Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III: Laying the Foundations for Ismaili Women’s Progress

On November 2, Shi'a Nizari Ismaili Muslims across the world will commemorate the birth anniversary of their forty-eighth Imam, Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III, the grandfather of the present Imam, Karim al-Husseini Aga Khan IV. On this anniversary, we remember him for his dedicated efforts towards the socio-economic development of Muslims globally, and, in particular, for creating an authorizing environment for the progress of Ismaili women.

By: Shenila Khoja-Moolji

The Ismaili Imamat

The Nizari Ismaili Imamat is a hereditary office in succession from the first Imam, Hazrat Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him and his progeny), who was married to Hazrat Bibi Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. The role of the Ismaili Imam is to provide religious interpretation to enhance an individual’s spiritual search and to give practical expression to the ethical vision of society that the Islamic message inspires.[i] This mandate has translated into wide-ranging efforts by the Imams toward improving the quality of life of their followers and the communities in which they live.

Born on November 2, 1877, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III assumed Imamat at the age of eight. His Imamat lasted for 72 years, during which he went on to establish himself as an influential political leader, not only in colonial India but also on the international scene. In addition to helping establish the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh in 1875, the Aga Khan worked closely with the leaders of the Aligarh Movement to secure the recognition of Muslims as an independent political entity.[ii] In 1902, he was appointed to the Legislative Council set up by Lord Curzon and, in 1906, was elected as president of All-India Muslim League, a political party that he helped found and that would eventually secure Pakistan as a separate state for Muslims. He remained active in Indian politics throughout his life but over time increasingly took on international policy-orientated tasks, including serving as the president of the League of Nations.[iii]

While the Aga Khan advocated comprehensive reforms for Muslims both as a leader of Indian Muslims and as the Imam of Nizari Ismaili Muslims, he adopted a more hands-on approach when it came to the latter. For Shi'a Ismaili Muslim women in particular, he stands out as a salient figure. At a time when avenues for women’s development were extremely limited, he used the weight of his spiritual authority to create an enabling environment for women’s progress. While this article surveys the Imam’s efforts in the realm of women’s educational advancement, it is important to remember that these efforts were not undertaken in isolation. He also reformed communal laws and policies, including increasing the age of marriage and instituting policies to ensure adequate representation of women on decision-making bodies, such as the Ismaili Councils.

Sultan Mahomed Shah
Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah. Courtesy Shenila Khoja-Moolji.


Muslim Women’s Education in Colonial India

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Muslims underwent political and social dislocation as the British entrenched themselves in India.[iv] While earlier, the British had sought alliances with local rulers, after the rebellion of 1857, they shifted to direct administration, which precipitated the decline in resources such as stipends, employment, and other privileges that the ashraf (or Muslim elite social classes) had enjoyed. Furthermore, changes in inheritance laws and pensions/tributes left many families with limited resources. The British also articulated their ideal of the separation of religion and state, clearly demarcating the arenas for religion, education, politics, and the market. These changes motivated a reinterpretation of Islam in order to make the religion relevant to the new realities of Indian Muslims. It was hoped that this exercise of reinterpretation and self-reflection would lead to a revival of Muslims, and so allow India’s Muslims to regain their political space and social status.

Women, and their social practices, emerged as a prominent discursive space in and through which social reformers expressed their hopes for reinvigorating Muslims. Women went from not being appropriate for raising children, to becoming the upholders of familial morality, domestic managers, and mothers of future citizens. Their education, religious practices, relations with each other and with the opposite sex, mobility, and waged work, all came under intense scrutiny. While there was consensus around reforming women through education, Muslim social reformers differed on which knowledges were necessary for women, as well as the spaces where women could acquire these knowledges. These differences can be mapped onto the reformers’ varying assumptions about women’s social roles. Broadly, there were those who believed that all kinds of knowledges that were considered appropriate for boys were relevant for girls as well; those who thought that knowledges imparted in English schools were out of the question for sharif (respectable) girls and that Muslims had to devise their own institutions and curricula for them; and others who believed that elementary literacy skills acquired at home were adequate for women.

