In a recent interview in New York, the Aga Khan answered questions from LIFE reporter Margot Dougherty and Managing Editor Richard B.Stolley.
Q. I don't think the public has a very good idea of what you do. Perhaps you could start with what we call a job description.
A. The Imamate is a hereditary office, and the Imam is responsible for guiding the practice of the faith of the Ismaili community. In matters of faith, he makes the decisions. In the matters of everyday activity, he has a large network of institutions and structures that answer to him.
Q. Do you differentiate between your personal holdings and those of the Imamate?
A. Absolutely. Investments are made by the Imam for the purpose of development. The returns are reinvested, not brought back to me personally. For example, the profits of a (business) enterprise will go to finance the operating losses of a hospital. As for myself, I have made no personal investments of any sort ever, other than two coincidences in my life.
Q. What were those.
A. One was inheriting my father's bloodstock activities (the race horses) and the other was (the resort in) Sardinia. Otherwise, I am not an entrepreneur. I am not interested in that area of life, except that I don't think that the Imamate can be active only in social development. The two have got to go hand in hand.
Q. In February, one of your most valuable horses, Shergar, was kidnapped in Ireland, and the IRA has been named as a possible suspect. What's new about the case?
A. Absolutely nothing. The Irish police have failed to come up with any clues of substance. There are two possibilities. Either the horse is dead, or the people who have him have found a way of utilizing his services during the breeding season.
Q. What are your memories of your father, Aly Khan?
A. Well, its funny, you see - I actually knew my grandfather much better than I knew my father. During the war, I was in Canada. Then after the war, I went straight into a boarding school and spent nine years there. My parents were separated, and I saw them rarely. Then I came over here and went to college. I saw my parents occasionally during holidays and that was it. With my grandfather, the relationship was completely different. He called members of the family to him. And it didn't matter where you were or what you were doing. When he said, "I want to see you," you turned out. And after an hour with you he knew everything that he could learn from you. He had a remarkably inquisitive mind. So, whereas I knew my grandfather as head of the family, I knew my father less well, and more in the form of an older brother.
Q. Was it a problem that your grandfather named you the Aga Khan and skipped over your father?
A. Very much the contrary. Daddy's loyalty was absolute, and I think it set a wonderful example for the whole family.
Q. How were you told by your grandfather that you were to be his successor?
A. It was in his will.
Q. You did not know until after his death?
A. Nobody knew.
Q. Have you made the decision on who will be the next Imam?
A. (Laughing) It would be very, very foolish of me not to. Life is no more eternal for me than for anyone else.
Q. So the assumption is that you have a will in which you have named the next Imam?
A. You may make the assumption that I have indicated who the next Imam will be.
Q. You have two sons. One of them will succeed you, the other one will not. Yet, as a father, you obviously want to treat these two sons as equally as possible. What do you do?
A. Well, during my lifetime, I will treat them absolutely identically. They must have the same education, same exposure, same understanding of their father's work. I would not want to make any differentiation between them, any more than my grandfather made a differentiation between my brother and myself.
Q. And your daughter?
A. Obviously, though my daughter cannot be Imam, there's no reason that she should not be intimately involved with and contribute to Imamate programs, particularly women's activities.
Q. If she should find her interests lie elsewhere, would that be all right with you?
Q. Was there any resentment about your marriage to a Christian divorcee?
A. I don't think so; insofar as the Imam is concerned, that's his personal decision. And my wife's marriage was actually annulled.
Q. Could you describe the role that your wife plays in both the religious and administrative activities?
A. My wife is extremely helpful, and I think she finds it a great deal easier to speak to women than I would.
Q. Is her Western background any serious impediment when she is trying to speak to the women of the third world?
A. None whatsoever. She was born and brought up during her early years in India. In fact, she still remembers a certain amount of Urdu. Asia and Africa are not foreign to her, she's totally at ease in that context.
Q. Does she travel with you?
A. Ninety percent of the time.
Q. What are our feelings about this country, and Americans?
A. I'm less hypnotized by this county's material wealth than by its wealth of knowledge. This country today represents, without any doubt in y mind, the greatest intensity of human knowledge on the face of the earth. And that is an exhilarating thought, one perhaps not perceived by Americans as much as by non-Americans.
Q. How do you avoid becoming embroiled in the political battles that are now rending the Muslim world?
A. The Imamate cannot be political organization, it can't afford to be, it should not be. I feel very strongly about that. Islam is a faith.
Q. The subject of money inevitably comes up when your name and your foundation are mentioned. Could you put to rest some of the myths?
A. 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 that misperception; that much more a Western misperception.
Q. It's a Western obsession.
A. I would go further than that. It's not a perception which is specific to the Imam or the Imamate but to the Western perception of Orientals. When you think of Orientals, all your cultural exposure is linked to that concept. In your literature, it is a extraordinary perception. And it is a specifically Western perception.
A. Because a lot of our culture came through the eyes of people who were travellers, struck by things they had never seen anywhere else. They sent back a perception without understanding what it meant. And that has stuck in Western traditions even today; its extraordinary.
Q. Do your think the reverse is true? What do your followers think of Americans?
A. Many parts of the Islamic world, and in this, the Ismailis certainly agree, perceive an American imbalance involving excessive emphasis on material comfort. I should go further than comfort. I think perhaps the concern is wealth and the way wealth is used rather than comfort. In Islam there is nothing wrong in 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.