The future Aga Khan was tutored daily not only in the usual subjects, but in Arabic. Urdu, the Koran and Islamic culture. An Islamic instructor continued Karim's religious education in Rolle and Gstaad in Switzerland, where, from the age of 8 to 17. Karim attended the fashionable Le Rosey prep school.
At Le Rosey, where his classmates included the Duke of Kent, the present King of the Belgians, Baudouin, and Prince Victor Emmanuel of Italy, Karim admits he could not have cared less about studies or more about sports. He played tennis, soccer, "even basketball, but only because they could get no one else." He ran the 80-yard dash, broad-jumped and threw the shotput. Forced to choose between skiing and ice hockey, Karim selected hockey. Le Rosey's hockey team was so strong that it competed against men's teams in the national championships. Karim also stroked a four-man crew to victory in 1953 at Lucerne in the Swiss national open rowing championship. He won almost every athletic medal and trophy Le Rosey presented, including an award for the giant slalom that was named after his stepmother: the Rita Hayworth Cup.
Both his father and grandfather, active athletes in their own youth, strongly encouraged Karim to engage in sports. The old Aga Khan was a physical-culture enthusiast who enjoyed boxing and took long cycling tours around Europe. Eventually he replaced these more violent forms of exercise with tennis and golf. "I know of no more exhilarating sport than jackal hunting in the rice fields near Bombay early on a cold winter morning," the Aga once declared. And he was proud of having pioneered field hockey in India and Pakistan. Aly Khan, in Karim's words, "played good tennis, skied a bit, jumped horses, rode wonderfully and won more than 100 races as a gentleman jockey." Karim's great-grandfather, Aga Khan II, was a big-game hunter who specialized in tigers. He died in 1885 from a chill he caught while water-fowling near Poona. The sporting tradition in Karim's aristocratic Persian family goes far, far back and may best be summed up in three words: hawks, hounds, horses. Karim shares his ancestors' love for hounds and horses but abhors hunting. "Once I killed a rabbit," he says. "It was awful. I never hunted again."
Karim eventually ended up with fair grades at Le Rosey but, even so, he says, "I was thoroughly lost when I got to Harvard. I had done my secondary work in French and was poorly read in English. My reading capacity in English was deplorable. I was unaccustomed to finding myself a number in a big bowl. I knew no one. So I got into the freshman rut: to bed at 4 in the morning after a terrific bull session and up at noon. I cut too many classes. I found my feet only at the end of my sophomore year."
In a sense, Karim found his feet in his freshman year, but that was on the soccer field. "My legs were particularly strong," he says, "and in Europe I had naturally been thoroughly trained in soccer's techniques. I made the freshman team, and we went through the season undefeated. I played outside left and scored occasionally. I think I skied once for the freshman team in a meet. I was not nearly good enough to make the ice hockey team, and I did not make the crew either. I was too heavy for the 150-pounders and not big enough for the regular crew. As for watching athletic events, I never did go to see a baseball game. American football puzzled me. Either I bothered my neighbors for explanations all the time or I understood nothing. If you cannot fathom a game, it is a bore."
In 1957, his junior year, two impressive things happened to Karim. He made the dean's list and became the Aga Khan. He decided he would have to interrupt his studies, but in the fall of 1958 he returned to Harvard accompanied, because of his new political and religious functions, by a "public relations representative." Karim badly needed someone to arrange things with the press because, as the Aga Khan, he was in great demand for interviews, especially on television. On one U.S. nationwide television show Karim was asked by a skeptical journalist how long he could go on being the Imam of millions of Muslims, a student and athlete at Harvard, and continue to give interviews. "Not for very long," replied Karim, "and this will be one of my last interviews." It was.
In June 1959 Karim graduated with a cum laude degree in history and his varsity H for soccer. "Cum laude at Harvard is not very impressive," Karim says, "but it did make me feel as if I had progressed since my fumbling freshman beginnings. Had my grandfather not died, I intended to study for a doctorate." He will never have time to do that now, for his responsibilities are too wide-ranging and time-consuming. Karim, whose name means "the open-hearted" or "the generous," is one of an uninterrupted line of Imams who can trace their ancestry some 1,300 years directly back to the prophet Mohammed. Most Muslims, it is true, do not recognize Karim as the Imam, but the Shia Ismaili sect does. This means that for them Karim's word in religious matters is final. In secular affairs the Ismailis consult the Aga Khan, but they are not obliged to heed his advice.
Most numerous in Pakistan, India, Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika, but present also in Southeast Asia, throughout the Middle East and elsewhere in Africa, the Ismailis have no common homeland, but they do possess a flag. It is a diagonal red stripe on a green background. Like the Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines, the Ismailis are primarily thriving shopkeepers, merchants and middlemen. This is particularly true in East Africa, India and Pakistan. By and large they are better off economically and better educated than the populations among which they live. This is not an altogether happy state of affairs, since it exposes the Ismailis to discrimination, persecution and, as recently occurred in East Africa, to physical attack. Thirty Ismailis were killed in the Zanzibar revolution last January.
Karim is well aware of the dangers facing his people in nationalistic Africa and in underdeveloped India and Pakistan. He has launched an ambitious industrialization program to modify radically the economic role of the 250,000 Ismailis in the new African states. "We Ismailis must toil with our hands as well as our brains, on factory assembly lines and in offices as well as in shops," he repeatedly has told members of his East African community. "We must also work hand in hand with the newly liberated Africans." Such a profound change in the Ismailis' agreeable, comfortable way of life naturally has encountered some resistance. The general looting of shops in Tanganyika during the last crisis has served, however, as a warning.
Karim has a practical means of preaching realism in East Africa. He owns a string of 15 English and Swahili newspapers. Well before the two British colonies won their independence, Karim's newspapers set out to make readers "more African-than European-minded." In a cautious way they suggested that a political meeting of 20,000 Africans might be more important than a garden party of 200 Europeans. Not only has history proved Karim right, but his pre-independence point of view has won solid friends for the Ismailis in the new African states.