Do the Ismaili Imams Only Marry Non-Ismaili Western Models

The Wedding of Prince Shah Karim al-Husayni, Aga Khan IV and Sarah Frances Croker-Poole, formerly Lady James Charles Crichton-Stuart, who would go on to take the name Begum Salimah Aga Khan, at his home in Paris on October 27, 1969.

I would not marry a woman who I did not believe could help me. I hope to reorganize my life so as to have a little more time to be with my wife — and my children — though not at the expense of the community.”

– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,

(Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, 283)

1. Why does the Imam in modern times only marry non-Ismailis? 

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni was once asked this question in 1961 and gave the following reply:

“It might interest you and many others, but it’s unlikely I will marry an Ismaili Muslim girl, as this could bring prosperity and prestige to her family. This goes against the jurisprudence of the Ismaili faith. All Ismaili members are equal in the eyes of God and their Imam at the time, which is why I intend to marry a European, American, or non-Ismaili Muslim. She will need to embrace and follow the Ismaili traditions and principles, as her husband will be the leader and Imam of this faith system.”

- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,

Interview with Tehran Musavir 1961, tr. Khaama Press

There are many implications worth considering if the Imam were to marry an Ismaili murid:

  • The murid-murshid relationship would become very difficult and complicated since a murid is supposed to be in total obedience to the Imam, whereas a husband and wife function as partners, negotiating and compromising on many matters.
  • The murid and the family that the Imam would marry into would become much wealthier and receive an undue elevated social status among the community, leading to all kinds of problems: these include the social reality of a “royal family” among Ismaili murids whom the Imam marries into, a social practice of wealthy Ismaili families “jockeying” to marry their daughters to the Imam; and wealthy Ismaili families would be unduly privileged in gaining access to the Imam by means of such marriages.
  • There could be potential risks of the Imamat being usurped by power-hungry in-laws such as his father-in-law, brothers-in-law, and in-law relatives, who attempt to prop up a false heir. Such things have occurred in the past for those familiar with Ismaili history in the Fatimid period (al-Afdal and Badr al-Jamali; more recently, the in-laws of Aga Khan III tried to usurp the Imamate revenues in the Haji Bibi case).
  • If the Imam and the murid got divorced, then there would be much stigma upon the murid, leading to unbearable backlash from the community who love their Imam. This would not be fair to the murid.

The Western media wrongfully portrays the Imam as nothing more than a playboy who marries women solely for their looks; in doing so, they brand his first wife Salima as a mere “model” and his second wife Inaara as a “former pop star” – as if there was nothing more to these women than their physical appearances. 

The focus on the Imam’s divorces in tabloid media is also very much informed by the stigma that divorce continues to carry in Western society. See Here:

Why Did The Aga Khan Get Divorced? - Ismaili Gnosis Answers

First, marriage in Islam has no religious or spiritual significance. Marriage is a social contract, nothing more. And one can marry another person for a variety of reasons – for love, for economic reasons, for political reasons, etc. As long as the marriage is consensual and contracted, it is totally legitimate from an Islamic perspective. 

One must be wary of blindly accepting superficial narratives and commentaries about the lifestyles of the Imams. It is inconceivable that the Ismaili Imams are so superficial, shallow and worldly that they only marry women for their looks. Such accusations are easily falsified through basic research into the recent Imams’ biographies.

2. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s Marriages: 

Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah's first wife was his cousin Shahzadi Begum and was basically an arranged marriage as per traditional Eastern customs. The Imam’s second wife was Theresa who was not a model but a ballerina, which is a form of dignified dance or art and she was also an artist who sculpted; she died very young and was the mother of Prince Aly Khan. His third wife was Princess Andree Carron who was not a model but a shop owner and with whom the Imam shared common intellectual and literary interests. His fourth wife was Begum Yvette known as Mata Salamat. She had won a French beauty pageant in her 20s, but the Imam met her when she was almost 40 in the 1940s. Mostly importantly, Mata Salamat had already converted to Islam before she met the Imam. The main reason why Imam was interested in her was because of her religious and spiritual devotion to the spiritual aspects of Islam. About his marriage with his fourth and last wife, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah has said the following in his memoirs:

“I, who by the grace of God’s greatest gift, am myself blessed with a wife who fully understands the joys and sorrows of my mind and my spirit… I can only say that if a perfectly happy marriage be one in which there is a genuine and complete union and understanding, on the spiritual, mental and emotional planes, ours is such… She has been my strong and gentle help and comforter throughout all my serious illnesses of recent years. I have at last been granted the real and wonderful haven of finding in and with my wife a true union of mind and soul.”

