The Rise of the Aga Khan Dynasty – Part 1

Aga Khan I – Syed Ḥasan-ʿAlī Shah Aga Khan Maḥallātī (1219-1300/1804-81) was the last imam of the Nizārī Ismaʿilis to reside in Iran and the first to bear the title of Aga Khan.

He was born in the vilage of Kahak near Maḥallāt in central Iran, where his father, Shah Khalīlallāh, had transferred the seat of the imamate from Kirman in 1194/1780. Later, however, Shah Khalīlallāh moved to Yazd, in order to be closer to the main body of his followers in India, leaving his wife and son to live on the proceeds of the family holdings. Disputes among the local Ismaʿilis left them unprovided for, and they moved to Qom, where their situation turned out to be still more precarious.

Becoming Aga Khan

In 1233/1817, Shah Khalīlallāh was murdered in his residence at Yazd, as the result of an altercation in the bazaar between some Ismaʿilis and the townsfolk. His widow left Qom for the court in Tehran, where she successfully pleaded for justice. Not only were those responsible for the killing of Shah Khalīlallāh punished and family lands in the Maḥallāt region extended, but his son, Ḥasan-ʿAlī Shah was given a daughter of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah Qajar (r. 1212-50/1797-1834) in marriage. Her name was Sarv-e Jahān Khanum.  Ḥasan-ʿAlī Shah was also appointed governor of Qom. (According to Aḥmad Mīrzā ʿAżod-al-dawla [Tārīḵ-e ʿAżodī, ed. ʿA. Navāʾī, Tehran, 2535 = 1355 Š./1977, pp. 21-22] the main reason was services of his father in the establishment of the Qajar dynasty.)

Timeline of the first Aga Khan’s life events

It was as a result of this appointment by Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah Qajar that Ḥasan-ʿAlī Shah acquired the title of Aga Khan, which has now become the hereditary title of Nizārī Ismaʿili imams. The current Aga Khan still recognizes and pays homage to Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah Qajar whose portrait is seen hanging numerous times on notable occassions.

Ḥasan-ʿAlī Shah, the first Aga Khan, apparently led a tranquil existence until the death of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah in 1250/1834, and even acquired a personal military force, which participated in quelling disturbances during the brief interval between Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah and his successor, Moḥammad Shah (r. 1250-64/1834-48).

The Aga Khan traveled to Tehran to congratulate Moḥammad Shah on his accession, and was appointed by him governor of Kirman, a province containing many Ismaʿilis that had once been governed by his grandfather. The province had now been infested with rebels, whom the Aga Khan undertook to suppress without any advance payment, on the understanding that he should later recover his expenses from the revenue of the province.

Aga Khan’s Removal as Governor of Kirman

The task was completed within a year, but the Aga Khan’s tenure of his governorship was short-lived. In 1252/1836 an army advanced on Kirman in order to replace him with Fīrūz Mīrzā, a Qajar prince.

His dismissal was probably occasioned by Sufi rivalries that had become interwoven with political intrigue. It appears that the Aga Khan—like several of his ancestors and relatives—belonged to the Neʿmatallāhī order, owing his loyalty to Zayn-al-ʿābedīn Šīrvānī (Mast-ʿAlī Shah). When another Neʿmatallāhī initiate, Haji Mīrzā Āqāšī, the grand vizier (ṣadr-e aʿẓam) of Moḥammad Shah, sought to displace Zayn-al-ʿābedīn from his position of supremacy within the order, the Aga Khan remained faithful to the claims of Zayn-al-ʿābedīn; Haji Mīrzā Āqāšī therefore avenged himself dismissing the Aga Khan from the governorship of Kirman.

An early painting of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah Qajar

It is also possible that the links between the Aga Khan and the British, which became so obvious at a later date, existed already at this time, and the Iranian government may have felt it desirable to remove him from Kirman, a province dangerously close to India.

In any event, the Aga Khan forcefully resisted his dismissal, as seems to have been anticipated. He withdrew with his forces to the citadel at Bam, but was obliged to surrender after a siege lasting fourteen months. There followed eight months of captivity in Kirman and a period of retreat at the shrine of Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm before he was given an audience at court to plead for mercy. Moḥammad Shah pardoned him on condition that he retire to the family lands at Maḥallāt.

Aga Khan back in Maḥallāt and to Yazd

The Aga Khan stayed in Maḥallāt for about two years gathering an army comprising both Ismaʿilis and non-Ismaʿili mercenaries with a view to resuming his rebellion. In order to conceal his intentions, he sought permission to leave Iran and visit Mecca (an act which would have been highly unusual for an Ismaʿili imam). Permission was granted, and the Aga Khan left Maḥallāt in Raǰab, 1256/September, 1840. Instead of proceeding to Bandar ʿAbbās to embark for the Ḥeǰāz, he headed for Yazd.

Portrait of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah Qajar
behind Karim Aga Khan

He showed forged documents indicating that he had been reinstated as the governor of Kirman (A. ʿA. Wazīrī, Tārīḵ-e Kirman, ed. M. E. Bāstānī Pārīsī, Tehran, 1340 Š./1961, p. 388) and showed the forged papers to Bahman Mīrzā, the governor of that city.

