By Faiza Virani
Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III, born on the 2nd of November 1877, was the 48th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. A prime advocate of modern education, his contributions to society spanned healthcare, education, political reform, social development as well as the economic upliftment and development of Muslims in the subcontinent.
Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he was well-versed in Eastern and Western literature, as well as ancient and modern history. Speaking Persian, Arabic, English and French, he was well-informed on religious philosophy and politics, making him adept in speaking on matters of the state.
Under the leadership of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, numerous institutions for social and economic development were established across the Indian subcontinent. The foundation of the current education and healthcare system being run by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) were created by Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, where the work carries forward today by His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV. Today, the Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan operates 156 schools enlightening over 44,000 students all across Pakistan. Health initiatives undertaken almost a century ago have grown in size and stature the past few decades with the establishment of the Aga Khan Health Services and the Aga Khan University Hospital.
Presently, numerous agencies of the AKDN network work to improve the welfare and well-being of the people of Pakistan. Their valuable contributions across education, health, natural and built environments, food security, access to financial services and economic opportunity, as well as the cultural areas of traditional music, architecture and art are lauded globally.
An advocate of modern education, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah strived for educational advancement in the subcontinent, attesting the primary cause of political weakness of Muslims to a lack of education. Committed to providing and improving access to quality education for all Muslims throughout his life, he gave it the same priority as national defense – stating that it was only through education that eminent literary men and women would ultimately emerge to develop every facet of human life – intellectual, spiritual and religious.
He established over 200 schools during the first half of the 20th century, the first in 1905 in Zanzibar, Africa and in Gwadar, Pakistan. That era also gave birth to the Diamond Jubilee schools for girls, throughout the remote northern areas of present-day Pakistan. Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah’s greatest contribution to the Muslims of the subcontinent was his role in the establishment of the Aligarh Muslim University through the provision of funds, leadership and guidance. He not only advocated the role of higher education but also emphasized the importance of primary education. In 1911, the Aga Khan himself raised funds to realize Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s vision of improving Aligarh Muslim University. He increased the annual grant that he had been giving to the college for many years, and promised to contribute a substantial amount to University funds including donating money for the “Aga Khan Foreign Scholarship.”
At the young age of 25, because of his devoted services to the cause of Muslim education, he was appointed as a member of the Imperial Legislative Council. In his Presidential address at the Mohammadan Education Conference in Delhi, he stated that his goal was to establish an institution capable of providing young Muslim individuals with not only the finest education that can be provided in India, but one that was globally competitive.
He is remembered today for playing a pivotal role in making the Pakistan Movement a success by inculcating political awareness among the Muslims of the subcontinent. On the 1st of October 1906, he led a distinguished delegation of 35 well-known Muslim leaders to Simla, where he presented a memorandum on behalf of the Muslims of the subcontinent. In a historical address, he urged the British Viceroy to accept and recognize Muslims as a separate nation and grant sufficient rights of representation both on the Local Bodies and in the Legislative Council. Following the success of the Simla Deputation, the Muslim leaders enacted an independent platform of their own leading to the formation of the All India Muslim League in 1906. Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah was elected its first president, which he served as for seven years, from 1906-1913.
“[The] Muslims of India should not be regarded as a mere minority but a separate nation, whose rights and obligations should be guaranteed by statue, and this was sought to be achieved through adequate and separate representation for Muslims both on Local Bodies and in Legislative Councils.” (The Memoirs of Aga Khan)
Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah also had the privilege to be the representative for India in the Disarmament Conference. Recognizing the statesmanship of His Highness, he was unanimously elected as the chairman of the League of Nations, now known as the United Nations.
Following World War I, the first Round Table Conference organised by the British government in London was attended by Quaid-i-Azam, the Aga Khan Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Sir Mohammed Shafi, Maulana Mohammed Ali and Maulana Fazlul Huq. During this conference, the delegation of Muslim leaders elected the Aga Khan as their leader and spokesman at which Allama Iqbal graciously spoke about the services rendered by the Aga Khan for the Muslims and the Round Table Conference stating, “We have placed these demands before the conference under the guidance of His Highness the Aga Khan, that worthy of statesman whom we all admire and whom the Muslims of India love for the blood that runs through his veins.” (Letters and writings of Iqbal: B.A Dar, Iqbal Academy, Karachi 1967, p. 72)
Throughout his life, the Aga Khan remained markedly committed to furthering the cause of Islam and Muslims. He called Islam “the greatest unifying, civilizing, and fraternizing influence in the world” and “a great cultural and spiritual force for the unity of the world and the fraternity of the nations.” Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah passed away on the 11th of July 1957 at Villa Barakat, in Versoix, Geneva and was laid to rest in Aswan, Egypt.