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The Meaning of "Aga Khan"

As is universally acknowledged, the conferment of a title is a mark of distinction recognizing performance, achievement, eminence and excellence. A title, be it civil or military, temporal or ecclesiastical, denotes a designation of class, stature and dignity. By the same token, all titles do have basic meanings and background in their conferment.

We, the Ismailis associate ourselves deeply with the name or rather the title "Aga Khan" and we are so much used to being addressed by our beloved Imam as ‘Yours affectionately’ - ‘Aapke Pyare’ - ‘Shafqat ke Saath’ - ‘Tamaro Mamtarru’ Aga Khan that we seldom pause to think of how the title of ‘Aga Khan’ to our last four Imams came to be, or what it really means.

This essay attempts to describe how and when the title was invested in our 46th Imam, Mowlana Hasan Ali Shah; and what its origin and meaning are.

In l742, Aga Mohammed Khan founded Qajar Dynasty in Persia and became the first king in l796. He was murdered shortly afterwards in l797, and was succeeded by his nephew, Fateh Ali Shah who ruled for over 38 years.

Mowlana Shah Khalil Allah ascended the throne of Imamat in 1792 and soon after his accession, he transferred the seat of Imamat from Kirman to Kahak. Imam Shah Khalil Allah married Bibi Sarkara who gave birth to our 46th Imam, Mowlana Hasan Ali Shah.

In l815, Mowlana Shah Khalil Allah moved to Yazd, situated between Isphahan and Kirman on the route to Baluchistan and Sindh. Perhaps, the Imam was motivated to do this by his desire to be near the followers from the sub-continent who frequently made pilgrimage to see their Imam in Persia.

It was at Yazd two years later in l817 that the Imam became a victim of the intrigues of Ithnasheri Ullema and lost his life. One Mulla Husain Yazdi collected a mob and attacked the Imam’s residence. In the ensuing encounter, Mowlana Shah Khalil Allah and several of his followers were brutally murdered.

Mowlana Shah Khalil Allah had very good relations with the second Qajar ruler, Fateh Ali Shah. At the time of moving to Yazd, Shah Khalil Allah had left his wife, Bibi Sarkara and the children in Kahak to live off the family holdings in the Mahallat area. However, familial disputes left the family unprovided for. Out of the frustrations of the hardships  that the family had to face, Bibi Sarkara, mother of Mowlana Hasan Ali Shah who was quite young at the time pleaded in the Qajar court in Tehran for justice for her husband’s murder.Her pleas were accepted favourably. The instigators of Mowlana Shah Khalil Allah’s murder were punished even though after a fashion, Fateh Ali Shah gave the young Imam more lands in Mahallat area; and offered one of his daughters , Sarv-i-Jahan Khanum in marriage to Mowlana Hasan Ali Shah.

At the same time, Fateh Ali Shah appointed him as governor of Qum and bestowed upon him the ‘honorific’ title of "AGA KHAN". Actually, more correctly it is AQA KHAN even though commonly it  has come to be referred to as "Aga Khan".

Thenceforth, Imam Hasan Ali Shah became generally known as Aga Khan Mahallati. And the title of Aga Khan became hereditary.  Bernard Lewis write that" in l8l8, the Shah of Persia had appointed himgovernor of Mahallat and Qum, and had given him the title of "Aga Khan". It is by this title that he and his descendents  are usually known." The investiture took place in the grand palace of Qasr -e-Qajar.

The title thus bestowed was a singular honour  that the Ismaili Imam had earned on the basis of his illustrious descent and station. In fact, Mowlana Hasan Ali Shah was the first Imam after Almaut to have received official cognizance of his spiritual role by the Persian empire.

Mowlana Hasan Ali Shah - Aga Khan I arrived in India from Persia in l842. He is known to have rendered commendable services to the British. For example, in Sindh, he placed his cavalry at their disposal and endeavoured to convince the Talpur Amir of Kalat, to cede Karachi to the British. Due to the co-operation extended by him, the whole of Sindh was annexed to become British India. In Baluchistan also, the Aga Khan I helped the British militarily and diplomatically.

For his services and support thus rendered to the British, he received government protection in British India as the spiritual head of the Ismailis, which strengthened his position and helped  him in the exercise of his authority. In recognition of his services and support to the British government, he was awarded the title "HIS HIGHNESS" in l844. From then on, Mowlana Hasan Ali Shah was called "His Highness the Aga Khan." This conferment also suggests the acceptance and recognition of the chief lordship of the "Aga Khan".

When Mowlana Hasan Ali Shah, the Aga Khan, returned to Mahallat, the celebrated panegyrist called Qa’ani composed a qasida  the opening lines of which read:

                  "Eternal life in the world would be required                     to sing one tenth of the Aqa Khan’s praises."

