Today in history: Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah succeeded to the Imamat

Imam Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III succeeded as Imam on August 17, 1885 at the age of eight years. At the age of nine, he received the honorific title of ‘His Highness’ from Queen Victoria. Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah led the Nizari Ismailis as Imam for 72 years, longer than any of his predecessors. His commitment to the Islamic ideals of the brotherhood of humanity, peace among nations, and respect for human dignity impelled him to be involved as a statesman on the world scene.

In 1902, when attending the coronation of Edward VII (r. 1901-1910) in London, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah received the rank of Grand Knight Commander. In the same year, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, appointed him to his Legislative Council at Calcutta. In 1906, he was elected first president of All-India Muslim League, an organization that was established to support the advancement of Muslims, particularly with respect to their education and legal status in British India. In 1912, he was decorated as Knight Grand Commander of the Star of India by George V during his coronation celebrations in India. Additionally, in recognition of his work in international affairs, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah was bestowed numerous honours by many countries.

Due to his poor health, Imam retreated from political life and spent a few years in Switzerland, where he wrote India in Transition: A Study in political Evolution (1918). In 1920, he re-entered politics, becoming a prominent figure at the All-India Muslim Conference in Delhi in 1928-1929. In 1934, he became a member of the Privy Council, and also served as the delegate for British India at the Disarmament Conference and as chief delegate of India to the Assembly of the League of Nations. In 1937, Imam was elected President of the League and presided over its eighteenth assembly.

Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah was elected President of the League of Nations for its 18th Assembly. Photo: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History
Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah was elected President of the League of Nations for its 18th Assembly. Photo: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History

Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah also devoted much of his time and resources to consolidating and organizing the Nizari Ismaili community in India 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. On the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of his Imamat, he established scholarship programmes to provide assistance to students.

On the occasions of the GoldenDiamond, and Platinum Jubilees of his Imamat, he founded the Jubilee Investment Trust and the Platinum Jubilee Investments Limited which have assisted the growth of various co-operative societies. Diamond Jubilee Schools for Girls were established throughout the remote northern areas of Pakistan and in India. Companies such as the Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust (now Diamond Trust Bank of Kenya ) and the Jubilee Insurance company, which are today quoted on the Nairobi Stock Exchange, have become important national economic institutions. The scholarship programmes, founded during his Golden Jubilee, were progressively expanded.1

In 1905, Imam issued a written set of ‘Rules and Regulations’ for the Ismailis of East Africa, which served as the constitution. This document was revised and printed several times until 1954 when a revised version was issued. 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, and local and regional constituencies. The constitution also re-affirmed the centrality of the Imam’s absolute authority over the affairs of the community.

The first Constitution. Image: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History

The Ismaili Constitution issued at Zanzibar in 1905 in Gujarati, under the title Khoja Shia Imami Ismaili Counsilna Kayadani Book: Prakaran Pelu thata Biju (The Rule Book of the Khoja Shia Imami Ismaili Council: Parts 1 and 2). This document was instituted along with the first Supreme Council for Africa.

First Supreme Council for Africa
First Supreme Council for Africa. Image: The Ismailis An Illustarted History

standing left to right: Mohamed Bhanji, Gulamhussein Harji Sumar, Muhammad Rashid Alana, Ai Valli Issa, Gulamhussein Karmali Bhaloo
middle, seated left to right: Pirmohamed Kanji, Visram Harji, President Vizier Mohamed Rahemtulla Hemani, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah, Fazal Essani, Gulamhussein Bhaloo Kurji.
bottom row, seated & kneeling left to right: Mukhi Rajabali Gangji, Vizier Kassam Damani, Janmohamed Hansraj, Rai Mitha Jessa, Juma Bhagat Ismail, Kamadia (Itmadi) Jiwan Laljee, Salehmohamed Walli Dharsee, Janmohamed Jetha, Kamadia Fazal Shivji

To view honours bestowed upon Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah, visit Retrospective: His Highness Aga Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – 72 years of Imamat

1The Ismaili (Accessed August 2017)
Ismaili Mirror, Centennial Issue, November 1977
Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis, An Illustrated History, Azmimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2007
The Ismaili Imamat: Contemporary Period, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed August 2017)

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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