Female Islamic Saints


A portrait of Lady ‘Alī Shāh.
I. Portrait of Lady ‘Alī Shāh.

Lady ‘Alī Shāh (c. 1840’s–1938), born Nawab ‘Aliyā’ Shams al-Mulk, was an Iranian noblewoman, scholar, as well as the third wife of the 47th Nizārī Ismā‘īlī Imam and mother of his successor. She was born in Isfahan to Mīrzā ‘Alī Muḥammad Niẓām ad-Dawlah, the influential grandson of the shah Fatḥ ‘Alī’ Qājār’s Prime Minister, and Khorshīd Kolāh, the daughter of Fatḥ ‘Alī and his wife Tāj ad-Dawlah Ifsahān. In 1867, she married the Imam Āqā ‘Alī Shāh, Āghā Khān II. She acquired the title Lady ‘Alī Shāh and took residence in Karachi, India, with the Imam, giving birth to Muḥammad Shāh in 1877. There, she also blessed and named babies of the local jamā’at khānās, or Ismā‘īlī gathering halls, including the founder of Pakistan, Mahomed Ali Jinnah. When Pīr Shihāb ad-Dīn Shāh, Āqā ‘Alī Shāh’s son from a previous marriage who had been a widely admired community leader, died of chest disease in 1884, the grief stricken Imam granted his wife the title Mātā Salāmat, “Mother of Peace.” Pīr Shihāb ad-Dīn Shāh’s younger brother Āghā Nūr Shāh was previously mortally wounded falling off horseback, so when Āqā ‘Alī Shāh died of pneumonia shortly after in 1885, the eight year old Muḥammad Shāh was left to succeed the Imam, being inaugurated Āghā Khān III.

Lady ‘Alī Shāh moved the family residence to Pune and conducted the Ismā‘īlī community for her son by a council of prominent community members from Gujarat and Sindh until he took an active role in his adolescence in 1893. It was at this time he became involved in the Aligarh movement, which held for the need for modern education among Indian Muslims, and he went on to form the All India Muslim League in 1906, a party advocating for an independent state for Indian Muslims, becoming its first president. While he later withdrew from politics, when World War I broke out, he left to represent British India in negotiations. In his immediate absence, Lady ‘Alī Shāh pragmatically aided in the war effort. She rallied to gather the funds and organized women-lead hostels in Mumbai to receive injured soldiers from Iraq, and she encouraged prominent Iranians to support the Allies.

Born into the Qajar court and inducted into the Indian and British political spheres by marriage, Lady ‘Alī Shāh was well learned, politically adept and highly connected. She received numerous accolades and was even called to give Indian princes her counsel, such as the Begum Shāh Jahān of Bhopal, with whom she became close friends. Erudition had been instilled in her at a young age, as she received an affluent education like her mother and grandmother had. She studied Asian and Middle Eastern history and was knowledgeable in many other faculties, and she encouraged Ismā‘īlī girls and women to pursue education. Unlike previous Imams who had received a classical Perso-Arabic education, she provided Āghā Khān III with a modern western one as well, and her upbringing and administration during her son’s youth likely influenced his progressive outlook and societal reforms. In many ways, however, she remained personally conservative, being quoted saying, “I do not mingle with the world of today, but I am not ignorant of it.” Despite the fact that Nizārī women had not been required to veil for centuries and that the Imams had downplayed or even discouraged the practice (Āghā Khān III later abolishing it), she donned a veil in public anyway, in line with her simple lifestyle.

She was said to have been reserved with herself, while giving open handedly on Ḥajj, and at the intersection of her scholasticism, austerity and philanthropy was her religiosity. Her son called her a “genuine mystic of the Muslim tradition” in his memoir, as she spent much of her time in prayer and had knowledge of relatively obscure Sufi literature and poetry, having memorized much of Rūmī and Ḥāfeẓ’s works. She was, in fact, known for her detailed memory. When extended family of Āghā Khān III, led by his second cousin Hājī Bībī, disputed his undivided inheritance of his father’s estate and right to offerings from the Ismā‘īlī community, they took the issue to the High Court of Mumbai in 1908. While initially leaning towards Hājī Bībī, the court decided in the Imam’s favor, and when Lady ‘Alī Shāh gave historical evidence on the stand, she received the compliment of the presiding judge for her memory.

Her health began to decline, though, when she suddenly fell ill in 1934. She soon recovered, but in 1937, returning to her home in Mumbai from a Turkish bath, she suffered a stroke and lost much of her memory and cognitive ability, save the occasional moment of remembrance. Āghā Khān III subsequently rushed to India to attend to his mother. She left on ship for Iraq in 1938, and sensing her mortality, she relayed this message to the present kāmaḍiā (a high ranking Ismā‘īlī deputy):

“Send my love to all the members of the Ismā‘īlī community. I may not return to India, but wherever my spirit be I will eternally watch their peaceful progress and prosperity, as I have done all my life.”

She arrived in Baghdad, where she spent her last moments in her son’s lap. She had willed to be buried with her husband in an independent Muslim land, so when she passed, she was buried beside her husband, her husband’s grandfather, and his grandmother Maryam Khatūn in a familial mausoleum, in Najaf, Iraq.

Not necessarily considered a saint.

Photo Reference

I: “Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah on His Beloved Mother.” Barakah, Malik Merchant, 3 Mar. 2019, https://barakah.com/2019/03/03/my-beloved-mother-lady-ali-shah-through-the-voice-of-her-son-imam-sultan-mahomed-shah-aga-khan-iii/.


Abdul Rehman Kanji, et al., editor. “28.0 Pir Shahabu'd Din Shah al-Husayni.” Ismaili Heroes. H.S.H. Prince Aly S. Khan Colony Religious School, 1973, http://ismaili.net/heritage/node/8217.

Aga Khan III, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah. The Memoirs of the Aga Khan: World Enough and Time. Cassel & Company, 1954, pp. 18–19, 79, 269–270.

Ali, Mumtaz Ali Tajddin Sadik. “Ismaili History 819 - Shamsul Mulk Lady Ali Shah.” Ismailis through History. Islamic Book Publisher, 1997, Ismaili.NET, http://ismaili.net/heritage/node/18065.

Ali, Mumtaz Ali Tajddin Sadik. “Mata Salamat.” Encyclopædia of Ismailism. Islamic Book Publisher, 2006, Ismaili.NET, http://ismaili.net/heritage/node/10586.

Lady Ali Shah • Shamsul Mulk • Nawabali Shamsul Mulk

West AsiaIsmā‘īlīImāmī Shī‘īRegentImam’s ConsortMysticMissionaryScholar.