Sir Aga Khan’s Drive for Education

Sujjawal Ahmad

The 2nd of November marks the birth anniversary of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan (1877-1957) who made significant contributions to the social, cultural, political, economic and educational growth of Muslims. 

A social reformer, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan was an ardent supporter of the educational advancement of Muslims in the subcontinent. From early on, he had realized that a promising future of the Muslims laid in the fundamental message of their faith that is to acquire knowledge. For Sir Aga Khan, this ideal formed the basis of the splendour of Islam during its Golden Age and it was indispensable for Muslims of the subcontinent to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the pursuit of modern education to return to that glory.

Sir Aga Khan preached the importance of education throughout his life. If his interest in education was a passion, his efforts for the dissemination of knowledge amongst Muslims were a true battle. His first appearance on the national stage, at only 25 years old, was at the All-India Mahomedan Educational Conference in 1902. The same year the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, nominated him to the Imperial Legislative Council in recognition of his sheer determination to educate Muslims, making Sir Aga Khan the Council’s youngest member. His speeches in the Council identified him as a promising leader, and he went on to spearhead numerous educational initiatives championed by Muslims for many subsequent years. It was at that time when he began to see the vision of a university in which Muslim youth of the subcontinent could cultivate. The best way to the intellectual development of Muslims was to make an Anglo-Oriental College, a ‘Muslim Oxford,’ that would “restore the faded glories of our people.”

The great Aligarh movement, initiated by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, believed that it held the key to salvation for Muslims. With his outstanding contribution to the Muslims of the subcontinent, his prominent role was in the formation of Aligarh University. He took on the enormous task of raising funds for the development of this great centre of learning and excellence, “As a mendicant, I am now going out to beg from house to house and from street to street for the children of Muslim India.” From his wealth, Sir Aga Khan graciously donated an amount of Rs. 100,000. With his sincere efforts and fervour, he was able to collect three million rupees for the university and succeeded in laying the foundation for the future Aligarh University in 1920. Considered as one of his greatest services to Islam, it also serves as a historical reminder of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan’s contribution to the continuation of his ancestor’s quest in pioneering educational traditions in Egypt and elsewhere, including the foundation of Al-Azhar, the world’s oldest university.

Looking ahead, Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan outlined the groundwork for the current education system of the Aga Khan Schools in Pakistan, establishing over 200 schools during the twentieth century, the first in 1905 in Zanzibar and Gwadar (Balochistan). The Diamond Jubilee Schools for Girls, or DJ schools, were founded throughout what is now Pakistan’s remote northern regions. Today, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which is led by his grandson, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, continues to play an instrumental role in enhancing the level of education in the region and the country. The AKDN has adopted a wider position, articulated in an international framework, of the largest array of agencies and institutions in the world, where Muslims live in majority or minority, to aid the government’s structures for poverty alleviation and improving quality of life.

Furthermore, for Sir Aga Khan, without the involvement of women in upholding society’s essential and preserving values, social transformation was impossible. Supporting the emancipation of women and giving them an equal space in the educational sphere, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah went so far as to say, “Personally, if I had two children, and one was a boy and the other a girl, and if I could afford to educate only one, I would have no hesitation in giving the higher education to the girl.” He was a great believer of the highest quality of education and training in science and technology. This kind of instruction, he once said, must be one of the “main practical objects of our energy and ambitions.”

In Sir Aga Khan’s view, every level or stage of education was equally important. In his Inaugural Address at the All-India Mahomedan Educational Conference in 1911, he noted that the foundation of society was a sound primary education as, “No solid superstructure can stand safely on softer soil.” The masses could not produce leaders capable of raising the nation to its legitimate sphere of power, influence and usefulness if they lacked rudimentary education.

Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan will be remembered as one of the most illustrious and well-known global leaders and diplomats throughout the golden history of the freedom movement.

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