For 50 years, an enigmatic billionaire has been a spiritual figurehead to millions of Ismaili Muslims. To celebrate, he’s showing off his art collection. Paul Vallely explores his wonderful world

Published: 14 July 2007

Amid the breath-taking collection of pieces from the previously unseen art collection of the Aga Khan which opens in London today – including an 11th-century bird incense burner, exquisite textiles and ceramics and ancient manuscripts finely decorated with gold and lapis lazuli – is a segment of a book by a man with two names.

Its title is The Canon of Medicine and it was a primary medical text for an extraordinary 500 years through Europe and the Middle East. The medieval scholars of Christendom called him Avicenna. But in his native Persia, the man who was the foremost physician, astronomer, logician, mathematician, philosopher, physicist, scientist and theologian, of his day was called Ibn Sina.

The days when two great cultures could lay common claim to such a sage seem long gone in our own age, when relations between Islam and the West are commonly characterised as a “clash of civilisations”. But the antidote to the sound and fury of our modern discourse may yet be found in the great storehouse of such art.

Certainly, the Aga Khan believes so. The man whose personal wealth is said to exceed $1bn is an anomalous figure. He is, on the one hand, a twice-married jet-setter who owns a chain of luxury hotels, an airline, mobile phone companies, hundreds of thoroughbred racehorses, valuable stud farms, an exclusive yacht club on Sardinia, a grand estate near Paris and more than 90 businesses employing more than 36,000 people. But he is also the spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims who, in what is described as a dizzyingly complex system of tithes, pay him what is thought to be hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The man who this week celebrated his 50th anniversary as Aga Khan has unconditional control of this massive fortune. Prince Karim Al Husseini, the 49th Imam of the Ismailis and the fourth Aga Khan, does enjoy the appurtenances of wealth, though one of his spokesmen this week, while conceding his boss did own two jets, pointed out that his car is only an Audi and that his yacht is 25 years old.

But the Aga Khan takes his duties as a religious leader seriously. Though his business portfolio is run for profit, most of his investment is in small and medium-size enterprises in Africa, India, Pakistan and the poorer parts of Asia, which he set up as engines of employment to promote economic self-reliance among the poorest people. And he runs the Aga Khan Development Foundation, the world’s largest private aid agency, which gives away $300m a year for rural development, education and healthcare in the developing world.

Now he wants to turn even his private art collection into an ethical instrument. “Political situations with a theological overlay are causing disaffection or antagonism between communities of the same faith, and even more so amongst different faiths,” he said, as the final touches were being put to the exhibition in the Ismaili Centre in London this week. “At the centre of this turbulence is Islam. We cannot let this continue.”

His exhibition, he hopes, will provide the opportunity for a more enlightened encounter and go some way to dispelling the “countless misconceptions and misunderstandings” between Islam and the West, a gap which did not gape so dangerously in the more tolerant time of Ibn Sina. Today, he said in a rare interview on American public radio, “knowledge of the different civilisations of the Islamic world, of the pluralism of that world, of the plurality of interpretations of Islam, is very, very shallow indeed, and is a significant contributor to misunderstanding.” This was true not just of non-Muslims but among many who hold the faith and who falsely believe that the beliefs of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims “are all identical” when they are not.

That such sentiments are voiced by the leader of the world’s Ismailis is itself an indicator of the possibility of change. For his sect grows out of the very prototype of Islamist terrorism.

In the 7th century, Muslims split into the Sunni and the Shia, in a dispute over who should succeed the Prophet Mohamed. The Sunni wanted the caliph elected. The Shia insisted succession should remain within the direct line of the Prophet’s closest relatives. Sunnis placed the emphasis on primarily political and military leadership; the Shia emphasised the need for wisdom and spirituality. Eventually, the Shia themselves divided. Most, including the majority populations in Iran and Iraq, believe there was an unbroken line of 12 imams, the last of whom will return to usher in a reign of justice.

But the second biggest group, the Ismailis, trace their own leadership from the seventh imam, Isma’il bin Jafar, and believe a mystical teaching is passed down from one imam to the next. The present Aga Khan was a 20-year-old student at Harvard, when, in 1957, his grandfather nominated him (bypassing his two sons, including the playboy Aly Khan) as the 49th hereditary imam of the Shia Ismailis.

What historically defined the Ismailis was a mystic secret society known as the hashishinnya – from which we get our word assassin – whose members specialised in bold, politically motivated murders. Their targets were the Sunni rulers known as the Seljuks. Their aim was to kill only their target, without additional casualties, and they wanted to dispatch their victims in public. Rejecting poison, bows or other weapons which could allow the attacker to escape, they preferred daggers. They never committed suicide afterwards, preferring to be killed by the entourage of their victims.

They soon built up a fearsome reputation which inspired terror out of all proportion to their tiny numbers. They were led by Rashid Al-Din Sinan known to the Crusaders as “The Old Man of the Mountains”. The legends grew wild. The word hashishinnya was said to derive from reports that they took hashish before missions to calm themselves, boost their strength or turn them into madmen in battle. Modern scholarship discounts all this as sheer invention by bewildered opponents desperate to seek some convincing psychological explanation of the fearless zealotry of the assassins. There is no evidence to suggest hashish or any other drug was used in any systematic fashion.

But what is more remarkable is the way that the Ismailis then slowly transformed themselves into a different religious disposition. They became more mystical, seeing particular significance in different numbers, seven being a central one. They began to pray three times a day instead of five. But, most strikingly, they began to acculturate themselves into the different societies in which they found themselves as they spread across Asia and Africa, then Europe and North America.

Ismailis were crucial in translating the Greek texts of Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, preserving them when Western Europe lost the originals. Ibn Sina did not just produce that classic medical textbook but also a philosophy that profoundly influenced that of Thomas Aquinas and thus the whole of Western theology and philosophy. The Ismailis established the world’s oldest universities. Through them, agriculture, commerce, the arts, the sciences and philosophy flourished.

“The central trait of their long history is a remarkable tendency to acculturate to different contexts,” says Ali S Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim languages and culture at Harvard. Today, though the Ismailis are but a small minority of Muslims – about 20 million, against 120 million Shia and more than a billion Sunnis worldwide – their influence is disproportionate.

It has brought them to an outlook on life which can act to bridge the chasm which some see between Islam and the West. “The role and responsibility of an Imam,” the Aga Khan said, “is to interpret the faith to the community, and also to do all within his means to improve the quality, and security of their daily lives.” At its heart is an active struggle for social justice and human development through wealth creation, one which extends beyond the Ismaili community itself into the wider societies in which it finds itself.

Through the Aga Khan Development Network, it works for reductions in global poverty, advancement of the status of women and the furthering of pluralistic values. It is involved in a great breadth of activities from disaster relief, basic healthcare, rural development, microlending to the poorest and the promotion of private enterprise to architecture, culture and the revitalisation of historic cities. It has more than 300 schools and 200 hospitals and clinics, and finances risky projects of which commercial investors fight shy. It is the biggest single investor in Afghanistan, with a $400m development portfolio there.

“If you travel the developing world, you see poverty is the driver of tragic despair,” the Aga Khan said. By assisting the poor in business “we are developing protection against extremism”.

His view of Islam, as a teacher of compassion, tolerance and upholder of the dignity of man strikes a very different note from the discordant voices of extremism. His exhibition of art, like his other works, will, he hopes, speak that truth more loudly still.

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