I am not affected by suggestions in print that I live a luxurious Western life, while most Ismailis live in underdeveloped Eastern countries (he went on). These are just smears by cheap magazines. Serious publications are aware of the work we do and of our achievements in many countries. Such smear stories never appear in Asian publications.

MAYBE INCOMPLETE: Although extensive portions from this interview are available below, they do not appear to, or may not, comprise the entire interview and we would be very grateful if any of our readers who may have the complete transcript would kindly share it with us. Please click here for information on making submissions to NanoWisdoms; we thank you for your assistance.

Interviewer: Anthony Mann

One day in the twenties my father and a senior British official were strolling on the Nile bank near Cairo with a personage of world-wide fame. This was His Highness Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III, 48th Imam and spiritual leader of the Nizari Ismaili sect of Shia Muslims, whose services the the British Crown had earned him an imposing string of decorations, a sect on the Privy Council, and a salute of 22 guns. […]

Nobody in the totally flat Gouvieux district had heard of Aiglemont (Eagle Mountain), which is the name of the estate, but a local Algerian was well informed about the Aga Khan. He directed me to a secluded country road along a high stone wall, in which, ultimately, I found a pair of high wrought-iron gates, controlled remotely from a lodge inside. A muscular figure emerged from the lodge to check my name and business. “Up through the trees on the left,” he said. The gates closed automatically behind me.

The vast hall of the administrative chateau was decorated and furnished expensively in faultless modern taste. At one end English, French and American lady secretaries, none of whom looked like Ismailis, sat behind glass screens (the sole Ismaili I was conscious of during a three-hour visit was the Aga Khan himself). The only commercial note was a rack of publicity about Karim’s Costa Smeralda leisure zone on Sardinia. […]

I was welcomed by Michael Curtis, the Aga Khan’s homme de confiance and former Editor of the defunct New Chronicle. Then Prince Karim strode in, still with the same good looks, but a little fuller in the face. “No photographs,” he decreed briskly, “except in the office.” I said that Aiglemont was difficult to find. “No wonder,” he said with a laugh. “I invented the name a few weeks ago and nobody has heard of it.”

We moved into an empty conference-room containing a long marble table and 30 leather chairs. I said he was the first Muslim dignitary I had interviewed on a Friday. “I work every day of the week,” he replied.

Anthony Mann: You are a British citizen?

His Highness the Aga Khan: Yes. British citizenship was conferred on my grandfather, who was also an Iranian citizen. I hold a British passport.

AM: How are Ismaili communities distributed?

[T]he cement of the Ismaili community is the faith. In that respect there are no essential differences.

AK: There are Ismailis in 25 countries: a large number in some, but only a few in others, They differ greatly in views and language, as they have differing social and cultural backgrounds. But there is strength in these diversities, and the cement of the Ismaili community is the faith. In that respect there are no essential differences.

AM: What have been the most important milestones of your 21-year Imamat?

AK: A key impact was made by the really substantial changes in Africa and Asia; the wars between India and Pakistan; the independence of countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and the Burma situation in the sixties. On a more personal note, I had to decide when my father died whether to keep the racing stable or not. I knew nothing about horses and had no interest in them whatever. Racing was totally foreign to my education and upbringing, [?] but it had been a family tradition for three generations and no other relation could keep up the racing establishment. For me the two questions were: could I find the time — racing is time consuming — and could I maintain the level of success? There was no sense in keeping up a family tradition if it was going to decline into insignificance. After six months of difficult decision-making, I decided to go on.

What does it cost to run one of the world’s biggest racing stables? Karim said he did not expect a stable to make a profit, “but it must stand on its own feet”. He agreed that he is now “very interested” in breeding and racing horses — which was no surprise after he recently snapped up Marcel Boussac’s famous stable of 100 horses for L4,700,000. Experts saw this as a wonderful bargain; a single horse, the flyer Acamas, had been valued at about L3,250,000. But creditors in the Boussac bankruptcy saw things differently; they reviewed the transaction in a distinctly uncharitable light. The Aga Khan explained the situation succinctly:

There were misunderstandings about the 50 top horses. The matter is now being ironed out by the courts. But, of course (he added, changing the subject) in relation to other things I do, racing plays a very small part — it is a minor issue.

AM: We got on to the recent troubles in Persia, with which the Ismailis had once been linked so closely. Has this been a major issue for you, I asked. Are there not about 20 million Shia Muslims in Iran?

AK: Yes, but in Iran the Shias are divided essentially into two sects, the Twelvers and the Seveners. The Ismailis are now only a very small proportion of Iranian Muslims.

