Forbidden From Calling Themselves Muslims, Targeted By Religious Extremists And Accused Of Blasphemy For Practicing Or Even Affirming Their Faith, Ahmadis Still Cling To The Country They Helped Establish.
The names of some of the Ahmadis interviewed in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
For years, Abdul Qayyum ran a small shop selling eyeglasses and books in the sleepy town of Rabwah in eastern Pakistan. For Qayyum, the business, while not booming, was enough to make ends meet, and the 82-year-old had a natural affection for his patrons. “He had this habit of offering tea to all his customers and ensured that no child left his shop without sweets,” his son Farid tells me.
“For him, his customers weren’t customers, but guests.” On December 2, 2015, however, the visitors who arrived were decidedly uninvited: Armed men from the government’s counter-terrorism department barged into the store, recalls Marij Fahad, Abdul’s nephew, who was in the shop at the time. “They told me and everyone else to get out of the shop immediately,” he says. “By the time they let us back in, they had taken Abdul with them.”
One month later, Qayyum was charged with terrorism and sentenced to five years in prison. His crime: selling religious books relating to the Ahmadiyya sect, a group that considers itself Mus-lim although Pakistani law does not. Qayyum is an Ahmadi, and mainstream Sunni Muslims accuse Ahmadis of regarding their religious leader, the late 19th-century Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a prophet or messiah—a claim that runs contrary to the tenet that Muhammed was the final prophet and on which Ahmadis themselves have differing views. Qayyum also received an additional three-year sentence for a plaque found inside his shop inscribed with the words “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” the Muslim declaration of faith. His display of the plaque was viewed as an attempt to pose as a Muslim—an act that is illegal in Pakistan.
These laws are one of the factors that make day-to-day life for the approximately two million Ahmadis living in Pakistan, a Muslim state with a Sunni Muslim majority, rife with risk. They can be prosecuted for everything from calling their houses of worship mosques to saying the religious greeting asalaam alaikum. The widespread belief that Ahmadis are blasphemers has also led to increasing outbreaks of violence: Attacks on Ahmadi mosques and Ahmadi-owned property by suicide bombers and angry crowds have killed or injured hundreds. In 2015, a factory owned by a member of the Ahmadi community was burned down by a mob incited by announcements made from local mosques. A year later, a throng of more than 1,000 people attacked an Ahmadi mosque and set it on fire; government security forces had to intervene to prevent the incident from turning into a massacre. But the country’s police and security forces are not always on their side, says Saad Gibran, a senior official of the Ahmadi community. “What is worrying is that the state not only doesn’t do anything to protect us but actively encourages this.”
Pakistan has a complex and troubled relationship between religion and state, and all of the country’s minorities, including Hindus, Christians and Shia Muslims, face some level of discrimination and persecution. Non-Muslims, for example, cannot serve in high-level government positions such as president or prime minister. However, Ahmadis are singled out because they consider themselves Muslims. “This fusion of religion and politics has had a grave impact on Pakistan’s minorities, and Ahmadis have suffered the most, at the hands of both state and non-state actors,” says Zohra Yusuf, a former chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
A mob burning Ahmadi property in the town of Gujranwala in 2014. Three Ahmadis—a grandmother and her two granddaughters—were killed in the attack.
Almost every Ahmadi I speak with has a story of persecution or violence. “They start punishing us for being Ahmadis from the moment we are born, and it only ends when we die,” says Amir Mahmood, an Ahmadi community spokesperson whom I meet in the city of Rabwah, which despite raids such as the one on Qayyum’s shop is considered one of the safest places for Ahmadis to live in Pakistan. “In fact, in most situations it continues even after we die.” This isn’t an exaggeration. Graves of Ahmadis are often dug up from Muslim cemeteries and their corpses desecrated.
The story of the Ahmadis begins more than a century ago in the town of Qadian, located in mod-ern-day northern India. Born in 1835 to an affluent Muslim family, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was drawn to religion from a very young age and spent most of his youth inside local mosques or buried in books. He liked to debate Christian missionaries, a habit he picked up while working as a cleric. Ahmadi texts say that he first talked to God in 1869, and by 1875 he claimed to be talking with previous prophets of Islam in his dreams. Ahmad began to seclude himself, spending up to 40 days at a time alone meditating and praying. A persuasive orator, he drew followers from the educated and upper classes of India with his use of logic and science to explain religion.
