The Ahmadiyya Community (hereafter Ahmadis) encountered difficulties to freely express their beliefs and creeds in both Muslim majority societies and Muslim minority communities. Since the Ahmadis are among those communities that departed from the traditional Muslim theological position, the traditional Muslim authorities curbed their beliefs and practices through the issuing of fatwas. In response the Ahmadis tried to avoid being harassed and persecuted by seeking ways of circumventing the legalities. This article evaluates the theological clashes that occasionally occurred between the Ahmadis and these Muslim authorities in African settings where religious communities have generally experienced relative religious freedom.
Over the many decades, Muslim communities like other religious communities the world over have encountered external and internal challenges. On the external front, these communities have been challenged by Islamophobic outbursts across Europe and in other Western regions (Wajahat Ali et al. 2011; Bayrakli and Hafez 2016),1 and internally they have been confronted by numerous intra-religious differences and theological disagreements. These have, in turn, given rise to public dissensions and discord that caused the majority of adherents under traditionally minded religious leaders to pursue a policy of “ostrakonophobia.”2 By this, it is meant that they applied an ad hoc policy that, to some extent, struck fear in the hearts and minds of individuals and groups who dreaded being publicly ostracized, shunned, repudiated, banned, and excluded.
Many historical examples come to the fore when reflecting upon intra-religious conflict among Muslim communities residing in (for example, Pakistan [Saeed 2007], Talbot 2007) and outside (for example, Indonesia [Panggabean 2016; Schafer 2018]) the Muslim heartlands. More than a century ago, for example, two groups, which emerged within pre-dominantly Muslim states, namely Iran and Pakistan (Jamil 2002), were theologically ostracized from the house of Islam. At the end of the 19th century, among the first to be rejected for their philosophy and religious outlook was Baha’ullah (d.1892) and the Baha’i faith adherents (Buck 2003). The second group to be repudiated for their beliefs were the Ahmadis,3 whose founder was Mirza Ghulam Ahmed (d.1908 hereafter referred to as “Mirza”).4 The respective religious leaders of these two nascent groups offered divergent understandings of revelation and prophecy (Jamil 2002).
The Baha’is and Qadiyanis, according to their respective founders’ claims and their ardent followers’ understandings, held the view that they were indeed recipients of revelation; and they were hence inspired prophets. They were somewhat similar to and on par with the earlier prophets who were sent by God. Related to this Khan (2015) mentioned that Mirza, however, regarded himself as a non-legislative prophet; but despite this self-understanding the Qadiyanis’ theological rivals, the Ahmadis, with whom they engaged in semantic squabbles over the use and interpretation of terminologies in the end split and charted out a theological path of their own (Khan 2015). Nonetheless, the theological assertions by both the Qadiyanis and Ahmadis contradicted the declarations made by religious authorities of the Ahl-As-Sunna wa-al-Jama’at (ASJ) (People Who Follow the Prophetic Path and Unity),5 who represent the majority interpretation. The ASJ hold onto the uncompromising view that Prophet Muhammad was God’s last messenger who was the recipient of God’s final message, namely the Qur’an. So, from an orthodox Muslim perspective, this belief alongside the declaration that there is no other deity except God, is a non-negotiable principle. The ASJ and its representative theological bodies have thus continuously argued against the sacrilegious and heretical teachings of the Bahais and Qadiyanis/Ahmadis.
This article, which does not reflect on the Qadiyanis, gives its attention to the Ahmadis, who, oddly, see themselves theologically closer to ASJ. The Ahmadis, besides having set themselves apart from ASJ, also assumed the title Ahmadiyya Anjuman-i Isha῾at-i Islam in Lahore (Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement for the Propagation of Islam) to distinguish themselves from the Qadiyanis. As a modern reformist movement led by Maulana Muhammad Ali, who led the break-away faction from the Qadiyanis, the Ahmadis took on this identity to illustrate how different they are from others, and they thus strategically employed their resources to undertake mission to all and sundry. Since the Ahmadis considered mission as a central cog in their community’s philosophy and practice they dedicated themselves in this religious venture, and as a consequence they established branches globally and this included the African continent.
Though a section of this article assesses the relationship that developed between the Ahmadis and the orthodox African Muslim communities over much of the twentieth, it also hones in on the conflict that emerged between these two religious communities within environments where both experience degrees of freedom of religion or belief. Since it is beyond the article’s scope to discuss their relationship in all the African countries, it zooms in on specific cases that illustrate the nature of the conflict and the tendentious relationship that emerged in spite of the religious freedom that had been guaranteed by state constitutions. With this in mind, the article opens conceptualizing “Muslim authority” before it charts the Ahmadis’ social history in Africa.
Muslim Authority: Identity and Status
Whenever the collective Muslim leadership describes the communities that each of them represent, they do so by stressing their Sunni identity and by extension that they are Ahl-As-Sunna wa-al-Jama’at (ASJ). Even though it is rather difficult to trace and locate the exact origins of the term, its construction and employment were intended to distinguish themselves as a religious group from others such as the Shi’ites and Ibadis with whom they differed theologically and jurisprudentially. But since other religious minorities, such as the Baha’is and Ahmadis, emerged out of the house of Islam, they stressed its use in order to highlight their deep religious differences. Being in the majority, the ASJ adherents are generally represented by trained theologians and jurists. These individuals, who have been classified as “Muslim authorities” and who regard themselves as the prophet’s intellectual cum spiritual inheritors, appropriated their positions by, among other means, issuing fatwas (legal opinions) that act as guides in both majority Muslim societies (such as in West Africa) and in minority Muslim communities (such as East Africa) (Kramer and Schimdtke 2006). Furthermore, these Muslim authorities see themselves as spokespersons on behalf of the Muslims, and as a result of their status they hold theological power and influence.
