This month in history: Imam Aqa Ali Shah Aga Khan II succeeded to the Imamat

Aqa Ali Shah Aga Khan II
Undated portrait of Imam Aqa Ali Shah. Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History

Imam Aqa Ali Shah Aga Khan II succeeded his father to the Imamat in April 1881. Born in 1830 in Mahallat, Persia (modern day Iran) where he spent his early years, Imam Aqa Ali Shah went to Najaf, Iraq, with his mother to study Arabic, Persian, and Ismaili doctrines while his father was residing in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. He returned to Persia in the late 1840s and then travelled with his mother to Bombay in 1853 where he worked with the communities in Sind and Gujarat during his father’s reign.

Upon succeeding to the Imamat, Imam Aqa Ali Shah maintained the friendly relations  that his father had cultivated with the British. Sir James Ferguson (d.1907), Governor of Bombay (1880-1885), appointed him to the Bombay Legislative Council, an organisation responsible for governing the Bombay Presidency – an administrative subdivision of British India headquartered in the city of Bombay. The region included the modern-day states of Gujarat, north-western Karnataka, Sindh (now in Pakistan), and Aden in Yemen. The Bombay Presidency, Madras Presidency, and Bengal Presidency were the three major centres of British power.

Bombay Presidency
An 1893 map of Bombay Presidency. Image: Wikipedia

Imam Aqa Ali Shah was also appointed to the Muhammadan National Association, an organisation founded by the influential Muslim reformer Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898). Through these associations Imam Aqa Ali Shah improved the educational opportunities for the Indian Muslims while also founding schools for Ismailis in India. Imam Aqa Ali Shah began to establish links with Ismaili communities outside the Indian subcontinent particularly in Burma, East Africa, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

Imam Aqa Ali Shah died in 1885 after a short reign and was buried in the family mausoleum in Najaf.

The reign of Imam Aqa Ali Shah and his father spanned a time of rapid political changes: Europe saw its greatest expansion over non-European lands; France invaded Egypt under Napolean Bonaparte in 1798; the French retreated from Egypt in 1801, but began to occupy parts of North Africa; by 1858 Britain had established rule over most of India and struggled with Imperial Russia for control over parts of Central Asia; the Dutch controlled most of Indonesian Archipelago; and the Ottomans – the last Muslim dynasty – lost power and territory.1

As European colonisation increased in the following fifty years, the Ismailis underwent profound shifts guided by Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III, who succeeded his father, Imam Aqa Ali Shah, at the age of eight years.

1Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis: An Illustrated History, Azmimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2007

Compiled by Nimira Dewji


Previously on Ismailimail…

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