Soon Ahmad was arguing that while the Prophet Muhammad was the last and greatest of the law-bearing prophets, non-legislative prophets—who could not make laws but could speak to God—could still exist. It is unclear whether Ahmad viewed himself as one of those prophets, and scholars inside and outside the community continue to argue this point, although Ahmadis are adamant that they are part of a movement—not a separate religion. “We believe in the same books of hadith [teachings and sayings from Muhammad] and we believe in the same Quran,” says Saleem Hafeez, an Ahmadi scholar in Rabwah. Sitting in a traditional Pakistani robe called a kurta shalwar with a neatly trimmed beard, Hafeez adds, “You will find that there is little, if any, difference between us and traditional Muslims.”
However, most Sunni scholars disagree. “Of course they aren’t Muslims,” says Mufti Hammadullah, a renowned cleric in Karachi who belongs to one of the country’s prominent religious parties. “The doors of Islam are open to everyone, and I hope they come to the right path because they certainly aren’t on it right now.” Hammadullah scoffs at Ahmadis’ claims of believing in the same religious texts as other Sunni schools. “How can they say that when in the hadith the Prophet clearly states that he is the last and final prophet of Islam and believing that is part of the very fundamentals of the religion?” When I begin to tell him that Ahmadis claim that they believe in the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood, but interpret the meaning of that differently, Hammadullah cuts me off: “They lie.” A small pause follows before he decides a further explanation is required. “The problem with all these sects is that they say they believe in Prophet Muhammad as the final prophet, yet they have their own messiahs added onto their religion,” he says. “That isn’t compatible with Islam at all.”
In Rabwah, a father prays at the grave of his son, a 17-year-old medical student who was murdered in an attack on a mosque in Lahore in 2010.
The question of prophethood is not the only difference—another theological disagreement is over the death of Jesus, who is viewed in Islam as the penultimate prophet. While mainstream Islamic belief holds that Jesus went to heaven and will return from there, Ahmad claimed Jesus survived crucifixion and that, to escape persecution, he journeyed to India, where he died and was buried in Kashmir. “We believe that there will be no second coming of Christ, despite many Muslims of our time believing so,” says Ahmadi scholar Hafeez.
While Hammadullah maintains Ahmadis are not Muslim, he strongly condemns attacks on them. “They are targeted in Pakistan, and there is absolutely no justification for any such attacks,” he says. The cleric believes the problem doesn’t lie in the hatred incited in seminaries and religious schools against other sects, but rather in the government of Pakistan. “Different sects of Islam coexist in nearly every Muslim country of the world,” he says. “Yet when you hear about such attacks and violence, almost invariably Pakistan is involved.”
Nowhere is the tangled relationship between religion and state in Pakistan as evident as on the government form to apply for a passport. It is a standard bureaucratic document—name, address, a thumbprint—with one exception. The last section requires Muslim applicants to affirm and sign that the applicant believes “in the absolute and unqualified finality of the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him), the last of the prophets” and “consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani to be an imposter” prophet and his followers to be non-Muslim.
“What this means is that not only can we not write our religion as Muslim without officially denouncing our beliefs, but also that no matter what [any citizen’s] opinion is about Ahmadiyya, they have to officially consider us as non-Muslims to even get a Pakistani passport,” says Ahmadi spokesman Mahmood. In order to get a passport, Ahmadis must identify themselves as members of the Ahmadi religion, leaving them open to other forms of discrimination. “I was myself stopped from leaving Pakistan after the immigration officer saw my Ahmadi religion written on my passport,” says Ehsan Rehan, founder and editor ofRabwah Times, a digital media publication with a special focus on minorities in Pakistan. He says that Ahmadis are forced to pay upward of $200 in bribes to government border agents to travel out of Pakistan for work or tourism.
