mates had included Adlai Stevenson’s son John, but in April of that year Prince Karim left abruptly when he received an urgent summons from his ailing 79-year-old grandfather, who was at his villa near Cannes.

He just said, ‘Come and see me,’ (he recalls).

Eighteen months later, when he was able to resume his studies, he reappeared in Cambridge with a longer name — Queen Elizabeth had conferred the style of “Highness” on him two weeks after he became Aga Khan IV. According to a letter from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, it was granted “in view of his succession to the Imamat and his position as spiritual Head of the Ismaili Community, many members of which reside in Her Majesty’s territories.” His dormitory must have been crowded, too.

I returned with two secretaries and a personal assistant (,he recalls).

His retinue was “a big joke” on campus, he says with a laugh. The title Aga Khan — meaning, in a combination of Turkish and Persian, commanding chief — was granted in the 1830s by the Emperor of Persia to Karim’s great-great-grandfather when he married the emperor’s daughter. But Aga Khan I was also the 46th hereditary Imam of the Ismaili Muslims of the world, in a line that descends directly from the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.

In 1885, Prince Karim’s grandfather (who was born in India) was seven years old when he assumed the Imamat upon his father’s death. The following year, he received his “His Highness” from Queen Victoria. In the early 1900s he moved to Europe, in part to pursue his passion for horse breeding and racing, in which he would become a celebrated figure. All the while, he looked after his flock remarkably well, building a huge network of hospitals, schools, banks, and mosques for them.

My duties are wider than those of the Pope (,[Karim’s grandfather] once explained). The Pope is only concerned with the spiritual welfare of his flock.

He was an extraordinary personality, a very powerful intellect (,recalls his grandson). When he left India and established himself in Europe, he became very fascinated with the philosophy of the Western world. He brought that knowledge to his community.

And they showed their appreciation. On his Golden Jubilee, in 1936, his followers famously gave him his weight in gold, a spectacle some 30,000 onlookers jammed a square in Bombay to witness. Upon his Diamond and Platinum Jubilees, he received similar tributes in the appropriate stones and metal. The sizable funds from those tributes pale, however, compared with the zakat money traditionally paid by members of the Ismaili community, some of whom believe their Imam is semi-divine. (Prince Karim categorically denies any suggestion that he is divine.) Though exact figures are not known, it is thought members who can afford to do so provide a tithe of around 10 to 12 percent of their annual income. According to some estimates, that may amount to hundreds of millions a year. While the Aga Khan has complete control over these funds, they are not meant for his personal use. It has always been difficult to calculate his own wealth versus that which belongs to the Imamat, and estimates vary widely, but a recent tally put Aga Khan IV’s fortune at $13.3 billion.

In the spring of 1957 the old Aga Khan clearly had his reasons for summoning his elder grandson. The young man remained with his grandfather until his death, in the early-morning hours of July 11, at his residence near Lake Geneva. Later that day, the family gathered in the drawing room to hear the reading of the will, which had been brought in a locked case from Lloyds Bank in London:

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 other male issue (,read the old Aga Khan’s solicitor). In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world … including the discoveries of atomic science, I am convinced that it is in the best interest of the Shia Muslim Ismaili Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed … in the midst of the new age … For these reasons … I appoint my grandson Karim, son of my son.

Prince Karim, now Aga Khan IV as well as the 49th Imam, announced solemnly:

My religious responsibilities begin as of today.

Half a century later, he hints he might not have been as confident as he appeared to be.

My grandfather had been Imam for 72 years (,he says). I was 20 years old.

Though he embarked on a worldwide tour of his community, he resisted the wishes of the community elders to begin his duties immediately. He returned instead to Harvard to finish his B.A. in Islamic history.

There was knowledge there that I needed (,he says. But once back on campus he was not like the other boys in so many ways:) I was an undergraduate who knew what his work for the rest of his life was going to be (,he says, rather quietly).

Although the Aga Khan has agreed to this interview to discuss the restoration of Chantilly, he readily chats about contemporary politics. The West fails to recognise the pluralistic nature of the Islamic world, he believes:

None of these situations are identical. You cannot take one set of issues from one country and apply it to another. They are all different, in terms of history, and the religious compositions of the populations involved.

