When the Aga Khan’s private jet touched down in Atlanta, he must have had an inkling of the type of reception he would receive.
The spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, a Shia sect with an estimated 15-20 million adherents worldwide, had visited the city a decade ago during his 50th anniversary year.
In addition to his religious role, the Aga Khan heads a vast organization that has founded universities and museums around the world. It also runs a development agency, the Aga Khan Development Network, that employs some 80,000 people and works on health, education and environmental sustainability in some 30 countries. His net worth, estimated by Forbes, was said to have topped $800 million in 2011.
From March 13-18, the Aga Khan chose Atlanta once again for a stop, this time on his Diamond Jubilee tour celebrating 60 years of service. And once again, Georgia officials rolled out the red carpet for a man thousands of their constituents hold in the highest esteem.
Along with Ismaili community members, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle City of Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Dan Gordon and Abby Turano, deputy commissioner for international relations, were on hand to receive the Aga Khan on the tarmac at Charlie Brown Field — Fulton County Airport, where the Atlanta police department provided an honor guard salute and the 116th U.S. Army band played the U.S. national anthem.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp welcomed the Aga Khan to the state Capitol for a meeting with Gov. Nathan Deal, who presented him with a proclamation praising the imam’s lifetime of service to the world.
“The Aga Khan continues to inspire members of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community in Georgia to actively contribute to the well-being of all citizens through civic engagement and community service initiatives,” it reads in part.
But the Aga Khan’s greatest reception was still to come. Over four days, he would address an estimated 40,000 Ismailis in separate groups during private meetings held at the Georgia World Congress Center.
Farida Nurani, a pharmacist by training who also volunteers as communications coordinator for the Aga Khan Council for the Southeastern United States, was among those who came out to experience a privilege unique to Ismailis Muslims: the ability to interact with their living spiritual guide.
“He helps me understand the ethics of my faith. He inspires me to be a better human being, to see my world not as divided into spiritual and material worlds, but how they should be intertwined, each impacting the other,” Ms. Nurani told Global Atlanta.
Atlanta was the only city other than Houston to host a visit this year, in part because it’s home to a large community of Ismailis, many of whom hail from South Asian countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (though adherents are found in more than 25 countries across Central Asia, East Africa and elsewhere.)
Locally, Ismailis congregate for prayers in five jamatkhanas around the metro area, including two in Gwinnett County and another in the deep red brick structure across from the Patel Plaza shopping center on Dekalb Industrial Way in Decatur. As centers of community life, they have also been active in promoting interfaith dialogue around the metro area.
But it wasn’t just Atlanta Ismailis welcoming the Aga Khan. Many flew in from across the country and around the world to get a glimpse of the man they see as the heir to a 1,400-year-old tradition.
Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini Aga Khan IV traces his lineage to the Prophet Muhammad and is considered the 49th generational heir to his spiritual legacy.
Like other Shia groups, Ismailis believe the Islamic community should be guided by an imam from Muhammad’s line. That all started, they say, with Ali bin Abu-Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law through marriage to his daughter Fatima.
The current Aga Khan inherited his office as a 20-year-old upon the death of his grandfather in 1957, that same year gaining the title “His Highness” from Queen Elizabeth II of England.
Service and Pluralism
This time, the 81-year-old’s itinerary in the U.S. was shortened versus his last trip, but according to those who attended, his message to the community remained consistent with a decade ago: Muslims should practice pluralism by accepting and working with other faiths and traditions, and they should always value, accumulate and share knowledge to help mankind.
“There is a hadith [a saying of the Prophet Muhammad] that says, ‘Seek knowledge, even if you have to travel to China,’” said Ms. Nurani. “Islam is very much a faith of the intellect, using the intellect to serve God’s creation.”
For Sandy Springs resident Nissa Kara, seeing the Aga Khan again in Atlanta helped confirm that a career change was the right move.
Though her master’s of business administration had landed her a great job with a for-profit university, Ms. Kara sought greater community impact in her daily life, in keeping with the service orientation of her faith.
She began volunteering at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta and later landed a part-time job there as an outreach educator. One aspect of the job that drew her was the ability to help underprivileged kids. At the inspiration of the Aga Khan, Ismailis champion education for all young people, regardless of faith or background, and especially for girls.
“I was doing my service and volunteer work as much as I could, but I knew something was missing for a very long time,” Ms. Kara said.
