His Highness the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam (Spiritual Leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He was born in Geneva, Switzerland, but spent some of his early childhood in Nairobi, Kenya. The Aga Khan holds a degree in Islamic history from Harvard University. He ascended to the hereditary position of the Imam of the Ismaili community in 1957 at the age of 20. The Ismailis are an ethnically and linguistically diverse community numbering between 12 and 15 million people.
Over the past 59 years, the Aga Khan has gradually established one of the world’s largest systems of development agencies active in the social, cultural and economic fields. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) serves beneficiaries in 35 countries of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, irrespective of their faith. The Network is non-denominational, but its ethical framework is rooted in the canons of Islam. The Network strives to bring lasting improvement to the lives of its beneficiaries, emphasizing excellence and long-term commitment.
During the course of history, Ismaili Muslims, under the guidance of their hereditary spiritual leaders, have made major contributions to the growth of Islamic civilizations. The University of Al-Azhar and the Academy of Science, Dar al-Ilm, in Cairo and indeed the city of Cairo itself exemplify their contributions to the cultural, religious, and intellectual life of Muslims. Among the renowned philosophers, jurists, physicians, mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists of the past who flourished under the patronage of these spiritual leaders are Qadi al-Numan, al-Kirmani, Ibn al-Haytham (al-Hazen), Nasir e-Khusraw and Nasir al-Din Tusi.
The Aga Khan is a recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees recognizing his contributions to the well-being of impoverished societies.