By Aysha Khan | November 20, 2018
Hania Mansoor drove for more than 10 hours to catch a glimpse of her caliph.
As members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Michigan, the 23-year-old graduate student and her family have spent years listening to the live Friday sermons of His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad and writing letters to him asking for prayers. It wasn’t even the first time she had seen the fifth caliph, or khalifa—she’s met him in his office in London, where the Ahmadiyya movement’s international headquarters are located, and she’s seen him during his previous three U.S. trips.
But each encounter with her spiritual leader, she says, feels like the first. “For us, missing a few days of school or work is nothing compared to the chance to meet our beloved khalifa,” she said, standing outside of Bait-us-Samad mosque near Baltimore, Maryland. Just hours before, Masroor Ahmad had inaugurated the mosque with a formal opening ceremony before a crowd of around 1,000 of his followers. “God willing, this mosque will prove to be a symbol of peace, radiating nothing but love, compassion and brotherhood throughout the city and far beyond,” he told guests during his keynote speech at a reception downtown. “We strive for interfaith dialogue. We value and cherish our neighbors.”
Masroor Ahmad’s three-week U.S. tour, which ended November 5, gave him a chance to meet his American followers, particularly African American Ahmadis, new converts, and recently resettled refugees.
The 20,000-strong community of U.S. Ahmadi Muslims is made up largely of immigrants from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Americans may know them best as the minority Muslim group that hosts 9/11 blood drives annually and helped restore a Philadelphia-area Jewish graveyard that was vandalized last year, or perhaps as the sect that Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali belongs to.
But the reformist, mission-oriented denomination—founded in 1889 in India by Masroor Ahmad’s great-grandfather, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad—actually has much longer history in the United States. They helped lay the groundwork for much of the missionary work and Islamic movements that would later arise in the country, from Sunni Islam to the Nation of Islam. But sectarian divides have meant that Ahmadi missionaries’ contributions to the foundations of Islam in the United States, though increasingly the focus of scholarship by historians, are sidelined by most Muslim advocacy and religious organizations.
Founder Ghulam Ahmad, who in the nineteenth century was a leading defender of Islam in the face of defamation by British Christian missionaries, argued that Islamic scholars—the ulema class—had corrupted the faith. His calls for a revival of Islam through moral reform and non-violence gained him followers, but his claim to prophethood made him an enemy for much of the Muslim mainstream. Sunni and Shia leaders largely recognized his community as heterodox, both then and now.
In 1920, Ghulam Ahmad’s son, the second caliph, sent one of his followers, Mufti Muhammad Sadiq, to become the first Muslim missionary in the United States.* When Sadiq arrived in Philadelphia—a few miles from where, last month, Masroor Ahmad inaugurated the city’s first mosque built from the ground up—he was promptly detained because U.S. officials incorrectly assumed the dark-skinned, turbaned Indian man practiced polygamy. While in prison, he noted the racism faced by African Americans. Armed with that knowledge, he was able to successfully contrast what he saw as Christianity’s inherent white male supremacy versus Islam’s universalism and racial and gender egalitarianism. At least fifteen of the prisoners he had been detained with converted.
He became the first Muslim missionary to make an “explicit appeal to blacks based on the race-neutral ideals of Islam,” Sally Howell, University of Michigan’s director of the Center for Arab American Studies, noted in her dissertation. Sadiq became friendly with black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, and began preaching to and converting several Garveyites. During his three years in the U.S., he converted at least 700 Americans. (In a Friday sermon at the new Philadelphia mosque, Masroor Ahmad said the community estimates that that number was closer to five or six thousand.) By 1940, Ahmadis had converted some 10,000 Americans. These converts and early American Ahmadi leaders were largely African American, Brooklyn College English Professor Mustafa Bayoumi noted in an article in the Journal of Asian American Studies, though the community comprised black, brown, and white people in cities from the East Coast to the Midwest.
Sadiq also helped orchestrate campaigns to increase awareness about Islam in the West. Ahmadis wrote hundreds of letters to seminaries, universities, government leaders, journals, and newspapers, hoping to spread their message. The first prominent American convert to Islam, New Yorker Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb, began exchanging letters with Ghulam Ahmad, and Webb soon joined Sunni Islam and became a leading American Muslim spokesperson: At the first Parliament of World Religion in Chicago, he stood as the only representative for Islam, potentially exposing thousands more Westerners to the faith.
“That’s the untold story that historians and scholars are aware of, but is not part of American Muslims’ own public memory,” said Zareena Grewal, who teaches American and religious studies at Yale University, in an interview.
The influence of the Ahmadiyya movement stretches to Malcolm X. When Malcolm X and his friend Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis were incarcerated at Norfolk Prison Colony, it was an Ahmadi imam who visited them in prison and taught them both to pray in Arabic. Jarvis later wrote about it in his own memoir. Malcolm X never joined the denomination—he believed music was forbidden in Islam, and he was unimpressed with how many prominent black Ahmadis at the time, like multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef, were jazz musicians. Still, the movement’s proselytizing efforts had expanded to many urban centers like Boston, where Malcolm X found Islam, and the universalist Ahmadi vision of a multiracial Islam grew with it.