The problems in the Middle East are not caused primarily by religion, he adds.

Relations between various communities within Islam are obviously impacted by theocratic forces, but I don’t think theocratic forces are the cause of the situations. They are politically driven. But the faith dimension comes on top of that, and that makes things more complicated.

In Afghanistan, one should analyse and approach the country regionally, he says.

It’s going to be a question of province by province. The whole country cannot reconstruct itself at the same speed. So you have to think in terms of how improved provinces can become sustainable in their own right and become patterns of change. In some provinces, it’s happening. Not everything is lost. I don’t believe that.

Switching gears, the conversation turns to the topic of bloodstock, which reveals a more personal side and brings up the death of his father, who died in a car accident outside Paris in 1960.

When Daddy was killed, the three of us found ourselves with this family tradition none of us knew the first thing about (,he says, referring to how he and Amyn and Yasmin grappled with taking on the Aga Khan Stud — a massive operation with nine farms in Ireland and France).

After Aga Khan III died, Prince Aly took control of the business and managed it until his death, when his children inherited it. During those three years, Aly was highly successful.

Horses were a world with which Prince Karim was then wholly unfamiliar.

I never had any interest in it. Harvard is a great institution, but it doesn’t teach about Thoroughbred breeding. So it was a total surprise.

It was a very difficult decision to keep it going (,he continues). Having three generations’ activity that is so successful — if the fourth generation makes a mess of it … that was my risk. And it was not part of the Imamat, was not an activity that was particularly well regarded in certain countries.

Still, he decided to buy out his siblings’ shares and try to make a go of it. His many wins have long since put him in the very top echelon of the bloodstock world. (At last year’s Prix de Diane, on June 17, the Aga Khan shattered a century-old record in French racing when his filly, Valyra, crossed the finish line first, giving H.H. his seventh Diane. Since 2010 he had held a tie with renowned owner Auguste Lupin, who notched his sixth Diane in 1886.)

I’ve come to love it (,he says of the sport). It’s so exciting, a constant challenge. Every time you sit down and breed you are playing a game of chess with nature.

It’s a long way from Buckingham Palace to Timbuktu, Mali. There, His Highness recently restored the mud walls of the 14th-century Djingereyber Mosque, the oldest earthen building in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last decade, he’s also made vital improvements in Mali’s educational system and in nearly every sector of its infrastructure, including water, electricity, aviation, agriculture, health, and education. He prefers to take this “area-based approach” to development, as he calls it.

We try to avoid the single-building syndrome. You have to look at the big picture. If you try to put social and cultural development ahead of economic development, it doesn’t work. You have to do it all together.

In Kabul, that has meant restoring key architectural components of the Old City while also building a five-star hotel and a new mobile-telephone network. In Uganda, he owns the country’s largest pharmaceutical company, a bank, a tannery, and a fishnet factory. Most impressively, he built — with the Blackstone Group as a partner — a $750 million hydroelectric system. Said to be the most innovative electrification program in Africa, it has brought 18 hours of electricity a day to the poor West Nile area, where there had been 4 hours every other day.

Aga Khan IV is thus both philanthropist and venture capitalist. But the high level of synergy he maintains between his nonprofit and commercial activities is probably unique in the world. All of the surpluses from his profit-making companies are re-invested in his development work. “He has a very fine mind for investing — and he does a bloody good job balancing the task of increasing his capital with that of advancing the needs of his followers,” says former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, a good friend. “At the end of the day, he is looking for human profits.”

In a strange way, I am bringing to Chantilly our experience from similar work in the developing world (,says the Aga Khan). There are a number of commonalities. The first is a fairly large number of stakeholders.

[The entire Domaine de Chantilly had been bequeathed to the Institut de France in the 1880s.] The Institut de France, which is virtually synonymous with the Academic Francaise — the oldest and most prestigious of its five learned societies — is arguably the world’s most exclusive institution. Once elected, the 40 members of the Academie, known as “the Immortals,” keep their fauteuils for life, and it is their primary task to guard the purity of the French language.