Since reference is being made to “Muslim authority” (or “religious authority”), it is necessary to briefly unpack the phrase and tie it in with the issues that will be discussed further in this essay. For the purpose of this section, one draws upon Kramer and Schimdtke’s (2006) informative introduction. They state, “Religious authority is an elusive concept and notoriously difficult to define.” They explain this indefinable term through the ideas of sociologist Max Weber (d.1920) who described “authority … (as) the ability … to have one’s rules and rulings followed, or obeyed, without recourse to coercive power.” And they asserted that, “It is indeed the very absence of coercion that for Weber distinguishes authority (Autorität) from power (Macht).” Taking into account these theoretical notions associated with the term, they add that,
Religious authority can assume a number of forms and functions: the ability (chance, power, or right) to define correct belief and practice, or orthodoxy and orthopraxy, respectively; to shape and influence the views and conduct of others accordingly; to identify, marginalize, punish or exclude deviance, heresy and apostasy and their agents and advocates.
A careful scrutiny of their thoughts reminds one of the role that Muslim authorities play in Muslim societies: They are “agents of social change.” They are the ones who draw thick lines between belief and unbelief. They are individuals who highlight acts regarded as irregular and unacceptable. They are the theologians who point out aberrant thoughts that might lead to heresy or apostasy, as was the case with the Ahmadis (Kramer and Schimdtke 2006).
From this, one can gauge that Muslim authority holds a critical position in Muslim society. Muslim authorities find themselves in that position because of the theological and jurisprudential knowledge that they accumulated in a recognized Muslim institution such as Saudi Arabia’s International Islamic University of Medina or Muslim theological seminary such as India’s Darul-Ulum Deoband. These institutions provide them with the license to pronounce over issues that are acceptable (halal) and non-acceptable (haram). In other words, they have been authorized to act in the interest of the Muslim society as a whole, and their position is viewed religiously legitimate, since they also hold “sacred power” through their interpretation of Islam’s primary sources, namely the Qur’an and hadith. They are, to word it differently, Islam’s gatekeepers or caretakers.
Being its caretakers means that they are indeed the ones who have the “right,” as inheritors of the mantle of the Prophets, to apply their minds to any aspect of Muslim law. They are the ones who may opine whether one may marry an Ahmadi or not, and they have the authority to consider and decide whether Ahmadis or other groups (such as the Baha’is) are Muslim or not Muslim. Since this is what many of them generally do, it is perhaps an opportune moment to turn to Africa, where Muslim authorities have resided for generations and where many fatwas have been issued against unorthodox individuals and groups. To address the theological conflicts that occurred and the juridical opinions that were issued with regards to the Ahmadi teachings on the African continent, the present analysis takes into account freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) policies (Hackett 2011; See Simmie 3 May 2017) that have been adopted across the continent. At this juncture and to that end, the essay provides a brief historical and demographic assessment of both Africa’s traditional Muslim communities and the nonconformist Ahmadi communities using a few case studies.
Africa’s Muslim Communities and the Ahmadis
Africa has been the home of Muslim communities for centuries and historical records clearly mentioned that Muslims made contact during the prophetic period in the seventh century. However, Muslims connected with East and West Africa later than that; ties with the former were made during the ninth and tenth centuries and with the latter during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. From then onwards, the nascent Muslim communities developed themselves and made immeasurable contributions to the continent. Apart from having made inputs to the continent’s economy, such as creating lively commercial trading centers along the Swahili-speaking Coastal areas, they also made substantial inputs to the production of literature in thriving intellectual cities such as Mali’s Timbuktu; and they, in addition, contributed towards the transformation of the regional languages such as Ki-Swahili, Fulfulde, Makhuwa, and Afrikaans through the use of the pliable Arabic script.
One may, therefore, argue that the assortment of Muslim communities that resided in different parts of the continent made an indelible input that no social historian or geographer can ignore. So, one may confidently state that between the ninth century and the 19th century Muslims made certain that they made qualitative inputs in all spheres and that they left their footprints in each sector from which subsequent generations could benefit; the plethora of yet unedited manuscripts in Timbuktu is a typical example. So, by the time the Ahmadis consciously extended their ideas beyond South Asia through dedicated mission during the early part of the 20th century, they found Muslim communities that were active, dynamic, and inventive (Fisher 1963). However, while one commends these Muslims for having made their mark continentally through their efforts in commerce and education, one also comes across sections of these Muslim communities that were ill-informed about all aspects of their religion; these adopted a syncretic approach that weaved in aspects of Islam into their practicing cultures.
