By Khadija Ladhani
November 2nd 2016 marks the 139th birth anniversary of His Highness Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III, who is celebrated as a highly regarded Muslim leader of the 20th century. Coming from the direct hereditary lineage of the Prophet Mahomed, Sultan Mohammed Shah was the 48th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, and as such had the responsibility of looking after the spiritual wellbeing of his followers along with the social betterment of the Muslim Ummah as a whole.
Being a recognized international diplomat and Muslim leader, Aga Khan III has been decorated multiple times. Among his many titles and honours are; His Highness awarded by the British Empire in 1886, Order of Ommayads by the Syrian government in 1951 and Star of Turkey by Sultan of the Ottaman Empire in 1899. Sultan Mahomed Shah served as the first permanent president of the All India Muslim League and played an active role in the founding of Pakistan. He was also elected as President of the League of Nations for it’s for the eighteenth assembly session.
While his decorations go on, the purpose of this article is to promote the one – which according to his Memoirs – was the dearest to him; the advancement of social reform and intellectual development. Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah was extremely devoted to the idea of developing Muslim leadership in the sub-continent and providing the young generations with a centre of learning and personal growth. This passion translated into his zealous work with the promotion and development of Aligarh University. For him, the pursuit of education was pivotal in the forthcoming struggle for a separate Muslim nation. He was clear in noting that the Muslim society would require knowledge and intellectual prowess to be able to survive within the international arena as a sovereign Muslim state.
When serving the Viceroy’s Legislative Council, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah spoke at the Muslim Education Conference in Delhi, during which he plead, “I beg of you the cause of a Central University … a university where our youth may receive the highest instruction in the sciences of the West, a university where the teaching of the history and literature of the East may not be scamped over for a mere parrotlike knowledge of Western thought…” He strongly believed in the idea of home grown knowledge which respected Islamic values while equipping students to excel at the global level. Being himself well versed in 4 languages by the age of 13, His Highness promoted the learning of languages, such as Arabic and Sanskrit, as a way of building bridges to nations far and for living in harmony with our neighbours.
Sultan Mahomed Shah further stresses the need for a local university in his memoirs, where he writes, “A university of our own was essential because it was the best and most enduring means of developing the spiritual unity of Islam.” And to this cause, the young Mahomed Sultan devoted his time and days, spreading the cause of the Muslim University of Aligarh, gathering support and funding for the University that he was glad to have seen become fruitful. He was proud and saw his cause justified when Aligarh University came to be claimed as the birthplace of the independent, sovereign nation of Pakistan.
Sultan Mahomed Shah himself was well educated and well grounded in Islamic and secular education, and in both western and eastern thoughts. He had worked hard as a young boy, gathering a range of knowledge through written theories and practical experimentation, and went on to be awarded a Doctor of Laws honorary degree from both Cambridge and Oxford University. His growth in a literary household, headed by his mother, is reflected in his work in the field of education. According to him, “In matters of social reform I have tried to exert my influence and authority sensibly and progressively. I have always sought to encourage the emancipation and education of women. Everywhere I have always encouraged girls’ schools, even in regions where otherwise they were completely unknown.”
His legacy is continued through current education system run by the Aga Khan Education Services in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Kyrgyz Republic, Uganda, Tanzania and Tajikistan. Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah established over 200 schools during the 20th century with the first being set up in 1905 in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and in Gwadar, Pakistan. Even in 1946, his vision was able to reach the mountainous areas when he wrote to the Mir of Hunza, advising him to set up educational facilities. Today, the Aga Khan Schools consist of more than 500 school units across 7 countries and is reaching over 5,400 students with quality education. Through his visionary work, Sultan Mohammed Shah laid the seeds of development work within the subcontinent, and brought to the world’s attention the need for eradication of poverty and the uplfitment of the general masses from misery and low standards of living.
Sultan Mahomed Shah’s life has a lesson for all, and especially for the Muslims. He believed, and showed through his work, that when harnessed correctly, Islam has the ability to be a significant force in stabilizing and uplifting the communities where it is found.