Bahman Mīrzā soon realized the papers were false, and a clash took place between his forces and those of the Aga Khan in which the Aga Khan’s forces were victorious.

After a few months at the village of Rūmanī near Šahr-e Bābak, the Aga Khan moved westwards in the direction of Fārs, where he stayed until the spring of 1258/1842 (ʿEbrat-afzā, ed. Kūhī Kirmanī, pp. 32-35).

A sketch of Ḥasan ʿAlī Shāh with a local mukhi and kamadia

Clashes in Kirman and settling in India

Then he set out once more in the direction of Kirman. He enjoyed a number of initial successes in fighting against government troops on the outskirts of the city, primarily because of the advantage given him by two cannons of British provenance (see letter of Haji Mīrzā Āqāšī to the British Embassy in Ādamīyat, Amīr-e kabīr, p. 259). Ultimately, however, he was driven back from Kirman by a force of 24,000 men under the command of Fażl-ʿAlī Khan Qarabāḡī, and he decided to flee to India, possibly by previous arrangement with the British authorities (see ʿEbrat-afzā, pp. 48-54).

The way to the coast was blocked, so he traversed the Dašt-e Lūṭ to Qāʾen and thence crossed into Afghanistan. Thus ended the Iranian period of the Nizārī Ismaʿili imamate.

Once inside Afghanistan, he advanced with his remaining followers—about a thousand in number—by way of Gerešk to Qandahār, which was then under British occupation. Major Rawlinson, the taḥṣīldār, assigned him a daily allowance of a hundred rupees, and anxious to be of service to those whom he calls in his memoirs “the people of God” (ibid., p. 56), the Aga Khan offered to conquer Herat on their behalf. The proposal was accepted, but soon all British plans in Afghanistan were nullified by the uprising of Moḥammad-Akbar Khan and the annihilation of the British garrison in Kabul. The Aga Khan, however, still found occasion to be useful, by aiding General Nott to evacuate his forces from Qandahār and join up with a relief column coming from Sind (The Aga Khan, Memoirs: World Enough and Time, London, 1954, p. 21).

Aga Khan’s Role in Sind and title of Highness

Portrait of Fath ʿAlī Shāh Qajar behind Karim Aga Khan

The Aga Khan continued supplying mercenary services in Sind, where he helped the British in implementing the “forward policy.” He not only placed his cavalry at their disposal but also put pressure on Nāṣer Khan, the ruler of Kalāt, to cede Karachi to the British, and when he proved inflexible, he betrayed his battle plans to the British (see ʿEbrat-afzā, p. 60; William Napier, History of Sir Charles Napier’s Administration of Scinde [Sind], London, 1851, p.75). For these and other services rendered in Sind, the Aga Khan received an annual subvention of 2,000 pounds and the hereditary title of Highness.

Despite his increasing involvement with the British, the Aga Khan seems initially to have hoped to return to Iran. Profiting from the British desire to subdue Baluchistan, he participated in the campaigns against various Baluchi chieftains and sent two of his brothers, Moḥammad-Bāqer Khan and Abu’l-Ḥasan Khan, across the border into Iranian Baluchistan to establish a bridgehead at Bampūr for the subsequent conquest of south-east Iran. Despite some early successes, the plan failed (see Ādamīyat, Amīr-e kabīr, p. 213).

In the meantime, the Aga Khan had proceeded via Kuchh, Kathiawar, Junagarh, Surat and Daman to Bombay, visiting Ismaʿili communities on his way.

Iran’s Demand of Extradition and Aga Khan’s Permanent Residence in India

Soon after he arrived in Muharram 1262/January, 1846, the Iranian government demanded his extradition, citing article fourteen of the Anglo-Iranian Treaty of 1299/1814. The British refused to comply, promising only to transfer the Aga Khan to Calcutta. Even this measure was delayed, however, while the British made efforts to secure a pardon and honorable return to Iran for their protégé. When the Iranian government proved inflexible, the Aga Khan was finally sent to Calcutta in April 1847. There he remained until the death of Moḥammad Shah the following year, when, hoping for a show of leniency in the new reign he returned to Bombay and had the British make new efforts on his behalf. These, too, were unavailing, and after a final approach to the Iranian government in 1852, the Aga Khan resigned himself to permanent residence in India.

New Beginnings in India

The new place of residence was not without its benefits. Not only did the British continue their patronage (the Aga Khan was the only Indian dignitary visited in his home by the Prince of Wales on his state visit to India), but also it became possible to organize the Ismaʿili community more tightly and profitably than had been possible at the remote and changing seats of the imamate in Iran. Ismaʿilis from places as distant as Badakhshān had shown great resourcefulness in visiting their imam even during his campaigns and wanderings in south-east Iran, Afghanistan and Sind; now that he was settled in Bombay, the flow of tribute swelled to a flood, and in the words of one Ismaʿili source, “the palaces of the Aga Khan began to cover a large area of Bombay” (M. Ghāleb, Aʿlām al-Esmāʿīlīya, p. 217).