African culture played a pivotal role in the make-up of their identity, and even though they were taught Islam’s basics, such as the performance of the obligatory rituals, they lacked knowledge of notions of God’s oneness and deeper theological cum jurisprudential issues—hence their reliance on the Muslim authorities who were equipped with theological and jurisprudential knowledge. At this point, one should perhaps take a closer look at the Ahmadis’ theology, which they subtly stressed and dexterously disseminated among some of Africa’s theologically defenseless Muslim communities. Long before the Ahmadis began their mission in earnest on the African continent, they had developed their ideas that were based on Mirza’s teachings in South Asia, particularly Pakistan, where “the movement”—as they sometimes described themselves—started. One may too opine that African Muslims were and perhaps still are somewhat ill-informed about the views of Mirza’s theological ideas and interpretation. This argument is based partially on a 2012 Pew Research Center survey that was concurrently undertaken in South Asian and Southeast Asian nations where Muslims were in the majority (e.g. Pakistan) or were were a significant minority (e.g. Thailand). If one looks at the data in the table below, one is intrigued by the statistics (Table 1) .
Table 1. Ahmadis—Muslims or not?
Taking Pakistan and Bangladesh as South Asian examples, one notes that 7 percent of the Pakistanis who were interviewed stated that Ahmadis were Muslims, in contrast with 40 percent of Bangladeshis who opined differently. When turning to Southeast Asia, the statistics revealed that 16 percent Malaysians and 12 percent Indonesians viewed Ahmadis to be Muslims, as opposed to 23 percent Malaysians and 78 percent Indonesians, who considered them not to be Muslims. Interestingly, the statistic showed that 70 percent Thai Muslims and 61 percent Malay Muslims had never heard of the Ahmadis. These are indeed justifiably high percentages compared to Bangladesh’s 28 percent and Pakistan’s 26 percent of Muslims who had never heard of Ahmadis—these being two countries where one might assume the population might know more about Ahmadis as a separate religious group. The statistics underline that even though the Ahmadis have been around for more than a century as a distinct marginal religious community, albeit in a contested relationship with ASJ Muslim authorities, they were basically an unknown entity in three predominantly Muslim states by certain sections of their populations. And this is, of course, very different from the significant Thai Muslim community, who live in a mainly Buddhist society in which they have to deal with a different set of socio-political and religious challenges in trying to keep their identity as Muslims intact.
Nonetheless, when considering these responses and transferring them to Africa’s Muslim communities, one can find similar, if not more startling, responses. The rationale for this is based on two assumptions: the first is that some African Muslim communities do not enjoy comparable exposure to Islam’s teachings as their Bangladeshi and Malaysian counterparts, and the second is that the Muslims form part of a religious plural environment in which they have shown tolerance towards others who adhere to different beliefs and practices. In fact, in West Africa there are small pockets of Muslim communities that have fused their traditional practices with those of Islam, but they have not been ostracized, except in a few places.
Setting aside these assumptions and taking another slight detour prior to turning to the Ahmadis’ African mission, the following pertinent issues should be factored in when assessing the Ahl-As-Sunna wa-al-Jama’at’s (ASJ) theological posture towards them: Firstly, when assessing the approaches of the two groups towards Islam’s primary sources, it is clear that ASJ adherents express an orthodox position; whereas the Ahmadis/Qadiyanis embrace a heterodox one. Secondly, there is another critical difference that is related to the question of prophethood–a non-negotiable principle according to the orthodox view. On this matter the conformist ASJ, who determinedly believe that Prophet Muhammad was God’s final messenger, diametrically oppose both the unorthodox Qadiyanis and Ahmadis. The Qadiyanis, basing themselves on Mirza’s writings and pronouncements, have unwaveringly argued that Mirza was an inspired prophet. Their theologians reasoned that the Quranic word “seal” should be interpreted figuratively and not literally, as was generally understood by the orthodox interpreters. From this, the Qadiyanis derived the notion that Prophet Muhammad was not the last and final prophet. Thirdly, the Qadiyanis opined, as a consequence of this theological reasoning that those who do not accept Mirza as the promised Messiah are kafir. Kays (2006) quoted Mirza as writing in his Kalimat ul-Fasl that “if one does not accept the revelations of the Promised Messiah … then such a rejector becomes a ‘kaafir’!”
In response to these reflections, the Ahmadis broke away from the Qadiyanis, arguing that Mirza’s pronouncements were misunderstood and that he did not say that he was a prophet. Instead, the Ahmadis averred that Mirza conveyed the notion that he was a reformer, in contrast to the Qadiyanis, who emphatically stated that Mirza was not only God’s promised Mahdi (awaited-one) and Christ’s Messiah, but also a prophet (Khan 2015).6 Despite the Ahmadis’ altered theological position, the ASJ vehemently condemned them along with the Qadiyanis. The ASJ Muslim authorities issued the legal view that the Qadiyanis and the Ahmadis were outside Islam’s fold. These authorities opined that their beliefs caused a great deal of consternation among all ASJ adherents. Even the Shi’ites, who expressed their discomfort with the theological views of the Qadiyanis and Ahmadis, were ironically categorized by a few extremist ASJ theologians to be outside Islam’s fold too. Though the ASJ Muslim authorities formulated their legal stance towards these two groups since the 1910s (Kays 2006), both groups managed to survive the mainstream Muslim authorities’ persistent verbal and physical onslaught in both majority and minority settings. During the second half of the 20th century when international human rights instruments were developed and put in place, some of the bodies that worked in the interest of upholding human rights principles categorized the Ahmadis as “a persecuted religious group,” a group that had not only been marginalized and ostracized, but also been mistreated and victimized by dominant Muslim communities in countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia (Talbot 2007; Ahmad 2017). Hence, their constant appeal for the application of these instruments and their quest for the legal protection against states and communities that continue to discriminate against them on religious grounds.
