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Origin of the Title “Aga Khan”

A title is a name indicative of eminence, affording special distinction to the holder. Every title appears to have meaning or derivation from a word expressive of quality and historical background. Likewise, Imam Hasan Ali Shah, the 46th Imam was the bearer of the title Aga Khan. Fateh Ali Shah, the Qajari emperor invested him in 1818 in Tehran. Henceforward, he and his successors became known by this title. How was this title invested? What is its origin and meaning? We will discuss these points below.

Imam Khalilullah

Abul Hasan Shah, the 44th Ismaili Imam was succeeded by his son, Imam Khalilullah in 1780, who resided in Kahek. In 1815, he moved to Yazd, situated between Ispahan and Kirman on the route to Baluchistan and Sind. It was at Yazd that two years later, in 1817, the Imam became a victim of the intrigues of the Ithna Ashari ulema. He lost his life in the course of a dispute between some of his adherents and the local shopkeepers. The Ismailis involved took refuge in the Imam’s residence and refused to emerge. A certain Mullah Husayn Yazdi collected a hostile mob and attacked the Imam’s house. In the ensuing uproar, Imam Khalilullah and several of his followers, including one Indian Ismaili, were murdered, and the Imam’s house was plundered. The mother of Imam Hasan Ali Shah, who appears to have been a lady of vigorous character, came to the court to seek justice for her dead husband. Her pleading was immediately successful. The governor of Yazd, Haji Muhammad Zaman Khan was ordered to send Mullah Husayn and his accomplices to Tehran for punishment.

Imam Hasan Ali Shah invested as “Aga Khan”

The death of Imam KhalilulIah took place in the end of 1817, and Fateh Ali Shah, the emperor, invited his son and successor, Hasan Ali Shah. The Imam compromised with the situation for the interest of his followers and cemented a close tie with the regime. In appreciation of the Imam’s policy, the emperor appointed him the governor of Mahallat and Qumm, and invested the honorific title of Aga Khan on him. Furthermore, as a conclusive sign of honour, Fateh Ali Shah gave one of his daughters, Sarv-i Jahan Khanum, in marriage to the Imam. Henceforward, Imam Hasan Ali Shah became known as the Aga Khan.

In appreciation of the Imam’s policy, the emperor appointed him the governor of Mahallat and Qumm, and invested the honorific title of Aga Khan on him.

The conferment ceremony had taken place in the palace called Qasr-i Qajar in Tehran. Our sources fail to furnish details. J.M. Tancoigne however had seen the palace in 1807, describing its location as four miles north of Tehran. William Price visited Tehran in 1817 and reports that it was halfway between Tehran and Shemran, surrounded by beautiful gardens. He also regarded it as one of the most delightful residences in Iran. Sir Ker Porter (1777-1842) also visited Qasr-i Qajar in 1818 — the year when Imam Hasan Ali Shah was honoured the title. He was full of admiration and writes that:

It stands on an eminently pleasant point of the adjoining mountains, being built on a detached and commanding hill, on the great slope of the Elborz. The edifice is lofty, and when seen from a distance, presents a very magnificent appearance.

vide, Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia during the years 1817, 1818, 1819 and 1820, (London, 1821, p. 335)

It implies that Imam Hasan Ali Shah was the first Imam after the fall of Alamut to have been officially recognized with his spiritual rights by the Iranian empire. He returned to Mahallat. Upon hearing his arrival from Tehran, the celebrated panegyrist Habib, also known as Qa’ani (1807-1854) addressed the Imam with a qasida of fifteen lines (vide, Diwan-i Hakim Qa’ani Shirazi, ed. Mohammad Jafar Muhjub, Tehran, 1918, p. 180). Its opening lines read:

Eternal life in the world were necessary, to sing one tenth of the AQA KHAN’s praises.

The above verse most probably represents an early source documenting the term Aga Khan.

It was at the time when Mohammad Shah Qajar invaded Herat in 1837 that the Imam’s title first appeared in the official correspondence of the British agents in Iran. Later, Sir Erskine Perry (1821-1893) of Bombay High Court processed the Khoja Inheritance Case in 1847 and declared: “The Ismailis have a belief in the Aga Khan, who is a Persian nobleman, and is being widely remembered in the Indian history of this age.”

It was at the time when Mohammad Shah Qajar invaded Herat in 1837 that the Imam’s title first appeared in the official correspondence of the British agents in Iran.

