At anniversary, Ismaili Muslims maintaining positive image in the West

Both their tolerant approach towards people of other faiths and their humanitarian and development initiatives contribute to a positive image of Ismaili Imami Muslims (also called Nizaris) in the West, while their spiritual understanding of Quranic rules, veneration for their current imam and openness to the Western way of life earn them criticism from more conservative Sunni and Shia Muslims, writes Liane Wobbe in the German monthly Materialdienst der EZW (December). In 2017 and 2018, the believers of the main branch of Ismaili Shia Islam celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of their current leader, Karim Aga Khan IV (b. 1936), who has been the 49th Imam of the community for 60 years. The path of Ismailism diverged from that of other Shia Muslims in the 8th century over succession issues, and a schism within Ismailism in the late 11th century marked the starting point of Nizari Ismailism. Since the 19th century, Ismaili leaders have shown a reformist orientation and have promoted education and health development among their followers. Karim Aga Khan is at the same time the spiritual leader of his community (and sole qualified interpreter of the Quran according the Ismaili understanding), a major philanthropist, and an investor (Jeune Afrique, Aug. 24, 2017).

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has become one of the largest private development agencies in the world, with 80,000 employees, and spending more than $900 million per year. Part of this funding comes from donations from the Ismaili community, but also from institutional donors. The AKDN includes a for-profit agency, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), with a focus on investments in developing countries. Access to Ismaili religious ceremonies in their places of worship (called Jamatkhanas) is reserved for members, but programs have been developed in several countries to offer guided tours and opportunities for dialogue with non-Ismailis. Conversions have become rare, mostly through marriage. In contrast with other Muslims, Ismailis pray three times a day. While statistics about Ismaili Muslims vary from one source to another, an estimate of 15 million is often given, with 1.5 million in India, 500,000 in Pakistan, 200,000 in Tajikistan, and 200,000 in Syria. There is a significant Ismaili presence in the USA and Canada, too. In Europe, the Ismaili population is smaller, with the largest presence in the UK (15,000).

(Materialdienst der EZW, Auguststrasse 80, 10117 Berlin, Germany –; official website of the Ismaili Muslim community: