For the purposes of this paper I visited the local Ahmaddiya Muslim Community or as they prefer to called Ahmadis. Ahmadis are a sub-sect of the Islamic Community. What attracted to me to study this community was that unlike the general image we have of the Islamic community, this community is non-violent and is considered heretical by the larger Islamic community for having a prophet in succession to Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic faith. In many Muslim majority countries the Ahmadis are banned and in many others they have been ex-communicated from the Islamic mainstream. Apparently -- as I discovered- one of the other contentious issues between them and the rest Islamic community is the controversy over Jesus Christ's death, which I found interesting given that I considered Jesus an exclusively Christian figure. To my amazement it turns out that all Muslims believe that Jesus was himself a Muslim and that Christianity is nothing but a distorted version of God's faith Islam and that Muhammad's faith was merely an updated version of Islam.
In order to study them more, I watched their weekly Friday sermon on Muslim Television Ahmadiyya ("MTA") which is available worldwide. One of the first things that struck me about this service was the segregation of men and women which by and large seems to be the case in most Muslim services at least according to my interlocutor at the service. The sermon delivered by the head cleric of the local community was in English language albeit with a distinctly South Asian accent. The gentleman delivering the sermon -- Mr. Saleemuddin Mirza- hails from a town in Pakistan called Rabwah or the city of God. He began by extolling the virtues of Muhammad and his various miracles performed from time to time, much like what the Christian tradition associates with Jesus. He then delved into discussion about the life and times of Ghulam Ahmad (literally "slave of Ahmad"; Ahmad I discovered is another name of Muhammad) (Ahmad, 1989, p.100), who much like Joseph Smith of the Mormons was a 19th century prophet. Mr. Mirza then spoke of the current trend of persecution of the Ahmadi community in Indonesia and Pakistan and asked the faithful to pray for their brethren in faith in these countries. He also made it a point to mention the religious freedom and tolerance of their immediate environs in America. The sermon was ended with chanting of the Ahmadi slogan i.e. Love for all, hatred for none. After this the faithful got up to pray. They stood up in straight lines behind the head cleric and faced towards Mecca, the holy city of Islam. Next they chanted "Allah Akbar" or "God is great" and bowed down with hands on their knees. They chanted "Allah Akbar" again and fell down prostrate. This was repeated four or five times, after which there was more chanting, following which they dispersed peacefully.
My subject for the interview was this doctor, Kashif N. Chaudhry (writer's interview with Dr. Kashif N. Chaudhry, MD), the person at whose house I viewed MTA's Friday service. Educated at Duke's medical program and dressed in jeans and a Metallica t-shirt, the only thing Muslim about him it seemed was his beard. He corrected me though and told me that it is not obligatory for Muslims to dress in a certain way or to even keep a beard. Kashif's family hails from the port city of Karachi in Pakistan. His parents moved when the Pakistani parliament officially declared Ahmadis to be un-Islamic in the 1970s. Kashif considers himself a Pakistani American and while he is critical of his home country's turn for the worse, he is adamant that this is not what his country is about. The discussion turned to the core beliefs of the Ahmadis. These he divides into two categories. First category is of those beliefs that they share with the rest of the Islamic mainstream. Foremost amongst these is the belief in "tawheed" or oneness of Allah, their God. God according to Muslims is ever-living and indivisible. This, Kashif told me, was the basic difference between Christianity and Islam. He quoted a verse from Koran to the effect that Allah was neither begotten nor can he beget. The next belief that the Ahmadis share with the rest of the Muslims is in Koran as the literal, unalterable and absolutely final word of their God, revealed to Muhammad. Muhammad according to Ahmadis is the "seal of prophets," the absolute epitome of prophethood, followed closely by Jesus Christ, who is also seen as a prophet. However Kashif hastened to point out that there is no room for considering Jesus the son of God in any manner in Islam. As for differences with the mainstream Muslim community, the first amongst these is the belief that Muhammad, while the epitome of prophethood, is not the final prophet and that prophets would continue to arrive in order to provide guidance to the faithful till the day of judgment. Even more controversial it seems is the Ahmadi belief that Jesus did not die on the cross but was whisked away by a supporter who looked after him. After getting well Jesus according to this narrative travelled through Iraq and Iran into the Indian subcontinent where he settled down in Kashmir, got married and lived to ripe old age. I found the fact that according to this version of Jesus' life both his place of birth and death i.e. Palestine and Kashmir, are caught up in fratricidal warfare between various religious communities.
Kashif also told me that since Ahmadis- being non-violent- interpret the meaning of Jehad differently from the mainstream Muslim community, they are accused of trying to emasculate the Islamic doctrine of Jehad or holy war against infidels. Similarly Ahmadis do not believe that apostasy from Islam should be punishable by death. (Ahmad, 1989) What about blasphemy? Wilfred Cantwell Smith wrote famously
"Muslims will allow attacks on Allah: there are atheists and atheistic publications and rationalistic societies, but to disparage Muhammad will provoke from even the most liberal sections of the community a fanaticism of blazing vehemence." (Smith, 1947)
Justice Munir, a famous Supreme Court Judge in Pakistan, wrote in one of his opinions condemning the religious agitators attacking Ahmadis:
"They were clever enough to realize that the Musalman's feelings are never more roused than over a real or fancied insult to the Holy Prophet. They therefore claimed that their activities were to preserve the nabuwwat i.e. Prophethood."
Kashif felt differently. He was of the view that while every Muslim would be undoubtedly hurt by any scurrilous remark about Muhammad, violent reaction to such disparagement does Islam no favors. This abhorrence of violent Jihad sets the Ahmadis apart. In contrast it is instructive to recount a paragraph from Abu Ala Maududi, a South Asian Islamist ideologue and the bete noire of the Ahmadis, who is considered by many to be the godfather of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism. He stated:
"Muslim groups will not be content with the establishment of an Islamic state in one area alone. Depending on their resources they should try and expand in all directions. If the Islamic government has power and resources it will destroy all unIslamic governments." (Maududi, 1964)
Similarly Sir William Muir wrote "The sword of Mahomet and the Coran are the most fatal enemies of civilization, liberty and truth which the world has yet known."
These views are seconded by Maududi who says:
"When all methods of persuasion failed, the Prophet took to the sword." (Maududi, 1973)
According to Kashif this vitiates the basic spirit of Islam. He quoted the Koranic verse "There is no compulsion in religion." Maududi ofcourse had an answer for this. He stated that Islam did not compel people to join the faith but once they did, they could not go back.
This prompted another scholar Ghulam Ahmed Parvez to retort:
"Maududi's Islam is like a mouse trap. Once you enter it you can't exit.
Ahmadis have a diametrically opposite view of Muhammad and Islam. They see Muhammad as a paragon of virtue and essentially non-violent leader who was forced to resort to arms in self-defense. Their position on blasphemy is that blasphemy is a reprehensible act but one which should be countered through constitutional and legal means. Historically, their second spiritual leader, Mian Bashiruddin Mahmood organized a historical conference and advised the British Indian governor of Punjab to strengthen the law so as to punish those attempting this heinous crime. However Ahmadis do not believe -- as stated above- that the punishment for blasphemy or apostasy is death.
It is important to realize that Islam is not a monolith which is something both Islam's critics and defenders seem to forget. The critics seem to deny the existence of different -- more peaceful- points-of-view within Islam. The defenders seem to disregard the existence of the violent interpretations of some ultra-orthodox clerics. Frankly speaking my…