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Prince Karim Aga Khan IV and the Ismaili Sect of Shia Islam

This month, members of the Nizari Ismaili branch of Islam celebrate 54 years since their leader took over.

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Prince Karim Aga Khan the IV doesn't exactly fit the profile you'd expect of a Muslim holy man. He's a half-European billionaire, a former world-class skier, and the one-time stepson of Hollywood legend Rita Hayworth.

To his followers, he's a living legend, a direct descendent of the prophet Mohammed. But he has also become a significant figure in international development, literally reshaping the landscape.

High up in the Pamir Mountains of Eastern Tajikistan, bulldozers are moving mounds of earth to make way for a new college campus. When it's finished, people are expected to come from around Central Asia to study here.

This is just one planned branch of the University of Central Asia, with others underway in nearby Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The funding comes from the Aga Khan Development Network, which doles out more than half a billion dollars a year to philanthropic projects. It's a secular organization.

But the man behind the foundation is the leader of the Nizari Ismailis, the second largest branch of Shia Islam, with an estimated 15 million followers worldwide. They're scattered throughout at least 25 nations, including sizeable populations in the U.S. and Canada.

In Tajikistan, Nizari Ismailis make up the majority in the Pamir Mountains, a range whose height has earned it the moniker the "Roof of the World." Photos of their leader, known as "the Aga Khan," grace the walls of virtually every home and business here.

Last week, Nizari Ismailis celebrated the Aga Khan's rise to the position of "imam." Dr. Ali Mohammad Rajput is a Khalifa in the city of Khorog, Tajikistan. He said each imam chooses his successor from among his male descendents. The current Aga Khan was chosen by his grandfather.

"He's the 49th imam after Ali," Rajput said. "We Ismailis see him as the imam of our time."

Ismailism is an offshoot of Shia Islam. The sect broke away in the 8th century after a dispute over succession. The Aga Khan leads the largest group of Ismailis, although there are other sects. Druze and Alevis are considered Ismailis. Dr. Rajput said the Aga Khan urges his followers to find common ground with all faiths.

"Aga Khan told me you must build bridges. Make bridges to others. Make friendships," Rajput said.

That theme was mentioned again and again at a recent public prayer service in Khorog, Tajikistan, commemorating the Aga Khan's 54th year as imam.

Although his personal life makes him a frequent subject in European gossip pages, the Aga Khan has said he prefers to stay out of the limelight, allowing his development work to speak for itself. That work is on display throughout Tajikistan, a former Soviet Republic and the poorest nation in Central Asia. In the tradition of Nizari Ismailis, who are credited with building Cairo and Al-Azhar University, the world's first, he's built schools, hospitals and parks here.

Shortly after the U.S.S.R. fell in the early 90s, Tajikistan descended into five years of civil war. Iftikhor Kukanboev teaches religion in Khorog. He said the Aga Khan provided help to the Pamir region when no one else did.

"There was a lot of support from his Highness the Aga Khan," Kukanboev said. "All the roads were blocked to this part of the world, there was no food provision coming, there was nothing and this was the imam who provided people with food and everything."

Despite the Aga Khan's efforts in this far corner of the world, poverty continues to plague Tajikistan. Nizari Ismailis are among thousands of Tajiks who go abroad each year in search of work.

For those left behind, devotion has helped them hold on while their nation continues to find its footing.

  • ismailiPhoto-header.jpg

    The ceiling of a Pamiri House. The layers represent the four elements of nature: earth, air, water and fire. Each home has five pillars honoring the most important historical figures to Nizari Ismailis: the prophet Mohammed, his son-in-law Ali and daughte

  • IsmailiPhoto2.jpg

    Signs expressing devotion to the "Aga Khan", imam of the Nizari Ismaili branch of Islam, are visible throughout the Pamir Mountains of Eastern Tajikistan, where the vast majority of residents are his followers. (photo: Lily Jamali)

  • IsmailiPhoto3.jpg

    Construction is currently underway at the University of Central Asia's Tajikistan branch in Khorog, with others also underway in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The campuses are among the many projects in Central Asia lead by the Aga Khan Development Network.

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