The rise of Ahmadi exceptionalism

November 25, 2018

A historic overview of how a religious group went from being a minority to a fitna. This is the first of a two part series

The rise of Ahmadi exceptionalism

When Atif Mian, renowned economist from Princeton University, was nominated as a member of the Economic Advisory Council by Prime Minister Imran Khan, there were two distinct reactions from the supporters of his government. Some were ecstatic as for them it was another step towards making Pakistan a more pluralistic society. Others, more conservative sections, were indifferent initially but, as momentum gathered, voiced their discontent over the inclusion of an Ahmadi into a group that is to address the country’s economic woes.

The federal information minister sharply defended Mian’s appointment. He said the country also belongs to the minorities, and that it is the religious duty of every Muslim to protect their rights. His statement, though couched strictly in legal-constitutional terms and relying on invocation of Islamic principles of tolerance, drew the ire of firebrand political commentators.

These commentators made it clear that Ahmadis could not be treated like other minorities, i.e. like other non-Muslims. They argued that minorities have always had equal opportunity in the country, and cited the examples of Justice Alvin Cornelius and Justice Rana Bhagwandas, who became top judges of Pakistan’s highest court of law. Ahmadis, on the other hand, are not a minority, they pointed out since they refuse to accept themselves as such. Their insistence on calling themselves Muslims and the unlawful use of the ‘copyright’ to practice or represent Islam, it was said, are an affront to the sensibility of Muslims. Some commentators did not stop at denying Ahmadis minority status which ensures some degree of constitutional protection, but went a step further and called them murtads (apostates) -- the punishment for which, according to many scholars in Islam, is death.

In Pakistan, the term minority is not a numerical categorisation applicable to ethnic or linguistic groups. It is a title generally bestowed upon anyone who is not a Muslim. In other words, the term minority and non-Muslim are interchangeable. What the information minister said in his carefully worded defence was that Ahmadi rights have to be protected like Christian rights or Hindu rights.

However, what is scary is not that Atif Mian was asked to step down because of his religious affiliation. It is that Ahmadis are being denied what Hannah Arendt calls "the right to have rights" -- a denial written into the very language and logic of the Second Amendment of 1974 that declared them non-Muslims.

During the National Assembly’s special committee proceedings on the Ahmadi issue in 1974, Yahya Bakhtiyar, then attorney general of Pakistan, had told Mirza Nasir Ahmad, head of the Ahmadiyya community, that the Ahmadis need to be designated a minority if they want their rights to be protected. In an emotional response, Ahmad said he would prefer to live as a Muslim without rights rather than as a non-Muslim with guaranteed rights.

A few decades later we are faced with a situation which even Ahmad would not have imagined -- his people can no longer be recognised as a non-Muslim minority, with any degree of guaranteed rights or civil liberties. The Second Amendment, which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sold as "the final solution" to a "90-year-old problem" became the very legal foundation of state-sanctioned discrimination, hate and violence against Ahmadis.

When right-wing commentators insist on distinguishing Ahmadis from other non-Muslim minorities, they appear to point towards what one can call Ahmadi exceptionalism -- the idea that Ahmadis are unlike any other majority or minority in Pakistan and should be treated, or mistreated, as such.

Numerous religio-political arguments were presented to justify the exclusion of Ahmadis from the fold of Islam during the month-long debate in the National Assembly in 1974. Bakhtiyar had rightfully pointed out the inherent flaw of the argument against them: he said, on the one hand, Ahmadis were being proved as inherently blasphemous in their religious views and traitors of the state in their political actions, yet on the other the assembly was promising to protect their religious and political rights as minority citizens. His objection soon drowned in the outcry, and so did any hope of the state holding its ground.


When right-wing commentators insist on distinguishing Ahmadis from other non-Muslim minorities, they appear to point towards what one can call Ahmadi exceptionalism -- the idea that Ahmadis are unlike any other majority or minority in Pakistan and should be treated, or mistreated, as such.

Sects with divergent views have always existed in Islam -- including in the modern period -- with mutually incriminating fatwas of kufr (denial of truth) against each other. When every major or minor sect has been branded as kafir (denier of truth) by the opposing sect, what is so special about the fatwa of kufr against one group?

It can be said that fatwas against Deobandis and Barelvis mostly relate to specific statements of individual scholars. Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi, for instance, issued fatwas of kufr against major Deobandi scholars. However, there is no consensus among subsequent Barelvi scholars on considering all Deobandis as non-Muslims. The same can be said about Deobandi fatwas of kufr against certain Barelvi beliefs and practices. This might be because disputes about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) being nur (light) or basher (human), the celebration of mawlid and the intercessionary powers of Sufis -- though hugely significant in their own context -- is not considered by a segment of Barelvi and Deobandi ulema as a deviation from the broad consensual boundaries of belief. Therefore, there is hardly a majority opinion of ulema, let alone a consensus, in favour of the fatwa of kufr against Barelvis or Deobandis.