Prominent Muslim education reformer, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (d. 1898), for example, argued that it was not necessary to invest in the public education of women. While Sir Syed advocated for a broad education for men, he did not think that education beyond the religious sciences was necessary for girls, or that separate schools had to be established for them. He said, “the present state of education among Muhammadan females is, in my opinion, enough for domestic happiness, considering the present social and economic condition of the life of the Muhammadans of India.”[v] He believed that educated men would be able to educate their wives, sisters, and daughters at home. Another key Muslim reformer, Ashraf Ali Thanawi (d. 1943), of the Deoband madrasa was unwilling to compromise on the prevalent practices of seclusion and, hence, argued for increasing women’s basic literacy skills just enough so that they were able to communicate with the outside world and engage in the practice of religion. Thanawi was an influential religious scholar and his text, Bahishti zewar (Heavenly Ornaments), published in 1905, is considered one of the most widely-read Urdu books in Muslim South Asia. The text introduces women to Islamic norms and provides a curriculum of sorts, so that women could address their needs without leaving the homosocial space of the zenana.

By the turn of the twentieth century, however, the question around women’s education within sharif circles had evolved from whether or not women should have an education to what knowledges they required and the ideal location to transmit them. Mumtaz Ali (d. 1935), a prominent advocate of women’s education and co-founder of the women’s journal Tehzib-e-Niswan, called for a broad education of women, which included the study of religious sciences as well as reading and writing. In his work Huquq-e-niswan (Women’s Rights), published in 1898, he argued that since God had given women equal intellectual faculties as men, they deserve access to the same education.[vi] He countered his critics who believed that too much education would lead to vulgarity in women by noting that any education that did so could lead to the same vulgarity in men as well.[vii] He believed that a broad education would enable women to develop the skills necessary for becoming better, more interesting companions for their husbands. His articulation for the need for companionship within marriages seems to be premised on the complementarity between the male provider and female housewife, which led him to prioritize women’s roles as wives and their ability to fulfill their domestic responsibilities. He even went on to present a strategy for expanding women’s education through establishing a women’s newspaper and publishing a list of novels suitable for study by women.[viii]

It is in this heterogeneous political and social milieu that the Aga Khan advanced his notions of education.

The Imam’s efforts for Women’s Education

The Aga Khan argued that women should be educated not only for the purpose of discharging responsibilities in the domestic sphere and as bearers of civilization, but also for becoming economically independent from their male relations and acquiring personal happiness.[ix] In his text India in Transition, he notes that one of the reasons due to which reforms for women’s progress had been slow was because they had been motivated by the end purpose of service to the other gender and not for women themselves. He suggests that “the constant argument has been that of the necessity for providing educated and intelligent wives and daughters, sisters and mothers, for the men . . . the time has come for a full recognition that the happiness and welfare of the women themselves, must be the end and purpose of all efforts towards improvement.”[x] In fact, with respect to his own followers, the Ismaili Muslims, he noted, “I am trying to guide our young women’s lives into entirely new channels. I want to see them able to earn their living in trades and professions, so that they are not economically dependent on marriage, nor a burden on their fathers and brothers.”[xi]

