November 2 marks the birth anniversary of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III (1877 to 1957) — grandfather of the present spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV.
Sir Aga Khan III, the 48th Imam of Ismaili Muslims, whose birth anniversary is being commemorated today (Friday), was a staunch advocate of education, particularly for women. His contributions in the sectors of political rehabilitation, health, education and social development of Muslims around the world are unprecedented.
Acknowledging his commitment to the educational development of Muslims, Sir Aga Khan III was nominated as a member of the Imperial Legislative Council by Viceroy Lord Curzon in 1902 when he was 25 years old.
The foundation of the current education and health system being run under the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) was laid by him and is being currently administered by His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV.
Sir Aga Khan III established over 200 schools all over the world — the first in 1905 in Zanzibar and Pakistan. The era also gave birth to the Diamond Jubilee schools for girls, now commonly known as DJ schools.
At a time when school conditions and teaching methods in northern Pakistan used to be harsh and educating females was an alien phenomenon, the establishment of the DJ schools during the 1940s was a major social breakthrough.
“While advocating the system of higher education, I must also draw your attention to the absolute necessity of a sound system of primary education. No solid superstructure can stand safely on softer soil,” he had said during his inaugural speech at the All-India Muhammadan Educational Conference held on December 4, 1911 in Delhi, India.
“In order to raise our people to their legitimate sphere of power, influence and usefulness, we must have a serviceable and extended system of education for the benefit of the masses.”
Today, the Aga Khan Education Service, Pakistan (AKESP) operates 182 schools, reaching out to over 38,000 students and employs over 1,600 teachers all across Pakistan.
Many health initiatives, undertaken almost a century ago, have gained impetus in the last few decades with the establishment of health centres run by the Aga Khan Health Services and the renowned Aga Khan University Hospital.
Sir Aga Khan III realised that the main cause of the “political backwardness” of Muslims was due to their neglect of education — and spreading education among Muslims became the most important mission of his life.
In 1911, he started collecting funds to realise Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s dream of the Aligarh University. Apart from substantial funding, he made significant donations for scholarships.
He also played a pivotal role in making the Pakistan Movement a success, leading a deputation of Muslims to the viceroy and demanding separate electorates for Muslims. He presided over the Muslim League from 1906 to 1913 and was unanimously elected as the chairman of the League of Nations in 1937.
He passed away on July 11, 1957 and was laid to eternal rest in Aswan, Egypt.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 2nd, 2012.