“Hello from writer Wolfgang Bruno. I will do a series of essays about the ‘special cases,’ groups at the fringes of or outside of the Islamic mainstream, such as the Ismailis, the Sufis and the Baha’i Faith, to see whether or not any of them can represent a viable alternative as a reformed and more peaceful Islam. I will start today with a short essay about the Ahmadiyya community.”
There are movements within Islam, or groups of people who at least identify themselves as Muslims, that are indeed somewhat more tolerant and less violent that mainstream Muslims. One such movement is the Ahmadiyya community.
The Ahmadiyya movement was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in 1889. He taught that jihad “by the sword” had been replaced by jihad “of the pen,” and wanted to synthesize all religions under the banner of Islam. He claimed to be the “Reformer of the age” but did not bring any new revelation. After a schism in 1914, his followers split into two groups: The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement, with its center in Lahore in what is today Pakistan. The main body, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (sometimes called the Qadiani after the village where the founder was born) claimed that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a prophet, although he didn’t bring any new laws. The Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement, on the other hand, presented themselves as an Islamic reform movement and maintained the normal Muslim view that Muhammad was “the seal of the prophets” and that there would be no new prophet after him. Both branches, however, agree that Ghulam Ahmad was the Mahdi and the Messiah. They also believe that the Koran contains no abrogations.
Ahmadis still follow traditional Muslim rituals such as prayer and fasting, but among mainstream Muslims there is deep suspicion towards them, chiefly because the main body of Ahmadiyyas have affirmed that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a prophet, a claim that is considered heretical by most Muslims. The largest concentration of Ahmadiyyas is found in the Indian subcontinent, in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Both groups are viewed as heretical by Saudi authorities, and are thus not allowed to go on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.
At alislam.org, their official website, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community says about themselves:
“The Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam is a religious organization, international in its scope, with branches in over 178 countries in Africa, North America, South America, Asia, Australasia, and Europe. At present, its total membership exceeds 200 million worldwide [note: it is impossible to verify this number, which is almost certainly inflated], and the numbers are increasing day by day. This is the most dynamic denomination of Islam in modern history. The Ahmadiyya Movement was established in 1889 by Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) in a small and remote village, Qadian, in the Punjab, India. He claimed to be the expected reformer of the latter days, the Awaited One of the world community of religions (The Mahdi and Messiah). It [the movement] advocates peace, tolerance, love and understanding among followers of different faiths. It firmly believes in and acts upon the Qur’anic teaching: “There is no compulsion in religion.” (2:257) It strongly rejects violence and terrorism [emphasis in the original] in any form and for any reason. After the demise of its founder, the Ahmadiyya Movement has been headed by his elected successors – Khalifas.”
Precisely because they champion an unorthodox and somewhat more peaceful version of Islam, Ahmadis are frequently persecuted by traditional Muslims in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. Under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws the Ahmadiyya are not allowed to preach, nor even to call themselves Muslims.
Under the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) -led government, discrimination and violence against the Ahmadis has intensified. “It’s a dangerous moment in Bangladesh when the government becomes complicit in religious violence,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “The authorities have emboldened extremists by failing to prosecute those engaged in anti-Ahmadi violence and by banning Ahmadiyya publications.”
In October 2004 Muslim fanatics razed an Ahmadiyya mosque. The mob vandalized and robbed Ahmadiyya houses, injuring at least 11. One of the injured, Shabju Mia, 52, imam of the mosque, ended up in hospital. Witnesses said local BNP leader led the raiders.
In July 2006, the Bangladeshi newspaper the Daily Star carried a story on Ahmadis who had been victimized, but the article was later removed, probably following pressures from powerful anti-Ahmadiyya forces. The police had accused four Ahmadis of preaching publicly in a village in the Punjab. The villagers protested against “unabated preaching” of the Ahmadiyya faith in their village, and urged the police to ensure the arrest of those accused. The minority sect condemned law enforcers for being reluctant to act in two assault incidents on Ahmadis that same summer. The movement believed this encouraged the bigots to be more aggressive. The Ahmadiyyas had become confined to their houses and refrained from going to work after fanatics threatened to attack them.
The irony is that although Ahmadis are hardly even considered Muslims by other Muslims, the first and so far only Muslim to be awarded a Nobel Prize for science was an Ahmadi. According to Hugh Fitzgerald:
“Among the nearly 1000 recipients of Nobel Prizes in science (Physics, Chemistry, Medicine), only one appears to have gone to a ‘Muslim’ – Abdus Salam. Trained partly at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, and dying in Oxford (to which he had retired), Abdus Salam shared the prize with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg. One presumes that Abdus Salam deserved his 1/3 of the 1979 prize. But his entire career depended upon access to Western education. And while he wrote on the ‘Wisdom of Islam’ (just the kind of thing to win a Templeton Prize) he was both claimed, in Pakistan, as a ‘Muslim’ and yet belonged, as an Ahmadiyya, to a sect regarded by many Muslims in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and elsewhere as not a real Muslim at all. It was a case of claiming not him, but rather his Nobel, for Islam, and then not discussing if just possibly, the reason he was the only Muslim Nobel-winner in science might have something to do with, precisely, the relatively greater mental freedom that Adhamiddya Islam may offer its adherents, compared to that available to those in orthodox Islam.”
The Ahmadis do in some ways represent an interesting case of a “reformed” Islam, but it is in my view unlikely whether their version of Islam could ever form a viable alternative to the majority of the world’s Muslims. They are simply too far removed from Islamic orthodoxy, especially the largest branch which considers their founder a prophet.