The Ahmadis’ African Mission: Historical Vignettes of Selected Communities
Amidst the Ahmadis’ appeals and quest for protection in South and Southeast Asian nations of Pakistan and Indonesia, it seems that the Ahmadis have generally not faced such types of discrimination and persecution in Africa, where they began to settle in the early 1900s. In fact, when they landed on African soil and as they gradually began to do mission among Africa’s Muslim and non-Muslim communities, they socialized and interacted with communities that were very much occupied with their socio-political and cultural identities during the latter part of the colonial period. By the time the Ahmadis settled in and adjusted to the African environment, the existing Muslim communities, as well as others, were oblivious to the group’s theological teachings, and they accepted them as members of the Muslim ummah (that is, nation/society) without critically probing their theological ideas.
One may, however, postulate that the African Muslims’ attention was not so much concerned with the internal theological disagreements, and that they were more worried about the colonial rulers’ oppressive system and the Christian missionaries’, who challenged their African Muslim beliefs and practices. Since they found themselves to be defenseless, not being able to counter theologically, they sought assistance from other quarters; it was at this point in time that the Ahmadis met up with vulnerable African communities and used the opportunity to do their intended mission. So, one may state that the Ahmadis came into Africa at an opportune period. It was a time when the local Muslim authorities were helpless, since they did not know how to correctly counter Christian missionary activities. Thus, they relied on the skillful approach of the Ahmadis’ preachers who “rescued” them from Africa’s expansive Christian campaigners in different parts of the continent.
The Christian missionaries, who had set up “mission schools” and who had actively spread the Gospel, found their match in the Ahmadi preachers. During that period Ahl-As-Sunna wa-al-Jama’at authorities were ill-equipped to deal with the Christian missionaries, for they were unfamiliar with the Gospel, nor did they have in-depth knowledge about Christianity as such. Being skilled in and knowledgeable of methods of conversion, the Ahmadi proselytizers who were prepared for these eventualities thus aided these Muslim communities, salvaging them from the Gospel-filled hands of the Christian evangelists, who they saw as an extended part of the colonial powers. In these eyes of these Muslim communities, colonial rulers not only subjugated them through oppressive decrees, but also used their educational institutions as instruments of conversion, hence the African Muslim communities’ aversion to attending modern colonial mission schools.
At this point, it is appropriate to summarily describe the Ahmadis’ presence in certain parts of the African continent. The graph above reveals that the highest number of Ahmadis is to be found in Nigeria, Benin, and Tanzania; in these countries their numbers have reached over two million and together they record close to eight million members. Even though their numbers in Guinea Bissau and Egypt are miniscule, they are numerically larger than those found in Southern Africa where Ahmadis only number about 2,000 adherents (Figure 1) .
West Africa’s Ahmadis
Ibrahim Oguntayo (2016),7 in his capacity as the Publicity Committee for Centenary Celebrations of the Nigerian branch of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamat (as they are called), mentioned that, “The root of Ahmadiyya Nigeria Muslim Jamaat was planted in 1916 when the spread of the message of the Promised Messiah, Hazrat Ghulam Ahmad was brought to the newly amalgamated Northern and Southern protectorates in Nigeria.” In 2016, the Nigerians held their 64th annual convention (Jalsa Salana) to mark their hundred-year anniversary of Ahmadi existence in Nigeria. The event called “for a deep reflection on the contributions of the Jamaat to Nigeria’s development.” In Oguntayo’s informed opinion, the Ahmadis have made substantial contributions to Islam’s spread. For some reason, he did not say much about Nigeria’s rich past, of which Usman don Fodio (d.1817) was and remained a great Muslim leader in West Africa.
Nonetheless, he glowingly stated that, unlike other African states in the region, the Ahmadis succeeded in establishing 493 branches across all states. Over the Ahmadis’ hundred years in Nigeria, they set up elementary and secondary schools, and health care centers. In addition, they had, since 1966, published The Truth as their mouthpiece. In Kays’ (2006, 47) sensationally written text, he had this to say: “Mirzaees discovered that Nigeria … (was) fertile ground for spreading their weird creed. Readers of ‘The Truth’, Mirzaee organ from Lagos, will have observed how Ahmadees attempt to indoctrinate the reader with Mirza as a prophet.” He further stated that,
One of the reasons for deceiving the Nigerian Muslim easily is that his language is not Urdu … and they may also not be aware that Mirza was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde … including as an agent of the imperialists.