Shi'a Ismaili Muslims, who were a minority interpretative tradition in Islam, hailed primarily from the non-ashraf classes. The Aga Khan was thus concerned with a population that was often poor and did not have the resources to partake in home-visitation or home-based educative efforts. Relatedly, he hoped to improve the economic well-being of his followers, and hence welcomed women’s participation in economic activities. He, therefore, did not want education for girls to stop with basic literary or elementary religious knowledge, and emphasized that “all knowledge in the world should be open to girls.”[xii] As a Muslim leader with strong ties to the British administration and extensive exposure to social movements in Britain and America, the Aga Khan argued for universal and compulsory access to education for the masses, and worked with the British government to instate legislation that would make primary education compulsory for both boys and girls.[xiii] To increase his female followers’ mobility, he banned the purdah, noting that “the free social and intellectual part played in the life of Arabia by Imam Hussain’s daughter, Sakina, and by the daughter of Talha and the great grand daughters of Khalifa Abu Bakar can be contrasted with the position of women in the 19th century.”[xiv] In his memoirs he notes, “in my grandfather’s and my father’s time the Ismailis were far ahead of any other Muslim sect in the matter of the abolition of the strict veil, even in extremely conservative countries. I have absolutely abolished it; nowadays you will never find an Ismaili woman wearing the veil.”[xv] In this regard the Aga Khan was indeed an outlier when compared to his peers. Even Mumtaz Ali, while advocating the toning down of the strict purdah observed by Indian women,[xvi] was neither in favor of its abandonment nor for the integration of women in the public school system. However, while condemning purdah among his followers, the Aga Khan was careful not to fall into the Orientalist trap of seeing purdah as a social ill, as the British did. In a letter to the Times on August 8, 1919, he disagrees with Lord Southborough’s denial of suffrage for Indian women on the grounds that Muslim women in purdah would not be willing to go to the polling booths; he argues that “purdah ladies go into the law and registration courts all over the country, and give evidence in relation to the transfer of property,”[xvii] and that women’s electoral franchise is an issue of justice.

The Aga Khan also instituted legal reforms that maximized the chances for his female followers to access education. He emphasized that a girl should not be married off too young, and that she should instead be allowed to develop and study.[xviii] To ensure that Ismaili girls had this opportunity, he outlawed child marriages and set the minimum age at which Ismaili girls and boys could marry.[xix] He is also noted to have said, “Personally, if I had two children, and one was a boy and the other a girl, and if I could afford to educate only one, I would have no hesitation in giving the higher education to the girl.”[xx] In doing so, the Imam reconstituted the priorities of the Ismaili community.

What we have, then, is a reformer whose investment in a particular social class of Muslims moved him to articulate a vision of education that could lead to greater social and economic mobility for women. The Aga Khan supplemented his guidance by contributing material resources to advance women’s education. He established over two hundred schools in India and East Africa during the first half of the twentieth century, the first of them in 1905 in Gwadar (in today’s Pakistan) and Mundra (in India).[xxi] He also put in place smaller scale programs at the village-level in Northern Pakistan. The Aga Khan recognized that lasting change in women’s lives could not be achieved without a legitimizing environment at the community level that valued women’s education and contributions to society. He therefore used his authority as the Imam to initiate changes in the social organization of the Ismaili community by appointing women to influential Ismaili social governance bodies and encouraging them to serve in leadership positions. Through these appointments, he allowed women not only to lead and build social capital but also bring their agendas to the table. Women were encouraged to organize at the community level and participate fully in religious life. As early as the 1920s, Ismaili women had formed volunteer organizations in India. The Aga Khan’s wife, Begum Um Habibeh (d. 2000), guided Ismaili women through her own example and assumed a public role in the leadership of many community affairs. The Aga Khan’s efforts for Ismaili women’s advancement, thus, spanned across religious, material, and ideological fronts.

The reforms undertaken by Imam Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan III have had far-reaching impact on improving the quality of life of Ismaili Muslim women globally, and those early efforts continue to be strengthened and expanded upon by the present Imam of Ismaili Muslims, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan. Several decades ago, he set the goal that at least 40–50 percent members on institutional councils should be women;[xxii] today we find several women in highest positions within these organizations. Through the Aga Khan Development Network, the Imam continues to enhance women’s economic, educational, and social development. For example, the Aga Khan Foundation’s Afghanistan Women’s Empowerment program advances women’s economic independence by providing trainings in locally-relevant vocational skills, business management and entrepreneurship. The Aga Khan Cultural Services’ Women Social Enterprise project (CIQAM) in Pakistan trains women in professions dominated by men, such as carpentry, furniture making and woodwork in order to enhance their incomes.

