2. Once upon a time ...
The year was 1512. Babar, the king of Kabul, decided to take advantage of the weak monarchies of India. After several decisive expeditions, he seized Delhi and Agra and became the first emperor of a new dynasty of the Moghul empire. The news reached as far as Samarkand and Bukhara. Many in search of prosperity followed Babar to India.
Around 1530, a family settled in the region of Punjab, about 70 miles due east of Lahore. The place was named Islampur, which in the course of time became Qadian. The family experienced power and defeat over the next two hundred years, at one time commanding a force of 7,000 men under the Moghul emperor to by the 19th century, having only a few servants in an estate shrunken to the village of Qadian. It was in this village a child was born. His father named him Ghulam Ahmad - the slave of Ahmad (the other name of the prophet Muhammad). Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a twin, but his sister died a few days after their birth. No doubt that morning of the 13th February, 1835, his father must have been very happy to have another son, for sons are highly prized in Muslim society. Many are the prayers that are offered for the gift of sons; few prayers are said for daughters.
Unfortunately, the Moghul dynasty was by now at its last gasp. The British Empire had seized almost complete control of India, but was struggling to gain absolute power over the Sikhs in the Punjab. When the ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, died in 1839, Sikh power disintegrated. Within a few years the British Raj took complete control. It was a time when loyalties changed hands from dawn to nightfall. Somehow Mirza’s family realized the strength and power of the British Empire and joined the Raj.
As a result, five villages that were part of the family estate and confiscated by the Sikhs were restored to them and other privileges granted. This led the family to render some excellent service during the mutiny of 1857. While the majority of Muslims had rebelled against the Raj, Mirza’s father encouraged many of his men to enlist, including his other son, and they served in the force of General Nicholson. In appreciation of this, the General awarded them a certificate stating that in 1857 this family had shown greater loyalty than any other in the district.
In such an environment Mirza Ghulam Ahmad received a conventional religious education and was well instructed in the Persian and Arabic languages. As a teenager, while most of the village boys were herding goats and helping in farming, he led a somewhat privileged life. It is claimed by the movement that by the time he was 16 he had also studied both the Bible and the Vedas of the Hindus. When he was 17 he married a cousin called Hurmat Bibi. It was an arranged marriage and faltered from the start. Two children were born in the first four years, but their marriage ended in divorce.
A Christian encounter
One day in 1864 his father asked him to get his pension for him. His cunning cousin found out about it and followed him. After he had collected the money, his cousin persuaded him to spend it in the hope of winning more in a lottery. Not surprisingly, he ended up with no money. He was too ashamed to return home. And so he stayed in Sialkot. His father found out and secured him a job as a clerk in the office of the Deputy Commissioner. It was here that he entered into religious discussions with missionaries and until 1868 had close contacts with many Christians, both nationals and foreigners.
Due to the sudden death of his mother in 1868, Mirza went back to his home village of Qadian. Her death came as a shock to him and he did not return to his office in Sialkot. He continued his study of Christianity but could not convince himself to be a Christian. In one of his books, Haqiqat-ul-Wahi, he wrote: "I did not like the Christian religion because in its every step it defames God, the glorified and exalted one."
His father wanted him to take over the family business, but he had more interest in religious activities. After his father’s death in 1876, Ahmad was free to decide for himself. Initially, he wanted to make a comparative study of the various sects of Islam. Later, however, he felt that this would weaken the strength of Islam. In order to proclaim Islam as the only way for mankind, he conducted debates with Christians and Hindus. At that time new ideas were being put forward in Islamic circles. Several of these were giving Muslim evangelism new directions and to some extent Mirza Ahmad borrowed from them.
The birth of a denomination
In 1879/80, he embarked on a project to set forth the merits of Islam. He completed two volumes of his book, ‘Baraheen Ahmadiyya’. The main theme was the glory of Islam and the Qur’an. He followed the popular Muslim idea of Christ being saved from the crucifixion and ascending to heaven bodily. Similarly, he proclaimed Jesus to be a prophet of God, Muhammad as the leader of all the prophets and the Qur’an as the only authoritative book.
Several of Mirza’s leading Muslim friends praised the book and its author highly. However the third volume of the book printed in 1882 caused concern, especially his claims to be a recipient of revelation, with radical ideas of reformation. A year later, in 1883, their opposition grew when he openly proclaimed himself a reformer and the one chosen by God.
Mirza is said to have had a dream that God was searching for someone who would revive the faith of Islam. He was found to be the only suitable person and was chosen for this cause. The very circle of Muslim divines who had praised him now became disappointed in him. They tried to deter him from making this claim, but failed.
After living for 26 years as a divorcee, he contemplated taking a second wife. Though he suffered from diabetes, migraines and often tuberculosis, he became convinced that God wanted him to marry again. More changes came in rapid succession. In 1888 he announced a separate denomination within Islam, the AHMADIYYA. According to some Ahmadi writers the name, Ahmadiyya, was appropriated in 1900.4 Shortly afterwards he proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi and the returned Jesus in spirit.5
His claims caused the British rulers some concern. The traditional Muslim doctrine of the Mahdi stated that his hands would be red with the blood of his enemies. Mirza was aware of the potential danger of political sedition and futile rebellion against the British Raj. This, together with his family’s loyalty to the British, influenced him to seek peace with the government. Thus, he emphasised that his Jihad - holy war - was only that of the pen. He said that God had named him the champion of the pen.6
Orthodox Muslims were very much offended by his claims. Knowing that they would not spare him, he sought the protection of British rule. He advised his followers to ‘consider the British Government as one of their own and truthfully obey their orders from the bottom of their hearts’. He went so far as to write in one of his pamphlets: "Disobedience to the British Government is disobedience to Islam, God and his messenger."