During the time when the Ahmadis were settling in and expanding in Nigeria and making headway with their mission, they cast their sights on neighboring states. The second stop in West Africa was the Gold Coast, known today as Ghana,8 (Samwini 2006; Turkson 2007; Acquah 2011; Hanson 2017). The Ahmadis’ foremost missionary at that time was Abdul Rahim Nayyar who was, in fact, invited by a group of Muslims from Saltpond, and this happened during the period when the Ahmadis’ Second Caliphate was in charge. After having laid the foundations in 1921, Nayyar departed, but he was replaced by the Ahmadis’ first permanent missionary by the name of Al Hajj Fadl-ul-Rahman Hakim in 1922. According to Samwini (2006), the Ahmadis depended much on Hakim’s skills, and he was ably supported by a Fante interpreter. Hakim, who conducted his lectures along the Gold Coast’s southern coast in the public, made profuse use of the Quran and the Bible. He, for example, spoke about how “The Bible shows Jesus did not die on the cross.” At times, these polemical topics attracted the interest of many Christians, but they also led to intra-Muslim conflict, since the orthodox Muslims did not subscribe to this Ahmadi view regarding Jesus. Besides preaching publicly, the Ahmadis made great efforts to set up a school, but they failed to do so for more than twenty years. It was only by 1950 that the situation changed. By then, the Ahmadis’ numbers had increased substantially, and they opened the doors of their first senior secondary school in Kumasi. Regionally, Ghana became the home of the second largest Ahmadi community, which according to the latest census shows that their numbers have reached 635,000. From the graph above, it seems that the Ahmadis’ demographics changed substantially during the latter part of the 20th century.
East and South Africa’s Ahmadis
Moving to East Africa. where Tanzania9 has a sizeable Ahmadi community numbering more than 2 million, it should be noted that missionaries came to Lake Tanganika’s shores two decades before the Ahmadi community initiated their activities in Nigeria. According to the Tanzanian Ahmadis, two of Mirza’s companions, namely Hadhrat Munshi Muhammad Afzal Sahib and Hadhrat Mirza Abdullah Sahib, landed in East Africa during 1896. Subsequent to their visit, a few more came, among them Dr. Muhammad Ismail Giryanwi who was an Indian military doctor. Since they encountered a few challenges as they tried to expand their activities, they sought assistance from Qadian, the small Indian town from where Mirza established his theological movement. Their request for help coincided with the Tahrik-e-Jadid (history and renewal) scheme, a project that aimed to universalize the Ahmadi message. Hadhrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad, Mirza’s son, responded and he sent Shaykh Mubarak Ahmad on October 10, 1910, as the first Amir of the Ahmadis in East Africa.
By 1923, the Ahmadis published Al-Balagh to proclaim the Ahmadi message, and by 1930 they had built their first Nairobi-based mosque. Alongside these developments, the Shaykh circulated in 1936 the first issue of Mapenzi ya Mungu (God’s Love), their newspaper. It was a vehicle used against the Christians, who expressed the view that “we can only be saved by the blood of Jesus” in pamphlets they disseminated. The Shaykh saw it appropriate to use the pages of the new newspaper to refute the ideas of the Christians. He, according to the online report,10 responded to these pamphlets by stating that human beings can “only be saved by the love of God.” He saw the newspaper, which was issued in East Africa’s lingua franca, as that critical vehicle.
As a result of the Shaykh’s sterling mission work since he arrived, the community founded the Sheikh Mubarak Ahmad Ahmadi Muslim School in 1937 and it was strategically set up in Tanzania’s Tabora. The reason for choosing this town was because it was a key Christian center that represented all denominations. It was also the home of the best secondary school country-wide, and it was set up in the vicinity of the important Christian Theological College for Priests. At this point one needs to fast-forward and mention that a year after Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih IV’s official visit, Tanzania’s Ahmadis celebrated their centenary in 1989. The event was celebrated with all sorts of activities, and a special edition of the newspaper was printed. The celebrations were followed by the Dawat ili-Allah (mission to God) campaign that gave way to the formation of mission houses that facilitated the process of Bai’at, the swearing of allegiance to the Ahmadi Khaliph.
Between the time the magazine, Al-Balagh, was circulating and the first mosque was built in East Africa, a delegation with Al-Haj Lord Sir Rowland George Allanson Allanson-Winn, Baron Headley (d.1935) among them went on a visit to South Africa.11 Unlike Tanzania and Nigeria, where contact had been made and official branches established, the Ahmadi connection in South Africa was only made in mid-1920s when Woking’s Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din and Lord Headley officially visited South Africa to undertake their mission. This was reported in the short-lived Cape Town based magazine, the Moslem Outlook.12 According to Ebrahim (2015), the Ahmadis officially established themselves at the Cape in 1958 under the inspiration of Hadhrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad. In 2018, their members celebrated their sixtieth year on South African soil with numbers still not reaching more than 500.
During Dr. Yusuf Sulaiman’s visit to the Ahmadis’ headquarters in Pakistan, the latter gave a sermon in which he identified South Africa as a place where a branch should be set up. Ebrahim quoted the following portion of a sermon delivered on March 8, 1946, which appeared in The Sunrise of March 23, 1946:
South Africa would now be on the Ahmadiyya Tabligh Map in as much as a South African, Dr. Y. Sulaiman who was educated in England and who qualified for medical degree intended now to devote himself to work for Islam in this part of the world.
Between 1946 and 1951, Sulaiman preached to individuals from his Cape Town home, where he also held jumu’ah and ‘Id ritual prayers. Having worked in earnest, Sulaiman eventually succeeded in convincing those with whom he interacted to join the Ahmadi community. Among those who responded to the Ahmadi invitation was Muhammad Hashim Ebrahim (d.1985) and members of his family. It was this family that laid the grounds for the center in 1958. Another family from the Qadiyani school that also joined the ranks was the Hargey family.
