Aga Khan, Aga Sultan Sir Mohammed Shah 1877-1957, third holder of the title Aga Khan (bestowed on his grandfather by the British Government), 48th head of the Ismaili sect of the Shiah Moslem community, and a member of the ruling Kajar dynasty in Persia, was born in Karachi 2 November 1877. Son of Aga Khan II, he succeeded his father in 1885. His mother, Lady Ali Shah, a former Persian princess, and a woman of character and vision, alive to the importance of the role, political and religious, which her son would have to fill, brought him up with a care, skill, and judgement for which he always remained grateful.
He assumed the active administration of the Imamate in 1893, in his sixteenth year. His eleven to twelve million followers, scattered over India, Burma, the Middle East, and Africa, looked to him not only as their spiritual leader, but for the resolution of their temporal problems. So early as 1893 he instructed his followers in Bombay to keep out of communal rioting; in 1901 he applied spiritual sanctions to Ismailis who had made murderous attacks on Sunnis; he consistently urged his followers to identify themselves, in manners, language, and customs, with the countries in which they lived. There were occasions when his liberal and moderate attitude failed to carry his community with him, as in 1901, when the Isma Asri sect broke away, and again during the Balkan wars (1912-13) and the Khilafat agitation (1919-21). But his was a restraining influence and broadly speaking the community responded to his lead over political issues. His spiritual influence remained unshaken, even after old age and ill health had reduced his political importance.
The Aga Khan was chosen in 1897 by the Moslems of Western India to convey to the viceroy their greetings to the Queen Empress on her diamond jubilee. In 1898 he began a lifelong series of visits to Europe, Africa, Asia, and America and was received at Windsor by Queen Victoria.
In 1902 Lord Curzon [qv.] nominated him to the viceroy's legislative council, on which he served for two years, declining a second term. He used the opportunity to urge the claims of a Moslem university at Aligarh, to which he had lent substantial financial support.
The Aga Khan had throughout maintained the friendliest of relations with the Indian Congress leaders, and particularly with G. K. Gokhale. He had spared no pains to maintain communal unity, to integrate Moslem political feeling with the Congress Party, and so to present a united front, with constitutional advance as its objective, to the British Government. He had, too, done his best to reduce the communal antagonisms which derived from the partition of Bengal of 1905. But by 1906, now established as a political force, and as the recognized leader and spokesman of the Indian Moslems as a whole, he began to conclude that Congress would prove incapable of representing Indian Moslem feeling: already that artificial unity which the British Raj had imposed from without was cracking; our only hope lay along the lines of independent organization and action.
In that year he led a delegation to Lord Minto [qv.] which urged the case for increased Moslem participation in the political life of the country and pressed that they should be regarded as a nation within a nation, with rights and obligations safeguarded by statute, with adequate and separate representations both in local bodies and on legislative councils, and with a separate communal franchise and electoral roll. Lord Minto's reply was reassuring.
Later in 1906 the All-India Moslem League was founded, and the Aga Khan was elected its first president, an office which he held until 1912. He lent his active support to the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909, but intercommunal feeling continued to grow, despite the cancellation of the partition of Bengal.
On the outbreak of war in 1914 the Aga Khan, who had exercised a restraining influence on Indian Moslem opinion during the Balkan wars of 1912-13, was in Zanzibar. He at once volunteered his services and instructed his followers to render all possible support. He was advised that he could help best in the diplomatic field. His endeavours to promote Turkish neutrality failed, but when Turkey joined the Central Powers and by declaring a jehad or holy war created a difficult situation for Indian and other Moslems, he unhesitatingly and successfully urged on them full co-operation with the Allies. In 1915 he was entrusted with a mission of major importance to Egypt, the effect of which was to reassure Egyptian opinion and to secure the internal stability of the country, with the invaluable consequent assistance to the Allies of a strategically placed and dependable base.
