Imam Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan III succeeded as Imam on August 17, 1885 at the age of 8 years and reigned for 72 years. Under his leadership, ‘the first half of the twentieth century was a period of significant development for the Ismaili community. Numerous institutions for social and economic development were established on the Indian sub-continent and in East Africa.’1
Imam’s commitment to the Islamic ideals of brotherhood of humanity, peace among nations, and respect for human dignity prompted his role as a statesman on the world scene.2 He was a delegate to the Round Table Conference in the 1930s, President of the League of Nations from 1937 to 1939, was decorated as Knight Grand Commander of the Star of India by George V, and was bestowed numerous honours by many countries.
Imam Sultan Mohamed Shah also devoted much of his time and resources to consolidating and organising the Nizari Ismaili community in the Indian subcontinent and East Africa. He was particularly concerned with introducing reforms that would transform the Ismaili community into a modern self-sufficient one, with high standards of education and welfare. To meet the needs of the community in South Asia and East Africa, he established networks of schools, health clinics, hospitals, and jamatkhanas.
The foundations of the present education system were laid by Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah, who established over 200 schools during the twentieth century including:
- the first in Balochistan (1905) in present-day Pakistan, and in Zanzibar (1905)
- in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (1906)
- in Mundra, India (1907)
- Aga Khan Higher Secondary School, Hyderabad, India (1943)
- Sultan Mohamed Shah School, Karachi, Pakistan (1965)
[These schools are now part of Aga Khan Education Services.]
In 1905, Imam issued a written set of ‘Rules and Regulations’ for the Ismailis of East Africa, which served as the constitution, with a revised version issued in 1954. Similar rules were also issued for the Ismailis in British India. The ‘Rules and Regulations’ described the organisational structure of the community with a hierarchy of councils and office-bearers, their administrative procedures, as well as local and regional constituencies. The constitution also re-affirmed the centrality of the Imam’s absolute authority over the affairs of the community.
During his Imamat, the community celebrated his Golden (1937), Diamond (1946,) and Platinum (1954) Jubilees. To show their appreciation and affection, Imam was weighed in gold, diamonds and, symbolically, in platinum, respectively, the proceeds of which were used to further develop major social welfare and development institutions in Asia and Africa.
“As 1935 drew to its close I went to Bombay to celebrate my Golden Jubilee as hereditary Imam of the Ismailis…The climax of of the celebration was the ancient ritual of weighing me against gold…The actual weighing ceremony was both stately and heart stirring, evoking as it did strong currents of reciprocal affection between my followers and myself. Our rejoicings, however, were cut short by the grievous news of the passing of my old, staunch, and good friend, the King-Emperor, George V, who died at Sandringham in January 1936….We immediately abandoned all further festivities out of respect to his memory…”
“I am convinced that our social conditions – education for both boys and girls…are far ahead. We were pioneers in the introduction of midwifery, and…we had trained nurses for childbirth…”
“In Africa,…we have put the finances of individuals and of the various communities on a thoroughly safe basis. We established an insurance company – the Jubilee Insurance – whose shares have greatly increased in value. We also set up what we called an investment trust, which is really a vast association for receiving money and then putting it out on loan, at a low rate of interest, to Ismaili traders and to people who want to buy or build their own houses.”
“An amount equal to the value of the diamonds – more than half a million pounds – had been collected and was offered to me as an unconditional gift. I wanted this enormous amount to be used for the welfare of the Ismaili community throughout what was then undivided India. The specific scheme which I had in mind was a trust, along the lines which Ismailis have built up in Africa… Co-operation in banking and commerce, in the raising and lending of money, in building and in farming, is – I sincerely believe – their path towards economic, social, and cultural upliftment, towards that better life for themselves and for their children…”
Imam Sultan Mohamed Shah
Extracts from The Memoirs of Aga Khan
Legacy of the Jubilees:
- Jubilee Insurance Company (a Golden Jubilee initiative incorporated in 1937) now operating in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Pakistan, Mauritius, and Burundi.
- Diamond Jubilee Schools for girls were established throughout the remote Northern Areas of what is now Pakistan.
- Donated to the Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust (incorporated in Kenya in 1945), providing low-interest loans for affordable housing and entrepreneurship. Now Diamond Trust Bank, it is quoted on the Nairobi Stock Exchange and has become a major player in the country’s national development operating; also operating in Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi. In 2014, Prince Rahim attended the opening of the new corporate head office of Diamond Trust Bank in Nairobi, Kenya.
- Diamond Jubilee High School for Girls (1947) and Diamond Jubilee High School for Boys (1947), both in Bombay, India.
- Diamond Jubilee School, Hyderabad (1949), India.
- Platinum Jubilee Investments Limited (incorporated in 1952), which has assisted the growth of various types of co-operative societies.
- Platinum Jubilee High School in Warangal, India (1953).
- Platinum Jubilee Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya (1958), now Aga Khan University Hospital.
Compiled by Nimira Dewji