Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III forged a distinctive identity for the Nizari Ismailis

Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, the forty-eighth Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, was born in Karachi on November 2, 1877 succeeding to the Imamat in 1885 at the age of eight years. He was educated in Bombay and Poona, where he studied a range of subjects including Arabic, Persian literature, and calligraphy.

Prof. K.K. Aziz states that through his intimate knowledge of Eastern as well as Western cultures, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah “was uniquely placed to play a significant role in the international affairs of his time, and his long public career had many dimensions” (Selected Speeches and Writings of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah p vi).
See Life and Work of Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah

Imam’s involvement on the world stage resulted in many honours bestowed on him in recognition of his service.

Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah. Image: Aga Khan Studs

Prof. K.K. Aziz adds:
Aga Khan III “was an extraordinary human being with unwavering and sensitive sympathy for ordinary human beings. Whether we look at his political career, or examine the other spheres which exercised his mind and carried the imprint of his shaping influence, we find the driving force, the governing factor, to be a humanistic interest in the life and condition of the common man and woman. The existence, nature and strength of this sentiment formed the foundation of his passion for social reform, his hatred of violence and war, his disapproval of racism, his faith in democracy, his tendency towards socialism, his fight for world peace, his obsession with education, his struggle for social uplift, his interest in the advancement of women, his appreciation of poetry, his emphasis on culture, and his interpretation of Islam…

Humanism drove him to dedicate much of his time and effort to social reform…Aga Khan III believed that education alone could release the poor from his poverty, the slave from his bondage, the ignorant from his bewilderment, and the downtrodden from his degradation. … It was only through education that eminent literary men and women would ultimately emerge to develop every facet of human life – intellectual, spiritual and religious.”
Aga Khan III: A Study in Humanism, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III. Image: Daftary, The Ismaili Imams

Legal Validation of Imam’s Authority
In 1905 Imam’s cousin Hajji Bibi filed a legal suit in Bombay High Court, which came to be knows as Hajji Bibi case, challenging his authority as leader of the Khojas, claiming Imam and his community were Ithna’asahris, similar to the issues that led to the Khoja Case of 1866 during the time of Imam Imam Hasan Aly Shah Aga Khan I.
(Pir Sadr al-Din converted large numbers of Hindus giving them the Persian title khwaja (lord, master), corresponding to the Hindu title thakur [More at Pirs and Ginans).

A British judge ruled in favour of Imam, giving legal validation to Imam’s authority and re-affirming, publicly, the Ismaili identity of the Khojas as ‘a religious community,’ the Shia Imami Ismailis, and differentiated from that of the Sunnis and the Ithnaʿasharis alike, the cornerstone of which was allegiance to a living Ismaili Imam (Asani).

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah began to introduce reforms to transform the community from Satpanthis to Ismailis, and into a modern one with high standards of education, health, and well-being.

Aga Khan School Mundra, India. Image: Aga Khan Development Network

East Africa
First Constitution And Councils
In the nineteenth century, large numbers of Ismaili merchants had migrated from the Indian subcontinent to the eastern coast of Africa, first establishing a foothold in Zanzibar during the time of Aga Khan I, perhaps as early as 1820; the first jamatkhana was established there around1838 (See Early Ismaili Settlers).

During his first visit to the jamat of Zanzibar in 1899, various internal conflicts plagued the jamat, similar to those of the Aga Khan case in Bombay. During his second visit in 1905, Imam issued a written set of rules and regulation, which essentially served as the first Constitution for the Ismailis in the region. Within six months, the rule book was issued for the jamat in the subcontinent. This constitution “foresaw a new administration organisation in the form of a hierarchy of councils… At the same time, the first Ismaili council was established in Zanzibar with the local mukhi acting as its president. This council took over the administration of the local jamatkhana, defended its interests against dissenters, and supervised affairs of the [jamat] on the mainland” (Daftary, The Ismailis Their history and doctrines p 525). Subsequently, a similar constitution, with council systems of administration, were issued for the jamat in the Indian subcontinent.

Front inside cover of the Ismaili constitution issued at Zanzibar. Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History

This system of communal governance in East Africa developed in response to the changing socio-legal arrangements in the British Empire and in accordance with the Ismaili understanding of the Imam. Previously the Khoja Ismailis had had no such form of communal organization throughout their history, nor were there any set of rules comparable to those that were developed for them … the era of initial Ismaili settlement in East Africa dictated a response by the Ismaili Imams that … took into consideration the British colonial socio-legal systems which were in force on both sides of the western Indian Ocean…” (Hirji, A Modern History of the Ismailis p 153).