The said qasida is an early source containing the words "Aga Khan" implying that  this was the first time in history for this term, "Aga Khan" to be documented.

Having learnt how the Imam  became the recipient of this unique title, let us now try to understand its meaning.

In Ottoman Empire, the word ‘agha’ was used to mean chief or master. It is also believed that this Turkish word is derived from Greek , ‘akha’ or ‘akhai’ which later came to be used as ‘agha’ in Turkey.

Iran borrowed the word ‘aga’ or ‘agha’ from Turkey. The Qajar emperors made ‘aga’ or ‘aqa’ a title for nobility, and  ‘Aga Khan’ (or Aqa Khan) was the title denoting  honour reserved for noblemen of lofty standing, mostly the governors. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as  "a title of respect, Aga has also been used for Islamic religious leaders, notably for the leader of the Ismaili sect of Shia community."

Most works, dictionaries and lexicons in various languages have defined the word ‘aga’ or ‘aqa’ or ‘agha’ as a great lord, master, commander, chief, a title signifying respect, dignity, status, great wealth and influence.

And now, the word ‘khan’. Generally, people tend to associate the word ‘khan’ with Pathans who mostly use this as surname. The word ‘khan’ is also a Turkish title. Under the Seljuk rulers ‘khan’ signified a high title of nobility taking precedence over ‘malik’ and ‘amir’.

‘Ka’an’ was adopted by Ottoman sultans as a title. In India, ‘khan’ was the title of the eminent nobles mainly of Persian or Afghan descent. It is said that a khan commanded ten thousand soldiers, a malik one thousand  and an amir one hundred! Actually, the Afghans did not adopt the Turkish term, ‘khan’ for centuries and not until the odhi sultans of Delhi began to bestow such a title upon their Afghan supporters. Persia also adopted the term ‘khan’ - In the provinces  especially, ‘khan’ meant originally what ‘chieftain’ meant in Scotland among the clans.

The Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedic  Dictionary notes:"Aga Khan", title given to Hasan Ali Shah. Turk ‘aga’ master; ‘khan’ ruler, king." Again, according to the various dictionaries and encyclopaedias, the meaning of ‘khan’ is given as an emperor, a king, a prince, a governor, a great lord and master, a supreme ruler.

Originally, the Turkish rulers combined the terms Agha and Beg - ‘Agha Beg’ - a title awarded to a person of high repute and standing. The Qajar rulers followed a similar pattern in Persia. They joined ‘Aga’ and ‘Khan’ or ‘Aqa Khan’ and awarded this supreme title to our ‘supreme nobleman’.

To the world at large, our beloved Imam-e-Zaman addressed as the Aga Khan is popularly identified as a nobleman, a prince, a philantropist  - whose development network extends world wide. But to the Ismailis, the Aga Khan is much more. There cannot be a better definition than the one recorded by Mowlana Sultan Mohammed Shah in his Memoirs when he speaks of his illustrious ancestry: "My grandfather was as I am and have been for close on seventy years, the hereditary Imam or Spiritual Chief of the Ismaili sect of the Shia Muslims. He was a Persian nobleman, closely related to the then reigning dynasty in Persia, but also in his own right the most princely blood in the Islamic world, for our family claims direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and his beloved son-in-law Ali: and we are also descended from the Fatimite Caliphs of Egypt."

In proclaiming Mowlana Shah Karim as his successor, he willed:"…I appoint my grandson Karim…, to succeed to the title of AGA KHAN and to the IMAM and PIR of all Shia Ismaili followers."

Accordingly, Mowlana Hazar Imam, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV has said:"Since my grandfather, the late Aga Khan  died, I have been the bearer of the Noor, which means Light and has been handed down in direct descent from the Prophet."

The abstract of this article therefore, is not to say simply that ‘Aga Khan’ is a title awarded to the Imam of the Ismailis. In the words of Pir Sadardin,

                      Aga ne tope hira jagmage                       Janniye to oobho gokul mahen lo qanji.

Therefore, ‘Aga’ is Ali, the Chosen One, the Exalted. He is our
Spiritual Lord, our Aqa - e- Do Jahan. He is our Aga Khan! And when he
says:"Yours Affectionately, Aga Khan" he means "Yours Affectionately,



  Sakar Datoo

My dear Nina,

I have forgotten to mention the sources of the article, "The Meaning of Aga Khan" mailed to you a while ago. Sorry!

They are:

Genealogy of the Aga Khan    - Mumtaz Ali Tajddin Sadik Ali

The Memoirs of Aga Khan

The Ismailis: Their History & Doctrines  - Farhad Daftary

Noorum Mubin

With love

 Allah Hafeez

Sakar Datoo

  Fatimid Princess Sitt al-Mulk by Sakar Datoo
  Women in the Quran by Sakar Datoo
  Ghadir e Khumm Article by Sakar Datoo

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