Aga Khan marks 60 years as leader of Ismaili Shiites

The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam, is opening a yearlong jubilee to mark his 60th anniversary leading the community with a call Tuesday for greater respect for pluralism in the Islamic world and action to reduce poverty.

Among Muslim leaders, the Aga Khan holds a unique position. The community he leads as "imam" is not large — around 20 million adherents, compared to the estimates of several hundred million followers of Shiism's main branch, known as the "Twelvers." Sunnis make up the majority of the approximately 1.5 billion Muslims around the world.

But while other Islamic communities have a fragmented leadership, the 80-year-old, Paris-based Aga Khan is accepted across the Nazari Ismaili community as the "imam," or spiritual head, giving him a singular status.

His voice is amplified by his wide-scale development programs, funded from his immense wealth and contributions from Ismailis, who are mainly centered in South and Central Asia but have significant communities in Africa and a small presence in Syria and Lebanon. The Aga Khan Development Network operates in 30 countries, leading health, education and infrastructure programs.

Throughout the Diamond Jubilee year that began Tuesday, the Aga Khan will travel to countries where the network operates to launch new programs to alleviate poverty and increase access to financing for housing, education and childhood development, the network said.

Born Prince Karim al-Husseini in Geneva, he succeeded his grandfather as Aga Khan on June 11, 1957, at the age of 20. He is the 49th Ismaili imam, a line that traces itself back to Islam's prophet, Muhammad.

It is part of the mandate of the imam to "try to contribute to improving the quality of life of the community and those among whom the community lives," the Aga Khan told reporters ahead of the jubilee.

He said Muslims should work on building an "empathetic, welcoming, peaceful and generous" society, which he called "a fundamental ethic of our faith."

"All those are ethical principles of our faith, they're very clear," he said. "So it's really a question of how we put those principles in place in governance and civil society."

The focus should be on building quality of life and pluralism — meaning "equity toward all people and backgrounds," he added. Muslim countries "have been pluralist for many centuries," but various forces, including colonialism, have separated them by ethnic groups and sect, he said.

"We are in a period of history where I think that inherited situation needs to be dealt with," he said.