One must also state that the opinion against Ahmadis was not always unanimous either. Till the 1890s, there were many cautious voices of restraint. Many scholars refused to append signatures on fatwas of kufr against Mirza Ghulam Ahmad without confronting him first. Others abstained out of expediency.

Early twentieth century onwards, however, religious opinion against Ahmadis became increasingly unanimous. It will be almost impossible to find a fatwa from any Sunni or Shia denomination that accepts Ahmadis within the bounds of Islam. One might find some fatwas in favour of the Lahori branch of Ahmadis (though the Second Amendment applies to them as well) that declares Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to be a mudjaddid (renewer of faith) rather than a prophet. Such unanimity of opinion over the exclusion of any other group is unparalleled.

Here, one must point out that this unanimity does not necessarily qualify Ahmadi beliefs as false and those of their opponents as true. To validate their claim of being a righteous Muslim group, Ahmadis refer to a prophetic tradition which says that the true Muslim sect will be the one which will be condemned by every other sect. They also argue that such opposition, hatred and campaign of vilification were faced by every prophet during his lifetime and by his followers afterwards.

As for violating the consensus on the finality of Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood, Ahmadis say that they too believe in Prophet Muhammad to be the last messenger of Allah. According to Ahmadi belief, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s prophetic status was only a reflection and shadow of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) -- a status that the founder of the Ahmadiyyah Jamat acquired through his utmost devotion and love for the prophet. As the Seal of Prophets -- khatam al-nabiyyin -- Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), as the owner of the seal of Prophethood, they claim, has the power to bestow this status to his most obedient and loving devotees.

However, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s critics argue that he not only made claims that hinted at his elevated status as a prophet, but also disrespected other prophetic figures (especially Jesus), and brought about various changes in the sharia. In addition, he claimed to be the promised messiah and, later in his life, an incarnation of the Hindu deity Krishna as well. During his lifetime, therefore, he had found detractors not only among Muslims but also among Christians and Hindus.

His followers do have a strong defence for his ‘controversial’ statements and spiritual claims. However, since the 1950s, intellectual space has been constrained to such an extent that it has become impossible for Ahmadis to present their case, even if it is in a polemical setting. In the absence of a level playing field, there is no point in listing Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s ‘controversial’ or ‘offensive’ statements when we know that the Ahmadis would not have an equal right to participate in this debate. But one can, at least, try to make sense of the ‘nature of offence’ in the peculiar context of colonialism and impact of modernity.

It can be argued that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s writings received a harsh response from ulema of all religious persuasions due to the nature of his claims and the language he used to describe them. Ahmad’s critics have pointed out that similar claims of proximity with the Divine or revelations from the Divine -- some of the essential attributes of prophethood -- had been made by various Sufis as well. Ahmadi texts frequently refer to such claims, made by the likes of ibn Arabi and Abdul Qadir Jilani. Ibn Arabi, for instance, identifies two different types of nabuwwats (prophethoods) -- one of sharia (law) and the other of wilaya (granted authority). It can be inferred from ibn Arabi’s writings that he is referring to two different kinds of nabuwwats -- a sharia-based nabuwwat ended with Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and wilaya that is continuing. When such statements were read out by Ahmadis in an inquiry commission headed by Justice Samdani in 1974, the judge dismissed them as "Sufi hyperboles". The underlying argument was that Sufis, in a state of ecstasy, say things that cannot be read literally. While others had claimed spiritual eminence and prophetic experiences as well, they had fallen short of claiming nabuwwat. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, on the contrary, used the title of nabuwwat to describe these spiritual experiences. Rather than indicting Sufis for ‘aberrant views’, this critique should be read as a testimony to the complexity of Islamic religious traditions in the pre-modern era and its ability to accommodate and engage with divergent views about the Divine and readings of the scripture.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s case was different since he was writing in the late nineteenth century in a language that was heavily tinged with scriptural, philosophical and mystical references, profusely dense and opaquely metaphorical, for an audience that had developed modern notions of self and rationality and a general suspicion of esoteric experiences. Scholarship on reformist currents in South Asian Islam during the nineteenth century explores this redefining of religion and search for the rationale behind beliefs and rituals. The ‘new prophetology’ of the era emphasised the human aspect of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as an essential feature, in fact, a prerequisite for him to serve as the perfect role model for people of all times and places. Various new interpretative techniques were used to rationalise Quranic verses on miracles, or certain aspects of its commandments which could not, otherwise, have been in conformity with modern sensibilities.

