Jagdeesh Mann: The Aga Khan brought prosperity to his faithful and now looks to uplift world’s bottom billion

The Ismaili spiritual leader marks Diamond Jubilee with world tour, will be visiting Vancouver from May 5 to 7

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      If you have ever visited an Ismaili home or business establishment, you may have come across a portrait of a gentleman who looks like an industry magnate or European aristocratic. He appears too "official" to be a family member, and then there’s the positioning of the image—usually displayed prominently at the centre of a mantle or beneath special lighting. 

      So who is this mysterious man?

      He, of course, is none other than His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, or the Aga Khan for short—his close friends call him ‘K’, are among the who’s who of the global elite, and include Canada’s Prime Minster Justin Trudeau—and your first impression would not be far from the truth.

      The Aga Khan is a billionaire investor, the owner of racehorses, stud farms, yachts, five-star hotels, and a sprawling estate on the outskirts of Paris, France, on which he resides. His vast web of for-profit companies under the office of his Aga Khan Fund for Development (AKDEF) spans the globe and generates billions in revenue per year.

      But the Aga Khan is also, simultaneously, a man of God. He is the Imam (spiritual leader) of 10 million Nizari Ismailis, a branch of Shia Islam, of whom 100,000 live in Canada. He is also a direct descendent of Prophet Mohammad.

      For 60 years the Aga Khan has led his flock from the throne of the Imamat, the institution of spiritual authority established by the Prophet when he appointed his son-in-law Ali as the first Imam approximately 1400 years ago. Ismailis around the world have been commemorating his Diamond Jubilee over the past 10 months during which the Aga Khan has visited his diasporic communities. The world tour continues this week with a stop in Vancouver from Saturday to Monday (May 5 to 7), and then continues to appearances in Edmonton and Calgary.

      The Vancouver events are expected to attract up to 60,000 devotees from across the Pacific Northwest, who all are seeking to catch a glimpse—or if fate is kind—receive an audience with their iconic Imam, an experience on par with a Catholic meeting the Pope.

      Contradiction resides at the heart of every religion. Examples of this are pervasive: how can one be a mother and a virgin (Mary) or how can a guru own 93 Rolls-Royces (Osho)? And can anyone tell me what exactly is the sound of one hand clapping, as asked by that famous Zen koan.

      No less confounding is the Aga Khan, seemingly another religious paradox, though robed in western bespoke suits. A business rainmaker of fabled wealth who looks more apt to sit in a boardroom than stand behind a pulpit, he makes an odd fit next to other universally recognized spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis. On the surface, there is obvious incongruity in a jetsetter with a love for thoroughbred derbies serving as the earthly bridge to the divine bliss of the sweet hereafter.

      Yet god works in mysterious ways and the Aga Khan’s own unconventional ways—the overlapping of temporal and spiritual realms, philanthropy that dovetails with business interests, and stressing local community while acting globally—have clearly uplifted his followers and informed the ethos of Ismaili life. This Ismail version of the "art of living" has not only yielded great material riches for this community, but has made it the paragon of pluralism.

      Where Muslims, particularly in the West, suffer en masse from being viewed with suspicion and even hostility, Ismaili Muslims have avoided this shadow and instead are seen as progressive, education-oriented, and global citizens.

      Members of this faith group live around the world in more than 25 different countries, including Canada, United States, Kenya, Tanzania, Pakistan, and Tajikstan, among others. As a community that has always lived as a minority in other countries, Ismailis are quick to adapt to their environments, and have displayed an equal dexterity to thrive in the cosmopolitan metropolises of Europe and North America as in the outposts of Africa and Asia’s emerging economies.

      It was fitting that the Aga Khan was the driving force behind the establishment of Ottawa’s newly renovated home for the Centre for Pluralism. It reflected the mediating role the Ismaili community has come to play between East and West, in advancing the discourse for inclusion and openness.

