Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – The Road to Happiness and The Concept of Life


Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, 48th Imam of Shia Imami Ismailis. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London

“Happiness is never a negative affair; it is to be won by men who are fully alive, full of the joy of living” – Aga Khan III. Photo: Copyright, The National Portrait Gallery, London

Be One and Harmonious with God

First, I would place spiritual happiness. A man must be at one with God. This may sound old-fashioned to some people. A few may think that they do not believe in God, and some others that it matters little to the individual in his daily life how he stands with regard to Him.

Ruling out the atheist, with whom a believer can no more argue than he can discuss colour with a blind man, it is surely strange that a believer in an Omnipotent and Ever-Present Deity should fail to realise that how we stand this instant and every instant toward Him matters to us more than anything else in the universe.

That is the fundamental question:- Are you in harmony with God? If you are – you are happy.

Treasure the Glories of Nature With the Blessing of the Sight

Next I would place appreciation and enjoyment of the glories of nature. All those sunrises and sunsets – all the intricate miracle of sky colour, from dawn to dusk. All that splendid spendthrift beauty… As a very rich man treasures the possession of some unique picture, so a man should treasure and exult in the possession – his individual possession – of the sights of this unique world.

Those glories are his from dawn to dusk, and then – and then comes night – “a night of stars – all eyes.” I look up at night and I know – I know the glory of the stars. It is then that the stars speak to us – and the sense of that mystery is in our blood.

There are other more homely delights in an English landscape – twisting lanes with living leafy walls, villages clustered in a nook of the hills, the soft undulation of down or moorland, no more than emphasized by the occasional bold scarp of a rocky peak. But you have grandeur enough in the tall cliffs that look down so proudly on your encircling seas. All that is yours, and mine – ours for the seeing.

With nature I would link painting. Pictures are very useful. If a man cannot get to the countryside, a picture will remind him of it. And the man who has been blind to the beauty of nature may have his imagination quickened by seeing the visions of great artists. He may come to see that dawn and dusk make glorious even the drab pavement of a town.

Let Great Poetry Put You in Touch with God

Then comes literature – above all poetry. Poetry is the voice of God speaking through the lips of man. If great painting puts you in touch with nature, great poetry puts you in direct touch with God. It is not a soft indulgence, you need to be wide awake, with all your wits about you, to share the poet’s joys. And, indeed, happiness is never a negative affair; it is to be won by men who are fully alive, full of the joy of living.

Make the Body Feel Alive With Rapid Movements

Aga Khan III believed that sport, with its rapid movements, would make a body feel alive. He was an avid golfer and is seen here with Willie Nolan, the great Irish golfer

Next I would place the joys of rapid movement such as you get from games like golf, tennis, football, and, they tell me, cricket. As with literature the mind, so with games the body feels itself vividly, happily alive. Of all sports of rapid movement the riding of a horse is the best.

The legend of the centaur – half man, half horse – was no idle dream; for you and the splendid creature are one. As its limbs gather and stretch out in perfect rhythm, electricity passes from the animal to you. It is a joy of the spirit as of the body. Through us speak the souls of our ancestors, who have ridden horses from the beginning of time. Yes, we may well believe that the horse was with man from the beginning.

No doubt we who have ridden horses get a touch of that great happiness when English thoroughbreds, the exiles of Arabia, fly down the course like winged messengers of speed. Of course you cannot get a comparable feeling from the utmost Horse-Power ( save the mark! ) of a machine. No! No!

These are the independent means of happiness. Any man may worship God, wonder at the miracle of nature, exult when he hears (in literature) the sons of God shouting for joy, and give praise for the perfection of his body in rapid movement.

But there is a dependent means of the first importance.

Marriage and Parentage – Venture Into (It) Despite Risks

When I speak of marriage, I need not emphasize the joys of a happy marriage and fortunate parentage. They are inextricably interwoven – warp and woof of the same pattern, and the pattern is the whole of life in miniature.

He who refuses that venture because of the risk is refusing life.

Do not Shirk Life’s Responsibilities Like a Hermit

No. I have no liking for hermits and other solitaries who refuse all responsibilities. They may live in a town as likely as in a desert, and their avowed purpose may be to lead holy lives; but, in fact, if they have ecstasies, they are the ecstasies of self-indulgence. My concern is not with them.

If You Have Small Griefs, Great Sorrows – Be one with God and Live Manfully For the Peace of the Soul

Those who accept the normal responsibilities of life, with all the chances of minor annoyance and utter catastrophe, may know many small griefs and much great sorrow – that is why I call their joys dependent – but, if they are at one with God and have lived manfully, behind the mask of sorrow, bitter though it may be, their souls will be at peace.

Source: The above are excerpts from an interview the Aga Khan III gave to Daily Sketch, London, on November 2, 1931 (the day happened to be the Imam’s 54th birthday).

* * * * * *


As we have seen in the readings that have been presented in this series so far, the seventy two year Imamat of the late Aga Khan III, known to his followers as Hazrat lmam Sultan Muhammad Shah, was one of the most progressive periods in the history of Ismailis. The 48th Ismaili Imam dedicated his life for the progress of his community and the Muslim world in every aspect that one can think of.

It is evident that he lived a full life. Indeed, he wrote in his Memoirs that in his entire life, he had never once been bored. He not only enjoyed life to the full but also accomplished so much in his life that his successor, Prince Karim Aga Khan, said that such accomplishments would normally have taken several generations.

The late Aga Khan possessed a philosophy of life which anybody who wishes to he happy should adopt (see also Road to Happiness, above).

