Imam Hasan Ali Shah succeeded to the Imamat in 1817 at the age of 13 in Yazd, Persia. His grandfather had risen to political prominence in Persia and was appointed to the governorship of the province of Kirman.
Shortly after his succession to the Imamat, Imam Hasan Ali Shah was appointed to the governorship of the Persian district of Qumm, and bestowed the honorific title of Agha Khan by the reigning monarch Fath Ali Shah (d. 1834).
Owing to turbulent political conditions, Imam moved to Qandahar in Afghanistan in 1841, and then to Sind in the Indian subcontinent. In 1844, Imam travelled to Cutch and Kathiawar where he spent about a year visiting the communities. Imam arrived in Bombay in February 1846, subsequently establishing his residence, beginning what is termed as the modern phase of Nizari Ismaili history.
The Khojas of the subcontinent were overjoyed to gain direct access to the Imam. ‘The Hindu converts to Nizari Ismailism, originally belonging to the Lohana caste, came to be known as Khojas, derived from the Persian word khwaja, an honorary title meaning lord or master corresponding to the Hindu term thakur by which the Lohanas were addressed.’1
The Khojas had travelled the hazardous routes to visit Imams at their residences in Persia for many centuries – Anjundan, Kahak, Shahr-i Babak, Kirman, Mahallat, and Yazd.
Imam Hasan Ali Shah had developed a close relationship with the British, rendering his services in Persia and Afghanistan, and was awarded an annual pension from General Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853). ‘He continued his close relationship with the British, and was even visited by the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) when he was on a state visit to India. The British came to address Hasan Ali Shah as ‘His Highness.’ Imam Hasan Ali Shah received protection from the British government in British India as the spiritual head of an important Muslim community.’2
In Bombay, Imam Hasan Ali Shah established his durkhana (Persian, darb-i khana), or chief place of residence, with additional residences in Poona and Bangalore. Imam attended jamatkhana in Bombay on special religious occasions, often leading the public prayers of the Khojas. Every Saturday, when in Bombay, Imam held durbar, giving audience to the members of the community in the subcontinent.
During the three decades of residency in Bombay, Imam Hasan Ali Shah organised the community through a network of mukhi (treasurer) and kamadia (accountant), who were often appointed by the Imam himself. Every Khoja jamat of a certain size who possessed a jamatkhana had mukhis and kamadias (derived from Sanskrit words).
‘Maintaining the traditions of the Iranian nobility to which he belonged, he kept excellent stables and became a well-known figure at the Bombay racecourse.’1 Imam Hasan Ali Shah passed away in April 1881 after an Imamat of 64 years. He was buried in a special shrine erected at Hasanabad in the Mazagaon area of Bombay, next to an old jamatkhana. He was succeeded by his son Aqa Ali Shah.
1Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, “The Khojas and Satpanth Ismailism,” The Ismailis: An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies
2Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, Cambridge University Press, 1990
Compiled by Nimira Dewji
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