AM: Have you tried to influence events, in view of the political implications?

AK: The Ismaili Imamat has no political ambitions (said Karim firmly).

AM: Yet another Shia leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, forced the Shah to leave. In times like these, can you avoid political involvement altogether?

AK: Khomeini is an Ayatollah (said the Aga Khan). He is not Imam of the Twelver Shias, whereas I am Imam of the Ismaili Seveners. He addresses himself to a different religious structure and a different religious community. Although we are very close to each other, in [sic] his position with regard to Iranian Shia Muslims is totally different from my own. When it comes to political objectives, the Ismailis must behave according to their consciences. If it comes to a question of their faith — that is a different matter. But I see no likelihood of political developments on Persia interfering with the practice of the faith.

A booklet lying on the marble table makes it clear that the Imamat is not concerned exclusively with spiritual values. Called Industrial Promotion Services, IPS, it lists scores of private-sector companies in Kenya, Tanzania, Switzerland, Zaire, the Ivory Coast, Italy Bangladesh, Pakistan, Canada and Tunisia, all supervised by the Aga Khan’s IPS central control in Geneva.

These undertakings make, manage or deal in underwear, diamonds, retread tires, luxury hotels, barbed wire, newspapers, trousers, office-block construction, suitcases, jute sacking, lithographic and offset printing, saucepans, onyx and marble, soap, cold storage, real estate development, ceramics, life insurance, a passenger airline, mines, organised safaris, harbour installations and beach sandals — to name a few.

A leading figure near the hub of this diversified industrial empire is Dr. Peter Hengel of the University of Tubingen. The Aga Khan’s top brass includes many Britons and other Europeans, though nearly all firms have local executives. Key IPS men are not chosen for their religious convictions, but for reliability.

A topline business gathering in Zurich was once taught by the Aga Khan that there is “nothing incongruous in a Muslim religious leader being so involved in material matters of this world. It is not an Islamic belief that spiritual life should be totally isolated from our more material everyday activities”. Prince Karim practises what he preaches.

I took the view that the Imamat had to assist in the development of the community and of those countries where the community is living — and, indeed, of all Muslim countries. So I created an institution which aims at economic development of the countries in which we are interested.

AM: I asked why the IPS group had been constituted.

AK: I took the view that the Imamat had to assist in the development of the community and of those countries where the community is living — and, indeed, of all Muslim countries. So I created an institution which aims at economic development of the countries in which we are interested. That is the basis of IPS, but it is not restricted to the Ismaili community or to any given part of the world.

AM: But how is capital raised?

AK: The basic structure is investment made into these companies by the Imam (i.e. by Karim himself). These are then multiplied by institutional investments on a project basis, or directly into IPS itself.

AM: Are your shares quoted? Can people buy them?

AK: Oh, yes. In fact, one of the objects is to create developing institutions in various parts of the world, where you harness local as well as international finance and know-how, with the specific object [sic] of development. That is our philosophy. All this is in the private sector. (But several IPS enterprises in Africa and Asia have been nationalised recently).

The big international corporations would not necessarily be investing in places where we invest because they don’t have the same motivations (Karim went on). Sometimes we invest where we have no direct interest: we just feel we have specialised knowledge that will be useful, so we go in.

AM: How are your investments divided between Asian, African and European countries?

AK: That would have to be calculated because we don’t think in those terms. We feel in terms if where there is a commitment we should meet… In the world of development you have to be fairly pragmatic.

AM: I asked what the Imamat and other shareholders did with their dividends.

AK: That is, frankly, on a country-to-country basis, as circumstances dictate (said Karim). It is what the local community thinks is advisable, or what would be advisable, or what would be beneficial to the country…

It sounded a little like the character in a song by another Harvard man, who was “doing well by doing good”. But Tom Lehrer was being satirical: as the Aga Khan made clear, farsighted planning for the spiritual and worldly well-being of a community is in no way incompatible with business acumen and profits.

AM: He went on to speak of new problems in independent Bangladesh, emergent Tanzania and economically transformed Burma. He was bitter about Uganda under its President Idi Amin, a fellow Muslim. Didn’t he throw the Ismailis out? I asked.

Our investment in Uganda was fifth or sixth in importance in the economy, and could have easily climbed to first or second place. Now all our activity in Uganda has totally stopped.

AK: Yes — like all the Asians, Hindus included, whether they were Ugandan citizens or not. Our investment in Uganda was fifth or sixth in importance in the economy, and could have easily climbed to first or second place. Now all our activity in Uganda has totally stopped. Like others, we simply had to accept the situation before it changed.

AM: Do you advise Ismaili communities when they should move on?

AK: In Uganda there was no choice. Ismailis are advised always to be loyal to their countries of birth or adoption. In political terms they are free to take whatever attitude they wish — provided there is no interference with the practice of the faith.

AM: You have a large community in Pakistan. Have many Ismailis left India?

AK: Since I have been Imam, I don’t think one per cent of the community have left India. In fact, it is a growing community.

The local leaders [take the decision for Ismailis to leave]. They might consult the Imam, and say, “This is how we see the situation: what is your view in the light of your information?”

AM: If there is trouble anywhere, who takes the decision for Ismailis to leave?

AK: The local leaders. They might consult the Imam, and say, “This is how we see the situation: what is your view in the light of your information?” But you can’t be loyal to your country of birth or adoption if you are constantly thinking “The grass next door looks greener.”

AM: The great majority of your Ismaili followers are Asiatic in Asia or Africa, yet you live in Europe and have an essentially Western lifestyle. Does that cause problems?

If my HQ were in a Muslim county there would be a high risk of adverse involvement. That might present a problem. It is not merely from personal preference that I have my principal house in the West.

AK: I am not aware of any. Frankly the Imamat as an institution is sufficiently flexible and international for these problems not to arise. If my HQ were in a Muslim county there would be a high risk of adverse involvement. That might present a problem. It is not merely from personal preference that I have my principal house in the West.

I am not affected by suggestions in print that I live a luxurious Western life, while most Ismailis live in underdeveloped Eastern countries (he went on). These are just smears by cheap magazines. Serious publications are aware of the work we do and of our achievements in many countries. Such smear stories never appear in Asian publications.

AM: I remember Karim once said that he does not share the “puritanical view of some Christians that people should at least appear to live as beggars” and not enjoy themselves publicly. But surely your constant jet travel between extremes of life in the East and West must sometimes…

AK: Must give me a split personality? (He laughed). No, it is one of the extraordinary features of Islam that you don’t get that… at least, I certainly don’t have that feeling. (But he agreed that an Asian Muslim living under very different conditions from his own) might have different horizons — absolutely.

(But he said that the adjustment in moving between East and West) is less difficult than you might expect, when you look at the Imamat from the outside. Even in France, or the U.S. or Canada, my quasi-total involvement is with the developing world and its problems. So I don’t move from a situation of non-involvement to one of involvement: the Imam’s involvement is for every day of the year.

When I go to visit these areas, things take on actual physical form — I become aware of them and I meet people. But I am already familiar with the problems — about the hospital for instance, and local economic issues. When I move between East and West there is no dichotomy: maybe I just get another concept of space and time…

AM: When I asked how he obtained his knowledge of local questions, he touched — very lightly — on the Imamat’s intelligence network.

AK: When you meet people personally on these trips they express themselves differently from the way they would write a letter. And when I am here I receive a continuous flow of information through my reporting system. There are very few activities that are not regularly reviewed here.

Nor is the data from all parts of the Aga Khan’s empire fed into Aiglemont exclusively through its battery of teleprinters, which receive en clair messages. There are also continual meetings attended by international advisers and informants on myriad matters: one was in progress in the building as we talked. Top-tier consultants report confidentially to the Imam in person, particularly on finance.

When Karim’s grandfather died at the age of 80, a tremendous amount of work had to be done to unravel his complicated financial affairs: some estimates valued his personal estate at hundreds of millions of pounds. Since the property of the Imamat and that of the dead Imam himself were scarcely distinguishable, with hospitals, schools, and Jamatkhanas (meeting houses) standing in the Aga Khan’s own name, the task was not so easy.

Then Pieraly Remtoula, a Madagascan Ismaili who had been a lay priest of the sect in Paris, sued Prince Karim. He alleged that Karim’s grandfather had agreed to pay him a ten percent commission on cash contributions from Ismaili communities, and claimed this was in return for managing all his financial affairs. The Aga Khan III would himself retain a further ten per cent, he said, leaving 80 per cent for “Community purposes”. Remtoula claimed he was owed a round sum of L2 million. In reply, it was pointed out that no one had ever had such a responsibility. Remtoula lost the claim and appeals against the judgement were thrown out too.

AM: I asked Karim whether international tax laws and the shifting of capital from country to country did not always cause headaches for the Imamat.

AK: The Imamat is an international structure (he said). If we go into the country where there is no community, we have to harness my capital to international capital. But, basically, whether it is IPS or anything else, all our institutions are incorporated under the law of that land, and they operate under that law. However (he added), economic development is only one aspect of our work. The Imamat is equally active in health, housing and education.