Meanwhile Imam had concerned himself with defining the distinctive religious identity of his followers, so as to distinguish them from other religious groups, which over the centuries had served as external guises to protect Ismailis from persecution [See Post-Alamut Period]. Imam emphasised the spirituality and esoteric significance of the ritual practices, also instructing his followers not to criticise other religious traditions.

The changes involved “shifting the understanding of key doctrines away from local frameworks (increasingly viewed as Hinduistic) to ones that would be considered authentically Islamic.” Among the changes was in the du’a recited by the community three times daily, attributed to the founding Pir Sadr al-Din, which was largely in the Indic vernaculars, Sindhi and Gujarati, with a number of phrases in Arabic. In the 1950s this du’a, which had been modified several times during its history, was replaced by one entirely in Arabic, the universal language of Islamic liturgical prayer. Imam developed a set of ritual practices “that would be common to Ismailis wherever they lived and whatever their local cultural practices” (Asani, A Modern History of the Ismailis p 112-113).

Move to Interiors
By the 1920s, new centres of economic activity had appeared in the mainland of East Africa, where Nizari Khojas gradually moved with the Imam’s encouragement; Zanzibar eventually ceased to be the seat of the East African Nizaris.

The widely scattered community needed their own system of administration. In recognition of these changes, Imam revised the constitution in 1926 instituting separate councils in the territories of Tanganyika, Kenya, and Uganda. The original council in Zanzibar continued for some time to co-ordinate the activities of the Territorial Councils in matters of common interest, which were later delegated to a Supreme Council, separate from the council in Zanzibar. Subordinate committees with responsibilities in specific fields such as education, welfare, and health came to be attached to each Territorial Council.

Poster by H. Lalji Ramji of the visit of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III to Mombasa (Kenya) in 1926. Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History

The need arose for new literature through which the Ismailis could develop a universal understanding of Ismaili doctrine. To meet this need, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah commissioned the Recreation Club Institute in Bombay to compile the first comprehensive history of the Ismaili Imamate in Gujarati, the most widely spoken language among the Khojas. Through a range of publications, Imam sought to create a ‘renewed sense of Ismaili identity, strong enough to hearten and educate their supporters and refute their opponents’ (Daftary, The Ismailis Their History and doctrines p 537). The terms Satpanthi and Khoja began to be used less frequently in favour of “Ismaili.”

Imam called the first Ismailia Socio-Economic Conference (1945), in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to establish an Ismailia Association for Africa, independent from the Association for India, and to address the training of teachers to impart religious education to young boys and girls.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah and Mawlana Hazar Imam with members of the Council for Kenya, Nairobi, April 22, 1945. Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History

With funds collected from the Diamond and Platinum Jubilee commemoration ceremonies, Imam established education scholarships, schools, hospitals, sports and recreation clubs, and housing societies in India, Pakistan, and East Arica.

[More on Imam’s Jubilees]

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah addressing the gathering at Diamond Jubilee celebration in Dar-es Salaam, Tanzania, on August 15, 1946. Image: The.Ismaili

When Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah succeeded to the Imamat, the Ismailis of Syria were living in conditions drastically different from other Ismaili communities. Until late nineteenth century, the bulk of them acknowledged the Muhammad Shahi (Mu’mini) line of Nizari Ismaili Imams. But they had lost contact with the last Imam of that line in 1796. In 1887, after the Syrian Ismailis failed to locate any of the descendants of that line, they switched their allegiance to the Qasim-Shahi Nizari line represented by Aga Khan III. Subsequently, majority of Syrian Ismailis recognised Aga Khan III as their Imam. Until the twentieth century, the Ismailis of Syria were subjects of the Ottomans. However, rivalries between two main Ismaili families, centred at Qadmus and Masyaf, weakened the community. In the 1840s the amir of Qadmus, Amir Isma’il b. Amir Muhammad, managed to establish his authority over most of the community and obtained the permission of the Ottoman authorities for a permanent settlement of the Ismailis in Salamiyya, which had served as the headquarters of the da’wa in pre-Fatimid times (The Ismailis An Illustrated History p 224). Prince Aly Khan, who visited the Syrian jamat frequently, was buried there in a mausoleum adjacent to the jamatkhana.

