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Five Things To Know About The Aga Khan

  • Farangis Najibullah

Horse-racing enthusiast, the Aga Khan (second from left), is spiritual leader to millions of Ismaili Muslims

Horse-racing enthusiast, the Aga Khan (second from left), is spiritual leader to millions of Ismaili Muslims

When an influential warlord at the center of recent bloody clashes in Tajikistan's eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region surrendered to authorities earlier this month, he claimed he did so to comply with a call by the Aga Khan. The religious leader is revered by the region's Ismaili Muslims, but his influence goes far beyond Badakhshan.

RFE/RL has taken a look at the Aga Khan – a religious leader, multimillionaire philanthropist, and a man known for his lavish lifestyle and interest in beautiful women and racehorses.

Who are the Aga Khan's followers?

The Aga Khan, whose full title is His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, is the current Imam of Ismaili Muslims.

He has an estimated 15 million followers in more than 25 countries.

Most Ismailis – also known also Nizari Ismailis – live in African and Asian countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Iran. There are also sizeable communities in the United States, Canada, and Britain.

The 75-year-old Aga Khan, who is believed to be a direct descendant of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, is the 49th Imam or spiritual leader of the Ismailis.

Where do his royal titles come from?

Ismaili Imams style themselves and family members as princes and princesses – a title the family inherited from their royal ancestor, Fath Ali Shah, an 18-century Persian king.

The title has officially been recognized by the British government. The title "His Highness" was bestowed upon the current Aga Khan by Britain's Queen Elizabeth in 1957, when he succeeded his grandfather at the age of 20. He is a British citizen.

The Aga Khan's "Highness" title is not hereditary.

The family does not preside over any country or geographic territory.

What is the Aga Khan's source of income?

"Forbes" magazine lists the Aga Khan among the world's ten richest royals with an estimated net worth of $800 million. Other sources estimate his wealth at around $3 billion.

Most of his wealth comes from tithes or voluntary cash donations by Ismaili community members. Ismaili followers reportedly donate at least 10 percent of their gross annual income to the spiritual leader.

But it remains unclear whether the Imam personally benefits from the donations. Aga Khan supporters say most of the money goes to his extensive philanthropy, development, education, and charity projects in developing countries, especially those with large Ismaili communities.

The Aga Khan has reportedly been involved in different business ventures, including exclusive hotel chains.

A multi-million-dollar horse-racing and breeding operation is believed to be one of the main sources of the Aga Khan's income beyond donations by his followers. He owns horse-breeding farms in France and Ireland.

What makes the Ismaili Imam different to other key spiritual leaders?

The Aga Khan mixes his status as spiritual leader with a jet-setting playboy lifestyle -- he is known for his interest in beautiful women, fast cars, and race horses.

While his supporters focus on the Harvard-educated Imam's dedication to religion, philanthropy, and world peace, paparazzi frequently focus on the Aga Khan's personal life -- his marriages, divorces, and extramarital affairs.

The Imam divorced his first wife and mother of his three children, Sarah Croker Poole – who assumed the Muslim name Begum Salimah – after 25 years of marriage in 1995. The former model received over $30 million as a divorce settlement, along with some $27 million worth of jewelry.

The Aga Khan went on to marry German-born Gabriele zu Leiningen in 1998, and the couple has a son together. However, six years into the marriage, his wife – who assumed the Muslim name of Begum Inaara -- filed for divorce citing the Imam's extramarital liaisons.

The couple is now officially separated, while the Imam is contesting Begum Inaara's claim for a divorce settlement worth nearly $80-million.

Why is the Aga Khan treated with caution in some political circles in Tajikistan?

Although the Aga Khan owns numerous estates, houses, and farms and even a private island, he remains a prince without a realm.

Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan is the only predominantly Ismaili region in the world, with an official status of "autonomous province."

There was speculation in the 1990s that the Gorno-Badakhshan Ismailis might seek independence from Tajikistan, exploiting the country's political instability during the 1992-1997 civil war.

Local community leaders vehemently deny that this was considered.

However, according to Tajik journalist and author Rajabi Mirzo, many in Tajikistan's political circles still treat the Aga Khan with a certain degree of suspicion.

According to Mirzo, "the recent bloody conflict in Gorno-Badakhshan demonstrated once again that the local populations there have more faith in and respect for the Imam Aga Khan than for President Emomali Rahmon."

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