From Sufism to Ahmadiyya: A Muslim Minority Movement in South Asia

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The Ahmadiyya Muslim community represents the followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), a charismatic leader whose claims of spiritual authority brought him into conflict with most other Muslim leaders of the time. The controversial movement originated in rural India in the latter part of the 19th century and is best known for challenging current conceptions of Islamic orthodoxy. Despite missionary success and expansion throughout the world, particularly in Western Europe, North America, and parts of Africa, Ahmadis have effectively been banned from Pakistan. Adil Hussain Khan traces the origins of Ahmadi Islam from a small Sufi-style brotherhood to a major transnational organization, which many Muslims believe to be beyond the pale of Islam.

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1 Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani before Prophethood

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1  Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani before Prophethood

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s Family Background

Accounts of the life of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad usually begin with descriptions of the Mirza᾽i family’s sixteenth-century migration from Persian Central Asia to India. This format follows the chief source of information on his family background, located in a similarly structured autobiographical account which takes up a considerable portion of the footnotes of his Kitāb al-Bariyya (Book of Exoneration).1 Ghulam Ahmad’s emphasis on lineage played an important role in establishing credibility, both religiously and socially, for Jama῾at-i Ahmadiyya, and it sheds light on Ghulam Ahmad’s mission by characterizing the colonial context of the time. The fact that lineage has consistently been presented by Ahmadi sources as requisite for understanding the life and claims of the movement’s founder should be an indication of the values of the early community and of the nineteenth-century Indian society from which it emerged.

 

2 The Prophetic Claims of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad

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2  The Prophetic Claims of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s Primary and Secondary Claims

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s education and spiritual training shaped the way in which he understood and expressed his religious experiences. His spiritual claims were complex, with subtle nuances that developed over the course of his life, but the controversy surrounding his claims is in many ways what makes his mission most interesting. Any serious analysis of Ghulam Ahmad’s claims must account for changes in interpretation that have taken place over time. The expansion of these claims did not come to an end with Ghulam Ahmad’s death, but rather continued through successive generations of Ahmadi interpreters who framed and articulated these claims differently. The ambiguous and sometimes paradoxical nature of Ghulam Ahmad’s Sufi-style metaphysics has led to divergent opinions about him. His views on theological issues are often presented analytically, whereas in actuality they are difficult to assess. The controversial aspects of Ahmadi Islam are less a result of Ghulam Ahmad’s primary spiritual claims and more a result of consequential inferences from—or secondary implications of—what his primary claims seem to entail. The best example of this is the case of Ghulam Ahmad’s prophethood itself, which was, surprisingly, not one of his primary spiritual claims. Similarly, Ghulam Ahmad’s rejection of violent jihad and his insistence upon Jesus’s survival of crucifixion were consequences of his claim to be the promised messiah. To better understand Ghulam Ahmad’s mission and appreciate how he became a prophet of God, one must evaluate the religious background of his primary spiritual claims alongside what they entail.

 

3 Authority, Khilāfat, and the Lahori-Qadiani Split

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3  Authority, Khilāfat, and the Lahori-Qadiani Split

The Setting for the Split

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad passed away in the early morning hours of May 26, 1908, while visiting Lahore. His body was transported back to Qadian where Maulvi Hakim Nur al-Din, a close companion and disciple, led the funeral prayer after unanimously being chosen as Ghulam Ahmad’s successor by the Ahmadis participating in the procession. Although the events may have taken some time to unfold, the selection of Hakim Nur al-Din was not contested by the nearly 1,200 members in attendance, who offered him their bay῾at (allegiance).1 Nur al-Din had been the first person to take Ghulam Ahmad’s bay῾at in Ludhiana in 1889 and had always been regarded as one of Ghulam Ahmad’s most trusted friends. During his reign as khalīfa, Nur al-Din did little to assert his authority over the Jama῾at. His mild-mannered personality and strict adherence to Ghulam Ahmad left little room for objections. It was not until his own death six years later that the underlying differences within Jama῾at-i Ahmadiyya began to emerge.

 

4 Politics and the Ahmadiyya Movement under Mirza Bashir al-Din Mahmud Ahmad

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4  Politics and the Ahmadiyya Movement under Mirza Bashir al-Din Mahmud Ahmad

The “Rangīlā Rasūl” Incident: The “Playboy” Prophet

By 1925, Mirza Bashir al-Din Mahmud Ahmad had missionaries diligently setting up Ahmadi centers all over the world. Ahmadi Islam had touched virtually every continent through the establishment of local chapters in Western Europe, North America, both East and West Africa, Mauritius, Syria, and Palestine. It was the communal tensions back home in India, however, that were creating the greatest stir. Hindu-Muslim tensions had been building steadily before they came to a head in the late 1920s. Polemic pamphlets blaspheming religious rivals were popular on both sides when a spirited Arya Samajist published the Rangīlā Rasūl booklet in 1924, attributing a number of sexual exploits to the Prophet Muhammad.1 The publication managed to capture the attention of Muslim India. The Arya polemicist responsible, Rajpal, was initially convicted under section 153A of India’s penal code in an attempt to keep communal tensions under control. This amounted to a sentence of eighteen months in prison and a 1,000-rupee fine. But the Punjab High Court overturned the decision in June 1927 and acquitted Rajpal of the charges. In addition, the high court’s Hindu justice, Dalip Singh, imprisoned the editor of Lahore’s Muslim Outlook for expressing outrage following the acquittal, which only exacerbated the situation from the perspective of Punjab’s Muslims. Defending the Prophet quickly became the focus of ordinary Muslims throughout India as a result.