On his return to England in September 1914 the Aga Khan had again met Gokhale, and with him strove to compose a memorandum on Indian constitutional progress representing their joint views on the establishment of federation in India as a step towards self-government. Early in 1915 Gokhale died, addressing his political testament to the Aga Khan, and not to M. K. Gandhi [qv.] or any Hindu leader, for publication two years later, by when he hoped the war would be over and India capable of working out her own destiny. The testament was duly published, with a further plea by the Aga Khan that after the war East Africa might be reserved for Indian colonization in recognition of India's services. But it was overtaken by events which led to the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919.
Ill health prevented the Aga Khan from taking the part he would have wished in these developments. But his enforced leisure resulted in 1918 in his India in Transition, dedicated to his mother, a thoughtful and closely argued study which attracted much attention. He reminded the British of their grant of full self-government to South Africa, and urged the case for the sharing of power in India, and for a widely based South Asian Federation of which an India ultimately self-governing must be the centre and pivot.
After the war the Aga Khan was active in pressing on the Allies the long-term importance of the question of the Caliphate, and of a policy towards Turkey which should be practical as well as temperate, just, and equitable. Strongly as his own sympathies lay with Turkey, he was a realist and restraining influence on Moslems in India, and as such sharply criticized by many members of his community during the Khilafat agitation in which the Ali brothers had the active support of Gandhi and the Congress.
By 1924 difficulties in Kenya between the British settlers on the one hand, and the British Government and the local Indian interests on the other, resulted in a committee of inquiry under (Sir) John Hope Simpson. The Aga Khan, who had declined the chairmanship, was a member, and the committee's report proposed compromises, more particularly over Indian immigration into East Africa, and the reservation of certain districts in the coastal lowlands which were of much importance to India.
From 1924 to 1928 the Aga Khan spent a period devoted almost exclusively to my own personal and private life.
At the end of 1928 an All-Indian Moslem conference met at Delhi under his chairmanship to formulate Moslem opinion in view of the commission under Sir John (later Viscount) Simon [qv.] on India's constitutional future. Its unanimous conclusions, the more significant in that they had the support of M. A. Jinnah [qv.], remained the guiding light for the Moslem community in all subsequent discussions. They contemplated a federal system with complete autonomy and residuary powers vested in the constituent states: took note that the right of Moslems to elect their representatives in the various Indian legislatures was now the law of the land, of which they could not be deprived without their consent: and stipulated that in the provinces in which Moslems constituted a minority they should have a representation in no case less than that already enjoyed: and that they must have their due share in the central and provincial cabinets.
The Simon report of 1930 was followed by the three Round Table conferences of 1930-32. The Aga Khan was elected chairman of the British-India delegation and throughout played a material part in the discussions. At all times alive to the importance of compromise, and of adapting communal claims to the interests of India as a whole, he made an important contribution to securing a unanimous report from the joint select committee (1933-4) presided over by Lord Linlithgow [qv.] which resulted in the Government of India Act of 1935. But he failed to secure Congress acceptance of a joint memorandum, with the drafting of which he was closely concerned, embodying a united demand on behalf of all communities covering almost every important political point in issue, which sought to ensure continuity in the process of the further transfer of responsibility, and which, in his judgement, would have immensely simplified all future constitutional progress.
With the passing of the Government of India Act he ceased for the time actively to concern himself with Indian constitutional advance. But his high standing, religious and political, his extensive travels and wide contacts, his fluency in the principal European languages, and his independence of outlook, had made him increasingly a figure not merely of Indian and Commonwealth but of international importance, and from 1932 he was for some years prominent in the League of Nations. He was a representative of India at the world disarmament conference at Geneva in 1932, was leader of the Indian delegation to the League of Nations Assembly in 1932 and 1934-7, and in 1937 president of the Assembly. It was while president that he visited Hitler. He subsequently lent his fullest support to the Munich settlement, suggesting in a much criticized article in The Times that the Führer should be taken at his word, and questioning whether he had really meant what he had said in Mein Kampf.