Aga Khan IV
Figure 2. Hazar Imam (present Imam) of Shi'a Nizari Ismailis, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan. Attribution: Patrick Tsui/FCO


Contemporary Ismaili women’s strength within and beyond the community has thus been made possible due to the authorizing environment created by their Imams. At the same time, Ismaili women themselves have also supplemented the work of their Imams by volunteering their labor toward these efforts as well as continuing to raise their consciousness through women’s groups and other efforts. Indeed, women’s development remains an ongoing endeavor.


Shenila Khoja-Moolji is Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College and an HDS alum where she focused on Islamic Studies. Professor Khoja-Moolji is an interdisciplinary scholar working at the intersections of feminist theory, cultural studies, and critical Muslim Studies. She is currently writing a book about Shia Ismaili refugee women. Follow her on twitter @SKhojaMoolji


To learn more about Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah’s context, read: Shenila Khoja-Moolji, Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018. Open access electronic version available here.


[i] For more see While there are various interpretative traditions of Shi’a Ismaili Muslims across the world including Nizaris, Bohras, Tayyibis, and others, unless denoted otherwise this article will refer to Nizari Shi’a Muslims when referencing Ismaili Shi’as.

[ii] Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, The Memoirs of Aga Khan, World Enough and Time (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954a), 103 and 125.

[iii] Ibid., 283.

[iv] Barbara Metcalf, Islamic reform and Islamic women. Maulana Thanawi’s Jewelry of Paradise, in Moral Conduct and Authority, ed. Barbara Metcalf, Berkeley, Calif. 1984, p. 184.

[v] As cited in Gail Minault, “Women’s Magazines in Urdu as Sources for Muslim Social History,” Indian Journal for Gender Studies 5, no. 2 (1998): 18.

[vi] Mumtaz Ali, Huquq-e-niswan (Lahore: Punjab Publishers, 1898), 43.

[vii] Ibid., 44.

[viii] Ibid., 56.

[ix] Aga Khan, India in transition, A study in political evolution, (New York: G. Putnam, 1918), 354.

[x] Ibid., 258.

[xi] As cited in Qayyum Malick, His Royal Highness Prince Aga Khan: Guide, philosopher and friend of the Islamic world, (Karachi: Ismailia Association for Pakistan, 1969), 211.

[xii] As cited in Adatia and King, “Some East African Firmans of H. H. Aga Khan III,” Journal of Religion in Africa 2, no. 2 (1969): 187.

[xiii] Elsewhere, I have also considered the influence that emerging feminist movements in Britain, Egypt, and America had on the Aga Khan’s views; see Shenila Khoja-Moolji, “Redefining Muslim Women: Aga Khan III’s Reforms for Women’s Education,” South Asia Graduate Research Journal 20, no. 1 (2011): 69–95.

[xiv] Aga Khan, Message to the World of Islam (Ismailia Association of Pakistan, 1977).

[xv] Aga Khan, The Memoirs of Aga Khan: World Enough and Time (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), 27.

[xvi] See Mumtaz Ali, Huquq-e-niswan (Lahore: Punjab Publishers, 1898): 60–70.

[xvii] As quoted in K. K. Aziz, Aga Khan III: Selected Speeches and Writings of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, 2 vols. (London: Kegan Paul International, 1997), 646.

[xviii] Adatia and King, “Some East African Firmans,” 187.

[xix] Ali Asani, “Improving the Status of women through reform in marriage contract law: The experience of the Nizari Ismaili Community,” in The Islamic Marriage Contract: Case Studies in Islamic Marriage Law, eds. Quraishi and Vogel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 4.

[xx] Quoted in “Aga Khan: A study in Humanism,” Institute of Ismaili Studies,

[xxi] “Aga Khan Schools in South Asia,” Aga Khan Schools,

[xxii] Asani, “Improving the Status of Women,” 6.