Imam Hasan Ali Shah, the Aga Khan, made his way from Persia to India in 1842, and cultivated a close relationship with the British, and “there his title was confirmed by the British who in turn enjoyed his support” (vide Encyclopaedia Americana, 1983, 1:327). The Imam’s name was officially registered with the records of the Bombay Government in 1848 as “His Highness Aga Khan Mahallati.”

Richard F. Burton also introduced the title Aga Khan in his Sindh and the Races that inhabit in the valley of the Indus (London, 1851, p. 249). The source, however, applying the term Aga Khan and responsible for making him popular through out India and Europe was the verdict of Sir Joseph Arnold (1814-1886) in The Aga Khan Case of 1866 in the Bombay High Court. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah also writes:

My grandfather had been confirmed in his rights and titles by a judgment of the Bombay High Court in 1866.

The Memoirs of Aga Khan, (London, 1954, p. 9).

Robert Grant Watson’s History of Persia (London, 1866) also brought fame to the Imam in Europe as the Aga Khan.

Origins and meaning of the title “Aga”

It must be known that the term senaga in Turkish means gentleman and agam means sir. Thus, aga or agha is a word that originally came to use in eastern Turkey to mean elder brother, and sometimes in contrast to ini, which means younger brother, but Yakut suggests its meaning is father.

In the Ottoman empire of Turkey, agha (usually pronounced a ‘a or even a) was applied to chiefs, masters and sometimes landowners. It is also suggested that the Turkish agha is derived from the Greek akha or akhai, which later on transformed to agha in eastern Turkey.

The term is also used for chief servant of a household, and generally occurs in combination with many words. For example, carshi aghasi (market inspector), khan aghasi (inn- keeper), koy aghasi (village headman) and aghabey (elder brother).

In Turkey, the Muslim landowners were chiefly known as aghas and the Christian landowners as gospodars, which clearly indicates that this term remained specific to the Muslims.

The word aga or agha was introduced for the first time in Europe in the 16th century.

The title agha gradually spread from Turkey to Southern Kurdistan after the conquest of Baghdad by Sultan Murad IV in 1637. The word aga or agha was introduced for the first time in Europe in the 16th century. John Pory Leo (1570-1635) in 1601-2 in his History of Africa spelt it as agaes. In 1628, Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) in his Voyage to Mediterranean wrote it as agaw.

As a title up to the reform period, it was given to many persons employed in government service, mostly in the military. The most notable aghas of this kind were the yeniceri aghasi, or the chief officers of the Janissaries, who dominated Turkey from 1578 to 1625. In the Ottoman Empire, this title gradually became official in both military and administrative units. It was also borne by the principal members of the imperial household and the eunuchs controlling the Sultan’s harem. The Grand vizir was titled agha, who was also crowned the effendi, and was called Agha Efendimiz. After the abolition of the Janissaries in 1826, it became custom to entitle aga or agha to illiterate officers up to the rank of kaim makam, the literate officers of the same rank were addressed as efendi…. The earliest inscription in India bearing the term aga dates to 1606-7, and was discovered in 1910 by G. Yazdani. It is found in the Jami Masjid, Qaundhar Fort, Nanded district, which reads: “During the reign of Ibrahim Adil Shah the Mosque was built during the governorship of Aqa, Aqa Murad.”

Iran borrowed the word aga or agha from Turkey in the form of aga or aqa.

Iran borrowed the word aga or agha from Turkey in the form of aga or aqa. Aga Mohammad Khan (1742-1797) founded the Qajar dynasty in Iran. He divided his rule into two branches under the terms yukari bash (the higher) and ashaka bash (the lower). Yukari being the Turkish for higher and Ashaka for lower; and bash means “lord”. Fateh Ali Shah, the second Qajar emperor belonged to the Ashaka (the lower). Hence Ashik akasi bashi was the presenter of petitions to the Qajar emperor. It is of Turkish derivation, ashik (threshold), aka (lord), si (of him) and bash (head). On the whole it means the threshold of his lord. The Qajar emperors made the aga or aqa a title for the noblemen, and aga khan (or aqa khan) for the high noblemen, mostly the governors. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica (1:137),

… as a title of respect, Aga has also been used for Islamic religious leaders, notably for the leader of the Ismaili sect of Shii Community.

It appears that the term aga (or aqa) is used as an epithet of the Imam in the ginans. For instance, Pir Sadruddin (1300-1416) says:

Ali dhar ter’e umayo aga ham (O’Aga! I adore your Ali’s house), Aga-n’e top’e hira jagmag’e (Diamonds glitter on the cap of the Aga), Jot aga shah pir’ji jot vakhan’e (they eulogize the light of Aga Shah Pir) and Aga hun’ta toid’e toda tod (O’Aga! I am with you till last).

