He is a moderate Muslim religious leader and a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He is also a twice-married jet-setter, and he owns hundreds of racehorses, valuable stud farms, an exclusive yacht club on Sardinia and a lavish estate near Paris.
He has poured money into poorer, neglected parts of the world, often into businesses as basic as making fish nets, plastic bags and matches, while also teaming up with private equity powerhouses like the Blackstone Group on a huge US$750 million hydroelectric system in Uganda.
And as he tries to present a less threatening face of Islam on the global business stage during a time of war, the Aga Khan - one of the world's wealthiest Muslim investors - preaches the ethical acquisition and use of wealth and financial aid that promotes economic self-reliance among developing countries and their poorest people.
In a rare interview, the Aga Khan, who is chairman of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, a for-profit company based in Geneva, says he is more concerned with the long-term outcomes of his investments than with short-term profits. Rather than fretting daily over the bottom line, he says, he tries to ensure that his businesses become self-sustaining and achieve stability, which he defines as "operational break-even," within a "logical time frame."
"If you travel the developing world, you see poverty is the driver of tragic despair, and there is the possibility that any means out will be taken," he says in a telephone interview from Paris. By assisting the poor through business, he says, "we are developing protection against extremism."
The company's main purpose "is to contribute to development," he adds. "It is not a capitalist enterprise that aims at declaring dividends to its shareholders." Central to his ethos is the notion that his investments can prompt other forms of economic growth within a country or region that results in greater employment and hope for the poor.
Economic developments experts say the Aga Khan's activities offer a useful template for others - including philanthropists like Bill Gates and George Soros - who are trying to assist the world's poorest by marrying business practices to social goals, but whose foundation work usually stops short of owning businesses outright in poor countries.
Paul Collier, an economist at Oxford University who specializes in the problems of poor countries, says he believes that aid agencies could benefit from operating more like venture capitalists - and more like the Aga Khan. "He gets a multiplier effect from his investments that's really lacking in foreign aid," Collier says. "I'm impressed with his way of accepting risk and thinking long term."
At the same time, the Aga Khan embodies many of the conflicting social and financial tides sweeping the global economy. He is the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim sect, but he is also surrounded by unusual material riches - none of which he or his followers see as a contradiction.
The Aga Khan concedes that he owns two jets, but says that he drives an Audi and that his yacht is 25 years old. Ismailis "wouldn't like to see him living the life of a pauper - we want him to live a decent, an affluent life," says Kris Janowski, the Aga Khan's spokesman. Janowski adds that the imam is "surprised that anyone would apply the word 'lavish' to his lifestyle because he doesn't see it as lavish."