      Because Ismailis are a model minority, they can go unseen. An argument could be made this media-shy community prefers to blend into the background than stand out. Perhaps this harks back to the 500-year period after the 13th-century Mongol invasions when Ismailis in Persia encountered persecution and thus protected their religion through Taqiyyah, an Islamic practice that permits concealing religious beliefs.

      But this combination of maintaining a low-key profile and being comfortable with diversity has also played a role in this community becoming a power player in Canada—though, again, you probably wouldn’t know it. Some of Canada’s wealthiest 0.1 percent are Ismailis, including Vancouver’s Lalji family, owners of the privately held Larco Investments, which includes West Vancouver’s Park Royal Mall in its portfolio, and estimated to be worth $3 billion.

      This ethos of constantly evolving and adapting to change once again, however, starts at the top, with the Aga Khan and his embrace of modernity. But some of this credit, however, should also be extended to the Aga Khan’s grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan.

      In 1957, the Aga Khan’s grandfather passed over his son and instead designated him, his grandson, who was attending Harvard at the time, as the successor of his hereditary title. He chose to a skip a generation for the Imamat because as he stated, “I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up in the midst of the new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office of Imam."

      In this regard, the Aga Khan has lived up to his grandfather’s expectation. While Queen Elizabeth II, who marked her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, anchored the British monarchy over this same turbulent period from the end of the colonial era and into this information age with all its accompanying intrusion of paparazzi and social media, the Aga Khan has expanded his Imamat institution through it. One of his first major investments was in Kenya, in the Nation Media Group in 1960. This company listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange is still a flourishing enterprise today, publishing content daily on multiple platforms: print, radio, TV, and digital.

      His hands-on workman approach has also been instrumental in resolving crises, such as in 1972 when the Ugandan government, under the capricious strongman Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of South Asians out of the East African country. Many Ismailis hail from the western Indian state of Gujarat—they began migrating to East Africa in the mid-19th century and of those families expelled from Uganda, many had been rooted in Africa for over a century.

      The Aga Khan orchestrated the resettlement of Ismailis to various countries around the world, including Canada. Of the 6,000 South Asian refugees who emigrated to Canada, many were Ismailis who still make their homes in Vancouver.

      But it may be the Aga Khan’s unconventional, and certainly risky, approach to economic development that could be the most enduring part of his legacy. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a body that employs 80,000 people across various underdeveloped regions of Africa and Asia, simultaneously engages in both philanthropy and venture capitalism, each managed respectively by the not-for-profit Aga Khan Foundation and the for-profit Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development.

      Rather than donating directly to aid agencies and NGOs working in the poorest parts of the globe, the Aga Khan has taken an alternative approach to long-term sustainable development—he invests in businesses in the world’s poorest regions.

      He has staked an interest in dozens of investments worldwide such as a mobile telecom in Afghanistan, a power plant in Mali, banks in Tanzania and Pakistan, a fibre optic cable company in Mauritius, and numerous others across 19 countries—there are even a couple of investments in Canada including, oddly enough, a Honda dealership in Alberta

      Projects under the various divisions of the AKDN, including the for-profit and not-for profit arms, can reinforce one another where possible. In other words, money donated to the charity arm—Ismailis are supposed to pay an annual tithe of 12.5 percent of earnings to the Aga Khan—generates a tax receipt, helps build hospitals and schools in the poorest regions of the world, and may even support businesses that complement not-for-profit initiatives

      The Aga Khan’s venture-capitalist-cum-philanthropist approach to development is unorthodox but it could provide much greater benefits to the world’s "bottom billion" because "he gets a multiplier effect in his investments that is really lacking in foreign aid,” as one Oxford economist noted.

      This savvy rethink to the foreign aid approach to economic development has placed the AKDN in the middle of an ascendant Africa and emerging Central Asian economies—ideal positions as the Ismaili community celebrates 60 years of the Aga Khan’s leadership and begins the delicate task of looking ahead to successorship.

      Speculation is that the Aga Khan’s son Rahim will be the next Imam. But it would not be surprising if most Ismailis prefer instead to look a decade down the road and envision what the 70th-anniversary Platinum Jubilee celebrations should look like for this beloved Aga Khan.