Karim’s grandfather already established hospitals and schools in several countries, and they have been modernised and developed. In Pakistan where the Ismailis community is large and influential, an extensive Aga Khan Hospital and Medical College is nearing completion with the collaboration of American and Pakistani architects and contractors. Apart from the 673 bed hospital, the projected complex includes hostels for male and female students, laboratories, and out-patient clinic with a female students, laboratories, and out-patient clinic with a daily capacity of 1,500, and a private wing with 119 single rooms, “some of them of exceptionally high standard to cater for VIPs”. The facilities are not reserved only for Ismailis.

In India the Imamat has set up a Central Housing Board to boost private and co-operative building, improve existing dwellings and encourage hygiene. The board issues seals of approval only to housing promoters who meet the Imamat’s minimum requirements. Family flats which have only one communal bedroom are rejected.

The Imamat is now engaged world-wide in so much real-estate development that Price Karim has just instituted triennial prizes for architecture and related sciences which, in cash terms at least, will rival the Nobel prizes. There will be up to five awards, each one worth $100,000.

Alas, the Imamat’s handbook on these Aga Khan Awards (to be administered from Philadelphia) is drawn up in deplorable UNESCO-style jargon:

[T]he long-term goal of the award (it states), is to be a catalyst for the evolution of a new cultural sensibility, one which combines a heightened awareness of the continuing vitality of Muslim cultures with a renewed determination to respond to the challenge of modern societies and technology. (Peter simple could hardly improve on that…)

Prize-winning buildings need not be in Muslim countries, I was told, but they must be “for the use of Muslims”. However the new headquarters at Gouvieux is clearly disqualified, being resolutely French and revealing no awareness at all of Muslim cultures. In such matters the Aga Khan is a pragmatist like his grandfather, whom he described as “a man of exceptional wisdom … with an absolutely marvellous sense of humour.”

AM: I reminded Karim that on his grandfather’s death he had expressed the intention of visiting Ismailis in southern Russia. Did you manage to do so, I asked.

AK: No (he said).

AM: Had the Soviet government refused an entry permit?

AK: I think it has been simply that other priorities would not permit it. With all the international changes since 1957 it just hasn’t been possible to do everything.

AM: Would you have difficulty in entering the Soviet Union now? Are there many Ismailis living there?

AK: I have no statistics at all. It would be very difficult to carry out a full-scale census… There are reports that Muslims are relatively free. I have no reason to believe that reaction would be hostile: I am not a political figure, as I said.

AM: Perhaps you may sometimes become a political figure willy nilly?

AK: Then it will be more “nilly” than “willy” (Karim said with a laugh).

AM: So Ismailis in the Soviet Union enjoy religious freedom?

AK: I am not aware of direct intervention. That is as far as I can go.

AM: From Russia the conversation turned to Italy. When you started your Costa Smeralda property development in Sardinia, wasn’t there a lot of criticism, I asked.

AK: Those attacks were mainly some years back; they were politically motivated and other resort developments were also attacked. All that means nothing in terms of what the Costa Smeralda is today.

The name Emerald Coast is that of the north Brittany seaboard, but the colour brochures in the hall at Aiglemont state that the Italian translation has been “patented”. The six original members of the consortium, of which the Aga Khan is administrative President, bought with associates in 1962 a vast area of splendidly wild countryside along 55km of Sardinia’s north-east coast. They turned it into what has frequently been termed “a millionaires playground” — a phrase Prince Karim dislikes intensely. When members of Italy’s ecological association, Italia Nostra, attacks him in connection with his development activities, he took them to court.

AK: My involvement with Sardinia was an accident, not a planned initiative (he told me). I was one of 25 or 27 original investors who put a very small bit of capital into a piece of property. In fact I invested without even visiting the island (he laughed). It was a minute involvement in a site unseen. From that it has developed into what I think is a major European recreation resort.

AM: You hold a controlling interest?

AK: I was responsible for having the Costa Smeralda evolve as it is today (he replied). When the attacks you speak of were made they were about a “playground for the extremely rich”. But when you start a new resort you simply can’t mobilise the middle market until you have all the infrastructure. You don’t have the airport or hotels… you don’t have the physical ability.

(Before I could ask about Charles Fort’s Sardinian holiday camp, Karim went on to explain the changes today): I never envisaged a resort limited to the extremely rich” (he said). Now we have our own airline, Alisarda, which carries something of the order of 500,000 passengers. They can’t all be millionaires!