Among the significant outcomes of the Ahmadis’ presence in South Africa were two court cases that took place at the beginnings of the 1980s and the 1990s, respectively. These were discussed by Aziz (2008) and analyzed by Qadir (2016). These legal challenges took place during the South African apartheid system which paradoxically permitted minority religious traditions such as Islam to be practiced, though the apartheid authorities restricted their practices to the religious rituals only. In this context one may ask: What was the nature of this “religious freedom” or “freedom of religion or belief (FoRB)”?
FoRB Policies in Africa’s Religious Plural Environment
FoRB: Its Conceptualization
The past few years have brought the issuance of a plethora of documents, declarations, instruments, and policies that not only identified but that explained, explored, and examined the nature of FoRB across the Commonwealth. These documents remain essential ingredients of the democratic society that is protected by the international legal system (Cross 2015). In a revised “Freedom of Religion or Belief Toolkit,” issued by the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 2016, FCO offered a useful definition of FoRB that is quite fitting for this article’s contents (FCO 2016). The FCO stressed that FoRB has far-reaching and profound implications and that, this being the case, it should be viewed as “the key human right” for Ahmadis around the Commonwealth, as advocated by Baroness Anelay in the opening epigram of this article. The FCO categorically specified that FoRB “encompasses not just the freedom to hold personal thoughts and convictions, but also being able to manifest them individually or with others, publicly or in private.” When considering the FCO’s policy position, then this indeed applies to the Ahmadis who should be permitted to freely subscribe to their theological stance even though ASJ adherents oppose their beliefs and practices.
Islamic law scholar Abdullahi An-Naim (2012) offers a considerably different understanding in making the point that, “freedoms of religion is necessary for each human person to pursue what she(/he) holds as the ultimate purpose and meaning of her(/his) life.” He further notes, idealistically, “freedom of religion and other human rights are both a means and end of societal solidarity and cooperation among believers and non-believers.” An-Na’im asserts, perhaps a bit hastily, that this ideal can become a reality if two goals are achieved: the first is to enthusiastically encourage the pursuance of pivotal values such as tolerance and respect for others across all religious traditions and among diverse communities without exception (Donald and Howard 2015), and the second is to resist and restrain any sort of exclusivist inclinations or hegemonic tendencies that undermine and destabilize the “freedom of religion” policy. This type of ideal scenario, if ever realized, would work in the Ahmadis’ interests. Unfortunately, however, in countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia, hegemonic propensities have erupted that have caused Ahmadis a great deal discomfort as a result of their beliefs and identity. The question that emerges is: To what extent have the Ahmadis faced similar harassments and maltreatments at the hands of ASJ adherents in African countries where they reside? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to return to at least two African countries that were described earlier.
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s book Beyond Religious Freedom (2015) studied, among other religious minorities, Turkey’s Alevi community. According to Hurd, the Alevis were treated by the Turkish government as a “heterodox” community, some of whom wish to be seen as a strand within non-Sunni Islam. Similarly, the Ahmadis who have been ill-treated by Pakistani’s ASJ Muslim authorities (representing Sunni Islam) would also want to be seen as a theological school within the broader Sunni Islamic tradition, even though they stand apart from it in their interpretation of the primary sources. ASJ Muslim authorities in both majority and minority environments exercised their power and influence, thereby reducing the Ahmadis’ claims for legal recognition as bona fide Muslims. In spite of all the ASJ Muslim authorities’ attempts in so doing, the Ahmadis managed to persist in claiming their religious space alongside Sunni Islam.
In the case of the Alevis, Hurd (2015) makes a further pertinent point that may also be applied to the Ahmadis, when she states, “To refuse identity-based recognition for such already existing groups … is to obstruct democratization and hinder the emergence of tolerant legal regimes for managing religious diversity.” When thinking about the Ahmadis and their respective positions in majority and minority Muslim communities around the world, then one can argue that ASJ Muslim authorities have contributed to undermining FoRB policy by not recognizing the Ahmadis’ rightful place within a democratic society, given that their beliefs differ markedly from other Muslim communities. The ideal of FoRB of which An-Na’im speaks seems to be far-fetched, as a result of the ASJ Muslim authorities’ determinedly exclusivist theological stance towards the Ahmadis. The attitude and approach of these authorities in communities where they have been influential demands further consideration of African countries—in particular, to assess whether the Ahmadis have suffered as their counterparts and in Pakistan and, more importantly, whether FoRB policies have been taken for granted and ignored.
Africa’s Muslim Authorities: Exercising Theological Power, Curbing Ahmadi Beliefs
Mention has already been made of the fact that, when the Ahmadis first made their appearance on African soil, they generally did not encounter any religious hostility. When delegations went to Tanzania and South Africa, the Muslim communities welcomed them without raising questions regarding their theological beliefs and interpretations. By and large, they experienced an environment in which there was relative freedom. Their circumstances changed later when the ASJ Muslim authorities in these countries became aware of their theological outlook. From then onwards, verbal and, at times, physical conflicts occurred. The ASJ Muslim authorities, as already indicated, made ample use of their theological positions by challenging and countering the Ahmadis’ interpretations even though their leaders argued that they, unlike the Qadiyanis, do not consider Mirza to be a prophet and that they do not subscribe to the view that non-Ahmadis are kafir.
