Circa 1835: Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was born in Qadian, India.
1889: The Ahmadiyya Muslim community (Jama‘at-i Ahmadiyya) was founded.
1908: Mirza Ghulam Ahmad died in Lahore and was brought back to Qadian to be buried.
1914: A group of Ahmadi dissenters left Qadian for Lahore and subsequently came to be known as Lahoris, following the Lahori-Qadiani split.
1947: India was partitioned into the independent countries of India and Pakistan, which was later subdivided into Pakistan and Bangladesh.
1953: The Punjab Disturbances occurred in which widespread rioting in the Punjab region took place as a result of tensions stemming from the Ahmad controversy, which led to the implementation of martial law.
1974: Pakistan amended its constitution to change the classification of Ahmadis from being Muslim to being part of its non-Muslim minority.
1984: A religious ordinance was passed in Pakistan making many aspects of Ahmadi religious life in Pakistan illegal.
1984: Shortly after the passing of the anti-Ahmadi ordinance, the fourth successor and grandson of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, fled Pakistan in exile for London as a refugee.
2003: The current head of the Ahmadiyya movement, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, was selected by an electoral college following his arrival in London from Pakistan upon receiving news of the death of his predecessor.
2010: A mass shooting at an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore took place, which resulted in the death of under 100 people and the injury of many more.
2012: The current Ahmadi khalīfa , Mirza Masroor Ahmad, addressed members of Congress in Washington DC in an attempt to raise awareness about Ahmadi persecution.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community (or Jama‘at-i Ahmadiyya) is a Muslim reform movement that was founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (c. 1835–1908). He descended from a prominent Muslim family that had originally helped the Mughal emperor Babar settle part of rural India’s Punjab region in the early sixteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, much of the Muslim aristocracy in the Punjab had steadily ceded power to the Sikhs and then ultimately the British, which contributed to an overall sense of Muslim decline (Friedmann 1989). During this period, Christian missionaries had been gaining leverage in the subcontinent under British rule, which added another dimension to religious debates taking place and to ongoing religious rivalries. This led to a number of different responses from Muslim thinkers, including from Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who began his carrier by writing tracts that argued in favor of Islam’s superiority as a religion (Khan 2015).
As Mirza Ghulam Ahmad continued engaging in religious rivalries with Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians, he dedicated increasing time to his own religious devotions. This led to spiritual experiences that changed the course of his religious career (Lavan 1974). In the early 1880s, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad began describing his experiences with the terminology used in the Islamic tradition to characterize revelation from God, which was considered unusual by mainstream Muslims beyond a tight circle of elite mystics. This drew unusual attention to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s mission and provoked a sense of caution from Muslims who might otherwise have appreciated his defense of Islam and his argumentation against non-Muslim rivals.
In 1891, two years after Jama‘at-i Ahmadiyya was founded, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad published a trilogy of books, which disclosed his true spiritual station and asserted his divinely appointed status to the world (Khan 2015). Ghulam Ahmad explained that he was a muhaddath , which meant that God was speaking to him. He also declared that he held a joint status as the mahdī (guided one), a figure who was predicted to appear in the latter days, and as the promised messiah (masīh ) in the spirit of Jesus (Khan 2015; Friedmann 1989). This claim of being the promised messiah in particular led to the most controversial aspects Ahmadi theology for Muslims and Christians alike, which will be discussed further in the section on doctrine and beliefs.
In claiming to be the promised messiah, Ghulam Ahmad was claiming to be the second coming of Jesus. By claiming to be Jesus in spirit, Ghulam Ahmad was implying that his spiritual status incorporated a strand of prophethood, which was considered highly dubious to most mainstream Muslims who thought this bordered on heresy. It effectively meant that Ghulam Ahmad was claiming to be another prophet after the Prophet Muhammad, who has generally been regarded as the last prophet in Islam (Friedmann 1989). Mirza Ghulam Ahmad spent the remaining years of his life engaged in a bitter controversy with other Muslims who rejected his claims. Ghulam Ahmad insisted that by following his interpretation of Islam, Muslims would be able to return to their former glory before the impending Day of Judgement. This messianic motif is responsible for providing Jama‘at-i Ahmadiyya with its apocalyptic orientation in the broader Islamic tradition (Friedmann 1989).
