Does Hazir Imam Live a Lavish Lifestyle?

" days are occupied. I have no time to think about myself. I have moments of fatigue, of worry, but without having the feeling of abandonment...I received from my grandfather heavy responsibilities, but they are not weighty. It is not a burden. It is a pleasure to devote oneself to such a community, to work for people. Responsibilities are a burden we love to bear. My social life is practically nonexistent As an owner of racehorses, I can be in the galleries of the day Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, is all. In the summer I can be on the beach in Sardinia but practically all my time is devoted to the Ismailis in Sardinia. In Muslim life, you have to live life everyday. It was therefore impossible to stay cloistered, away from even mundane events." 

– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, 
(Elle Magazine Interview [translation from French], August 20, 1969)

Mawlana Hazar Imam does not live "a lavish and luxurious lifestyle" compared to his needs, his context, and his circles that he necessarily deals with everyday (which includes kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, ambassadors, and heads of global organizations — all of whom expect a certain standard of presentation and care).

What is less known is that over the last 60 years, Hazir Imam has poured hundreds of millions of dollars from his own personal wealth into both the Ismaili Jamat and the AKDN. Now in order to generate that much income and give it away to others, the Imam must:

  • himself be wealthy by necessity
  • own cash generating businesses that make profits in order to sustain the hundred million or so dollars he puts into AKDN and Jamati projects annually
  • present himself and deal with other heads of state, billionaries, millionaries, etc.

There is very little of the Imam's personal life that is lavish. He owns one or two cars – an Audi. He only has a private plane because he spends over 3 months of travel time per year. He only has a secretariat of 100 people because he is the Imam and that comes with tons of administrative work/paperwork for a community of 15 million people which spread over 35 countries — each with their own administrations and councils.

Margot Dougherty / Richard B. Stolley: The subject of money inevitably comes up when your name and your foundation are mentioned. Could you put to rest some of the myths?

Aga Khan: A lot of stories have been told. My grandfather’s jubilees were events which the Western media thought were very spectacular. The impression was given that very substantial amounts of money went straight into his personal wealth. These funds are offered to the Imam because he is the Imam, and he uses these funds for the benefit of the community. My grandfather left me some wealth which I use for my own living. I have some institutional expenses. If I didn’t occupy the office of Imam, I wouldn’t fly on a private aircraft, I wouldn’t have a secretariat of some 100 people. You really should apply to the Imam the same criteria you would apply to any public office. But that’s never been done, because there has been a sort of inheritance of gloss. Maybe I should have addressed that issue more quickly. I have felt that the area of the world I work in has not had the misperception; that’s much more a Western misperception.

 Mawlana Hazar Imam, Life Magazine Interview, Margot Dougherty and Richard B. Stolley (New York, USA), December 1983

Geofrey Barker: It is often suggested that your affluent lifestyle is very different from that of most Ismailis who live mostly in the poverty of the Third World. Do you think that is a fair comment?

Aga Khan: I think that affluence is perhaps the wrong terminology. I do not seek to do things, in fact I have stayed away from things which did not seem to me to be good sense, where it was affluence for the sake of affluence.  I’ll give you an example. I have a private aircraft, but that aircraft today is flying between 450 and 600 hours a year. You take 600 hours of time — that translates into approximately two months of working days. I cannot afford, nor can people who work in my organisation, to eliminate two months of working time … if you have to run an organisation in as diverse areas as I do there are certain things you’ve got to do to be efficient. When you talk about extremely poor people, of course there are poor people throughout the developing world and there will be poor people for years and years. I think they would ask whether the Imamat as an institution was helping them as best as it could and I think it would be true to say that the Imamat is assisting them.

– (The Age Interview, Geoffrey Barker, ‘Aga Khan: Enigma of East and West’ (Melbourne, Australia; Nairobi, Kenya)

The Imam's own mother said the following about him during the 1970s:

"When the Aga Khan enters, it is with a burst of youthful but well-controlled energy. He wears a sober dark suit, white shirt and an unobtrusive tie. He looks elegant whatever he wears, rather like an English squire who sports his shabbiest jacket during weekends on his estate.  His mother says that it is a job to get him to buy a new suit, and friends have noticed holes in the soles of his shoes. One of them says: “The Aga Khan wears a French smile and English socks—not a bad combination.”

– Willi Frischauer, (The Aga Khans, 14)

The Imam on how him and his work are sometimes misrepresented:

I am not affected by suggestions in print that I live a luxurious Western life, while most Ismailis live in underdeveloped Eastern countries (he went on). These are just smears by cheap magazines. Serious publications are aware of the work we do and of our achievements in many countries. Such smear stories never appear in Asian publications.

– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, ( Sunday Telegraph Magazine Interview, ‘The Quiet Prince of Islam’, May 27, 1979)

Ismailis especially need to give the Imam a break and take a detailed look — not just a superficial glance — at his actual everyday lifestyle and then reassess whether the Imam is merely some rich guy who lives large and leisures all day. One should take a serious look at the  Secret Life of the Aga Khan article to get a sense of the Imam's routine and then honestly rethink about the Imam's "lavish" or "extravagant" life.

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