Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III the 48th hereditary Imam of the Ismaili Muslims and the active member of Pakistan movement, was born on November 2, 1877 in Karachi. He was a visionary leader and his services and contributions to the Muslims of Indian sub-continent are historic especially for the establishment and promotion of the educational institutions. He emphasized on such a system of education that included technology, applied science, agriculture, medicine, female education as well as religion that could equip Muslims with modern tools, thoughts and perspectives to address the needs of the time. He wanted that the educational institutions in general and Aligarh in particular to become “a great center of research and learning and a source of moral influence for the Muslims...to produce men morally and intellectually equipped for developing the resources of the country by becoming captains of commerce and industry, leaders of men and moral teachers of their people”. As the Imam and spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, he inherited the legacy of establishing institutions of education and welfare for the well being of people from his ancestors. His forbears established the Jama-e-Azhar, the first Muslim university and Dar-al-Ilm (House of Knowledge) of the Fatimid dynasty.
It was 1893, when Aga Khan III (at the age of 16) met Nawab Mohsin-ul-Mulk, the prominent member of the Aligarh Movement and discussed the educational condition of the Muslims and Nawab Sahib presented the objectives of the Aligarh movement. On 1896, he made his first visit to Aligarh and met Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. The meeting turned into a remarkable mutual understanding and trust, with the 80- years old Sir Syed anticipating the extraordinary leadership qualities of the 20 year-old Sir Aga Khan III, entrusting a heavy and serious responsibility to him. Sir Syed made a welcome speech highlighting the educational backwardness of the Muslims, that they were alien to modern education and knowledge. In response, Aga Khan III made his speech and took up the important responsibility to upgrade the college into a university. As pledged, he left no stone unturned to make efforts to collect the required amount to build the university. Before visiting to the length and breadth of India for the fund raising campaign, he donated an amount of one hundred thousand (one lakh) rupees for this great cause. In his speeches he emphasized on Muslims to realize the need and to contribute for this noble national objective. Mawlana Shibli Numani, the prominent scholar of the Subcontinent, observed that six billion Muslims were unable to carry-out a task which (Sir Aga Khan) accomplished single handedly.
Sir Aga Khan III with his visionary and charismatic leadership, succeeded in convincing his fellow Muslims by emphasizing the need and scope of a modern university and for that he created the slogan of “Now or Never”. Muslims realized that a man of such high prestige has exerted himself for a national cause. Professor Riaz Hussain beautifully highlighted this saying that we are indebted to Sir Aga Khan for the remarkable and unprecedented services he rendered, leaving his luxurious and royal life by begging in the streets. (Paisa Akhbaar, February 11, 1911). Sir Aga Khan himself has also expressed the same that “As a mendicant, I am now going out to beg from house to house and from street to street for the children of Muslim India.” (Ismaili Bulletin Nov, 1977). One day on his way to Bombay for the fund campaign, he met one of his bitter critics and asked for his contribution for the Muslim university, receiving a cheque of Rs.5000. Afzal Usmani in his article “H.H. Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III” writes, “Aga Khan took off his hat and said, “Now as a beggar, I beg from you something for the children of Islam. Put something in the bowl of this mendicant.” The man wrote another cheque for Rs. 15000/- with moist eyes, and said, “Your Highness, now it is my turn to beg. I beg of you in the name of the most merciful God to forgive me for anything that I may have said against you. I never knew you were so great.” The Aga Khan said, “Don’t worry! It is my nature to forgive and forget in the cause of Islam and the Muslims.”
In a period of eight to nine years with the ceaseless efforts, the required amount was collected and on October 1920, the Aligarh University was given its official charter and on December 17, 1920 the inauguration ceremony of the university took place. The trustees of the Aligarh movement had established scholarship namely “Aga Khan Scholarship Fund” for national and international higher studies and the first beneficiaries of this scholarship were Dr. Zia-ud-din Ahmed, Dr. Vali Muhammad and Dr. Karim Haider who were later appointed as vice chancellor of Aligarh University, University of Lukhnow, and Uthmania University respectively.
He also sponsored scholars of the university to author books related to subjects on politics, economics, philosophy, ethics and education with Islamic perspectives. He also offered a remarkable amount of ten lakh rupees for the Research Institute of Science to be built in Karachi as he was extremely concerned about the development of Muslims in the field of science and modern education. Simultaneously with Aligarh movement, Sir Aga Khan also played a leading role for the promotion of primary and secondary education by establishing Aga Khan Schools in different parts of the Indian subcontinent. The first Aga Khan Schools were established in 1905 in Mundra in India and Gwadar in Pakistan.
His Highness the Aga Khan was a true advocate of female education and drew the attention of Muslims towards the crucial needs and importance of female education. He went a step further by considering female education more necessary than male education on the ground that a female has to educate a whole family. In this connection, he established Diamond Jubilee Schools (1946) in the far-flung and neglected mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan, with funds that had been donated by his followers from across the world during his Diamond Jubilee celebrations. These schools have played a significant role in the education sector of Gilgit-Baltistan, irrespective of cast and religion.
His entire life was dedicated to the welfare and well being of the Muslims living in different parts of the world and he did not confine himself to only educational development of the Muslims rather he played a historic role in politics representing Muslims at different forum to advocate the rights of Muslims. Allama Muhammad Iqbal, once admiring the services of Sir Aga Khan for Muslims, was of the view that “We have placed these demands before the conference under the guidance of the Aga Khan whom we all admire and whom the Muslims of India love”.
His Highness Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah, Sir Aga Kha III lived an exemplary life and died on July 11, 1957. Upon his demise, he was succeeded by his grandson Shah Karim Al Hussaini His Highness Aga Khan IV a graduate of Harvard, based on his official will as the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims of the worldwide. Sir Aga Khan III’s efforts for the welfare and development of Muslims did not end here.
On December 19, 2013 at the convocation of the Aga Khan University Hospital, his successor and grandson, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV reiterated “It was the tradition that I inherited from my grandfather- and it was not a static tradition, but one that was built around the power of new knowledge and the great adventure of learning how to go on learning”. Hence, the Aga Khan University Hospital Karachi with its campuses in Africa and UK, Aga Khan University of Central Asia, the Aga Khan Academies of Excellence, and the Aga Khan Education Services (AKES), part of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) are all an extension of the efforts of the great Muslim leader Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III.