The Aga Khan: A near myth

From the finest racehorses to the devotion of 15 million followers, he is used to every privilege and defers to nobody. But it's not necessarily a recipe for contentment and, when his plans are thwarted, there is always a price to pay

Simon O'Hagan
Sunday 13 October 2002 00:00
Comments

Nobody likes to be rejected, but when you are a billionaire spiritual leader unused to having people stand in your way, the consequences tend to be dramatic. Such is the case with the Aga Khan, who for the second time in 13 years has reacted to a perceived slight by turning his back on Britain and looking elsewhere for a welcome.

There is a clear parallel between what happened last week when the Aga Khan lost out in his attempt to set up a London centre for his Islamic art collection and an episode in 1989 when he became embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Jockey Club after two of his horses failed dope tests. Not a man to shrug off such experiences, the Aga Khan has announced that his priceless collection of paintings and artefacts – which he planned to house on a site owned by King's College, part of London University, until it refused to sell to him – will now find a home in Toronto, just as on the earlier occasion he took all his horses out of Britain in protest, and only recently returned them.

"There is a lot of pride there," a long-time associate says. "If he makes his mind up about something he will be very firm. He likes things his own way. It becomes a matter of honour, and he doesn't like it infringed."

As a fixture in the gossip columns, a byword for discreet opulence, and with the added frisson of a touch of the divine, the Aga Khan seems to exist in another realm altogether – self-styled citizen of the world, not quite royal but more than human, a man who is everywhere but comes from nowhere. Businessman, sportsman, jet-setter, philanthropist, and quasi-diplomat with an indeterminate role in the current crisis between Islam and the West, he is doted on by some 15 million Ismaili Muslims worldwide who are also understood to be one of the main sources of his incalculable wealth. You could spend a long time trying to reconcile all these roles.

Even those well versed in global hierarchies have difficulty explaining exactly who the Aga Khan is, the significance of his status, or how he manages to straddle both religious and secular worlds with such apparent ease. Comparisons have been made with the Dalai Lama, the head of Tibetan Buddhism, and with the Pope. But at the other extreme, the name evoked is George Soros, the man whose financial instincts help to shape entire economies.

To understand who the Aga Khan is – more to the point, why he is – requires a brief excursion into Islamic history. Islam, the religion based on the word of God as handed down to the prophet Mohammed, has two main divisions – Sunnism and Shiism. The second largest Shia community is comprised of the Ismaili Muslims, for centuries noted for their contribution to Islamic thought and culture. Their imams, or spiritual leaders – regarded as direct descendants from Mohammed – have carried the hereditary title Aga Khan since the Shah of Iran first conferred it on the 46th Imam in the 19th century.

When the present Aga Khan was born in Geneva in 1937 – as plain Prince Karim – he might not have expected to inherit the supreme title, then held by his grandfather, until he was well into adulthood. As it turned out, his playboy father, Prince Aly Khan, was deemed unsuited to the role (marriage to the Hollywood star Rita Hayworth may have had something to do with it), and the honour, or burden, fell to Karim when he was only 20, and an economics student at Harvard. "It came as a bit of a shock, and I don't think he really felt ready for it," an associate says. "One minute he was lining up to be a top businessman, the next he was responsible for the spiritual well-being of millions."

Not that these occupations have proved to be mutually exclusive. Ismaili Muslims don't believe material comfort is inconsistent with the practice of their faith – they might be characterised as the opposite end of fundamentalism – and in that respect the Aga Khan has certainly led by example. Yachts and horses – a love for the latter inherited from his grandfather – are his great indulgences. As a breeder of racehorses, with bases in Ireland and France, the Aga Khan commands more respect than that other great racing dynasty the Maktoums, who are happy to buy potential greatness. "He plans long-term," a racing associate says. "He's not in it for a quick return."

He keeps about 170 brood mares at his European headquarters at Aiglemont, an impeccable but unostentatious château near Chantilly, the capital of French racing, some 20 miles from Paris. Shergar, legendary winner of the 1981 Derby, later to be kidnapped and never recovered, was the Aga Khan's greatest horse. Five years later came another Derby winner, the revered Shahrastani. More recently, Sinndar, winner of the 2000 Derby, touched similar heights. "I think the racing public like continuity," he has said. "They like to follow a set of colours like mine, to watch the sons and daughters of horses they remember."

Less successful was the Aga Khan's venture into hotel group ownership, his Ciga group losing millions before he sold it to Sheraton, but he can regard with pride his Costa Smeralda development on Sardinia, a playground for yacht-owning high society. The Aga Khan has also backed an Italian boat in its bid to win sailing's most prestigious competition, the America's Cup, and put more millions into competitive powerboating.

The Aga Khan's private life has proved costly too. In 1969 he married Sally Croker-Poole, a former debutante and model whom Tatler had once listed among the world's most beautiful women. They had three children – Princess Zahra, Prince Rahim and Prince Hussein – but the marriage foundered, and they were divorced in 1995. She was understood to have received a pay-out from him of £20m.

In 1998, he married the German-born lawyer, Princess Gabriele zu Leiningen, – on conversion to Islam his begum took the name Inaara, from the Arabic word for "light" – a member of the Thyssen dynasty, throwing a party at Aiglemont whose guest-list read like a Who's Who of European royalty (plus Sir Edward Heath and the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook).

These are the sort of occasions that keep diarists like the Daily Mail's Nigel Dempster in business, but the Aga Khan would undoubtedly prefer to be remembered for the Aga Khan Development Network, a programme of welfare and education he oversees in the 25 countries where Ismaili Muslims mainly live – East Africa and South-east Asia. In emphasising the need for education and encouraging equality between men and women, the Aga Khan can be regarded as a progressive figure. "He has worked to create a less mythological image of himself," a professor of Muslim studies says.

Free of obligations to any nation, the Aga Khan is in a unique position to foster peace through diplomacy. But the ventures he makes into such territory are necessarily cautious, for fear of being caught up in raw politics. A behind-the-scenes role he played in the aftermath of the Gulf War drew criticism that he was too compliant in his dealings with Saddam Hussein.

Reconciliation between East and West was said to be part of the thinking behind the Aga Khan's plan to house his art collection in London, which it was hoped would be a magnet for both academics and tourists. The Aga Khan's loss may well be London's, too.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in