Reifying the divide

December 2, 2018

The widespread hatred against Ahmadis is the result of decades of relentless campaigns and one-sided propaganda, which even the abolishment of the Second Amendment cannot cure. The final of the two part series

Reifying the divide

An overwhelming majority of Muslims -- rightly or wrongly -- think that Ahmadis do not follow the basic premise of Islam, i.e. an unconditional belief in the finality of prophethood, and thus have no right to call themselves Muslims. Ideally, an individual opinion about Ahmadis as non-Muslims should be as irrelevant for legal and constitutional purposes as the Ahmadi claim to Muslimness for themselves.

Such an approach differs from the views of many liberal commentators who identify fatwas of kufr as the root cause of sectarian violence in Pakistan. Debates over the contours of faith and theological disputations about ‘true Islam’ are as old as the faith itself, or any other faith for that matter. The problem arises when such declarations -- whether scholarly or rhetorical -- become the rallying cry of a lynch mob bent upon enforcing majoritarian views on others and are rubber-stamped by the state. In many parts of the world -- in fact, just across the border as well -- such a difference of opinion between the Ahmadis and their critics exists without necessarily escalating into violence.

It has been asked that whether an individual’s opinion or the consensus of ulema should become the basis of the state’s rubber-stamped definition of who really is a Muslim. For a long time, Ahmadis and many liberal commentators have claimed that it is impossible to arrive at a consensual definition, citing the 1954 Munir-Kayani commission’s deliberations with Muslim scholars as evidence. While this claim itself is problematic, the fact is that a precise legal definition of a Muslim -- which covers the aspect of finality of prophethood -- was eventually developed in 1974 and made part of the constitution in the 1980s. Therefore, the question now is not whether the state could take such a step, but whether the state should have taken such a step. The answer would be an unequivocal no. Rather than addressing the ‘Ahmadi question’, such steps have deepened the crisis and paved the way for a genocidal annihilation of the Ahmadis.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad claimed prophethood, wrote about it, established a community of believers. Hundreds of scholars engaged him in debates and polemics but no one physically attacked him. He died of natural causes. Similarly, his son Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmud, expanded the base of the community, sent missions abroad, sponsored publication of the Holy Quran in different languages and declared non-Ahmadis kafir in the sense of deniers of his father. He, too, wasn’t harmed. In fact, the only well-known incident of violence against Ahmadis during the colonial period took place in Afghanistan where Ahmadi missionaries were lynched. Shabbir Ahmad Usmani, the Deobandi scholar, wrote a pamphlet, as-Shahab, condoning the killing. This was the same time when sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias was commonplace.

Organised violence against Ahmadis became frequent after the British left India, when a certain premium was laid on the category of ‘religious sentiment’ and its legal and political use. This tacit approval of the ‘right to be not offended’ and impunity in case of violent retribution in the name of inflamed passions is responsible for the hatred and violence against Ahmadis, and not their beliefs and teachings. Had it been for their beliefs, the violence should have stopped after the printing and distribution of Ahmadi texts was banned in Pakistan. Today, the chances of an average Muslim encountering Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s writings are extremely rare. Yet, violence is triggered against them on the flimsiest of excuses. Since 1984, they have not even been allowed to organise an annual congregation in Rabwah, let alone dispatch missionaries or propagate their beliefs.

The present crisis would not have exacerbated to this level if the Ahmadis had actually been declared a minority, with a fixed legal definition of their religious and political rights, even if it had come at the expense of reifying the divide.

In the famous Supreme Court verdict of Zaheerudin v the State in 1993, the court said that"if an Ahmadi is allowed by the administration or the law to display or chant in public, the Shaair-e-Islam, it is like creating a Rushdi out of him [sic]," thus, directly equating expression of Ahmadi belief as blasphemy. Yet, in the same breath, the Supreme Court maintained that Ahmadis are entitled to rights as a minority, which no one can take away from them. The demand today of denying minority status to Ahmadis is simply an extension of the same line of thought that pushed for the Second Amendment. Now that even the category of minority has failed to protect them, how else do we secure Ahmadi lives?

The widespread hatred against Ahmadis is the result of decades of relentless campaigns and one-sided propaganda, which even the abolishment of the Second Amendment cannot cure. There is little tolerance for the movement’s specific religious content in the contemporary era and the flames have reached as far as Indonesia, where similar anti-Ahmadi pogroms are already happening.


For Atif Mian’s appointment and unceremonious dismissal, Sher Ali Tareen squarely puts the blame on secularism. In his op-ed for The News on Sunday, he views secularism as a political ideology that enables management of religion by the state. He borrows from Saba Mahmood’s analysis of the modern nation-state’s role in creating permanent categories of minority and majority, to safeguard the rights of the former from the excesses of the latter. "Describing the ailment that produced this episode as surrender to religious bigotry, and prescribing for its cure the tonic of secular freedom would represent a conceptual and political travesty," Tareen writes. "In what might seem like a counterintuitive proposition, in fact it is precisely the irresolvable contradictions of political secularism that generate such violence (physical or otherwise) against religious minorities and exacerbate majority/minority tensions." Drawing upon Mahmood’s book Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Tareen traces religious inequality in the very "organising logic and structure of the modern nation-state, Muslim or non-Muslim." He describes the Second Amendment "not as a retreat to religious obscurantism but as the expression of a quintessentially liberal secular exercise of striving for sovereign power through the state management of religion, through the institution of the law."

As for the panacea to deal with the problem of intolerance and insecurity of life and property faced by ‘minorities’, Tareen advises "excavating resources of hospitality from the Muslim tradition rather than surrendering to the insidious fantasy of secular freedom" and "properly contextualising and interrogating the nuances of concepts such as apostasy, prophecy, and prophethood… a task that many Muslim scholars or the ‘ulema’ have admirably performed for many centuries and continue to do so in South Asia and elsewhere, even though their thought and scholarly interventions rarely make it to English dailies or morning headlines."

