HH Prince Aga Khan III (1877-1957) was eight-years old when he became the 38th Imam of the Nizari Ismaili community. Though the title Aga Khan had only been conferred twice before, the role as spiritual leader dated back to the seventh century descending directly from the Prophet Muhammad. The title Aga Khan is a unique hereditary appointment. The young prince became a head of state without inheriting a state. He was leader of the world’s fifteen million Shia Ismaili Muslims but chose to live in Europe. His remit was material as well as spiritual. As he said ‘my duties are wider than those of the Pope: the Pope is only concerned with the spiritual welfare of his flock’.
Prince Aga Khan III was born in Karachi in British India (now Pakistan) to Aga Khan II and his third wife who was a granddaughter of the Shah of Persia. The Begum Aga Khan II gave her son an oriental education but also insisted that he attend Eton and Cambridge; a privilege not afforded to his father or grandfather. This early exposure to British aristocratic circles – the ruling class – would affect the prince profoundly. As his grandson the present Prince Aly Khan IV told Vanity Fair ‘he was an extraordinary personality, a very powerful intellect. When he left India and established himself in Europe (in 1900), he became very fascinated with the philosophy of the Western World. He brought that knowledge to his community’.
The prince inherited the spiritual welfare of his people when Africa and India were under colonial rule. Queen Victoria was Empress of India and the Raj governed the Princely States. Prince Aga Khan was co-founder and first President of the All-India Muslim League and lobbied to protect Muslim rights in a country hostile to his religion. Though Prince Aga Khan’s proposal to the Viceroy to make Muslims a separate nation within India was frustrated, he was made a Knight Grand Commander of the Indian Empire by Queen Victoria in 1897 and was given the courtesy title His Highness.
The Aga Khan’s close relationship with the British royal family has been much scrutinised. Edward VII and George V decorated Prince Aga Khan III as did Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. His role as peacemaker was also recognised by the Shah of Persia (Iran) and the Sultan of Turkey. The Prince was comfortable in Western royal circles and, from 1897, was dressed by royal and court tailor Henry Poole & Co.
In 1896 Prince Aga Khan III married a first cousin. He sired two sons by his second wife who was a ballet dancer acquired when she was performing in Monte Carlo. After her death in 1926 he married a milliner but that also ended in divorce before the Prince found happiness with a fourth Begum in 1944. Yvonne Labrousse was a bus conductor’s daughter and a beauty queen (Miss France). Unlike his previous two wives, Mademoiselle Labrousse converted to Islam.
Begum Aga Khan III was known as Om Habibeh (Little Mother Beloved) and, later, Mat Salamat (Spiritual Mother of the Ismailis). Her devotion to the faith and humility despite her great good fortune made her as beloved as the prince amongst their global peoples. Of his fourth and last wife Prince Aga Khan III said ‘if a perfectly happy marriage be one in which there is a genuine and complete union and understanding on the spiritual, mental and emotional planes, ours is such’.
Though nominally a spiritual leader, Prince Aly Khan III used his position to practise humanism. According to Vanity Fair ‘he looked after his flock remarkably well, building a huge network of hospitals, schools, banks and mosques for them’. As he said of his vocation ‘any lasting satisfaction, any contentment that we can achieve, is the result of forgetting self, or merging subject with object in a harmony that is of body, mind and spirit’. The prince was particularly keen to promote equality for women, educational reform, racial equality and improvement through culture and religious study. He believed that ‘here and now, in this world, we have a soul which has a life of its own in the appreciation of truth, beauty, harmony and good against evil’.
Between 1937-8 the prince served with distinction as President of the League of Nations. His open-minded, liberal attitude was in stark contrast to what was expected of a religious leader. When he celebrated his Golden Jubilee in Bombay in 1936 the prince was weighed in gold and the spoils handed over to philanthropic projects. The exercise was repeated for his Diamond and Platinum Jubilees. Every year the Aga Khan was traditionally due hundreds and millions of pounds in tributes from Ismaili communities. This he dutifully ploughed back into his many international foundations for education, development and relief. The question of the Aga Khan’s sovereign wealth and personal wealth has always been a decidedly grey area as was the lavish lifestyle that Prince Aly Khan III and the Begum enjoyed in London and on the French Riviera where they built a villa near Cannes.
In the aftermath of World War II the Indian territories where the prince’s peoples lived had by and large become independent and, in the case of Pakistan, newly created. The decolonisation of Africa had also begun placing Prince Aga Khan in a position of greater influence for political leaders looking to establish peace in their time. In these final years of his reign Prince Aga Khan III acquitted himself with dignity, wisdom and grace.
The last years of the prince’s life were clouded by concerns over the succession. His son by his second marriage, Prince Aly Khan, had grown up to become one of the Western world’s most celebrated if not scandalous playboys. Prince Aly Khan had been named as co-respondent in a Guinness dynasty divorce that ended the same way in 1949 when his marriage to the bolting Guinness ended and he wed film star Rita Hayworth.
Prince Aly Khan would be Hayworth’s third husband though the marriage failed after three years. The prince’s peripatetic romantic endeavours earned him a mention in Noël Coward’s 1950 lyric to Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It. On the eve of his death in 1957 Prince Aga Khan III summoned his family to his deathbed. His proclamation read thus: ‘I am convinced that it is in the best interest of the Shia Muslim Ismalia Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age who brings a new outlook on life to his office as Imam’.
Prince Aga Khan III anointed his grandson Prince Aga Khan IV bypassing the boy’s playboy father. It was the first time in the history of the dynasty that a generation had been skipped. Prince Aga Khan III was buried in a mausoleum built by the Begum near his palace on the banks of the Nile in Aswan. Prince Aly Khan died shortly after a car crash in 1960. His model fiancée Bettina survived. Prince Aga Khan IV celebrated his Golden Jubilee in 2007 with a private lunch at Buckingham Palace at the invitation of HM The Queen. Vanity Fair estimates that Prince Aga Khan IV is thought to have a personal fortune of $13.3 billion.