*Novy Vzglyad" (New Outlook)

No. 35.1996




A red flag is hoisting over the gold dome of the Mosque of the city of Najaf, Iraq. It is a flag of the Shias - the followers in Islam who consider Ali (cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed) as their Founder. The Shias (the name comes from Arabic Shiatu Ali - Party of Ali) think that All was the one who opened the innermost meaning of Koran and became the first Imam (spiritual leader) of the Muslims. The knowledge is conveyed only through the direct descendants of Ali and his wife Fatima (Prophet's daughter) Approximately one tenth of almost one billion Muslims living world­wide are Shias. The city of Najaf (in Arabic: hill) is as holy as Mecca for them, as this city was created around the hill where Ali was buried.

Every Shia thinks that it is a great honour to be buried in Najaf. The remains of all wealthy followers of this branch are still shipped there. One of the last descendants of Prophet Mohammed - Ali Shah Aga Khan U. the 47th Imam was buried there. However, his right to be Imam is recognised only by 15 million Shia Muslims who call themselves Ismailis. All that has to do with the genealogical tree of the descendants of the Prophet. The Shias had lots of disagreements in this matter and got divided into sects and the sects got divided into smaller units due to new differences. The entirely legitimate Imams were the ones who received the spiritual power in accordance with the custom of giving it to the eldest son of Imam or the next generation but necessarily in the same family. In spite of different interpretations in Islam they all peacefully get on with the followers worship the same sacred objects. The red flag of the Shia and the green flag of Islam do not deny one another.

Every Friday the successor of Aga Khan II used ю sit facing the direction of Mecca for one hour and contemplated about the heritage of the Prophet. Being his direct descendant he considered himself responsible for the destiny of Islam which entered the world at the time of wars, revolutions and destruction of great empires. Aga Khan III the head of the Ismailis had run the community for such a long period that his term did not only cover different centuries of the European calendar but different historical epochs. The life in 1885 when Aga Khan II was buried in Najaf was not very different from the life in 632 when the Prophet died. But by 1957 when Aga Khan III passed away the world was going through tremendous changes. Realising the complexity of the tasks before his followers the Old Imam appointed his 20 уеar-old grandson, a student of the Harvard University ю be his successor.


The history of lsmailism is rich in personalities and developments that could make heroes and themes of a number of breathtaking novels. A chain of blood-related rulers, leaders and mutineers went through the history of the Near and Middle East stalling from (he son of All. Husain who was killed during the battle with the forces of the throne usurper, up to the time of Aga Khan I who governed the Iranian province of Kirman at the beginning of the 19th century and then rose against his suzerain and left for India with a group of his followers. Some personalities of that chain were remembered by their descendants as great creators, others as warriors and the third ones had only their names remembered. As far as the latter ones concerned they were the so-called hidden Imams who lived at the time of persecution.

The Ismaili Imams managed to unite the spiritual and secular power several times. In the 10th and I 11th centuries the Ismaili dynasty of Faiimites ruled in Egypt. That period was the rise of the Islamic civilisation. The Ismaili caliphs founded Cairo and turned it to the best city of the East - the centre of culture and education. At the end of the 11th century (he Ismailis created a state in the mountainous areas of Iran and Syria. And that particular state became famous and known to the Europeans, as the liming of its creation coincided with (lie formation of a number of kingdoms and counties of the crusaders. Sharing the border with the land of the Ismailis the Europeans got acquainted with their hierarchy and methods of governing.

Being surrounded by the hostile Sunnis the Shias often used the principle of concealment (taqiyyah) which guaranteed their safely. Taqiyyah made provision for a possibility of worshipping of the ruling version of Islam for the sake of preservation of the secret knowledge and its propaganda in the conditions of spiritual and physical terror by the authorities. In their aspiration to secure themselves from the infiltrating agents of the enemy the Ismailis worked out a unique system of the consecration phases to the secrets of their teachings which allowed them to get that Knowledge after spending several decades in the community. The method of this propaganda in the hostile environment was so refined that the Ismaili Da’i (missionary) could attract the most intellectual persons of independent thinking of the enemy in a convenient way.