In fact the Costa Smerelda had entered a new phase. While the privacy and privileges of consortium members and their tenants are safe-guarded by strict regulations, rather less well-heeled holiday makers can now rent flats, ranging from the palatial to those with “one very functional bedroom”, or patronise three luxury hotels. The consortium also offers a berth and shipyard for your yacht, a golf club, a tennis club a supermarket, a ceramics factory and an estate agency. Also at your service are eight nightclubs and eight boutiques.

AM: In Italy, the Sardinians are regarded as kidnap specialists, I said. Do you have any trouble of that sort?

AK: I have no inside information about the number of Sardinians who are kidnappers (said the Aga Khan). I don’t believe the Sardinians are worse than the rest. If you asked the Public Prosecutor for the last five years’ statistics of politically motivated kidnapping for raising funds, I think you would find they were far more numerous than the Sardinian brand of peasant kidnapping.

AM: How do you think terrorism in general should be tackled?

AK: Terrorism has many causes and no common origin. One can’t generalise.

AM: What are your feelings about the Palestine Liberation Organisations methods?

AK: That is a highly political question! There are no Ismailis in either Palestine or Israel.

I am not convinced that the problem of the Palestinian homeland is a religious issue (said Karim). I didn’t say that it is not. I am just not convinced of it.

AM: You are not concerned about the future of the Holy Places?

AK: I am not convinced that the problem of the Palestinian homeland is a religious issue (said Karim). I didn’t say that it is not. I am just not convinced of it.

AM: As a religious leader, how did you react to the election of a Polish cardinal as Pope John Paul II?

AK: I think his election was one of the most exceptional events for centuries (said the Aga Khan with enthusiasm). It is a remarkable example of the universality of the Catholic Church and a striking expression of confidence and solidarity. I consider it a most important development, which can have a major positive impact on monotheistic religion and the unity of mankind.

AM: You have told me very little about your family?

AK: The burden of work and travel is very severe (said Karim). So although I am extremely fortunate to have a wonderful wife and children, I can’t spend as much time with them as I wish. But I hope to have more time for my family later on. (He said exactly the same on the eve of his wedding ten years ago).

AM: You have often resented Press references to your family and personal affairs.

I have always refused to talk about my private life. Any public man must have the right to have a private life and keep it private. In the West, intrusion into personal and private affairs is widely tolerated; this is not so in the East.

AK: I have always refused to talk about my private life. Any public man must have the right to have a private life and keep it private. In the West, intrusion into personal and private affairs is widely tolerated; this is not so in the East. Articles such as I have in mind do nothing for a public enlightenment; they are just a way of selling a magazine to a certain type of reader interested in such things.

AM: When I raised the question of polygamy, the Aga Khan said that his grandfather favoured monogamy and, as far as he knew, all Ismailis were now monogamous, as were most Muslim communities.

AK: But remember (he added) marriage is not a sacrament to a Muslim, it is a contract — though the contract may not be broken irresponsibly.

AM: Karim was asked in 1965 if he had made any mistakes and replied, “Yes, of course I have. They have definitely caused damage.” But when I asked whether, during his 21-year Imamat, he would have decided anything differently had he been able to foresee subsequent events, he side-stepped the question.

AK: That is really a question for predestination (he said). I do not control time…

Does he now feel that to admit to an error of judgement would be incompatible with near-divine infallibility? Is this the real secret of the dichotomy that the Aga Khan declines to acknowledge? That he must be all things to all men — must strive to avoid his personality as the millionaire tycoon in Western society, his alternate role as Imam if disparate Ismaili communities in the East? Conversely, as one talks to him in surroundings of European opulence, it is difficult to delve very deep into Asiatic business transactions. You cannot usefully cross-examine God about the petty cash.

Up there among the trees, in the big secluded mansion, lives a little boy aged seven. One day if things go according to plan, he too, must assume the polymorphic burden, he is Prince Rahim, elder son of the Aga Khan, born in Geneva in October 1971 as destined to be the 50th Imam of the Ismailis. He lives with his English mother, his older sister Princess Zahra, and his younger brother Prince Hussein.

The household servants, I am told, are mainly French.

In accordance with the Aga Khan’s ban on all details concerning his family, my questions about the boys friends, religious instruction and languages remained unanswered. But his mother, the daughter of an Indian Army Officer, does speak Urdu.

By blood, the future Imam and Aga Khan V [sic?] is three-quarters English and the one-eighth Italian. In other words, seven-eighths European and one-eighth Asiatic. That may seen odd for a descendant of the Prophet, but maybe it will reduce what Prince Karim called the “high risk of adverse involvement.”

SOURCES

  • Telegraph Sunday Magazine, No 140.
  • Text (secondary source): ismaili.net [edited for reformatting by NanoWisdoms]

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