Jacket of the British Edition of the

Life is a great and noble calling and has a lofty destiny wrote the Aga Khan in his Memoirs

One of the most quoted messages of the late Aga Khan appears at the very beginning of his Memoirs [1] which he published in 1954. In the quote, the Imam clearly defines life as the most precious gift granted by God to human beings. He wrote:

“Life is a great and noble calling, not a mean and grovelling thing to be shuffled through as best as we can but a lofty and exalted destiny.”

His approach to one’s perception of failures or disenchantment in life was that of keeping hope alive and rejecting the very thought of despondency. He said:

“You must remember that life will have for you many disappointments. If one-fifth of one’s hopes are realised, one is extremely lucky and fortunate, so do not be discouraged by disappointments.

“Failures should be forgotten and new efforts made. Despondency is a sin, and hope, a necessary part of iman (faith) both for material wealth and, above all, for progress to spiritual enlightenment.”

The idea of this faith based hope resonates  with the following important teaching from the Holy Qur’an:

“Despair not of the Spirit of Allah. Lo! None despaireth of the Spirit of Allah save disbelieving folk.” (Chapter 12, Verse 87).

Rather than looking at an unfortunate event on hindsight, the Aga Khan recommended that one should not only accept the event, but  try and accept it wholeheartedly.

“I should first of all advise my heirs to learn to desire the thing that happens, and not try to mould events to their desires….I say that you should endeavour to suit your desire to the event and not event to your desire. If a wall tumbles down and crushes my foot, I must say ‘that is the best thing that could happen to me’.” [2]

To individuals who  consider themselves  in a hopeless situation in worldly terms and draw a comparison of their plight with those deemed to be in a better situation, the Aga Khan gave the following advice:

“I should have a word to say to those who deem themselves unfortunate from a worldly point of view. I should say to them, ‘Do not look up and lament that you are not as well off as those above you. Look down and congratulate yourself that you are better off than those below you’. To a man who looks with such eyes upon the world, it is not a prison but a garden. A marvelous garden – the garden of the Lord.” [3]

Finally for him the primary message of Islam – that of Submission to the Will of Allah – was by very nature the key to happiness in this world.

This is not to suggest that human beings should become completely passive and just drift through life without attempting to improve their circumstances. On the contrary, the Ismaili Imam paid great emphasis on human endeavour and struggle, and had  even sent the following message to his followers:

“Struggle is the meaning of life; defeat or victory is in the hands of God. But struggle itself is man’s duty and should be his joy.” [4]



1. The Memoirs of Aga Khan, Cassel and Company Limited, London, 1954.

2. My Philosophy of Happiness by Hazrat Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah.

3. ibid.

4. Messages of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah – Message No. 1 published by Shia Imami Ismailia Association for Africa, 1955.

Reading adapted from Hazrat Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s Concept of Life by Kamaluddin A. Muhammad, Ilm, Volume 3, Number 2, November 1977.


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Other articles in this special series on Aga Khan III:

Voices: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Historic Photos and Imam’s Recognition of Services Rendered by the Family of Itmadi Kassam Kothari of Jamnagar

 Voices: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery

Literary Reading: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Titles, Decorations and Honours Conferred on 48th Ismaili Imam; 72 Year Reign Spanned Six British Monarchs and Seventeen PM’s

Voices: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Eloquent Persian Quatrain by 48th Ismaili Imam Graces a 1923 Invitation For Talk About Imamat

Literary Reading: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Defender of Islam, Activist for Justice and Equality, Confidence Booster, And Deliverer of Joy

Literary Reading: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Imam’s Message in South Africa Addressed Artificial Barriers, Unity, Education for All, and Damaging Social Habits

Voices: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Stories from Readers (I)

Voices: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Recollection of Imam’s Visit to a Family Shop; A Story about the Diamond Jubilee Scale and…Does it (Still) Work?

Literary Reading: Hazrat Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – A “Mendicant” Who Transformed a Dream into Reality and Stirred the Soul of a Bitter Critic

Literary Reading: Hazrat Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Links to Movies at British Pathe

Literary Reading: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – A Muslim’s Analysis of Lessons that Can be Learnt from the 48th Ismaili Imam

Literary Reading: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – The Imam of the Socio-Economic Revolution

Literary Reading: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – Successor and a Son Reflect on Accomplishments of the 48th Ismaili Imam

9 thoughts on “Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III – The Road to Happiness and The Concept of Life

  1. Excellent reading material, so much has being brought to light and the time frame of when the events took place. I have the book Aga Khan and Africa and seeing the photo of Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah and Begum with my aunt Dolat and family brings back memories that my mother shared with us as children. Thank you.

  2. I would like to take this opportunity to appreciate everyone of you for the great knowledge that you impart on Islam through this website. However, it is important that the youth take the advantage of the knowledge and apply it in practical terms. For this, they need good guidance and proper encouragement to keep their passion to serve alive as well as bring forth their ideas.

    I believe that by applying Mawlana Hazar Imam’s farmans practically much more can be achieved. I pray for everyone’s good health and strength of the path of siratal mustakeem. Ameen ameen.

  3. Thank you for such a beautiful reading. I must add though; it is sometimes so hard to accept and live with joy at times of sorrow and hardship. Inshallah, we all reach that point no matter what point in life.

  4. Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan has explained the philosophy of life very precisely. God has given us life to live in full to experience both the worldly aspects and to have that experience of the Eternal Soul and Divinity that is within the reach of everyone through Divine Grace.

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