Let’s get one thing straight from the start: the Aga Khan is not a divinity. He has always politely but categorically denied all suggestions of Godhead status, most recently to Vanity Fair magazine. This won’t come as news to any but the most devoted of his flock, the 15 million Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims scattered in 25 countries across the world, for whom he is the 49th hereditary imam. They hail him as ‘the bringer of life’, and consider him to be the carrier of the eternal Noor of Allah (light of God).
To everyone else, Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini Aga Khan IV has always seemed happier at the mammon end of the spectrum. This, after all, is a man described by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s 10 richest royals, with an estimated net worth of over US$13 billion. He owns hundreds of racehorses and premier stud farms, an exclusive yacht club on Sardinia, a private island in the Bahamas, two Bombardier jets, Alamshar — a £100 million high-speed yacht named after one of his prized racehorses — and several estates around the world, his principal residence being Aiglemont, in the town of Gouvieux, north of Paris.
The 77-year-old was most recently in the news when he finally divorced his second wife, Princess Gabriele zu Leiningen, a German former pop singer, after a decade-long legal battle during which he was accused of having an affair with an air hostess. Princess Gabriele’s eventual settlement was a reported £54 million. But the Aga Khan’s position is a little more nuanced than the jet-set playboy image that the tabloids persist in foisting on him. He shuns the spotlight — childhood friends have described him as “quite reclusive” and commented that “parties have never been his thing”.
"Childhood friends have described him as “quite reclusive” and commented that “parties have never been his thing”"
As founder and Chairman of the Geneva-based Aga Khan Development Network, he spearheads an organisation that employs 80,000 people in 30 countries, and spans non-profit work in poverty-stricken and war-torn areas of the globe, along with a huge portfolio of very-much-for-profit businesses in sectors ranging from aviation and energy to telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and luxury hotels. In 2010, these generated US$2.3 billion in revenue, which no doubt kept the stud farms well stocked, but which also went to assuaging the material needs of his followers. Among the lofty aims the Aga Khan says he works towards are the elimination of global poverty, the promotion and implementation of secular pluralism, the advancement of the status of women and the honouring of Islamic art and architecture.
Since his abrupt ascension to the imamate as a 20-year-old in 1957, he’s had to help his Ismaili flock navigate the end of the Cold War, the end of colonialism in Africa and communism in Central Asia, and the continuous turmoil in the Middle East, where militant Sunni jihadists brand the moderate Ismaili as apostates. “An imam is not expected to withdraw from everyday life,” he told Vanity Fair, in an attempt to square his activities as a venture capitalist with his religious responsibilities. “On the contrary, he’s expected to protect his community and contribute to their quality of life. The imamate does not divide world and faith.”