As for the ulema, the very aspect of prophethood was a settled issue. While various Sunni and Shia groups have their own versions of Islamic eschatology -- especially the return of Jesus and the coming of Mehdi -- none was waiting for the arrival of a new prophet. The usual Ahmadi argument is that Jesus’ return would break the seal of prophethood as he is a prophet himself. The general Sunni response is that his is not a new prophethood. The Mehdi himself has been described in some traditions as holding a status only similar to that of a prophet, and that Jesus would be praying behind him. However, in an era of political turmoil in different parts of the Islamic world, the messianic prophet-like figure of the Mehdi as a reviver of past glory and supremacy had become popular. The case of Muhammad Ahmad, the nineteenth-century Sudanese religious leader who claimed to be the promised Mehdi, is well-known. In the case of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the claim went beyond that of Mehdihood. It posed religious as well as political challenges.

One must hasten to add that the notion of an absolute closure of prophethood in Islam developed as the early community of Islam matured and grew into a distinct group of believers. Yohanan Friedmann’s work, citing parallels from other Abrahamic traditions, traces the process whereby some ambiguities in the notion of the finality of prophethood existed during the early decades of Islamic history and eventually closed off completely in later years. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s claims, therefore, did offer a wholly new perspective that challenged the consensus held by ulema and believers over centuries.

During the 1974 assembly proceedings, Bakhtiyar said the notion of khatm-i-nabuwwat was essentially a liberatory concept -- the need for divine guidance no longer existed and that man was now free to explore rational possibilities in the world. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s claim of prophethood brings back the need for direct divine guidance. Such a claim, therefore, according to Bakhtiyar, strikes at the heart of Islam as a rational and modern religion.

Politically, Ahmadis have been accused of all sorts of sins. Unlike religious controversies over actual Ahmadi texts and their interpretation, political controversies and accusations against Ahmadis have mostly been fanciful, unsubstantiated and based on wild conspiracy theories. There is no disagreement that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a loyal subject of the Queen and penned several tracts supporting the British empire. But there was nothing exceptional in that since all his major contemporaries wrote similarly in support of the empire and its ‘blessings’. Loyalty to the state is an act of faith for Ahmadis, regardless of whether that state is Pakistan or Israel.

I have watched various talk shows, YouTube videos and read anti-Ahmadi literature that refer to a book titled The Arrival of British Empire in India, which I have not yet been able to get my hands on. The book, according to anti-Ahmadi polemics, gives a detailed account of a group of Christian missionaries who visited India after the revolt of 1857 to figure out ways of converting Muslims to Christianity and making them loyal subjects of the British Crown. This required, according to the report submitted by these missionaries, to take the spirit of Jihad out of the hearts and minds of Muslims, and to dampen their faith, love and devotion for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). To achieve both these ends, a false prophet had to be introduced among the Muslims. In a talk show held on September 7, 2018 to commemorate the historic Second Amendment, a former deputy attorney general and a former ad hoc judge of the Lahore High Court, cited this ‘book’, to claim that the initial ‘offer’ of prophethood was made to Sayyid Ahmad Khan who refused to accept it. Subsequently, ‘candidates’ were interviewed at the Sialkot district commissioner’s office, where Mirza Ghulam Ahmad worked, after which he was selected as the new prophet. This effectively describes the process of bureaucratisation of fitna (insurrection). Such is the scourge of modernity and governmentality that even a fitna must follow bureaucratic procedures.

Also read: Reifying the divide

Mirza Sultan Ahmad, an independent researcher based in Rabwah, corresponded with the British Library to trace the book, but their record showed that no such title existed. It is, therefore, safe to assume that no such book has ever existed.

However, a more serious case against the Ahmadis was made by Muhammad Iqbal during the early 1930s. For him, the ‘organic unity’ of Islam predicated on the twin doctrinal basis of tawhid (oneness of Allah) and nabuwwa (prophethood of Muhammad [pbuh]). By challenging the existing consensus on the finality of prophethood, said Iqbal, Ahmadis undermine the organic unity of the larger Muslim community. Bakhtiyar borrowed from Iqbal’s line of reasoning in the context of a post-1971 Pakistan where the ideational basis of Islam was the only source of strength and unity for nationhood. In Iqbal’s case, too, it should be remembered that for the major part of his life, he held Ahmadis in high esteem. Some of Iqbal’s close relatives, including his son, Aftab Iqbal, were Ahmadis or had an association with Jamat Ahmadiyyah. It was in the aftermath of Kashmir agitation during the early 1930s, when Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmud gained prominence as a leader of the Muslim community and Sir Zafarullah was elevated to viceroy’s executive council on a seat reserved for Muslims, that Iqbal reconsidered his opinion about Ahmadis and their status as members of the Muslim community.


Ali Usman Qasmi is the author of The Ahmadis and the Politics of Religious Exclusion in Pakistan. He tweets @AU_Qasmi

The rise of Ahmadi exceptionalism