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Aga Khan, Jet-Setting on a Higher Plane

"He wants to leave the network behind for his successor," an aide says. "His passion is development. . . . The ultimate ambition is poverty eradication."

To reach out with his modern-is-also-Muslim message, the Aga Khan travels at near supersonic speed. He flew into Washington on an ultra-fast, ultra-long-range Bombardier Global Express, which only begins to purr at Mach .88.

The Aga Khan with National Building Museum Chair Carolyn Schwenker Brody, above, before receiving the fifth Vincent Scully Prize at the museum last night for his decades-long efforts to reenergize design in the Islamic world and to preserve historic sites. At left, the prince chats with Scully and his wife, Catherine Lynn. (Photos Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

It's not his only plane. There is a transcontinental jet for Europe, a spokeswoman says, another for more distant destinations. And for really remote landings to view projects that his operation is funding, he drops in by helicopter.

Rising Son

The Aga Khan was born in Geneva on Dec. 13, 1936, to Aly Khan and British-born Joan Yarde-Buller. Karim and his younger brother, Amyn, grew up in Nairobi during the war years, then boarded at the exclusive Le Rosey School in Switzerland.

He was studying Islamic history at Harvard when, on July 11, 1957, his grandfather's will declared him the 49th imam to the world's far-flung Ismaili sect.

The will passed over his father, Aly Khan, who defined all that was glamorous about pre-World War II Europe: He raced cars and joined the Foreign Legion. He attracted American attention by marrying the film star Rita Hayworth in 1949, after her divorce from Orson Welles. They had a daughter, Yasmin, but by 1953 the marriage had ended. In 1960, he died in an automobile crash in France.

The horse breeding operation's Web site, Agakhanstuds.com, cites the writer Ian Fleming's entry in his personal notebook on Aly Khan's death: "Gamblers just before they die are often given a great golden streak of luck. They get gay and young and rich and then, when they have been sufficiently flattered by the fates, they are struck down."

The Aga Khan seems to be more a man in the image of his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, who served as a president of the League of Nations in 1937. His 1954 "Memoirs of Aga Khan: World Enough and Time," with a foreword by Somerset Maugham, recounts how the Aga Khan was received by Queen Victoria, forged a friendship with Winston Churchill in 1896, befriended King Edward VII and lived through the apex of British imperial might and decline in colonial India.

The Ismaili imams are descended from Muhammad through a cousin and son-in-law, Ali, whose wife Fatima was the prophet's daughter. Over time, Ismailis moved to Syria, Persia and India as well as Africa. Now they reside across the Middle and Near East, especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Africa, Europe and North America.

There were two earlier Aga Khans. The title was granted by a king of Persia in the 1830s to Aga Hassanaly Shah, the 46th spiritual leader, or imam, of the Ismaili sect. He moved to India in 1843. The second Aga Khan was named in 1881, but died four years later.

The third Aga Khan, a larger-than-life figure in British colonial India, eventually moved to Britain. In her 1996 book "Throne of Gold: The Lives of the Aga Khans," Anne Edwards describes the 1936 Golden Jubilee of Aga Khan III in Bombay, where tens of thousands of people crowded to see the 220-pound imam presented with his weight in gold.

A decade later, Edwards recounts, he received 243 pounds of diamonds, much of which was turned over to investment trusts to benefit Ismailis, who consider themselves an especially prosperous Muslim community.

Even compliments about the Aga Khan are issued anonymously by those who work with him. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but he answered questions at a brief meeting with journalists yesterday afternoon.

One volunteer working on the development network's tsunami relief effort calls the tabloid take on the Aga Khan a "total disconnect" from reality. "You just remain focused," he says. "It is overblown."

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