Aga Khan

Texas Gov. Rick Perry plans to host a private dinner followed by fireworks near Austin on Saturday to honor the Aga Khan, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad celebrating his 50th year as the spiritual leader of a Muslim sect.

Earlier in the day, the leaders are expected to be on hand as the University of Texas signs an agreement with Aga Khan University, which has campuses in Pakistan and other countries, fostering student and teacher exchanges between the institutions.

Khan, a wealthy, Harvard-educated businessman and philanthropist, leads the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam, claiming 12 million to 16 million believers in 25 countries including tens of thousands in Texas.

Perry, 58, and Khan, 71, struck up an improbable friendship nearly a decade ago, resulting in a UT program exposing schoolteachers to Muslim beliefs and culture.

The jet-setting Khan grew up in Kenya and lives in France and owns hundreds of race horses. Perry was born and raised in West Texas before earning a degree at Texas A&M University.

In 2000, Perry, then lieutenant governor, visited the Aga Khan in Paris during a family trip to Europe.

Two years later, Perry and the Aga Khan visited during the opening of the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center built in Sugar Land near Houston and at an Austin dinner hosted by Perry.

The Aga Khan Development Network subsequently funded the UT program, which has introduced 80 Texas schoolteachers to Muslim history and culture; 15 teachers have toured the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

In 2006, Perry visited a Pakistan relief center financed by the network. And last year, Perry looked at an unfinished Ismaili center in Dubai that a travel mate described as an architectural and cultural wonder that the Aga Khan is expected to replicate, to a degree, in Houston.

Eric Bearse, an outside adviser to Perry, said Saturday’s "golden jubilee" event at the Texas Disposal Systems Exotic Game Ranch and Pavilion in Buda is "an opportunity for His Highness to be in the presence of a vibrant Ismaili community in Texas as well as to be with his friend, the governor."

Perry and his wife, Anita, will dine with the religious leader at a downtown hotel tonight.

Shahed Amanullah of Austin, editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com, said the Aga Khan has a solid reputation among Muslims because of his good works, partly through the development network. The network spends $350 million a year on economic, social and cultural projects concentrated in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

"There are a lot of non-Ismaili Muslims around the world who wish they had a leader that is as organized and as visionary," Amanullah said

Perry, who is a member of a Methodist church, and the Aga Khan emphasize the need for the Western world to understand Eastern values and vice versa. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Aga Khan said differences between Muslim-dominated countries and the Christian-dominant West don’t reflect the clash of civilizations so much as clashes of ignorance.

Neither Perry’s office nor members of the Ismaili community said who is paying for Saturday’s invitation-only party nor did they divulge who will attend it. Perry spokesman Robert Black said it would not be financed by the state or from economic development funds.

About 20,000 to 30,000 people are expected to hear the Aga Khan on Sunday in San Antonio. His U.S. schedule also includes stops in Georgia, Illinois and California.

Noor Jehan, whose family owns an Austin dry-cleaning business, intends to spend the weekend in San Antonio for the jubilee. "It’s a big, big occasion for us," Jehan said.

Asked if Ismaili Muslims liken the Aga Khan’s standing to the stature of the pope for Catholics, Jehan said. "He’s not a pope, who’s elected by cardinals. The Aga Khan is not elected by anybody. … He is a very special leader."

Jehan was referring to the Aga Khan becoming Imam or spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims in July 1957, succeeding his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III, a former president of the League of Nations.

Aga Khan

Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Dec. 13, 1936

Grew up in Nairobi, Kenya

Attended Swiss boarding school before Harvard University, where he graduated with honors with a degree in Islamic history

Succeeded his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, as the Ismaili Imamat at the age of 20 on July 11, 1957, becoming the 49th hereditary spiritual leader (Imam) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims

Wealth reportedly exceeds $1 billion

Owns two jets, stud farms and hundreds of race horses

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