Tareen’s intervention is problematic on various levels. Mahmood’s seminal work focusing on Coptic Christians of Egypt is aimed at decentralising the universalist acclaim of secularism as an antidote to religious obscurantism and absolute guarantor of freedoms and equality. As Mahmood has shown, the very majoritarian ethos of the modern state -- whether it is on the basis of religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic or a combination of these factors -- is inherently poised to structure power along the lines of majority and minority. Such an exercise of sovereign power tends to reify these identities. She is careful to point out the distinction between secular aspiration for religious equality in everyday life and its legal form enshrined and enforced through state power. To quote her directly: "Secularism as a statist project exerts inordinate power on our political imagination, most evident in our inability to envision religious equality without the agency of the state." Mahmood’s purpose, therefore, is clearly to complicate the equation between the secular state and religious rights.

Tareen has carried out an uncritical application of her theory. The inadequacy of his approach has helped me realise the limitations of my own argument and previously stated position on the applicability of Mahmood’s theory in the case of Pakistan, especially with reference to Ahmadis. I agree with her to the extent that the Pakistani state has a clear majoritarian ethos and that, in fact, it is by excluding the non-Muslims that the majority has set its own self-definition. But this defining of majoritarian ethos of the state did not predicate on the exclusion of Ahmadis. It was rather based on the othering of the Hindu, which had been at the centre of political mobilisation during the 1940s, and resulted in the creation of the Muslim-majority state of Pakistan.

When Tareen says that the Second Amendment and the declaration of Ahmadis as a minority is an act of "quintessentially liberal secular" exercise of sovereign power, he fails to consider the historical and political context in which the amendment was passed. As I have argued, there was a visible tension throughout the proceedings of the assembly -- especially towards the end -- as both Yahya Bakhtiyar and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, true to their liberal-constitutionalist worldview, were averse to the idea of the state’s intervention in matters of faith. As Bakhtiyar’s comments cited above show, he clearly understood the contradiction in declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims for their alleged political disloyalty and religiously blasphemous views, and vowing to protect their rights as a minority at the same time. But it was under the tremendous pressure of ‘religiously obscurantist forces’ that the state had to acquiesce and pass the law -- which it had resisted when a similar demand was made in 1953. So, rather than the state willingly exercising its power to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims, it was the pressure of religio-political forces that brought the state to its knees. This is why what emerges out of the process is in fact not a minoritisation of Ahmadis but a legal sanction for the category of fitna.

If Mahmood’s theoretical framework had been applicable as it was in case of Coptic Christians, Ahmadi as a non-Muslim minority would have been a stable legal category. It was possible in the case of Coptic Christians, one could argue, because of the pre-modern history of Muslim-Christian disputations that predates the emergence of an Egyptian nation-state and has discursively been situated in the legal language of an empire-based system of justice.No such history exists in case of the Ahmadis who are a fairly recent phenomenon. In fact, as I have argued, it is their modernity -- temporal as well as doctrinal -- that is the root cause of the problem.

Even with a historically valid, premodern legal tradition, and empire-based system of justice, ‘traditional hospitality of Muslims’ -- as Tareen puts it -- implies a language of zimmi (the protected) servitude for people of the Book and a language of irtad (apostasy) and fitna for non-Orthodox groups that frames the debate on this issue. In other words, this glorification of ‘traditional hospitality’ is basically a crass attempt at masking the arbitrariness and patronising attitude of the granting of zimmi status to non-Muslims and ‘non-Orthodox’ Muslim groups, and present it as a more generous accommodation of religious difference than the one afforded by constitutional guarantees, rights-based politics and the language of freedom, liberty and equality.

The key point here is to distinguish between ‘non-Orthodox’ Muslim groups and ‘heretics’. While there could be a theoretical possibility of accommodating the former within the complex juridical tradition of the Hanafi fiqh, there was little for the latter. The Ahmadis fall in the latter category as far as the unanimity of ulema’s views is concerned.

When Advocate Mujibur Rehman, Ahmadi lawyer representing Jamat Ahmadiyyah, knocked on the doors of the Federal Shariat Court in the 1980s to demand the right to live as Muslims even if the state thinks otherwise, it was the ulema, and not just the judges trained in Anglo-Muhammadan law, who refused to accept this position. If Tareen argues that the ulema themselves are either no longer able to understand the richness of their tradition or reluctant to delve deeper into it, then he should blame the ulema, and not the liberal/secularists.


The Pakistan of Jinnah, where a devout Ahmadi was appointed foreign minister and a Dalit presided over the constituent assembly, crumbled under the weight of its contradictions that were born out of the instrumentalisation of religious rhetoric for political motivations. The Pakistan of 1974 was not eager to endorse majoritarian views, but was pushed into doing so under pressure from the ulema and religio-political forces, who were seeking a legal sanction for their fatwa that essentially described Ahmadis in the language of a fitna.

Read also part of this article: The rise of Ahmadi exceptionalism 

When it is said that the pre-modern traditional hospitality of Muslim scholars or alternative modes of accommodating religious differences or enabling social harmony would have been a better way of dealing with the Ahmadi question, the rigidity of such traditions when it comes to groups viewed as ‘heretical’ is completely overlooked.

The present crisis would not have exacerbated to this level if the Ahmadis had actually been declared a minority, with a fixed legal definition of their religious and political rights, even if it had come at the expense of reifying the divide. How devastating it is to conclude that the best possible way to ensure some protection of Ahmadis in the given circumstances is to ‘minoritise’ them properly.

Reifying the divide