The Fatimites ruled Egypt and a number of neighbouring areas of the Near East and North Africa. The House of Wisdom which existed in Cairo at that lime represented an educational centre where Da'is were trained. Their task was to convey the message of the Ismailis to the world. According ю the cosmogonic conception in the system of which digit 12 was one of the universal ones the Earth was divided into 12 "islands" inhabited by different nations. One of the islands was inhabited by the Slavic people. It is interesting to know that one of most famous caliphs of this dynasty - Hakim (996-1020) was born from a Russian mother. He became notorious for his wild and extravagant behaviour  to be matched with Nero. But he paid lots of attention to the propaganda of the Ismaili doctrines outside his country. After he mysteriously disappeared (he disappeared in one of the suburbs of Cairo when he was riding his donkey one evening) one of the Ismaili communities in Syria surfed worshipping him as a hidden Imam who will return to Earth at the end of life. The above-mentioned community still exists under the name of the Druzes (from the word Darazi. 2 missionary sent personally by Hakim to that region which at present is divided by the borders of Lebanon, Israel and Syria).

The grandson of Hakim - Caliph al.Mustansir (1035-1095)-deprived_his eldest son from the throne and that led to a new schism; a group of Ismailis who were faithful to Nizar and his descendants called themselves the Nizaris. And so today they are headed by the Aga Khan.

The followers of Nizar left for Iran relying on the wide branching net of the Da'is and opened an energetic campaign. And so in 1090-1092 during a powerful people's riot they managed to occupy a number of fortresses in the mountainous areas of the country which created the strong points of a new state that had no analogues in the history. The stale of the Ismailis did not have one and indivisible territory and represented a number of divided enclaves in different pans of Iran and Syria. During the first decades this territory of castles was ruled by governor-generals of the Imams who were "underground" Only the forth descendant of Nizar declared himself as a legitimate ruler - Imam. It happened in 1162. Those Ismailis who ruled the state on behalf of the hidden Imams became notorious for their refined methods of fighting with the neighbouring countries. With the help of incredibly dedicated death-sentenced prisoners - the Fidais - they kept the Muslim as well as the Christian governors in fear. The Fidais used hashish before conducting terrorist acts and for this reason were called Hashishiyun. This word entered European languages in a distorted form as assassin. Up to now this word is used to describe a terrorist in the English and French languages.

The knight orders which appeared during the crusades and developed in Palestine borrowed lots of things from the Ismailis - from the organisational structure to the mystic doctrines and methods of preservation of the secrets. The elements of these esoteric teachings can be seen in the teachings of the Templars. Hospitaliers and the Knights of Malta. The European kings and dukes w ho fought in Palestine were greatly impressed by the mysterious assassins. The images of desperate terrorists became the objects of admiration of the European troubadours and minnersingers who sang of their dedication and bravery.

Extravagant personalities such as Hakim were an exception among the Imams-ancestors of the Aga Khan. The majority of them were fine politicians, courageous warriors, philosophers and mystics. Although they all had different characters, inclinations, temperaments the realisation of their religious mission was the main thing for all of them.  That particular factor ensured the dynasty's unprecedented ability to survive which managed to be in power several limes but most of 13 centuries of its existence it remained to be the spiritual power to keep the Ismailis living all over the Muslim world united.

The last bulwarks of the state of Ismailis fell at the second half of the 13th century: the fortress of Alamut in the mountains of Iran was conquered by the Mongols and the Syrian castles were destroyed by Sultan Baibars of Mameluke. Since then the long line (row) of the Imams - heirs of glory of the Fatimites and the governors of Alamut had become the dynasty without a state. Its representatives were either highly respected and lived peacefully or were in exile and had to move from one country to another as it happened to Aga Khan I who initially was in charge of the Iranian province of Kirman and after rising against the Shah government he had to emigrate to British India (1838).


The title of Aga Khan (In Persia it meant Great Leader) became famous to the world due to the grandson of a Persian aristocrat who ran away from the Shah's revenge. Sultan Mohammed Aga Khan III who headed the Ismailis Community from 1885 to 1957 was the first representative of the Eastern elite and became a member of the club of the Western elite. His enormous political experience, personal charm, wide connections in different countries allowed him to play an important role at the turning points of the history of the modern world.

Being one of the leaders of the Muslim League of India Aga Khan III encouraged the solution of the critical inter-confessional conflicts in the British colonies. Early 1930-s he headed the delegation of this League at the round-table Conference in London which created the foundation for working out the Constitution of India. The perspective outcome of this conference was the declaration of independence of the colony and its division into two states • India and Pakistan. In 1937-1938 Aga Khan III was elected the President of the League of Nations and in this capacity he actively attempted to prevent the world war. During his meetings with Hitler in Berchtesgaden and with Goebbels in Berlin he had an opportunity to find out what the intentions of the Germans were but like other senior politicians he failed to guess in advance the developments in Europe after his attempts to pacify Germany.

During World War II the Aga Khan firmly supported the Anti-German coalition and his son Ali served in the British Army.

