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.


Filed under: Aga Khan • Reza Aslan
April 17th, 2008
01:56 PM ET

Aga Khan – My Grandma’s Dream

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Zarifmo Aslamshoyeva
CNN International Assignment Editor

(Dedicated To All Grandmas in Pamir, Tajikistan)

Editor's Note: Pope Benedict XVI is not the only religious leader visiting America. Also touring the country, the Aga Khan. To about 20-million people around the world who practice the Ismaili branch of Islam, he is their imam, or spiritual guide. He has a worldly mission, as well, overseeing a large, nondenominational foundation dedicated to easing global poverty.

The Aga Khan's tour of Ismaili communities in the United States and around the world has unleashed an outpouring of affection among Ismaili Muslims. In the case of CNN journalist Zarifmo Aslamshoyeva, his visit also brings back memories of his impact on her small town, in the Tajik province of Pamir, in a poor corner of the former Soviet Union.

Zarifmo begins her story by saying:

If only my Grandmother could hear this.

When I was growing up, my grandma and her friends in my tiny Boziqala, and villages nearby, knew little about the world. They didn’t have much education and never traveled beyond their province, Pamir.

Their children and grandchildren, though, were well educated. It made them proud, but the pain of longing for their faraway imam never left their hearts. My grandma said, before the Soviet Union, it was easier to get messages from the imam, but now we are disconnected. She used to blame the government, sometimes. But most of the time she blamed people for not remembering God...

Filed under: Aga Khan