[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]
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.
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