The Esoteric Feminine: Women in Ismaili History and Thought – Ismaili Gnosis

3. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Marriages: 

The key factor underlying Mawlana Hazar Imam’s marriages and family life is that the Imam’s first priorities in life are the Imamat, the wellbeing of his Ismaili Jamat, and service to humanity. The Imam actually places his physical family responsibilities second to his Imamat & Jamati responsibilities. This often means the Imam’s family including his wife and children have had to make sacrifices; in the past that often meant losing their lives at the hands of the Imam’s enemies. In modern times, it is a sacrifice of time and presence: the Imam simply does not spend as much time with his wife and children as a normal human being. While physical family may be our first priority in life, it is not Hazar Imam’s – he is beholden to his larger mission of executing the Imamat, caring for the well-being of his spiritual family (the Ismailis), and assisting humanity at large.

In 1969 when he first got married, Hazar Imam told the biographer Willi Frischauer that:

“I would not marry a woman who I did not believe could help me. I hope to reorganize my life so as to have a little more time to be with my wife — and my children — though not at the expense of the community.”

– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,

(Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, 283)

This quote is quite telling; it means the Imam even chooses whom to marry based on what he believes will help his greater mission of the Imamat and serving the Jamat; the Imam would never do anything – including prioritizing his wife and kids – at the expense of the Jamat. In fact, ten years later in 1979, Hazar Imam repeated the same thing – that he does not have the time to spend with his own family because of his work for the Jamat:

“The burden of work and travel is very severe. So although I am extremely fortunate to have a wonderful wife and children, I can’t spend as much time with them as I wish. But I hope to have more time for my family later on.

– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,

(Sunday Telegraph Magazine Interview, ‘The Quiet Prince of Islam’, May 27, 1979,


In other words, the Imam’s spiritual children come first; his physical family comes second (or perhaps third). 

This is why on December 13, 2008, Hazar Imam told the Ismaili leadership in a Farman: “I have had nothing else of real significance in my life other than serving the Jamat.

Below is what Malise Ruthven, another biographer of the Aga Khan, has shared about the Imam’s marriages and how members of the Jamat perceived it:

“They want their Imam to be happy. I remember once talking to a very senior Ismaili when he was divorcing his first wife. His comment I actually found rather moving. He said: ‘The Imam has been wounded.’ He is not a playboy; it’s a completely misunderstood role that he has. He does not and perhaps has not had the energy and time to give to his family because of his commitment to his bigger family, which is maybe ten, fifteen million people.”

- Malise Ruthven (Official Biographer of the Aga Khan, in An Islamic Conscience: The Aga Khan and the Ismailis, 2007)

It is highly inaccurate for the media to label Hazar Imam’s two wives - Begum Salimah and Begum Inaara - as mere “models” and “former pop stars”. Both women have devoted much of their lives to more substantial interests, pursuits, and good works.

The Imam’s Marriage to Begum Salimah:

Mawlana Hazar Imam met Salimah (who was born in 1940 and 4 years younger than the Imam) in the late 1960s and was introduced to her by his friends at the Palace Hotel. While it is true that Salimah was a photographer model for a short period of time, she was also part of the British aristocratic class. It is less known that Salimah was already once divorced and there was a social stigma attached to divorcees in Europe. In choosing to marry Salimah, Hazar Imam was also going against the European social norms and some Ismailis even questioned why the Imam would marry a divorced woman. But more importantly, Hazar Imam was interested in Salimah because they truly shared a lot in common culturally and religiously – as reported by the biographer Willi Frischauer:

“The Aga Khan soon discovered that Sally—‘Lady James’, as he pedantically called her— was born in New Delhi, the daughter of an English officer in the Indian army and spoke Urdu at least as well as he did. Although she did not share her new friend's love of skiing — she had broken her left leg on the slopes two years earlier, her right leg the following year and that was quite enough—they had a lot in common. She was a racing enthusiast and understood horses well, was deeply interested in Islam, in Muslim clothes, food and customs.