But the 20th century progressed, the Institut’s ability to maintain the Domaine declined. As a result, the little-visited chateau became “one of the world’s best-kept secrets,” according to Gary Tinterow, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Then serious maintenance issues developed, prompting the World Monuments Fund in 1998 to put Chantilly on its watch list of endangered monuments. Things were even worse at the Hippodrome. In 1994, its state of deterioration prompted the government to announce that it would be closing the facility.

Forgive the expression, (says His Highness,) but all hell broke loose. (Not every day does one get to hear a “pope” say “hell.”)

The heads of France Galop, the governing body of French horse racing, which had long leased the Hippodrome from the Institut made an emergency visit to the Aga Khan, to ask for his help.

I’m not going to restore just the racecourse,” he recalls telling them. “My interests are much wider.” He subsequently scheduled meetings with the various other stakeholders primarily the Institut de France, but also with local, regional, and national officials. “Why don’t we think of the bigger scheme of things?” he challenged them all.

The entire area has enormous economic potential, which has never been thought through. We are so close to one of the largest transportation hubs in the world (,he explains today).

But it took two years of personal negotiations with the chancellor of the Institut, Prince Gabriel de Broglie, to hammer out the contract, signed in 2005, to create the Foundation for the Sale-Keeping and Development of the Domaine de Chantilly. A unique agreement, it has ambitious goals but a limited life span — 20 years. During this period the Aga Khan pledges to restore the Domaine to its “princely lustre.” To accomplish this he has donated 40 million euros, more than half of the projected budget.

Last fall saw the completion of significant linchpins in his plan to promote year-round tourism in the Domaine, including restoration of the Jardin Anglais and the Jeu de Paume, which now houses a major exhibition space. Just across the street, and a short walk from the chateau, a newly built, ultrachic hotel — the Auberge du Jeu de Paume — opened its doors.

When the foundation has finished its work, everything goes back to the Institut, when I hope the Domaine will be a totally rethought, re-structured cultural asset and an economic unit that will stand on its own (,says the Aga Khan).

I did a lot of homework. I would never have dared to get involved in this unless I had enough experience (,he adds).

Accomplishing all this has required something the French in general — and perhaps the Immortals in particular — are not so well known for: cooperation. Yet during an interview with the Institut’s chancellor in his stately panelled office, he is positively effusive. “It’s like a fairy tale!,” Prince de Broglie says. “The Institut de France very much approves of the way things are being conducted. We are profoundly happy.” A very formal gentleman, he is wearing his ceremonial habit veil, a long black coat richly embroidered in green, accessorised with his military decorations and a sizable sword.

Joining forces with this organisation, it’s obvious, is no lark. According to one person who has worked with the Aga Khan, it is his impeccable manners — combined with his regal bearing and confidence — that help him to prevail: “He imposes his will with the utmost grace. In meetings, for example, he will ask — so politely — ‘I wonder whether it would be a good idea if we do such and such … ‘ That means, We’re doing it. No one would dream of challenging him.”

“Karim has a great deal of charm,” says an old friend, “but underneath he’s made of steel. He does exactly what he wants, when he wants.”

While the apparent contradiction between the Aga Khan’s lifestyle and his role as a spiritual leader continues to puzzle some, it is more interesting to try to square his activities as a highly astute venture capitalist with his religious duties. But that, the Aga Khan says, is elementary.

It comes from a basic understanding of what an Imam is required to do (,he says). An Imam is not expected to withdraw from everyday life. On the contrary, he’s expected to protect his community and contribute to their quality of life. Therefore, the notion of the divide between faith and world is foreign to Islam. The Imamat does not divide world and faith. That’s very little understood out-side Islam. In the West, your financial systems are all built around that divide.

For a moment, he speaks as though Muslims and Republicans actually might have more in common than either side would dream:

We have no notion of the accumulation of wealth being evil (,he says). (But clearly he’s not going to be any poster boy for the R.N.C.:) It’s how you use it (,he continues, speaking about wealth). The Islamic ethic is that if God has given you the capacity or good fortune to be a privileged individual in society, you have a moral responsibility to society.

Say what you will about the Aga Khan’s lifestyle, he has done an extraordinarily good job performing the duties of his Imamat, while maintaining a rare charm. “He is many things to many people,” says James Wolfensohn. “But, for a god, he’s a fantastically good friend!”