The post-war period greatly changed the life of the Ismaili community when the whole world was preoccupied with grand changes. When the British colonial empire broke up the subjects of the-Imam became citizens of a number of states. The main task of Aga Khan III was to develop the areas of education, healthcare and economic independence of the Ismailis. That is the way they could take their deserved place in the rapidly changing world.

The Persian Shah recognised the right of the dynasty of the Ismaili Imams for the title of Royal Highness (Aga Khan I was the son-in-law of the Monarch) and in the 20th century the title of His Royal Highness was given to Aga Khan III by the British Queen. The descendant of the Prophet was accepted as a member of the club of the world elite and after his eldest son Ah married the daughter of Lord Churston whose origin comes from the English King Edward Ш (1327-1377) one of the most ancient aristocratic families of the East became related with the aristocracy of the West. Prince Karim who was born from this marriage became the heir of the Imamat in accordance with the will Aga Khan III who died in July 1957.

The will of his grandfather was a shock for a 20 year-old student of the Harvard University, h was not easy to take heavy responsibilities for the multi-million community of the Ismailis spread over 25 countries of different continents by a person who had a problem-free life of an American student and was an offspring of the wealthiest family?!

Aga Khan III explained his decision: "In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years ... I am convinced that it is in the interest of the Shia Muslim Ismaili community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during the recent years and in the midst of the new age and who brings a new outlook to his office as Imam". Prince Karim. a superbly educated person, brought up in the bosom of the Western culture had to continue the work of this grandfather who put forward the tasks before him ю introduce the Ismailis to the values of the new lime and make provision for them to enter the modern community. That was an extremely complicated task, particularly if one takes into account the fact that most of the countries where the Ismailis lived - South Asia and Tropical Africa - belonged ю the group of backward colonies of the British empire. All-round education, including education of the women, introduction of the modem methods of economic activities and development of the capitalist initiatives of the nationals - that is how the old Imam saw the introduction of the community ю the modern civilisation.

Aga Khan IV has fully justified the hopes of his predecessor It is difficult to imagine a person who is mostly involved in the activities of his community. Those who have met Prince Karim say that he is constantly busy with reading lots of papers, having talks, inspecting different projects created by a number of commercial and charitable organisations functioning under the general leadership of the Imam.


As a rule. one would use the u-ord "empire" to describe a state uniting several imions. When we talk about the Ismailis who live all over the world, they belong to different races and nationalities and speak many languages but we still call them the nationals of the Aga Khan. The empire with no common territory, governing structures (typical of a slate) is cemented, first of all, by the spiritual authority of the leader.

Since according to the view of the Ismailis the innermost meaning of Mohammed's Koran was opened only by Ali therefore, his descendants-Imams have been conveying the concealed knowledge. Hence, the religious meaning of the personality of the Imam is more important for the community than the Pope of Rome for his congregation. The faith in the spiritual light coming from the Imam ensured the stability and survival of the Ismaili community despite those multi-century persecutions. And the time swallowed dozens of other sects and even very powerful confessions such as the followers of Zoroaster (fire-worshippers of Iran) or the Sabaeans of Mesopotamia which turned to minor erotic communities scattered all over the world.

In the Middle Ages the Ismailis created an unparalleled system of propaganda of their doctrines. They bad worked for decades among people provoking religious debates and involving the representatives of the Sunni clergy into disputations. The Ismaili Da'is produced a number of prominent thinkers and writers such us Nasir Khusraw and al-Kirmani. They also mention Ibn Sina (Avicenna) as one of the famous Ismaili scientists.

But in accordance with the instruction to follow the path of modernisation and introduction of the community ю the spirit of the dynamic 20th century the attitude of the Ismailis towards the methods of conveying their spiritual heritage has changed. In the distant past due to their fear of repression the Knowledge was conveyed according to the phase of consecration of an Ismaili to the secret doctrines. Today all ancient and modern books of their theologians and philosophers are freely published and studied.

In the late 1977 the Institute of Ismaili Studies was opened in London. One of its tasks was to collect and publish ail Ismaili manuscripts. Hundreds of books of theologians, philosophers, alchemists of the past have already been published. At the beginning of this century a restricted number of devotees had an access to the classic books like "Peace of Mind" by al-Kirmani. Today the Institute provides an opportunity for representatives of all religions to get acquainted with its collection and library.

The London Institute is working on the realisation of the programmes which create conditions to study Ismailism in the wide cultural, linguistic, ethnographic context. Islam is reviewed not only as a religion but as a special form of civilisation. And the development of the religious ideas is recognised as one of the border lines of the development of the Muslim world. Besides, one of the fundamental principles of learning the historical and spiritual realities is to reject the superficial opposition of the East to the West.

