When the flamboyant Aga Khan, regarded as a ‘living god’ by his 15 million Islamic followers, collided with a snowboarder on the slopes of Courchevel last year, and was flown to hospital in Boston with serious injuries, the incredibly delicate issue of his succession was raised for the first time. As a result, the accident was kept secret for more than two months and hospital staff were under instructions not to disclose the identity of their famous patient.
The Aga Khan, 71, made a full recovery, but ever since his advisers have been quietly focusing on the suitability of his eldest son Prince Rahim, 36, to inherit the title (although, ultimately, it is the Aga Khan’s decision).
Known jokingly as ‘Jesus’ or ‘the Son of God’ by his friends, the Prince is intelligent, capable and charismatic, but has inherited his father’s taste for the high life. ‘There some anxiety about the succession,’ a friend of the family said. ‘The Aga Khan only inherited the title because his own father was considered unsuitable because of his womanizing, self-indulgence and endless pursuit of pleasure. Rahim has some of those tendencies. There are a few nervous conversations going on.’
While a spokesman for the Aga Khan insists that ‘any speculation of this sort is very unhelpful to the Ismaili community’, other sources close to the family insist that Rahim’s playboy label is out-of-date and exaggerated. ‘He does go out with staggeringly beautiful women but so what,’ said one friend. ‘He is single. What’s more interesting is how he has moved from drifting and dabbling in his mid-twenties hippie period to today when he takes his responsibilities seriously. If he succeeds his father, then I think that he would make a great modernizing Aga Khan.’
Born in 1971, Prince Rahim is the second child of the Aga Khan and his first wife. When K, as the Aga Khan is known, proposed to Sally Croker-Poole in 1969, the former model and 1958 debutante was warned about his infidelities. But Sally, whose first marriage to Lord James Crichton-Stuart had been a disaster, was ready to settle down. She had had a series of boyfriends – financier Sir James Goldsmith, tipster Charles Benson and backgammon hustler Phillip Martyn – but all were gamblers and Sally wanted stability. She and the Aga Khan went on to have three children: Princess Zahra, 37, Prince Rahim, 36, and Prince Hussain, 34.
The current Aga Khan’s life has been a remarkable paradox: he is both a serial philanderer and a ‘workaholic’ philanthropist, a jet-setter renowned for his hedonistic habits and yet leader of a powerful and progressive Shia Islamic group. It is his ability to straddle both the religious and secular worlds that makes the Aga Khan so intriguing.
He likes to be addressed as ‘Your Highness’ (based on a title bestowed on him by the Queen in 1957). He is not quite royal but, like the Dalai Lama, he has an iconic status with mysterious origins – legend has it that followers in Tanzania once bottled his bathwater. He also retains a quasi- diplomatic status and has a role as an interlocutor between Islam and the West. The Aga Khan enjoys the pleasures of the West while promoting himself as a philanthropic citizen of the world.