Portrait of Fath ʿAlī Shāh Qajar behind Karim Aga Khan

Aga Khan’s Conflicts with Khojas

This position of reinforced power and prosperity was not won without a fight. Certain of the local Ismaʿilis (converts from Hinduism known as khojas) had been refusing the payment of their religious dues (the dasond, literally 10% of the property of the faithful, but sometimes as much as 12.5%) even before the Aga Khan’s migration to India. In order to enforce the payments, he had sent his grandmother to Bombay, who—among other measures—instituted a suit against the dissidents in the Bombay High Court. The dissidents, known as barabhai (or as barbhai), because they were twelve in number, were expelled from the community, but subsequently readmitted to the community after they had paid their arrears and apologized.

Khoja Reformers

This by no means settled the matter, however, and a reformist party of khojas came into being, which formulated doctrinal as well as financial objections to the position of the Aga Khan, denouncing in particular his claims to divinity. The Aga Khan and his reformist opponents clashed in court in 1847, and three years later the conflict took a bloody turn with the murder of four reformists at the Bombay Jamatkhana. The murderers were executed, and given a martyr’s burial under the personal supervision of the Aga Khan. In order to secure a pledge of loyalty from the members of his community, the Aga Khan circulated papers in 1862 summarizing the doctrine of the Nizārī Ismaʿili sect and requiring all in agreement to sign.

Aga Khan vs. Khojas in Aga Khan Case 1866

Matters finally came to a head in 1866 when dissenting khojas filed a suit in Bombay against the Aga Khan demanding that an accounting be made of all communal property; that the property be held in trust for charitable, religious and public uses; that the religious officials of the community (mukhīs and kamadīyas) be elected; and that the Aga Khan refrain from interfering in the management of communal property, appointing mukhīs and kamadīyas, and charging fees for discharging the functions of the imamate.

The Aga Khan Case: Religion and Identity in Colonial India by Teena Purohit

After a hearing lasting twenty-five days, in the course of which the Aga Khan himself testified, and presented Das Avatar as evidence of his authority over the Khojas, Justice Joseph Arnould gave a long and detailed judgement, finding against the plaintiffs and for the Aga Khan in all points (for the text of the judgement, see A. S. Picklay, History of the Ismailis, Bombay, 1940, pp. 113-70).

Probably the most important effect of this ruling was to place, for the first time, all the community property of the Nizārī Ismaʿilis in the name of the Aga Khan and under his absolute control; the legal basis for the vast fortune of his heirs was thus laid.


Aga Khan Maḥallātī wrote an autobiography, Tārīḵ-eʿebrat-afza, which was first published in Bombay in 1278/1861, and reprinted in 1325 Š./1946 by Ḥ. Kūhī Kirmanī in Tehran.

A Gujarati translation appeared soon after its first publication. According to W. Ivanow (Ismaili Literature: A Bibliographical Survey, Tehran, 1963, pp. 148-49), the Tārīḵ-eʿebrat-afza was written on behalf of the Aga Khan by Mīrzā Aḥmad Weqār Šīrāzī, son of the celebrated poet Weṣāl, but he cites no evidence beyond the fact that Weqār visited Bombay in 1266/1850.

Contrary to what, Ivanow implies, the account of Weqār in Maʿṣūm-ʿAlī Shah’s Ṭarāʾeq al-ḥaqāʾeq (ed. M. J. Maḥǰūb, Tehran, 1345 Š./1965, III, pp. 372-73) does not mention any ties between Weqār and the Aga Khan.

According to Moḥammad Fedāʾī, (Tārīḵ-e Esmāʿīlīya, p. 154) the Aga Khan wrote a book called Bahrām o Nīmrūz, describing the circumstances of his departure from Iran; it is not clear whether this is the same book as ʿEbrat-afzā. Fedāʾī also devotes some thirty pages (pp. 146-76) to the miracles the Aga Khan allegedly performed from infancy to death.

See also H. Algar, “The Revolt of Āghā Khān Maḥallātī and the Transference of the Ismāʿīlī Imamate to India,” Stud. Isl. 29, 1969, pp. 55-81 (includes references to all relevant Persian chronicles).

A J. Chunara, Noorum Mubin, or the Sacred Cord of God: A Glorious History of Ismaʿili Imams (in Gujarati), Bombay, 1951, pp. 401-23.

M. Ḡāleb, Aʿlām al-Esmāʿīlīya, Beirut, 1964, pp. 214-19.

Idem, Taʾrīḵ al-daʿwa al-Esmāʿīlīya, Damascus, 1953, pp. 267-69.

J. N. Hollister, The Shiʿa of India, London, 1953, pp. 364-70.

B. Lewis, The Assassins, New York, 1968, pp. 15-17.

Z. Noorally, The First Aga Khan and the British, 1838-1868, unpublished M.A. thesis, University of London, April, 1964.

N. Pourjavady and P. L. Wilson, “Ismāʿīlīs and Niʿmatullāhīs,” Stud. Isl. 41, 1975, pp. 114-35.

F. Ādamīyat, Amīr-e kabīr o Īrān, 4th ed., Tehran, 1354 Š./1975, pp. 255-61.

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