Syed Imam Shah describes:

Aga dhan ho khudavand tera ra’j bhi sara (O’Aga, the Lord! Congratulations to Your creation, which is also excellent).

Syed Fateh Ali Shah said:

Aga tara charan’ni seva kanchan varshe’ji (O’Aga! the gold showers while serving at your feet)

Syed Ladha Shah said:

Shah Mustansir billah aqa sharanna (I submit to Aqa Shah Mustansir billah)

Origins and meaning of the title “Khan”

The word khan or kan is also a Turkish title, and was first used by the T’u-chuch, apparently as a synonym for kaghan, the later khakan — also the generic name of the Turkish ruler since the time of the legendary Afrasiyab. The Turks from the Juan-Juan, meaning supreme ruler borrowed the title kaghan, or khaghan. Afterwards, it was applied to subordinate rulers. Khakan is the Arabic form of the Turkish word kaghan. The title was first recorded in Muslim lands on the coins of the Karakhanids, or Ilek Khans during the 10th century in Turkey, who were also referred to in the contemporary Islamic sources as ai-Khakaniyya, or aI- Khaniyya. Under the Seljuks and Khawarazm rulers, khan dominated the high titles of the nobility taking precedence over malik and amir.

In the form of ka’an, it was applied by the Mongols to the head of ulus. Ka’an, i.e., Khakan was reserved for Chengiz Khan in Karakorum.

In the form of ka’an, it was applied by the Mongols to the head of ulus. Ka’an, i.e., Khakan was reserved for Chengiz Khan in Karakorum. It was adopted by Ottoman sultans as a title as well…. In Safavid Iran, the khan was a provincial governor of lesser rank than the beglarbegi, and higher than the sultan, the deputy governor. The Iranian historians however crowned Shah Ismail Safavi (1487-1524) as Khaqan-i Iskander-shan (the Prince like unto Alexander in state).

In India, under the Turkish kings of Delhi, khan was the title of the principal nobles, chiefly those of Iranian or Afghan descent. In a technical sense, it was used for a commander of ten thousand soldiers. Qalqashandi (d. 1418) writes that a khan commanded ten thousand soldiers, a malik one thousand and an amir one hundred …The earliest inscription in India bearing the term khan dates to 1232, discovered in Hyderabad, Deccan, and reads:

The construction of this well renewed in the days of Iltumish as Sultan during the turn of the governorship of the late Malik Quttugh Khan Aibez

(A study of Muslim Inscriptions by V.S. Bendrey, Poona, 1944, pp. 94-95).

The term khan is reported to have been brought by the Avars of Turkey in Europe during the 6th century. The Avars probably spoke a Mongolian dialect, and their rulers assumed the title of Khagan or Khan, which they borrowed from Ephthalites, or the White Huns of China. Afterwards in Europe, it became known partly through the Mongol invasions in the first half of the 13th century, appearing in Latin in the form of chanis or canis. Old French spells it chan and cham. It appeared through the European missions in the Mongol court in the same century (1245-1255) and by the narrative of Marco Polo. In the original French text of the latter, the spelling kan, can or cham varies with kaan or caan, apparently intending to represent Tartar qa’an, the special title adopted by Oktai, the son of Chengiz Khan. Marco Polo applied the title kaan to Kublai Khan, the Chinese emperor.

Iran also adopted the term khan, which became common in all of its provinces. John Malcolm (1769-1833) was in Iran in 1810, and writes:

In the provinces especially khan meant originally what chief did in Scotland among the clans. Now-a-days, khans are as common in Tehran, as esquires are in London.

In Iran, it was a courtesy applied to all men above the position of servant (beg), and the ladies were termed khanam, the feminine form.

Summing up the extant of the lexicons discussed, we safely come to a conclusion that the word aga means lord, prince, nobleman, master or chief; whereas khan means master, head, owner, ruler or prince.

Summing up the extant of the lexicons discussed, we safely come to a conclusion that the word aga means lord, prince, nobleman, master or chief; whereas khan means master, head, owner, ruler or prince. Originally, the Turkish rulers combined agha and beg to make it Agha Beg — a new title for a highly reputed person. The Qajari rulers followed this pattern in Iran and joined Aga and Khan together, making the title Aga Khan or Aqa Khan for the nobleman.

Origins and meaning of the combined title “Aga Khan”

The modern sources render the meaning of the Turko-Iranian word, Aga Khan as honourable chief, great lord, chief commander, lord chief, great chief or lord chief-viceroy. In light of its origin and derivation, it probably means honourable chief lord.