(Willi Frischauer, The Aga Khans, 264-265)

“When we first met,” Prince Karim said to her, “I had no idea you knew so much about Islam.” They discussed the meaning and implications of a Muslim marriage, so different from the Christian tradition: “It is a practical and contractual matter,” the Aga Khan said to me adding quickly, “but none the less serious for that. In taking Lady James for a wife, I am entering a contract.” Lady James nodded: “It is more like a civil marriage,” she said. (Wili Frischauer, The Aga Khans, 266)

As we can see, Hazar Imam did not marry Salimah simply because she was a model – this had nothing to do with it. She was born and raised in India, spoke Urdu and was very interested in Islam, Muslim culture, and horses. Salimah was already thinking about becoming Muslim before she was engaged to Hazar Imam. All this common ground was the foundation of their relationship, not her physical appearance.

For the Western media to portray Salimah as just a “former model” is totally insulting, sexist, and reductive towards her as a person. Since her divorce from the Imam, Salimah has been involved in important philanthropic work that clearly reflects her character. Most recently she has been an ambassador for SOS Children’s Villages and helping Afghan refugees; she learned about development and global issues during her marriage to Hazar Imam and her experience in the AKDN and the Jamat.

Hazar Imam’s Marriage to Begum Inaara:

As for the Imam’s second wife Inaara – again the Western media is being both sexist and misogynist when it only describes her as a “former pop star” or "model". This gives the false impression that Inaara has done nothing else of significance in her life besides pop / modeling. But here is Inaara’s actual background:

  • Born as Gabriel Thyssen, Inaara studied law in Munich and Cologne and graduated magna cum laude with a PhD in International Law in 1990.
  • Her first marriage was to a German prince and it ended in divorce.
  • In the late 1990s, she began working for UNESCO with a focus on promoting the status of women and gender equality; in other words, Inaara works on and promotes women’s equity and welfare.
  • Through her work at UNESCO, Inaara became interested in Islam.
  • Inaara then learned about Islam mainly through the work of the Harvard Professor Dr. Annemarie Schimmel, who was a world-renowned expert on the study of Islamic mysticism and Ismailism.
  • Hazar Imam personally knows Professor Schimmel and is familiar with her research; she has worked with the Institute of Ismaili Studies and they have published her books; after she died, they created a new Annemarie Schimmel Research Grant for scholars who study Islamic mysticism.
  • Inaara met Hazar Imam after being introduced to him by the King of Spain and Professor Schimmel also encouraged Inaara to meet Hazar Imam.
  • After her marriage to Hazar Imam, Inaara was encouraged by the Imam to continue working for UNESCO on the issues of women and gender equality.

(From the Official Press Release:

All the above information was stated in the Official Press Release from the Aga Khan’s Secretariat when the Imam’s marriage to Inaara was announced on May 30, 1998. Yet almost none of the above facts about Inaara are reported in the media coverage about her.

The above facts show that Hazar Imam and Inaara already shared important common interests before they were engaged to marry. She was interested in Islam and in Islamic mysticism through the work of Schimmel, whom Hazar Imam knows personally and whose work he has read. Inaara’s career in UNESCO for women’s rights is also very much in line with Hazar Imam’s global humanitarian work, which includes empowering women through education and social services. To define Inaara as a “former popstar” completely ignores who she really is.

As for the age difference between Inaara and Hazar Imam – at the time of marriage, the Imam was 62 and Inaara was 35. Given that this was the second marriage for both, their age difference really is not an issue. Further, if Hazar Imam was planning to have more children (and all indications suggest the birth of Prince Aly Muhammad was intentional given Inaara’s age), then the Imam cannot reasonably be expected to marry a woman who is over 40 years old. It is also very common for men to be decades older than their wives for those who marry when they are older. Furthermore, Hazar Imam’s lifestyle and activities do not correlate to his age; he is over 80 years old today, but he is busier and more active than a typical person of that age. Whomever he picks as a life partner would need to have the energy to keep up with him given how many Imamat, Jamati, AKDN, and social obligations are required for the Imam’s spouse to take part in. In the end, both of Hazar Imam’s marriages are with adult women and based on mutual consent.

Since their subsequent divorce, Inaara has done a great deal of charity and development work, like microfinance, modeled directly after AKDN’s vision. She clearly learned a great deal from her short marriage with Hazar Imam and it has changed her for the better. She has not publicly said one negative thing about Hazar Imam. In fact, she stated in an interview with the German Bunte magazine ten years ago that: “I have learnt a lot from my husband, and I deeply embrace his vision of a better world with more tolerance.” (Reported via the Daily Mail)

Still need help? Contact Us Contact Us