On the outbreak of war in 1939 the Aga Khan was in Europe. He at once issued a manifesto urging his followers to give the fullest support to Britain. In the winter of 1939-40 he visited India, when he persistently restated British war aims, and endeavoured to act as an intermediary with Reza Shah of Persia. He led a deputation to the viceroy on behalf of Indians in South Africa, and endeavoured, unsuccessfully, by discussion with the Nawab of Bhopal [qv.] and Gandhi, to bring about mutual understanding between the Indian parties for the prosecution of the war. He returned to Europe in April 1940, and on the fall of France withdrew to Switzerland, where he remained under medical treatment, barred from political activity, until the end of the war. The criticism which his inactivity provoked took perhaps insufficient account of his serious and continued ill health.
He returned to India in 1946 to find that, while his influence remained unshaken with his own community, which celebrated his diamond jubilee in India and East Africa in 1946, the Moslem political leadership had passed decisively to Jinnah, to whom he was to pay a generous tribute in his Memoirs. After partition in 1947 the Aga Khan ceased to be an active participant in Indian politics.
Ill health in his later years greatly reduced his activity, but he maintained the closest touch with the Ismaili community, and continued to travel extensively. In 1949 he took up Persian citizenship, while remaining a British subject. His platinum jubilee was celebrated in Karachi in February 1954. In that year he published his Memoirs.
Throughout his life he was keenly interested in horse-racing, and his scientific concern with bloodstock and breeding methods had a material effect on English horse-breeding. Coming to the English turf after 1918, he won the Queen Mary Stakes at Ascot in 1922 (Cos) and had thereafter a record of outstanding distinction, winning, in addition to many minor successes, the Derby in 1930 (Blenheim); the Two Thousand Guineas, Derby, and St. Leger (the triple crown) with Bahram in 1935; and the Derby again in 1936 (Mahmoud), 1948 (My Love), and 1952 (Tulyar). In 1954 he finally disposed of his studs.
Shrewd, active, a connoisseur of the arts, a good scholar, a citizen of the world, an experienced and courageous politician, a hardworking religious leader alive to the importance of the education and physical fitness of his community, with great material resources, he was for long a major figure in Indian politics, and in his time, helped by his broadminded and constructive approach and his instinct for compromise, he gave service of great value to his community and to the Commonwealth.
The Aga Khan was married in 1896 to a cousin in her teens, Shahzadi Begum. There was no issue, and the marriage was dissolved. In 1908 he married, in Cairo, by Moslem rites, an Italian lady, Teresa Magliano, by whom he had a son who died in infancy, and Aly Khan.
The Begum died in 1926. In 1929 he married Andrée Carron, by whom he had one son, Sadruddin. This union having been dissolved by divorce in the Geneva civil courts in 1943 (the Aga Khan being awarded custody of the son), he married in 1945 Yvette Larbousse, who survived him, and to whose devoted care in old age and illness he owed much.
In 1898 Queen Victoria had personally invested him with the K.C.I.E. He was appointed G.C.I.E. (1902), G.C.S.I. (1911), G.C.V.O. (1923), and G.C.M.G. (1955), thus receiving his last decoration from Queen Elizabeth. He held also the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar 1st Class (1900) and (1901) the Royal Prussian Order of the Crown, 1st Class (which he returned on the outbreak of war in 1914).
In 1934 he was sworn of the Privy Council, the first Indian, other than members of the Judicial Committee, to receive this honour. He was an honorary Doctor of Law of Cambridge (1911). In 1916, an honour which he particularly valued, King George V gave him a salute of eleven guns, and the rank and precedence for life of a first-class ruling chief of the Bombay Presidency.
The Aga Khan died at Versoix, near Geneva, 11 July 1957, and is buried at Aswan. He nominated as his successor as Aga Khan IV his grandson Karim (born 1936), elder son of Aly Khan.
The Begum Aga Khan has two portraits by Van Dongen; Princess Andrée Aga Khan has one by Sir Oswald Birley and another by Edmond Souza; Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan has one by John Berwick.
The Aga Khan, Memoirs, 1954
Stanley Jackson, The Aga Khan, 1952
H. J. Greenwall, The Aga Khan, 1952
Contributor: Gilbert Laithwaite.