Some of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s contemporaries declared that his views were blasphemous and deemed his disciples to be beyond the pale of Islam (Khan 2015). The debate about Ahmadis intensified in the decades after Ghulam Ahmad’s death in 1908 and eventually became politicized in the years leading up to India’s independence from Britain following partition in 1947 (Lavan 1974). The outcome of partition eventually resulted in a political divide based on religious orientation, which meant that Muslim majority areas in the East and West would form the country of Pakistan, whereas the majority of the subcontinent would remain as a secular state, resulting in the modern-day nation-state of India. This allowed the Ahmadi controversy, which was centered on the question of determining whether Ahmadis were in fact Muslim, to erupt into a national religious debate, since the grounds for partition had been based on religious affiliation. The fact that religious identity played a role in grounding national identity in Pakistan helped politicize the Ahmadi controversy in the subcontinent, since conversely the notion of being un-Islamic was linked directly to political consequences (Khan 2015). This led to the exacerbation of the Ahmadi controversy after partition in 1947 when questions of religious authenticity plagued the newly formed Islamic state by enabling mainstream political leaders to determine which interpretations were truly representative of Islam (Gualtieri 1989; Gualtieri 2004).
The Ahmadi community came to be associated with Muslim politics, elitism, and exclusivity, which was brought on to some extent by its political involvement in the Kashmir Crisis of the 1930s and the broader independence movement before India’s partition in 1947 (Lavan 1974). In fact, a prominent Ahmadi named Muhammad Zafrulla Khan (1893–1985) served as the first foreign minister of Pakistan before going on to become president of the United Nations General Assembly and president of the International Court of Justice.
Fear of Ahmadi exploitation in Pakistan and general distrust of Ahmadi religious views, led to an overwhelmingly negative perception of the community, which fueled a series of riots, known as the Punjab disturbances of 1953 (Qasmi 2014). The disturbances represented the first time that martial law was declared in Pakistan’s history. This only heightened the level of controversy surrounding Ahmadis in subsequent years. By the 1970s, the Ahmadi controversy had once again garnered national attention when opposition party members of Pakistan’s National Assembly staged a walkout and demanded that the president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928–1979), revisit the Ahmadi question. As a result, Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim in 1974 by the government of Pakistan whose constitution was amended to reflect the community’s new religious designation (Gualtieri 1989) . This facilitated maltreatment of Ahmadis across the country and led to increased hostility toward the community. In 1984, the military general, Zia-ul-Haq (1924–1988), who had taken over the government by coup, initiated a number of religious ordinances intended to Islamize the legal system. This included an ordinance that famously made most aspects of everyday life for Ahmadis in Pakistan illegal. Since then, Ahmadis have increasingly been known throughout the world as a persecuted Muslim minority in South Asia (Gualtieri 2004) .
Since the mid-1980s, members of the Ahmadi community have increasingly taken root in Western Europe and North America, especially since 1984 when the movement’s organizational headquarters was moved to London. There are now Ahmadi mosques in most urban centers throughout Britain, France, and Germany, as well as in Canada and the United States (Haddad 1993; Khan 2015).
At its heart, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community shares most beliefs and doctrines with mainstream Sunni Islam. The differences between Ahmadis and mainstream Muslims stem from the way in which most Ahmadis have understood Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s claims of prophethood (Friedmann 1989). The debate surrounding these interpretations led to a schism in the movement in 1914 between most Ahmadis whose organization was based in Qadian and a minority group who chose to relocate to Lahore and hence came to be known as Lahoris. The Lahoris interpreted Ghulam Ahmad’s claims of prophethood in a more metaphorical sense and pointed to aspects of Ghulam Ahmad’s texts where he appeared to limit or qualify notions of his prophetic status, whereas the Qadiani branch understood Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s prophethood more literally (Lavan 1974).
The belief that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a prophet of God is the primary distinguishing feature between Ahmadis and mainstream Muslims, and it is arguably the basis of the Ahmadi controversy today. The reason why this belief is considered to be so problematic by mainstream Muslims is because it appears to be a direct contradiction of the Qur’anic verse declaring Muhammad to be the “seal of the prophets ( khātam al-nabiyyīn )”, which has been understood by mainstream Muslims to indicate Muhammad’s status as the last prophet (Qur’an 33:40). Ahmadis, instead, have suggested that the verse should be understood to mean that Muhammad was the best of all previous prophets and that any subsequent prophet who might follow Muhammad would not establish new laws that contravened Islamic law in a way that would abrogate Islam and lead to the formation of a new religion (Friedmann 1989; Khan 2015). Ahmadis compare prophecy in Islam to the age of prophecy in ancient Judaism when numerous prophets were known to have appeared within the same religious tradition as a means of strengthening and revitalizing the tradition in anticipation of the Day of Judgment (Friedmann 1989).