Ahmadis also face voting discrimination. Pakistan has a separate electoral system, meaning that Muslims and religious minorities have different electoral registries. Ahmadis do not consider themselves a religious minority, since they identify as Muslim, but any Pakistani citizen who votes as a Muslim must sign a declaration that he or she is not Ahmadi. Thus, Ahmadis generally don’t vote. Another reason for not voting is safety concerns: Voting lists are public and could be used as a convenient hit list for extremists and anti-Ahmadi groups, says Mahmood. “It is no secret that there are people out there who actively hunt us down,” he says. “Can you imagine the repercussions of a publicly accessible list of all Ahmadis in the country that not only lists their names and their national identity numbers, but also their addresses?”
It wasn’t always like this. Ahmadis have a storied history in Pakistan. In 1947, when India was partitioned, Ahmadis moved their headquarters from Qadian to the new state of Pakistan, envisioned as a home for India’s Muslims. “The Ahmadis were part of the original movement for in-dependence and stood with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, right from the word go. It is part of recorded history that our then caliph lent his full support to Jinnah. There is no arguing that,” Mahmood tells me. Many Ahmadis joined the army and civil service during that period. “The Ahmadis were very involved with the creation of Pakistan,” says Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom and Ireland and chair of Islamic studies at American University. “Of the seven members of Jinnah’s cabinet, his most important minister, the foreign minister, was an Ahmadi, Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, a distinguished legal mind who represented Pakistan in the United Nations and in international forums. And he was very trusted by Mr. Jinnah.”
But after Jinnah’s death in 1948, the new state fell under the sway of religious nationalists who didn’t share his belief in the need to separate religion and state. In 1949, the government passed the Objectives Resolution, a precursor to the constitution, asserting that Pakistan’s constitution would be based on both democratic representation and Islamic ideals. As religious parties gained more strength, anti-Ahmadi sentiment grew. Partly this was based on resentment—Ahmadis were viewed as affluent and successful at a time when many people in the newly formed state were struggling to establish themselves. “The Ahmadis were well-placed in bureaucracy and also enjoyed considerably better socioeconomic conditions due to their strong focus on education,” says Akbar. “It’s a prosperous community. It’s centralized, it’s well organized, it emphasizes education and the learning of Islam.” The country’s new religious political parties also perceived Ahmadis as competitors. “They saw the large number of Ahmadis in Pakistan’s civil service as a threat to their future, since they had originally rejected the idea of Pakistan while Ahmadis had supported it,” says Rabwah Times’s Rehan.
The shop in Rabwah raided by Pakistani government agents where Abdul Qayyum was arrested for selling religious books relating to the Ahmadiyya sect.
In 1952, anti-Ahmadi Islamic purification groups assembled under the banner of Tehrik-i-Khatam-i-Nabuwwat (Movement for the Protection of the Finality of Prophethood) to campaign to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims and to remove them from key civil and military posts. For two decades, anti-Ahmadi sentiment grew and on September 7, 1974, the Pakistani parliament passed the Second Amendment to the Constitution, officially designating Ahmadis non-Muslims. The change occurred while Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, one of the country’s most liberal leaders, was in office. He needed to appease religious groups inside the country, says former Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Chair Yusuf. More important, she adds, the new amendment came at the behest of Saudi Arabia, which adheres to Wahabism, a strict form of Sunni Islam. “That was a time when a lot of Pakistanis were getting employment in the Middle East, so the Saudis knew they could dictate terms,” she says.
According to Yusuf, however, it wasn’t until Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq deposed Bhutto that the government began to actively discriminate against Ahmadis. A military dictator and the sixth president of Pakistan, Zia-ul-Haq was a master at exploiting religion to further his political agenda, says Yusuf. It was he who issued what is called “Ordinance XX” in 1984, in which non-Muslims were forbidden from passing themselves off as Muslims and from calling themselves Muslims in public or private. Three days after the ordinance was issued, the then-head of the Ahmadi community, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, fled to England, and the movement moved its headquarters from Pakistan to London.
