April 18th, 2008
06:06 PM ET

The OTHER global religious leader visiting America

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/04/18/art.292.320.agakhan.jpg caption: "The Aga Khan " width=292 height=320]

Reza Aslan
Author, “No god but God”

The media spotlight on Pope Benedict’s first trip to the United States seems to have completely overshadowed the American tour of another global religious leader, the Aga Khan.

The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of some 20 million Ismaili Muslims. The Ismailis are Shiah who broke off from the main Shiite branch of Islam, known as the Ithna Ashari, or Twelvers, in the middle of the 8th century. Ismailis live primarily in South Asia, while some 300 million Twelver Shia live mostly in Iran, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East.

The Aga Khan - the title means something like “the Noble Lord” - is believed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. As such, his position among followers is absolute. He has sole authority to interpret the Quran and Islamic law, and his word on both subjects is infallible. But this Aga Khan, the 49th imam in a line that stretches back 13 centuries, is unlike any other spiritual leader.

He is a graduate of Harvard University. His personal worth is estimated to be in the billions. He jaunts around the globe in private jets and yachts. His father, the previous Aga Khan, was once married to Rita Hayworth. In his fitted suits and silk ties, he looks more like a well-aged movie star than a spiritual leader.

But don’t let the clothes and the fabulous riches fool you. The Aga Khan is not only a devout and transcendent man of deep religious faith, he is also one of the most generous philanthropists in the world.

His Aga Khan Development Network is a massive charitable fund dedicated almost entirely to caring for the poor. He runs nearly 200 hospitals. He funds thousands of schools, charities, arts programs, museums, and theaters.

His humanitarian services extend across the globe and, despite being funded almost exclusively by the tithes of his followers, are doled out to people of all faiths, whether Muslim or not.

He is a shining example of a moderate, pluralistic, and modern Muslim leader, which is why it’s a shame that he has come to the U.S. at such an inopportune time. (He is here to celebrate his 50th year as the Aga Khan).

For those of us who are sick and tired of media pundits always asking, “where are the moderate Muslim leaders,” and for those who want to punch something every time Tom Friedman sarcastically wonders why there are no “Muslim Mandela’s” out there, the Aga Khan, and the millions of modernist, democratically minded, reformist, and pluralist Muslims who follow him, are the perfect answer.

Too bad no one is paying attention.

Filed under: Aga Khan • Reza Aslan
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. nizar.mawani

    I am suprised that CNN who have two prominant ismailis working as news reporters Zian Verjee and Ali Velshi, neither was able to influence the coverage of Highness visit.

    April 20, 2008 at 9:12 pm |
  2. SHariq

    This is a good article, and as an ismaili i know where your coming from.
    The Aga Khan boasts one of the worlds largest non denominational non profit organizations! The lives he has helped are not even able to be counted!
    I would love to see this up on CNN

    April 20, 2008 at 10:54 am |
  3. zohra gadhia, INDIA

    hi Reza. i m a SHIA IMAMI ISMAILI MUSLIM. thanx for trying to bring awareness among those who dont know AGAKHAN.. this is actually required today so that people stop misinterpreting muslims and give them the same respect as they get from others.. once again.. thank u..

    April 20, 2008 at 6:57 am |
  4. zohra gadhia

    hi Reza. i m a SHIA IMAMI ISMAILI MUSLIM. thanx for trying to bring awareness among those who dont know AGAKHAN.. this is actually required today so that people stop misinterpreting muslims and give them the same respect as they get from others.. once again.. thank u..

    April 20, 2008 at 6:55 am |
  5. Riyaz

    Thanks Reza. I beg to make a small correction. The previous Aga Khan was not the present Aga Khan's father but his Grandfather.

    April 20, 2008 at 6:41 am |
  6. Minaz Rattansi

    t is an interesting piece of info from Reza. Having followed and studied the history of H.H. The Aga Khan, I wanted to simply add to this in saying that The Aga Khan IS a direct descendant of the Prophet through the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and cousin & son-in-law Hazrat Ali. His work that is being spoken of as philanthropy, is not quite so – for His position as the Imam of the community, this is part of His mandate.

    Further to Reza’s comment on “too bad…” I would say that Muslims living n the US as in other parts of the world need to continue living their lives in the true spirit of Islam – explaining to non-muslims their beliefs without reacting in anger at the questions being posed, while maintaining a high road. This is not the first time in the history of Islam that the faith and its adherents are being confronted or attacked), and the Holy Qu’ran and the Prophet’s Hadiths are very clear on what a Muslim should do – definitely NOT to react in anger or reciprocate with negativeness. There will be those who will listen and there will always be those that refuse to listen. One can keep trying to engage in a dialog with those who do not want to listen, but if that is not successful, then it is best to leave them be.
    Thank you Reza, for opening up more of God’s windows to learn about.

    April 19, 2008 at 3:10 pm |
  7. hh - Syria

    fyi, his father (who married Rita Hayworth) was in fact not the previous Aga Khan. He was skipped over for the current Ismaili Imam.