The subtleties of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s claims are difficult to explain, since they involve a number of assumptions about Islam and the prophetic tradition. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was convinced that Jesus could not possibly return to the world in the flesh, since human beings cannot survive indefinitely for thousands of years (Valentine 2008). Ghulam Ahmad’s prophetic status was thereby connected in part to his claim of being the promised messiah or the second coming of Jesus, since the original Jesus was a bona fide prophet (Khan 2015). In order for Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to advance this claim and demonstrate to mainstream Muslims and Christians that Jesus was not alive in heaven and would not return to the world in the latter days, Ghulam Ahmad proposed an alternative account of the crucifixion story (Ahmad 1994; Fisher 1963). According to Ahmadis, Jesus survived the crucifixion and travelled east to escape further persecution and ultimately set out to unite the lost tribes of Israel, which is based on their readings of the Biblical verses (John 10:16, Matthew 15:24). This enabled Jesus to continue his mission and ultimately die a natural death, which likewise made it impossible for him to be physically alive in heaven waiting to return. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad identified the final resting place of Jesus as a burial tomb in Srinagar, Kashmir that was attributed to an ancient saint (Ahmad 2003). This discovery enabled him to demonstrate that Jesus had died and to claim that he was the second coming of Jesus in spirit and hence the promised messiah.
One interesting outcome of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s claim of being the messiah was his interpretation of jihad, considering the apocalyptic expectations of the messiah to defeat evil in the world. Whereas the notion of jihad has always been used in Islam to signify various notions of inner and outer struggles, Ghulam Ahmad insisted that his mission would succeed through non-violent means (Hanson 2007). This concept of jihad, as representing an inner spiritual struggle, is certainly not unique to Jama‘at-i Ahmadiyya, but the way in which it has been emphasized by Ahmadis, especially during the early years of the movement under British colonial rule, has developed into one of the hallmarks of Ahmadi Islam. Aside from the colonial context when Ahmadis refused to take up arms against the British, the notion of non-violent jihad has been particularly useful in marketing Ahmadi Islam to western audiences in a post 9/11 era (Khan 2015).
In theory, the basic rituals and practices of Ahmadi Muslims are identical to those found in mainstream Islam, but there are subtle distinctions that have gradually developed over time. For example, despite the Ahmadi observance of the five daily prayers in accordance with mainstream Islam, Ahmadis refuse to offer prayers behind non-Ahmadi imams. This has resulted in the creation of separate mosques and prayer facilities around the world and is somewhat unique in the Islamic tradition, where at least historically Muslims have largely avoided forming separate prayer congregations. There are of course some exceptions to this rule, especially in modernist South Asian Islam. Nonetheless, in the case of Jama‘at-i Ahmadiyya, the separation in prayer is undeniable. This practice stems from the generalized assumption of Ahmadi congregants that a non-Ahmadi imam leading the prayer would likely consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad an infidel, and so Ahmadis choose to perform the same prayer ritual behind an Ahmadi imam. To illustrate the subtlety of this distinction, one might find non-Ahmadi Muslims who reject Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s claims performing the prayer behind an Ahmadi imam, especially in western countries where Muslim communities are diverse and prayer spaces are limited.
This type of self-imposed separation has also led to marriage restrictions for most Ahmadis. Most Ahmadis are expected to marry other Ahmadis, with officially sanctioned exceptions to this practice that are addressed on a case by case basis. For this reason, Ahmadi marriage practices are somewhat more restrictive than those in mainstream Islam.
The annual pilgrimage to Mecca or hajj has been difficult to carry out for Ahmadis as Ahmadis due to the repercussions of persecution, especially when travelling from countries like Pakistan which stamps passports with one’s religious designation (Gualtieri 2004). Over time, a separate Ahmadi ritual has steadily gained prominence, not necessarily as a replacement for the hajj, but as an important gathering nonetheless. This annual gathering (jalsa sālāna) takes place in most countries with significant Ahmadi populations (Lavan 1974). One of the largest gatherings at the moment takes place outside London, since London is where the current head of the movement resides. Ahmadis travel from all over the world to attend the annual gathering if possible and partake in religious events including, sermonizing, poetry readings, and socializing with others (Khan 2015).
Jama‘at-i Ahmadiyya is an institutionalized religious movement with a clearly defined religious hierarchy. The head of the movement is Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s successor or the khalīfat al-masīh (lit. successor of the messiah). The caliph (khalīfa ) manages the auxiliary organizations of the movement around the world and represents the centralization of both religious and political authority. He has the power to define or redefine both Ahmadi orthodoxy and Ahmadi orthopraxy (Khan 2015). The institution of Ahmadi khilāfat currently represents a stateless caliphate with branches of the movement in various countries throughout the world that make up the strata of the organizational hierarchy. Each nation with a local Ahmadi community (jama‘at) has a national representative known as an amīr (leader). The national amīr manages local branches, which are headed by a president. There are also subsidiary organizations for men and women that are subdivided by age group that fall within the jurisdiction of the president at the local level, or the amīr at the national level, as part of the hierarchical structure (Khan 2015). Ahmadi missionaries are responsible for spreading Ghulam Ahmad’s mission and will lead the prayer services at the local level while working with the president on local initiatives. Ahmadi missionaries often undergo basic religious training at various Ahmadi seminaries around the world before dedicating their lives to the movement.