Across the world, ASJ Muslim authorities absolutely opposed the Ahmadis and they stripped them jurisprudentially from their “Muslim” identity and other rights such as marriage and inheritance. But despite these outcomes, the Ahmadis persisted as a persecuted group by continuing with their universal mission as instructed by Mirza. By the early 1900s, Ahmadis had planted themselves in East Africa; by the mid-1910s, they had moved to West Africa; and by the end of the 1950s, they had settled in South Africa. In all of these regions, they left their footprints. This was partly to do with the zealous passion that they possessed to spread Mirza’s message, but it was also to do with the relative peaceful situation that they encountered. As a result of the latter conditions, they took full advantage by preaching to all and sundry, especially arguing against the Christian missionaries. Initially, when the Ahmadi preachers settled and preached without any opposition from within the mainstream Muslim environments, they could undertake their task without being disturbed. This, however, dramatically changed when the orthodox ASJ Muslim authorities learned more about Mirza and his disciples.
The ASJ Muslim authorities reached a consensus that, as a group, the Ahmadis had to be countered and ejected from all Muslim sacred spaces, including mosque and burial sites, and from participating in the obligatory rituals. In addition, those who were married to spouses who were Ahmadis, as Anderson (2013) pointed out, had to divorce them. Relatedly, the local Muslim News in Cape Town on January 25, 1963, contained an article titled “Faith or Love? The Young Muslim Misled by Ahmadis” (Haron 1993). In recent years, when sectarianism became widespread, a question regarding marriage was posed to Mufti Ebrahim Desai, one of the South Africa’s foremost theologians. Desai tersely and unapologetically responded that the Ahmadis were not Muslims.13 On the whole, the ASJ’s theological bodies conveniently used FoRB policies to their advantage, taking theological positions to ostracize the Ahmadis.
Nonetheless, in spite of the Cape-based Muslim Judicial Council’s (est.1945) reaction, particularly through fatwas such as the simplistic sample mentioned earlier by Mufti Desai, Ahmadis in South Africa never lost hope, and they largely accepted their fate as a marginalized religious community. While some of them have contested their theological positions and their rightful status as a minority in the South Asian courts as mentioned by Kays (2006), they also contested the issue further in the South Africa courts (Qadir 2016). Of interest to note is the fact that the South African Muslims, who were a religious minority and a politically disenfranchized group, marginalized the Ahmadis, forcing them to undergo double discrimination—from a political dimension they were part of the Colored community that was subjugated, and from a religious dimension they were verbally and physically mistreated by the Muslim community from which they emerged. The MJC declared the Ahmadis to be apostates long before the court cases mentioned above. In addition, Abdul Kays, who was part of the collective editorial committee of the Cape Muslim newspaper, the Muslim News (1960–1986), described the founder of the Ahmadis in distasteful terms in his sensationalist booklet14 branding them theologically as non-Muslims.
While the Ahmadis had to tolerate the maltreatment at the hands of the MJC and its followers, related encounters were also recorded elsewhere on the continent. Samwini (2006) narrates that, in Ghana, the Tijaniyya and Ahmadi discord in the 1940s continued unabated. In one case, Ghana’s Muslim authorities in the town of Tamale even went so far as to encourage the children to stone the Ahmadis, since they were viewed as a major theological threat. Although no such abuses were recorded at the Cape, the Ahmadis felt the extent of ostrakonophobia.
Returning to the year 1994, Ghana witnessed an escalation of conflict between the Tijaniyya and Ahmadis. This time, according to Turkson (2007), the conflict took place in the Ghanian town of Wa. Turkson reported that this skirmish resulted in the burning down of an Ahmadi mosque, resulting in a return of old tensions that existed for some time. Besides the Muslim community’s battles with the Ahmadis, other intra-Muslim conflicts were also prevalent, such as the animosities between the Tijanis and Wahhabis and the violence that took place between them in Ghana’s Wenchi Zongo district during 1995. Apart from these intra-Muslim conflicts, hostilities were also chronicled between the Muslims and Pentecostal Christians in Kumasi, Takoradi and Walewale in 1998. Since the Ahmadis and others were drawn into these persistent scuffles, it created a very unpleasant atmosphere that undermined Ghana’s FoRB policy.15
When considering the conflictual outcomes of the relationship between the larger Muslim communities and the minority Ahmadis, one wonders on what theological grounds the Muslim authorities give support to violence against the minorities such as the Ahmadis. The question is: What policy of FoRB should be observed and respected within the nation-state? One should bear in mind that most of the African nation-states are multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and, of course, multi-religious. Being multi-religious implies that religious adherents should respect and tolerate one another’s traditions as per An-Naim’s (2012) proposal, even though one may not agree with the others’ beliefs or practices. As regards the attitudes of Muslim communities, which are usually guided by their Muslim authorities, it can be argued that they need to adopt a more tolerant position that is in line with the prophetic model that they are expected to uphold–but then again one talks about the ideal and not the realities on the ground.