    April 19, 2008 at 2:39 pm |
  8. KW - Canada

    it is unfortunate he didn't get the coverage he deserved, however, there is a website called theismaili.org that has the information of work he does and about who he is.

    April 19, 2008 at 1:57 pm |
  9. Peter Trevino

    I have heard about the last Aga Khan because of his son, Prince Aly Khan, was marriage to Rita Hayworth. I have searched for Information about him on the Internet and found very little, mostly history, not so much who he was in life - other than he married and divorced several times. I am glad to read this post on Anderson Coooper's blog and learn that the current Aga Khan is a moderate and an avid helper of the poor - regardless of their religious believes. That's very good news.

    The bad news is that Thomas Friedman is correct when he asks "Where are the moderate Muslims now and why aren't they doing more to educate the extremist Muslims that fund the terrorists?" The Aga Khan is the perfect man to set an example to the fundamentalists that good can be done without having to blow yourself up in the process.

    In present times we need people like the Aga Khan who are willing to share their billions with the rest of the world; but their moderate ideas are also very much needed to prevent the killing of so many innocents - Americans, Arabs, Muslims, British, Spanish, etc.

    I welcome the Aga Khan to America and I hope to hear a lot more about him and his good deeds, and learn more about the Ismaili Muslims who seem to be a great breath of fresh air after hearing so much about the Sunnis and the Shiites in Iraq.

    April 19, 2008 at 12:54 pm |
  10. N - Canada

    Great article, would like to see a piece on CNN TV. One note: his father was not the previous Aga Khan; his grandfather was.

    April 19, 2008 at 9:57 am |
  11. Abdul

    Finally someone is paying some attention to this GREAT (may be the greatest) leader. Listen to his explanations about Islam, ways to create peace in the world, necessity of knowing the positive side (all of Islam is positive except a few like Osama and other terrorists use name of Islam just to get support for their wicked plans). I still dont understand why the terrorists are termed by many Americans as Islamists if they happen to belong to this religion!! Would it be ok to term Oklahoma bombers and other Christian "terrorists" like those in Ireland (and so many others) as Christianists ?

    April 19, 2008 at 9:38 am |
  12. Engr. Farman Karim

    Yes, you are absolutely right Reza, the so-called political games and so called politicians as well as due to the visit of Pope, have overshadowed the visit of His Highness Aga Khan, who is a philanthropist, a spiritual guide, a humanitarian, a true human well wisher, an unbiased & impartial tenderer of love & peace in the world. He works for the well being of the distressed people of the world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week spending billions of dollars around the year through his world’s largest NGO, The Aga Khan Development Network covering the areas from Central Asia to Africa. He is a Bridge of Peace between East & West. But it's unfortunate that media has not provided any significant coverage.
    Farman Karim
    The Morganti Group Inc. Dubai

    April 19, 2008 at 1:47 am |
  13. Blesson, India

    Thanks for this piece of writing. It is worthy to note that this gentleman is doing much for people of all faiths. Tolerance is the key in the times we live in.

    April 19, 2008 at 12:47 am |
  14. Huma

    Thanx Reza for your blog, 360 should devout atleast 5 minutes of quality airtime to this piece. He just isnt a spirtual leader for the Twelver sect but rather a large majority of Muslims support him as well.
    A positive note for the 99% non-radical Muslim community that have been getting a bad name since 9/11.

    April 18, 2008 at 10:56 pm |
  15. EJ - Ohio


    April 18, 2008 at 9:15 pm |
  16. Kathy, Andover

    You're absolutely right! Let me tell you a bizarre story that happened @ my gym today. They were talking about the polygamy case, when one woman asked, "Why don't they go after the Muslims instead?" I couldn't frickin' believe it! I said, "For one thing, they're not abusing children." To which she replied, "Well, they do weird things!" Can you believe that?! Too bad she didn't know about Aga Khan. You are so good @ educating about Muslims, Reza.

    April 18, 2008 at 9:05 pm |
  17. Minou, New York City

    I didn't know! While I've heard of a "Aga Khan", I didn't know anything about him at all.... so Thanks for the education, Reza jan! 🙂

    I'm crawling back underneath the rock I call home now....

    April 18, 2008 at 8:06 pm |
  18. Katie M.

    I haven't seen the Aga Khan's visit mentioned anywhere (except on this blog a few days ago), and this is the first time I've read details about his life and impressive philantropic work.
    You're right – we never see stories like this on American TV, and it is unfortunate that his visit is not getting more publicity. I think we could skip a few minutes of pundits-yelling-at-each-other political coverage to learn more about him, but that's just my opinion...

    April 18, 2008 at 8:04 pm |
  19. Lisa

    Yes, Reza, it is too bad. It would certainly be interesting to know more about him and his followers. Alas, we would much rather demonize than accept some may be more similar than we thought.

    Unfortunately, it's easier to rally against a common enemy and tout the evilness of their ways than seek to find the similarities. (If I recall, the 5 tenants of the Quran are remarkably similar to the 10 Commandments.)

    Maybe AC360 can do an in-depth piece sometime.

    April 18, 2008 at 7:57 pm |