The new headquarters was based in the city’s iconic Fazl Mosque, famous not only for being London’s first mosque built for that purpose but also for being constructed entirely on donations from Ahmadi women in India. Many Ahmadis immigrated to London, while others left Pakistan for Europe and West Africa. “There they flourished, because, again, they are well organized, they’re centralized, they work hard, they educate themselves,” says Akbar. “And most important, they integrate with the host country.” Today the Ahmadi community says it has 200 million followers throughout the world, although other estimates are closer to 10 million. Not all host countries are safe havens. In Sunni-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, Ahmadis face regular outbreaks of violence, and even in Glasgow an Ahmadi shopkeeper was murdered for his beliefs last year. Still, the community says it is growing, fueled by an extensive outreach network of books, newspapers and a TV channel broadcast from England. There are 20,000 Ahmadis in the United States, including immigrants and converts, many of them African American.
The Ahmadis who remain in Pakistan have learned to live within their own small communities, realizing that whatever safety there is for them lies in numbers. Thus thrives the quaint little town of Rabwah.
Just a few miles away from the Chenab river, Rabwah is a quiet community whose tranquility, at first glance, belies the troubles that its residents face. A town of narrow streets and cozy houses, Rabwah seems peaceful. Temperatures regularly go well over 100 degrees during the summer, and the simmering heat means any sort of outdoor activity in the afternoon becomes almost impossible. Usually, between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., the entire town goes to sleep, literally. “We do this every day,” says Mahmood, the Ahmadi spokesperson and resident of Rabwah, with a big grin on his face and an almost proud tone of voice. “We call it calula, and a lot of cities in Punjab observe it. Rabwah is no different.”
What does make Rabwah different, though, is that it is a city built by and for Pakistan’s Ahmadis. “We don’t have an official number, since a population census hasn’t been conducted here for a very long time,” says Mahmood. “Our estimate is that we have 60,000 people in this town, out of which an overwhelmingly large majority is Ahmadi.” The entire town, spread across just over nine square miles, was bought by the Ahmadis from the government for an initial fee of 12,000 Pakistani rupees (approximately $103) in 1948. All of Rabwah is owned by Ahmadis, and property in the town cannot be bought by others. “People who are not Ahmadis do live here, but their houses are rented,” says Mahmood. “If we don’t do this, then those who hate us will buy land here and build seminaries from which they will propagate hate against us. This isn’t some made-up situation; one group actually tried to do that, so we have to be careful.”
Although their international headquarters are in London, the Ahmadis also have offices in Rabwah.
While there are occasional drive-by shootings by “outsiders”—and government crackdowns as in the case of Abdul Qayyum—Rabwah is a refuge for many. “I used to live in Lahore before, and I have been barred from entering mosques there when people found out that I was an Ahmadi,” a resident tells me as I walk around the town. “I therefore took to praying on a small patch of grass outside the mosque. To stop me from doing that, they kept the grass wet at all times so that I couldn’t pray there without ruining my clothes.”
Compared to neighboring towns and cities, Rabwah is unusually clean, and Mahmood says the community employs its own residents to clean the streets. “This town was completely barren when it was [sold] to us,” says Mahmood. “We had to work incredibly hard to make it as green and lush as it is right now.” The Ahmadis practice tithing: “We run a self-sufficient community that runs on donations,” he says, where it is mandatory for 1/16th of an Ahmadi’s income to go to the community, plus 1/10th of their inheritance. “When we want to punish someone, we tell them that they cannot donate money anymore,” says Mahmood. “That is how much everybody wants to serve the community.” This passion to serve extends to more than just money, he says. There are members of the community who dedicate their lives to the cause through volunteerism. Referred to as the devotees, these men and women work in whatever capacity the head of the community sees fit. “A devotee will never say no to whatever job he is assigned,” says Mahmood. “He could have been a big-shot CEO somewhere, but if he devotes his life and then is assigned to being a janitor, he will do that happily.” One such devotee is Saad Ahmed, head of the multistory Tahir Heart Institute, a cardiac hospital that caters to thousands—residents not only of Rabwah but of adjoining towns as well. Until 2001 he worked in a telecommunications company. “I used to go to work in an air-conditioned car that was driven by a chauffeur and had my own place,” says Ahmed. “Now I cycle to work and live in my mother’s old house.”