 

5 Religion and Politics after Partition: The Ahmadi Jihad for Kashmir

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5  Religion and Politics after Partition

The Ahmadi Jihad for Kashmir

Partition and Kashmir

With the presidency of the All-India Kashmir Committee behind him, Mirza Bashir al-Din Mahmud Ahmad continued his campaign in Kashmir as head of Jama῾at-i Ahmadiyya. This involved a temporary transformation of his image to that of a less political khalīfa. Despite attempts to maintain his affiliation with the All-India Kashmir Committee, the relationship proved to be irreconcilable. Internal support from Jama῾at-i Ahmadiyya was nonetheless enough to provide Mahmud Ahmad with a sufficient platform to continue working towards Kashmir’s independence on his own. As this transition unfolded in subsequent years, Jama῾at-i Ahmadiyya began moving in a different direction from the All-India Kashmir Committee, while other changes beyond Mahmud Ahmad’s control continued to take place on the Kashmiri front. By 1939, Sheikh Abdullah had shifted the discourse away from sharp communal polemics that highlighted internal differences, towards an inclusive Kashmiri nationalist movement intended to unite the people of Kashmir. This may be illustrated by the name change of his All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference to the All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, as noted by Mridu Rai. The new platform incorporated Hindus and Sikhs, in addition to Muslims, as victims of the Dogra government’s oppression of its people and marked a new approach to both Kashmiri politics and identity.1

 

6 Early Opposition and the Roots of Ahmadi Persecution

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6  Early Opposition and the Roots of Ahmadi Persecution

Understanding Ahmadi Persecution

Jama῾at-i Ahmadiyya has steadily been attracting international attention for reasons other than its founder intended. The harsh treatment of Ahmadis in South Asia and beyond has stimulated a wave of humanitarian interest in the modernist messianic movement. This demands a basic overview of Ahmadi theology, which unavoidably emphasizes distinctive features of the movement by highlighting the differences between Ahmadi Islam and the Muslim mainstream. Consequently, Ahmadis themselves have become rather effective at pointing out religious differences, while rather ineffective at recognizing similarities to other Muslim communities in a way that could potentially diffuse sectarian tensions. Over the second half of the twentieth century, the negative perception of Jama῾at-i Ahmadiyya has developed from a tolerably controversial movement, as seen in the heyday of the Kashmir struggle, to a persecuted minority movement whose connection to Islam is often reduced to little more than its historic roots. The social stigma associated with Ahmadi identity in some ways no longer represents mere differences of opinion within a single religious tradition, but arguably different religious traditions altogether. The long-standing treatment of Ahmadiyyat by non-Ahmadi Muslims as something other-than-Islam has had a profound impact on how Ahmadis perceive themselves. This has influenced how Ahmadis locate themselves in relation to the Muslim mainstream, since Ahmadis have gradually become more comfortable distinguishing their views from those of mainstream Muslims. It appears as though Ahmadis may have contributed to the process of disengagement by slowly dissociating the notion of Ahmadiyyat from its Islamic context, as if it were an emerging religious tradition distinct from contemporary Islam. To gain a better understanding of this process, we shall consider how this transformation corresponds to the community’s persecution in a postcolonial setting.

 

7 Persecution in Pakistan and Politicization of Ahmadi Identity

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7  Persecution in Pakistan and Politicization of Ahmadi Identity

The Politics of Partition

Mirza Bashir al-Din Mahmud Ahmad, khalīfat al-masīh II, remained immersed in the Kashmir crisis throughout the 1930s, which led to a sustained rivalry with the Majlis-i Ahrar. By the 1940s, both organizations had diverted their attention to the Second World War, which enabled tensions to simmer in the background for the next few years. By the end of the war, the political priorities of community leaders had shifted once again towards gaining independence from Britain. This meant that there was a greater sense of urgency among organizational leaders to voice concerns about the prospects for self-governance currently under consideration. As the push for independence gained momentum in the public discourse, India’s community leaders went from entertaining proposals to finalizing schemes.1 Although the earliest proposals dated back well into the nineteenth century, by the mid-1940s only two models of governance dominated the debate. The first viable option was rooted in conceptions of Indian nationalism, while the second was rooted in religious separatism. India’s nationalists backed the creation of a single state, represented by a unified India, whereas religious separatists sought the creation of independent states based on religious affiliations. As plans for independence materialized, it became increasingly clear that India would be partitioned along religious grounds. Most separatists, however, still did not want religion to dominate public policy. On the contrary, religious affiliations were primarily intended to serve as a means of determining international boundaries. This made mixed-population states, such as Punjab, problematic for advocates of partition, due to the rich complexity of its religious heritage and the varied distribution of its religious demographic.2 As a result, quarreling about population distributions created confusion which postponed the demarcation of international borders until late in the process.

 

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