World·In Depth

The Aga Khan: 6 things to know about the wealthy spiritual leader

Prince Karim Aga Khan IV is most often in the public spotlight for his love of race horses and the fact that the multimillionaire has been twice divorced, but he is also the Imam and spiritual leader of the world's approximately 15 million Ismaili Muslims.

Millionaire, philanthropist, and spiritual leader of approximately 15 million Ismaili Muslims

Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims around the world, was named an honorary Canadian in 2010. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

A multimillionaire member of royalty, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV is most often in the public spotlight for his love of race horses and the fact that he's been twice divorced. But the Aga Khan is also the Imam and spiritual leader of the world's approximately 15 million Ismaili Muslims. 

The philanthropist is head of the Aga Khan Development Network, and over the years has poured huge amounts of money into often neglected parts of the world to support social development, education and charity projects.

Through his projects and speaking engagements, his stated goal is to help spark change and progress in underdeveloped regions, while at the same time helping present a less threatening face of Islam to the world.

The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa is a secular facility conceived by the Aga Khan as a sanctuary for peace, diplomacy and global pluralism.
He also has ties to Canada. He was named an honorary Canadian in 2010, and is funding the Aga Khan Museum and the world's sixth Ismaili Centre, both set to open in Toronto in the Fall of 2014. 

The centre includes a worship space, and the museum will house objects and artifacts from various parts of the Muslim world, offering the public the opportunity to engage with Islamic civilizations. When the Aga Khan visited Canada in November 2013, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada awarded him its Gold Medal for his achievements in using architecture as an instrument for development. 

Here are a some other interesting but little-known details about the Aga Khan's background and interests.

Early years

The Aga Khan was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on Dec. 13, 1936.

Despite having British citizenship, he spends most of his time at his French chateau in Aiglemont, a vast estate near Chantilly about  40 kilometres north of Paris. He grew up in Nairobi, studied in Switzerland and then graduated from Harvard.

The Aga Khan assumed the role of 49th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims during his junior year at Harvard, succeeding his grandfather, His Highness Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan III, at the age of 20. This is the first time in the family's 1,300-year history that a generation for the Imamat had been skipped over.

Title and responsibilities

Some believe the Aga Khan is a direct descendant of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. The title "His Highness" was formally granted to the reigning Aga Khan by Queen Elizabeth II upon the death of his grandfather, Aga Khan III. 

The Aga Khan is founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, a major international aid group.

As Imam, the Aga Khan's responsibilities include interpreting the faith and looking after the spiritual and material well-being of his followers, which means helping improve the quality of life of the community in the societies where they live.

In Canada, there are an estimated 100,000 Ismailis. Shia Ismaili Muslims are both ethnically and culturally diverse, and live in more than 25 countries around the world.

Aga Khan Development Network

The Aga Khan is founder and chairman of a major international aid organization — the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). The AKDN is a vast network of agencies that employs 80,000 people in 30 countries and is best known for the work it does in some of the poorest parts of the globe.

The AKDN and its Agencies are private, international, non-denominational development organizations that work to improve the welfare and prospects of all people in the developing world, particularly in Asia and Africa. Some programs, such as specific research, education and cultural initiatives, span both the developed and developing worlds.

Significant portions of funding for development activities come from national governments, multilateral institutions and private sector partners. His Highness provides regular funding for administration, new program and country initiatives, and for some core activities.

Ismaili community members contribute volunteer time, professional services, and substantial financial resources.

AKDN Agencies include:

  • Aga Khan Academies
  • Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance
  • Aga Khan Education Services
  • Aga Khan Foundation
  • Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development
  • Aga Khan Health Services
  • Aga Khan Planning and Building Services
  • Aga Khan Trust for Culture
  • Aga Khan University
  • Focus Humanitarian Assistance
  • University of Central Asia

Canadian Connection

In early 2014 the Aga Khan signed a Protocol of Understanding with Prime Minister Stephen Harper solidifying the important partnership the Government of Canada has developed with the Aga Khan and his institutions over the years.

The Aga Khan, centre, was a special guest of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen on a visit to Parliament Hill in February 2014. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The signing came after His Highness made an historical address to Parliament highlighting Canada's 30-year relationship with the AKDN.

"The AKDN's fundamental objective is to improve the quality of human life," the Aga Khan said during a rare address to Canada's Parliament. "The (Network) has worked over five decades to assist in the enhancement of civil society. And as we look to its future, we are honoured that Canada views us as a valued partner."

Currently, Canada is involved in several development projects with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) , which is a major fundraiser for the AKDN, with a total government commitment of more than $216 million.

Among some of the projects are:

  • The Partnership for Advancing Human Development in Africa and Asia, a joint initiative announced earlier this year will see $100 million invested to improve the quality of life for more than a million people living in Asia and Africa.
  • World Partnership Walk, where every spring since 1985, thousands of Canadians across the country lace up to participate in AKFC's World Partnership Walk. Since it’s inception, the walk has raised more than $82 million. Last year about 40,000 people walked and over $7 million was raised. It’s grown to become Canada's largest event in support of international development.

In addition, Aga Khan holds honorary degrees from Universities across Canada including: McGill University, McMaster University, University of Toronto, University of Alberta, and the University of Ottawa.   

In 2010 he became the fifth person to be made an honorary citizen of Canada, a title he shares with Raoul Wallenberg, Nelson Mandela, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, Aung San Suu Kyi and Malala Yousafzai. 

Richest Royals

Forbes magazine lists the Aga Khan as one of the world's richest royals, with an estimated net worth of $800 million US. 

He’s also been described as a passionate horse breeder. He has a multimillion-dollar horse-racing and breeding operation, including stud farms in Ireland and France, and a stake in Goffs, one of Britain's largest horse auction houses. He also and owns and operates the largest horse racing and breeding operation in France, Arqana, which is believed to be one of the main sources of the Aga Khan's income.

The Aga Khan also reportedly is involved in different business ventures, including exclusive hotel chains.

Personal life

The Aga Khan married Sally Croker-Poole, a former British model, who converted to Islam and took the name Princess Salimah Aga Khan, in 1969. The marriage lasted 25 years and they have one daughter and two sons. All three children work within the Imamat and organization.

The Aga Khan's second wife, Begum Inaara Aga Khan, was known as Gabriele Thyssen during her pop-singing career. The marriage broke down in 2004 and they reportedly signed a £50 million divorce settlement in 2014. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

Princess Salimah and the Aga Khan divorced in 1995. It's reported that she received £20 million in her divorce settlement.

Three years later, the Aga Khan married Princess Gabriele Thyssen, a former pop singer. Thyssen also converted to Islam and adopted the name Inaara Aga Khan. The couple has one son, Prince Aly. 

The marriage broke down in 2004 and the couple separated. What followed was a highly publicized, 10-year legal battle the tabloids billed as potentially the most expensive divorce proceedings in history. It ended in early 2014 in a reported £50 million settlement.