Funds pour in from Ahmadis around the world, which is evident in the state-of-the-art schools and medical facilities that serve the people of the city for almost no fee. “We have a system until college, and are looking to build more schools—and maybe even universities—since a lot of people want their children studying with us, considering our high level of teaching and low fees,” says Haris Amir, head of the city’s education programs. “We not only focus on education but also sports since we believe that is vital for a child’s growth.” Rabwah has an Olympic-size swimming pool and a program that has regularly produced some of the finest swimmers in the country, a sports complex with basketball and squash courts, a tennis court and a gym. And all health, recreational or education facilities are open to those both inside and outside the community. “We are not like them,” says Mahmood nonchalantly, waving his right arm in no particular direction. “We don’t want to promote this feeling of us and them any further than it already has been promoted. So we welcome everybody, even if we aren’t welcome everywhere ourselves.”
From left to right: Historic figures—Ahmadi founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad; Foreign Minister Muhammad Zafarullah Khan; Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; and General and President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq.
The treatment of the Ahmadis affects everyone in Pakistan, says former Pakistani diplomat Akbar, who recalls that when he grew up in north Pakistan people didn’t care who was an Ahmadi, a Shia or a Sunni. “It’s a slippery slope,” he says, that began with Ahmadis but now infects a broader swath of society. The same extremist intolerance that fuels anti-Ahmadi violence leads to violence against other religious minorities. The situation, he says, has deteriorated to the point that “someone’s neighbor could say, ‘I want your land. Sell it to me,’ and if you say no he’ll simply say, ‘This guy is a Zionist agent,’ or ‘He’s a Hindu agent.’”
While the Pakistani government’s attempts to combat terrorism have seen some success, it hasn’t been able to eliminate religious violence. In 2016 a church in the southwestern city of Quetta was attacked, leading to at least nine deaths, and in 2017 three blasts rocked the majority-Shia city of Parachinar in northwest Pakistan, killing more than 125 people. In February a suicide bomber killed more than 90 at a Sufi shrine in Sehwan in southern Pakistan.
Threats by Islamic extremists make it hard even for Pakistanis who are not Ahmadis to come to their defense. Last May, Express Tribunejournalist Rana Tanveer woke up to find his house in Lahore vandalized and a message left on his door: “Qadiani supporter Rana Tanveer is an unbeliever who deserves to be killed.” Qadiani is a pejorative term for Ahmadi, and Tanveer’s alleged sin was reporting on issues relating to Ahmadis. He regularly received death threats, and his landlord received menacing messages to evict him. Two months after his house was attacked, Tanveer says, a car tried to run him over and broke his leg. Like many who have tried to document the persecution against the Ahmadis, Tanveer was forced to flee to the U.S.
Meanwhile, new generations are learning through public discourse that Ahmadis are sorcerers who indulge in the dark arts, fifth columnists supported by foreign powers or members of vast Zionist conspiracies. “Over the years, this narrative has been driven into our collective heads again and again so many times that we have come to accept it,” says former Human Rights Commission Chair Yusuf. “Hating Ahmadis isn’t frowned upon by society. So for a child growing up in Pakistan, hating the Ahmadis without ever bothering to know them or learn about them seems normal. As they say: Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate and hate leads to violence.”
The situation can only be addressed “if the laws are changed or society is made to change its prejudiced attitude,” says Farahnaz Ispahani, author of Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities, who served as a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan from 2008 to 2012. “The avenues to do this would be removing hate speech against religious minorities in the official textbooks, making the Constitution secular and declaring all citizens equal under it, and using media campaigns against religious hatred and exclusivity,” she says. “Instead, the government has done the reverse. Many Pakistanis consider religious discrimination normal, which is particularly sad.” Yusuf agrees. “Until that is done, Ahmadis cannot live safely and peacefully in Pakistan.”
Taha Anis is a 27-year-old Karachi-based writer who works at Pakistan’s English daily The Express Tribune.