Mausoleum of Prince Aly Khan in Salamiya. Image: Wikipedia

Central Asia (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Northwestern China)
The history of Ismaili religious tradition in northwestern China remains obscure, however, the origin lies in the tradition initiated by Nasir Khusraw. The first jamatkhana in the Tashkorghan was established in the late nineteenth century “with the help of an official envoy from Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III” [likely Pir Sabzali]. The few extant written communications from an Imam addressed to the Ismaili community in Xinjiang, was received in 1948 just before the closing of the border by the Chinese” (Saidula, A Modern History of the Ismailis p 81-82). Small Nizari communities exist also in Yarkand and Kashgar in Sinkiang province of China.

Until the dissolution of Soviet Union in 1991, Ismailis of Central Asia were not permitted to practise their faith due to the policies of the regime, and completely cut off from the Imams and other Ismaili communities. The jamat sustained their faith through the writings of Nasir Khusraw. Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s last contact with communities of Central Asia was in 1923 through a dignitary named Sabz Ali (Sabzali) (d. 1938).

Nasir Khusraw guaranteed Iranian identity: Eslami Nodushan
Nasir-i Khusraw. Image: Wikipedia

Hunza Valley
In some areas now situated in northern Pakistan such as Chitral and Gilgit, small Ismaili communities have existed, probably from the Anjundan period (fifteenth century). However, the people of Hunza reverted to Twelver Shi’ism sometime before the nineteenth century. Nizari Ismailism was re-introduced during the early decades of the nineteenth century by da’is coming from neighbouring Badakhshan. Hunza, was ruled independently for several centuries until 1974 when the region became part of the federal state of Pakistan, by family of mirs who had their seat in Baltit (now Karimabad). Hunza, along with Nagir, Chitral, and other adjoining districts, was annexed to British India in 1891. Aga Khan III established close relations with Mir Safdar Khan (1886-1931) and his successors. Imam’s emissary Sabz Ali also visited Hunza, where he set up jamatkhanas in 1923 (Daftary, A Short History of the Ismailis p 206).

Baltit Fort in Hunza restored by Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Image: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Mathieu Paley

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah died in 1957 and was eventually buried in a mausoleum in Aswan, Egypt, overlooking the Nile. He had designated his grandson Prince Karim to succeed him.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah and Mata Salamat’s residence Noor El Salam and mausoleum in Aswan. Image: Egypt. Aswan, Abu Simbel

Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III was at the same time a successful Muslim reformer, responding to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. He made it possible for his followers, scattered in many different countries, to live in the twentieth century as a progressive community with a distinct religious identity. He revolutionized the manner in which women were to be viewed and treated, and who exhorted women to get an education, hold on to their faith, assume financial independence, and assume their full roles in society” (Kassam, A Modern History of the Ismailis p 260).

K.K. Aziz notes that “no historian can neglect the life and work of such a statesman: the Aga Khan has a high claim on our attention on grounds both of personal impact and of long-term influence.” (Selected Speeches and Writings of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Kegan Paul International, London, 1998, p3).

Asani remarks “while an institution of British colonial India played a facilitating role in defining in legal terms Khoja identity as being Ismaili, it was the hereditary Islamic institution, the Ismaili Imamate, that navigated the Ismaili Khojas through the whirlpools of cultural and political change in colonial and post-colonial South Asia” (A Modern History of the Ismailis p 122).

Contributed by Nimira Dewji

Ali Asani, “From Satpanthi to Ismaili Muslim,” published in A Modern History of the Ismailis, Ed. Farhad Daftary, London, 2011
Amier Saidula, “The Nizari Ismailis of China in Modern Times,” published in A Modern History of the Ismailis, Ed. Farhad Daftary, London, 2011
Farhad Daftary, “Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,” published in The Ismaili Imams, I.B. Tauris, London, 20210
Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ilis Their History and doctrines, Cambridge University Press, 1990
Zayn R. Kassam, “The Gender Policies of Aga Khan III and Aga Khan IV,” published in A Modern History of the Ismailis, Ed. Farhad Daftary, London, 2011
Zulfikar Hirji, “The Socio-Legal Formation of the Nizari Ismailis of East Africa,” published in A Modern History of the Ismailis, Ed. Farhad Daftary, London, 2011

One thought

  1. I like to thank Nimira Dewji, for the informative reference reading materials, I’m immensely happy to find this article so helpful to known our history.,
    May you be bless forever,
    Ya Ali Madad,


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