However, some of the examples mentioned here, along with the persecution that Ahmadis generally experienced at the hands of the ASJ Muslim authorities, demonstrate that the latter group is rather selective when it comes to observing FoRB policies. In fact, they should consider drawing lessons from Shaykh Dr Osman Nuhu Sharubutu, who is the National Chief Imam of Ghana and a member of Ghana’s National Peace Council. According to the Rabwah Times report,16 he decided to broker peace with the Ahmadis and forget the past. It seems that, notwithstanding the constitutional guarantees that exist in some countries, the Ahmadis were and are still being challenged by the Muslim communities’ religious authorities, who have remained firm that no Ahmadi should be regarded as a Muslim. The general chauvinistic behavior of the Muslim authorities has affected the Ahmadis on three levels: (1) they caused the Ahmadis to remain a religiously insecure community, (2) they took away their religious rights in religious freedom environments, and (3) they forced them to be theologically ostracized and socially marginalized even though they do, like their counter-parts, have the constitutional rights to freely express their religious identity.
This article has essentially documented the Ahmadi community’s presence, as a religious minority community in Africa, where FoRB policies were and are still in place. It, however, illustrated to what extent this community experienced various types of abuses and persecution. Even though they splintered from the Qadiyanis, who held views that were contrary to the orthodox Sunni Islam views, they were still held responsible for subtly perpetuating these debatable theological beliefs and perspectives. The Ahmadis’ fate was sealed when the ASJ Muslim authorities under the auspices of the Mecca based Muslim World League issued a fatwa17 declaring both Ahmadis and Qadiyanis to be non-Muslims.
From then onwards, orthodox Sunni Islam Muslim authorities across the globe felt obliged to observe this decision. What this essentially meant was that, even though the Ahmadis still expressed and identified with a set of the beliefs to which Muslims generally adhere, these authorities jurisprudentially argued that they were not on par with other Muslims in terms of their beliefs. That being the case, they were thus legally viewed as a separate religious group and not as another school of thought within the house of Islam. Also important to observe is that fact that, while the Ahmadis wish to be technically regarded as Muslims, they also consciously preferred to use the term “Ahmadi” to distinguish themselves from everyone else, including the Qadiyanis. Nonetheless, as a consequence of the legal opinion issued by orthodox Sunni Islam Muslim authorities, the Ahmadis—wherever they settled around the globe—were regarded jurisprudentially as separate and apart from those traditionally defined as Muslims in both majority and minority communities (Asad 2010).18
Muhammed Haron http://orcid.org/0000-0001-6907-8488
1 This term refers to anti-Muslim rhetoric that has been studies by various individuals and groups over the past few years. Interesting texts that cover this phenomenon is the report by Wajahat Ali et al. Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America (Wajahat Ali et al. 2011) and European Islamophobia Report 2015 (Bayrakli and Hafez 2016).
2 This researcher searched the long list of words that describe the various phobias and he was unable to find a word that captures the “fear of being ostracized.” He thus coined this term that he derived from the Greek word: ostrakon (visit: www.fearof.net and www.phobialist.com).
4 Ehsan Rehan reported on November 12, 2017 that Allama Iqbal Bahisti, who was the secretary general of Majlis Wahdat—e-Muslimin and a key Shi’ite theologian, warned about the dangers that both the Bahais and Ahmadis posed; this is rather ironic during the current period knowing that many theologians in the Sunni world have also condemned the Shi’ites to be outside the fold of Islam! Ehsan Rehan, “Pakistani Shia Cleric Warns of Dangers Posed by Baha’is & Ahmadis,” Rabwah Times, 12 November 2017. See Ahmadiyya Anjuman Ishàat Islam Lahore Inc. U.S.A. “Ahmadiyya Movement Contrasted with the Bahai Religion.” http://www.muslim.org/intro/bah.htm and Fuad Al-Attar, “The Difference between Ahmadis and Bahais.” Ahmadiyya: Inviting to Islam (blog), 7 January 2012. The latter provides a simplistic comparative view.
9 Ahmaddiya Muslim Jamaat Tanzania, “A Brief History.” http://ahmadiyyatz.org/a-brief-history/.
11 Majlis Khuddam-ul-Ahmadiyya, South Africa. “About: What is the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association?,” http://khuddam.org.za/about.
12 The Moslem Outlook, 20 February 1926, http://www.wokingmuslim.org/work/s-africa-is-rev.htm and http://www.wokingmuslim.org/pers/headley.htm.
13 See http://www.irshad.org/exposed/fatwas/edesai.php and http://www.askimam.org/public/question_detail/30867 This question was posed on 14 October 2014.
17 Rasheed, “Consensus of the International Muslim Community on the Ahmadiyya Movement,” 15 February 2014. Auckland: At Tawqa Trust. http://www.masjidattaqwa.co.nz/ahmadiyya/ Interestingly, the journal which published the fatwa seems to have erases it from its website at www.iifa-aifi.org.
18 Interestingly, apart from Pakistan, where the Ahmaddiya started out, they are now to be found in at least four majority Muslim states–namely Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Indonesia. While Pakistan has banned Ahmadis from using the name Muslim, other states such as Egypt have not.
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Muhammed Haron is professor of Religious Studies at the University of Botswana and an Associate Researcher at the University of Stellenbosch. He is editor of University of Cape Town’s Annual Review of Islam in Africa and the Editor-in-Chief of Duke University’s online Research Africa Reviews. He co-edited Muslim Higher Education in Postcolonial Africa (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and co-edited Proceedings of the 2016 Islamic Civilization in Southern Africa Congress (Istanbul: IRCICA, 2018).