The modern sources render the meaning of the Turko-Iranian word, Aga Khan as honourable chief, great lord, chief commander, lord chief, great chief or lord chief-viceroy.

It appears that the title Aga Khan greatly influenced the Mughal Empire in India. For instance, in the period of emperor Humayun, the daughter of Khawaja Abdullah Marwarid was known as Khanam Agha. The wife of Mu’nim Khan was known as Agha Kuka and the mother of Ibrahim Sultan Mirza was called Khanish Agha etc., vide, Humayun-nama (tr. Annette S. Beveridge, Lahore, 1974, pp. 128). The treasurer of the emperor Akbar bore the name Aga Khan, vide Muntakhabut Tawarikh (tr. W.H. Lowe, Karachi, 1976, 2nd vol., p. 218) by al-Badaoni. Emperor Jahangir gave the title of Khan Beg to the Vazir-ul-Mulk, vide The Central Structure of the Mughal Empire (Karachi, 1967) by lbn Hasan. One military general who defeated the Afghans at Gandawak in 1667 during emperor Aurengzeb’s rule was known as Agha Khan, vide, A Short History of Islam (Karachi, 1960, p. 547) by Sayyid Fayyaz Mahmud. Another Aga Khan is reported to have flourished in the period of emperor Shah Jahan, and died in 1670…. Haig has also discovered in India an old inscription dating to the 4th of October, 1624, which reads: “Her Highness Khanam Agha, daughter of Mir Maqsud Ali Tabataba… the tank which is situated in the vicinity of the market of Khairabad has been built by her.” vide A Study of Muslim Inscriptions (Poona, 1944, p. 144) by V.S. Bendrey

Conversion of “Aga Khan” to a hereditary title

It must be noted that the title Aga Khan was not hereditary. When Imam Hasan Ali Shah died in 1881, his son, Ali Shah, succeeded him. The contemporary world, chiefly the Indians, had identified the new Imam, Ali Shah as young Aga Khan and the term elder Aga Khan was given to Imam Hasan Ali Shah. It was in fact, a distinctive term for the two Imams. The title His Highness the Aga Khan was so widely popularized that the terms elder Aga Khan and young Aga Khan melted away in usage, and the titles Aga Khan first and Aga Khan second came to be used between 1881 and 1885. Neither Imam Hasan Ali Shah, nor Imam Ali Shah had ever declared their successors as the bearers of the title Aga Khan.

It must be noted that the title Aga Khan was not hereditary…. Imam Sultan Mohammad Shah, the successor of Imam Ali Shah, was known as Aga Khan III. He was the first to regard this title as hereditary.

Imam Sultan Mohammad Shah, the successor of Imam Ali Shah, was known as Aga Khan III. He was the first to regard this title as hereditary. His famous Will reads:

I appoint my grandson Karim, the son of my son Aly Salomone to succeed to the title of Aga Khan and to be the Imam and Pir of all my Shi’a Ismailian followers.

There is a reason for making it hereditary. The early Qajar kings had invested the title Aga Khan to a few other noblemen in Iran, but the practice seems to have been discontinued during the rule of Nasirud-din Shah, who ruled from 1848 to 1896. The holders of the title Aga Khan were either dead, or retired and they could not gain popularity in Iran. Hence, this title became specific to the Ismaili Imams in India. The Aga Khan in a general sense meant, “the Imam of the Ismailis.” If some holders of the title Aga Khan were alive, they could not achieve prominence in comparison with the Ismaili Imams. This changing time led Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah to make the title hereditary….

The Present Imam of the Shi’ite Ismailis is His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, who is widely known as the Aga Khan IV in the world, and none exists to be known as such….

About the author

Rai Mumtaz Ali Tajddin, of Pakistan, has authored an untold number of articles and 13 books, including the Encyclopedia of Ismailism, 101 Ismaili Heroes and Ismailis through History. Since 1970 he has been involved with the National Ismaili Tarqiah and Religious Education Board (ITREB) in Pakistan as an Honorary Missionary and lecturer to religious education classes on history, ginans and other topics.

Credits

Article: Mumtaz Ali Tajddin, Encyclopaedia of Ismailism, Karachi, 2006, p. 29. (With permission)

Image: Left: ismaili.net (Fair use/dealing) (Public domain) (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)

Image: Centre, left: en.wikipedia.org (Public domain) (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)

Image: Centre, right: npg.org.uk (Permitted use) (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)

Image: Right: theismaili.org (Permitted use) (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)

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