On the Sunday after the Aga Khan’s visit, the museum held its fifth annual celebration of Navroz, a holiday marking the arrival of spring. A Haft-Sin — or seven S’s — table was decked out with customary elements: from sabzeh, a grass or plant that grows in the run-up to the celebration, to the Persian spice sumac and serkeh, a vinegar that symbolizes the patience and wisdom that come with age.
The event provided visitors with a glimpse of the diversity in their backyard, but it also showed Ms. Kara’s 7-year-old daughter the reward of engaging with society over time, she said.
“We never got to celebrate Navroz outside our prayers and family, so for my daughter to be able to come and celebrate at a public institution, that’s huge,” said Ms. Kara, who was born in Bangladesh and came to the United States at age 5.
She didn’t always feel welcome — that came later — but she did have a place to belong.
“I think what helped me was being able to turn to my community. I knew that I fit in there, and I think that is what makes us so confident and so strong,” Ms. Kara said.
A Faith of ‘Global Citizens’
Aleem Walji told Global Atlanta that he still finds the growth of the Ismaili community here in Atlanta astonishing, even though he was part of it himself nearly 30 years ago.
Mr. Walji now leads the Aga Khan Foundation USA as chief executive officer, but his long, winding journey to this point stemmed from his father’s engagement with the local community.
Born in Tanzania, Mr. Walji’s family emigrated to Canada and then moved to Marietta when he was 10.
“When we moved to Atlanta the Ismaili community was 150 people,” Mr. Walji said. “America for us was the land of opportunity, and Atlanta was a place that welcomed us. My father and my family just had an extraordinarily positive experience.”
In fact, his dad saw no contradiction in helping lead the local Rotary Club and being the mukhi, or leader, of the early Ismaili community in Atlanta.
“He never saw those as anything other than symbiotic,” Mr. Walji said.
It wasn’t till a later internship at the Carter Center and a degree in anthropology and Near Eastern studies at Emory University that Mr. Walji began to explore the wider world of his heritage. The Aga Khan always talked about being a global citizen, but Atlanta institutions helped Mr. Walji become one.
It started with a Rotary International scholarship that sent him to the American University in Cairo. The Egyptian capital holds special resonance for Ismailis, who believe the Aga Khan’s Fatimid ancestors founded the city.
“In a sense, I never came back,” he said.
Mr. Walji went on to the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, then earned a master’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’d started through a joint Harvard-MIT Aga Khan program for Islamic architecture.
After that, he worked on land-use planning in Pakistan and land reform in Tajikistan with the Aga Khan Development Network and later as CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation in Syria (before the civil war), with stints at Google.org, which helps nonprofits use technology to improve their work, and the World Bank.
Through all this experience, he noticed a difference in the Aga Khan’s approach to development work. It’s closer to the ground, community-driven and long-lasting.
“A lot of NGOs will go where donor funding is. They may shift when the priorities go somewhere else, but we take a very long-term perspective because we have our own resources and forge partnerships with governments, foundations and the private sector,” Mr. Walji said.
Those resources are gleaned in part from the global Ismaili community — but mostly from development arms of governments like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, the EU and others — allowing the Aga Khan Development Network to commit to the long haul in hard-to-reach places like Afghanistan and Syria.
And working in places where Ismaili communities are active means ready access to on-the-ground volunteers who are unlikely to cut and run when things get tough.
“What I realized is what we’re really good at is working in places that are difficult, remote, often in conflict or post-conflict environments, and instilling hope in a population,” he said.
Mr. Walji’s now based in Washington, fitting given that the Aga Khan Development Network often partners with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Asia and Africa.
“It’s a part of the fabric of who we are: If there is one thing that represents the ethic of our faith and is woven into everything the Aga Khan does, it’s service to the community.”
That’s especially true in Atlanta, which Mr. Walji called one of he “most generous” Ismaili communities in the country for the foundation.
Coming back to the city was a “full circle” moment, seeing his leader in the place that kick-started his spiritual and professional journey.
Atlanta was the place where he learned a simple lesson at the heart of a faith that applauds difference and encourages positive social impact.
“Being a strong local citizen does not preclude us all being global citizens.”
After his Atlanta visit, the Aga Khan headed to Houston, where he announced the establishment of a new Ismaili center.