The Ahmadi caliphate (khilāfat-i ahmadiyya) is financed by a complex system of member donations known as chanda. Ahmadis must pay certain portions of their income to support the institutional hierarchy and various other causes. This serves as the primary means of remaining within good standing in the community, barring exceptional circumstances where members are unable to contribute financially to the movement for legitimate reasons, which are dealt with on a case by case basis. Any member who remains within good standing in the community is granted voting rights and may be eligible to participate in the various electoral processes at the local level, which usually determine who holds the relevant positions of authority in local Ahmadi communities. Once again, all of this is directed by the khalīfat al-masīh , who remains the sole person with power to intervene in any process atop the institutional hierarchy.
As mentioned above, a dispute broke out in 1914 between two camps of the movement following the election of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s second khalīfat al-masīh. This dispute, commonly referred to the Lahori-Qadiani split, arose in part because of a disagreement about the nature of the institutional hierarchy. The Lahori branch rejected the notion of a centralized supreme khalīfa and favored the formation of an administrative board known as the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha‘at Islam Lahore (Lahore Ahmadiyya Committee for the Propagation of Islam), which is headed by an amīr (Lavan 1974; Friedmann 1989). The amīr in the Lahori branch does not carry the same authoritative connotations as the khalīfat al-masīh in the larger Qadiani branch, even though he holds considerable authority in terms of guiding the administrative affairs of the branch nonetheless.
The primary issue facing the Ahmadiyya movement today revolves around questions of identity. Are Ahmadis really Muslims or do they represent a new religious movement? As the movement has evolved since its formation in 1889, it has become increasingly politicized in a globalized context, which has changed the nature of this debate. Nonetheless, it is certainly conceivable that Ahmadis themselves may one day choose to take a definitive stance against the Islamic tradition and no longer identify as Muslims, but rather as Ahmadis. This could represent a similar path taken by members of the Baha’i Faith, who no longer choose to identify with Islam. Similarly, it is certainly possible for Ahmadis to attempt to reconcile their differences with mainstream Islam and regain acceptance as a legitimate expression of South Asian Islam, especially at a time far removed from the politicization of the Ahmadi controversy. In the meantime, however, Jama‘at-i Ahmadiyya remains immersed in a highly politicized controversy about its status as a Muslim minority movement, where certain key issues have yet to have been formalized into anything beyond a rudimentary precursor of official dogma. Examples of these issues include the role of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s spiritual status in comparison to the status of the Prophet Muhammad, the formal relation of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s writings and teachings in relation to the foundational textual sources of the mainstream tradition, and the Ahmadi community’s attitude toward mainstream Muslims who refuse to pass judgment on its members or renounce ties to those who endorse continuing to pursue acts of hostility and persecution of Ahmadis. These are serious yet unresolved issues that represent major theological challenges for Jama‘at-i Ahmadiyya.
Another challenge facing the movement is the future of its leadership. Jama‘at-i Ahmadiyya will need to reconcile aspects of the role of the khalīfat al-masīh in contemporary times in order to avoid allowing the position to be reduced to a mere figurehead role. This might mean developing, or at least bolstering, institutions for internal religious and political discourse. It may also mean further elaborating the doctrine of charisma and its relationship to the lineage of the movement’s founder, since four out of five successors of the messiah have thus far been direct descendants of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Expounding notions of charisma in relation to heredity, while accommodating other aspects of religious or political leadership and development, will need to be developed over time.
One of the most immediate challenges facing the movement is its persecution and mistreatment in various parts of the world (Nijhawan 2010). The community’s expansion to parts of Western Europe and North America has certainly helped many Ahmadis avoid the dangers that exist in countries like Pakistan or Indonesia where there are legal sanctions against Ahmadi Muslims. However, changing attitudes in the Muslim World may help or hurt the community’s relationship with mainstream Muslims throughout the world, especially as conceptions of Jama‘at-i Ahmadiyya’s own self-identity continue to emerge.
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Friedmann, Yohanan. 1989. Prophecy Continuous: Aspects of Ahmadi Religious Thought and Its Medieval Background. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gualtieri, Antonio. 2004. The Ahmadis: Community, Gender, and Politics in a Muslim Society. London: McGill–Queen’s University Press.
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Nijhawan, Michael. 2010. “‘Today, We Are All Ahmadi’: Configurations of Heretic Otherness between Lahore and Berlin.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 37:429–47.
Qasmi, Ali Usman. 2014. The Ahmadis and the Politics of Religious Exclusion in Pakistan. London: Anthem Press.
Valentine, Simon Ross. 2008. Islam and the Ahmadiyya Jama‘at: History, Belief, Practice. New York: Columbia University Press.
5 May 2015