As for the methods of conveying of the religious heritage, they are also studied by the Institute. Today the Ismaili message is conveyed not through the Da'is but through the modem information technologies prepared by qualified specialists and teachers. As it is mentioned in one of the information materials prepared by the propaganda institution of the Aga Khan Development Network the task of the education department of the Institute is "to turn the religious education into a creative and fascinating process for the young generation proportionally promoting other areas by using modem principles and methods of teaching". It is unlikely that one could see such a modem way of studying and teaching of the religion anywhere else in the Islamic world.

For the years after the break-up of the British colonial empire and the formation of a number of states the Ismaili community has become more united and influential in spite of the borders that divided it. The Ismailis were persecuted in a number of states, which were headed by extreme nationalists. It happened in 1962 in Burma and in 1972 in Uganda. The subjects of the Aga Khan left their homes for Europe and America. And today the}' have successfully integrated in the Western society without losing their culture or as we say their identity. The focus of the Aga Khan III and his successor on educational programmes and development of the economic independence of the Ismailis has proved to be the right one. The new time did not take them unawares. The spiritual empire of the Aga Khan is entering the 21st century as a full-blooded (sanquineous) and dynamically developing community with clear prospects in mind. But the process of modernisation has become very painful for many nations and religious communities of the East and some communities have even remained at the periphery of development.


The uniqueness of the Aga Khan among the modem leaders of the world is not only in his high moral authority for his subjects. The Development Network created by him unites different institutions in the field of economy, social and cultural spheres and represents a special structure which docs not only cover the interests of the Ismaili community. For instance, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture focuses on two basic directions - development of the Islamic architecture and restoration of the historical cities and certain architectural objects. The Aga Khan Award which is granted once in three years in the field of architecture serves the creative development of the town-planning ideas according to the traditions of Islam.

Just think of those cities and countries which are under the care of the Trust for Culture. The Aga Khan is not only concerned about the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Ismailis. The notorious Registan in Samarkand and the Old Town in Zanzibar, the fort of Baltit in Pakistan and Zafra House in Spanish Granada, architectural memorials of Tunisia, Egypt. Turkey, India. Yemen - they all belong 10 the mankind.

With the passage of lime the Imams have become less preoccupied with the issues of the spiritual leadership and the cultural heritage due to the earthly matters of the community. The focus of the Aga Khan on the development of economic structures, healthcare, education has led to the creation of a chain of inter-linked programmes. The financial institutions, industrial and agricultural objects. educational institutions and hospitals functioning within the framework of the Development Network  define the every day life of the Ismailis. By collaborating with dozens of international and national organisations, governments and private charities in the realisation of its programmes the Aga Khan Development Network has become an influential force of the modem world and a bridge between the developed and developing countries where the Ismailis play a significant role.

The educational, medical, consultative institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network help the population of many developing countries regardless of their nationality and religion. Significant investments have been made in the tourism and publishing industries in Kenya and Tanzania. Several projects have been implemented in the field of agriculture in Pakistan and India which enabled them to considerably increase the productivity of traditional crops.


After the only visit of Aga Khan III to St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1912 our country had become a white patch for the Ismaili Imams, although the territory of the USSR was compactly populated by the community of the followers of this direction of Islam. The Pamiri peoples speaking different Indo-European languages are united by their common religion. The Aga Khan is a supreme religious and secular authority for 200 thousand Pamiris. Even that multi-decade spiritual isolation from the rest of the world has failed ю weaken their convictions, although the Imam himself has turned to a semi-mythical figure for them.

Only in 1995 Aga Khan IV got acquainted with Russia and then with his religious followers in the Pamirs. His meetings with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, parliamentary and religious dignitaries, scientific and public officials in Moscow provided an opportunity ю establish understanding in many areas, including the matter of restoration of peace in Tajikistan. They also discussed the issue of preservation of neighbourly relations with the countries of the Islamic world taking into account the complicated situation in Chechnya.

The office of the Aga Khan Foundation has been opened in Moscow in order to keep in touch with Russia. Its interests include collaborative programmes in humanitarian and scientific fields. The aid goes to the population of the Pamirs via Russia, which has been implemented since 1993 by a number of national and international organisations. There are also possibilities for interaction in the field of culture and education, in the realisation of economic projects, although now one can talk only about the first steps in the mentioned directions.

The recent visit of the Imam of the Ismailis to Moscow is evidence of his keen attention to Russia. During that visit be had a number of talks at the government level and with the public and religious organisations. The process of mutual understanding has just started and their is still a great deal to do before the world-famous religious figure and philanthropist becomes a usual figure of the political landscape in Russia.