Mahdi and the Messiah
To Muslims, the Messiah and the Mahdi are two different persons. The concept of the Mahdi has mainly developed among the Shi’a sect of Islam. Within the largest grouping of Shi’ites, there is a fanatical belief in twelve Imams (leaders) who have appeared on earth from time to time to help the faithful. The twelfth Imam was Muhammed Al-Mahdi. They believe that he disappeared from the world in 880 A.H. at the age of six.9 They await his second coming as the Mahdi. Upon his return he will restore justice and righteousness in the world. Various Shi’ite denominations share this common hope, but differ somewhat in the details of their expectations.10
The Sunni, the major sect of Islam, is also expecting a war-like Mahdi, but not the same Mahdi who disappeared. Another major belief is that at the turn of each Islamic century God sends someone as a reformer to renew the zeal of the faithful.
Ibn Khaldun, a notable thinker in Islam, says that the belief in the coming of a Mahdi is of popular origin, but he knows of no trustworthy authority for it.11 It is easy to see how such doctrines as the second coming of Jesus and the Mahdi could have been largely influenced by Jewish, Christian and heretical messianic hopes.12
Like any sect or movement, the Ahmadiyya faced division among its adherents. After Mirza’s death his first disciple Hakim Noor-ud-din led the movement until 1914. Before Hakim’s death, ominous signs of schism were present which came to the fore during the election of a second Khalifa - successor. At this point the movement split in two. The dissident group, known as the Lahori Party, formed an association of their own in Lahore, called Anjuman Isha’ate Islam. While the main group based in Qadian stressed the prophethood of the founder, to the dissident group he was a mere reformer.
Both groups proclaimed the renaissance of Islam and began promoting their distinctive teaching. The dissident group has not made much progress. It is a nominal group with few branches. After the partition of India in 1947 the major group founded a new town about 95 miles to the west of Lahore, Pakistan, called Rabwah. Until recently the town with its 30,000 Ahmadi inhabitants was the international headquarters for the movement. Nowadays much of the work is controlled from the south of England.
The movement has active branches in 120 countries with twelve million followers. Printing and distributing masses of literature is one of the main priorities. Due to disagreement on several key issues with Muslim orthodoxy, Ahmadiyya has its own translation of the Qur’an which is available in many European languages including Welsh. The movement gives away thousands of books and booklets free of charge. Their aim is to use every effort to give an attractive picture of Islam (and to discredit Christianity) through their literature and other Islamic evangelistic efforts.
In the 1950s religious fervour increased dramatically in Pakistan. The orthodox religious leaders were dissatisfied with the political life of their country. Their first aim was to eradicate heresy from within their midst. So they subjected the Ahmadiyya sect to public persecution - an action which was partly motivated by political considerations. However they could not use the constitution of the country to declare them outcasts from Islam. Twenty years later they successfully assaulted the movement and its adherents. Several Ahmadiyya families were killed, others injured and their properties gutted by fire.
Pressurized by the opposition, the ruling party of the country, through the national assembly of Pakistan in 1974 declared the Ahmadiyya to be non-Muslims. This law was enforced in 1979 and amended in 1984 by Zia-ul-Haque’s regime to make it even more difficult for the movement to propagate and proselytise. Their translations of the Qur’an were confiscated. Many of their publications were banned. They were even prevented from using the term Mosque or Masjid for their places of worship. Some local authorities went so far as to remove Qur’anic verses inscribed on the walls of Ahmadiyya Mosques. In a Pakistani passport, among other details, the holder’s religion is also stated. In that space, an Ahmadi is described as ‘Ahmadi’ and not as ‘Muslim’.
Because of such ‘humiliation and persecution’, immigration authorities in the West have relaxed their rules towards them. Though many Ahmadis including the present Khalifa (successor) Mirza Masroor Ahmad have left Pakistan and reside in the West, a large proportion of the Ahmadiyya movement still live in Pakistan. To take advantage of the situation, strangely there are immigration cases where Pakistani Muslims or non-Ahmadis have tried to present themselves as ‘persecuted Ahmadis’ in order to stay in Europe and America.
Notes on Chapter 2:
- Sahibzadah Bashir Ahmad, Sira al-Mahdi, I, p.34.
- Zafrullah Khan, Ahmadiyyat - The renaissance of Islam, p.10.
- Ghulam Ahmad, Haqiqat-ul-Wahi, p.58.
- Ahmadiyya movement in Islam, p.10
- Fath-i-Islam (Victory of Islam), pp.13-15
- Al-Hakam, vol.. v, no.22, [June 17, 1901], p.22.
- Zaroorat-ul-Imam, p.23.
- Government Ke tawaju ke liye.
- Just as Christians designate a year by A.D. or C.E., Muslim years are designated A.H. (Anno Hijrah), in the year of the migration, when Muhammad and his followers migrated to Madina in 622 A.D. The Muslim year is based on the simple lunar calendar, and so it is shorter than the solar year.
- Allamah M. Husayn, The Origin of Shi’ite Islam and Its principles, p. 50f.
- A Guillaume, Islam, p.120.
- Gibb, H.A.R. Islam, p.88.