Is it Appropriate for a Spiritual Leader like the Aga Khan to be a Billionaire?
The notion that possessing wealth, or large amounts of wealth, is immoral or sinful comes from the Christian traditions and ideas associated with St. Paul and St. Augustine, for whom material reality and the physical body participate in sin. This notion of sin and its association with material wealth does not exist in Islam. The Qur’an refers to material wealth as a blessing and mercy from God (7:32, 43:32). The Prophet Muhammad was a businessman and was involved in every aspect of human life, including rulership over a City-State. Several Prophets in the Abrahamic tradition including David and Solomon possessed great wealth and ruled as kings.
In Islam, possessing wealth is fine as long as it is earned in an ethical manner and used for an ethical purpose. History bears witness that the Aga Khan has used his wealth and resources for founding, funding, and governing the Aga Khan Development Network, which works to improve the quality of life of all people, especially the ultra-poor, regardless of faith in various areas including education, health, social services, economic development, etc. A full list of AKDN’s impact over 100 years of operation is here. There is a long history of the Aga Khan using his personal wealth to subsidize the Ismaili community projects and the expenses of the AKDN:
- According to the Aga Khan’s biography written by Willi Frischauer, the Aga Khan spent at least $10 million of his personal wealth on the Ismaili community and the AKDN institutions from 1960-1969. This biography quotes the Aga Khan as saying: “I want to use as much as possible of my money for the benefit of the community.”
- In 1965, the Aga Khan was considering making personal “investments of two or three million pounds in individual African countries” because, he said, “I would put money in if I also felt it would help the community that’s living there. But this would be my own investment, a personal thing.”
- In the last decade, the Aga Khan gave away his personal shares in the Nation Media Group valued today at $40 million USD to the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED).
- From 2007-2014, the audited financial statements of Aga Khan University show that the Aga Khan personally contributed $160 million over 7 years to cover the University’s operating deficits every year.
- The Aga Khan personally funds and pays for the annual operating budget of Aga Khan Foundation USA, an amount of $4 million to $5 million annually, so that no donations are used for administration costs: “Operating expenses are funded by grants from His Highness the Aga Khan apart from those recovered indirectly from federal grants. No donations from individuals, foundations or corporations are used for operating expenses.” (Source: AKF USA Annual Report).
The Aga Khan himself has been asked this question about possessing wealth no less than a dozen times and has given the following answers:
“The Prophet Himself (peace be upon him and his family) was married. He managed the assets of his first wife. Imams around the world have businesses, not just the Shia Ismaili Imam. We do not see a conflict and indeed if we lived in an attitude of conflict, I don’t believe we would be living within the ethics of Islam. Islam doesn’t say that a proper practice of the faith means you have to ignore the world. What it says is: Bring to the world the ethics of your faith. If you have wealth, use it properly. But the actual ownership of wealth is not in any way criticisable unless you have acquired it through improper means or you are using it for improper purposes. It is seen as a blessing of God. So this whole notion of conflict between faith and world is totally in contradiction to the ethics of Islam.”
- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, The East African Interview, August 14, 2011
“Well, I think it is important first of all to ask the question in Muslim terminology, not in Christian terminology. I think the industrialised world, which is world essentially Christian world, has been brought up to some extent at least with the concept that wealth is improper. I think the Islamic world and Islam itself totally rejects that concept. What it asks is what do you use your wealth for? In other words, the creation of wealth is not improper, the use of wealth might be improper. And in so far as the institution of Imamat is concerned, [they] are concerned with improving the quality of life, both philanthropically and for profit. I think we are responding to the questions that we have to respond to in the developing world.”
- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, ITV Interview, June 4, 1985
“In Islam there is nothing wrong in the search for comfort, but the accumulation of wealth for the specific purpose of accumulating wealth or personal power is something which Islam does not like to see. If you are fortunate enough to go past what you personally need then share what you have.”
- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, Life Magazine Interview December 1983
“And my interpretation is that any man who is in a position of authority, has a duty to use that authority and whatever wealth he has, for the benefit of the Ummah and of humanity. That is part of the essence of Islam. It is the way in which the faith defines the role of the wealthy and of the powerful in relation to society.”
- Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, Pakistan Television Interview, Nov. 12, 1985