“In America, all Islamic and proto-Islamic development before 1930 was linked to the Ahmadiyya movement,” Fatima Fanusie, a historian for the Howard Thurman Historical Home, explained in an interview. “You simply cannot talk about these proto-Islamic groups without talking about the Ahmadi influence.”
Even the Moorish Science Temple and, later, the Nation of Islam may have taken inspiration in various forms from the Ahmadiyya. Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam adopted an Ahmadi translation of the Quran that was disparaged by Sunni orthodoxy. Fanusie’s dissertation research, one of the most in-depth scholarly examinations of the U.S. Ahmadiyya missionary project, found that Nation of Islam founder Wallace Fard Muhammad may have been affiliated with the Lahori Ahmadiyya branch. The scholar Michael Gomez has also documented evidence that the Moorish Science Temple founder Noble Drew Ali was approached by Ahmadi missionaries in the 1920s, and his organization of racial uplift took on Islamic influences. “The spread of proto-Islamic movements and Islamic teachings in general is just replete with examples like this,” Fanusie noted.
Sadiq and his fellow Ahmadi missionaries also found the United States to be fertile ground for proselytizing because locals had no knowledge of the stigma associated with the Ahmadiyya in Muslim-majority nations, especially in South Asia. From its inception until the present day, many mainstream Muslim leaders consider Ahmadis to be outside the fold of Islam. The theological reasons largely stem from a debate over the finality of the prophethood. Orthodox Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was the last sent by God, and that Jesus will descend bodily from the heavens as the promised messiah. He will then join the promised Mahdi, or redeemer of Islam, to bring the world under the fold of Islam.
Ahmadis believe Jesus survived crucifixion and traveled to India, where he continued his ministry and died a natural death. They accept Ghulam Ahmad, their founder, as both the metaphorical second coming of Jesus—the promised messiah—and the Mahdi in one. Since he followed Muhammad as a subordinate prophet, bringing no new law of his own, Ahmadis say their beliefs are consistent with the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood.
Non-Ahmadi Muslims, however, see their founder as one of the false prophets Muhammad warned about, and have branded Ahmadis as heretics. In Pakistan, the country with the largest population of Ahmadis, they are legally barred from calling themselves Muslims and are disproportionately affected by the country’s harsh blasphemy laws. That political discourse and theological debate has leaked into U.S. understandings of Ahmadis. In Virginia, the Sunni groups Idara Dawat-O-Irshad and the Khatme Nubuwwat Center (which translates to the finality of the prophethood) largely focus on “exposing” the Ahmadi movement as a deceptive, fraudulent and un-Islamic. This month they published an open letter to Masroor Ahmad, asking him to either “join the Muslim Ummah (community)” and admit he leads “a man-made cult and a passing lunacy, unjustly associated with Islam.”
These political and theological debates also go on to affect public memory of Islam in America. “In a moment when American Muslims are living with enormous amounts of xenophobia and they want to claim their deep roots in this country, you still are seeing this sectarian selectivity about the kinds of roots they want to claim,” Grewal said.
The scholarly discourse in the academy about Islam in America has increasingly focused on the Ahmadi role. “But that’s very different from American Muslim’s own narratives about their history, which the Ahmadiyya are absolutely erased from constantly,” Grewal said. Sadiq is rarely acknowledged as an important predecessor by Sunni scholars, she said, and academics sometimes replicate these Sunni-normative frameworks.
Sociologist Muhacit Bilici’s Finding Mecca in America tells a post-1965 story of Americanization that almost entirely skips over the Ahmadi influence. An exhibit on Islam in America at a New York museum included a poster on legendary jazz musician Yusuf Lateef, without mentioning that he was openly Ahmadi. And many imams and Islamic scholars typically ignore Sadiq and other early Ahmadis when discussing important early Muslim American figures.
But the deepest omission, scholars told me, is in the dissemination and engagement of scholarship on Ahmadis by Muslim activists and Islamic leaders. “I don’t think we can overemphasize the role that the Ahmadiyya played in the development of Islam in America,” Fanusie said. “I know this is a sensitive issue for Muslims but I just followed the thread.” And there was no mistaking that that thread led directly to Ghulam Ahmad and the community his followers created in the United States, she said.
His Holiness Masroor Ahmad gave a nod to this storied history during his Friday sermon at the new Ahmadiyya mosque in Philadelphia, mentioning by name several of the early local converts. He noted Ghulam Ahmad’s response at the time to Sadiq’s successes: “If this is the amount of people entering the fold, then within a few decades that figure could reach the hundreds of thousands.”
Their community fell far short of that target in the United States. “But now we have the opportunity to make this endeavor with resolve,” Masroor Ahmad told his followers.
Almost 100 years after Ahmadiyya Islam arrived on American shores, the community is revving up to reclaim its legacy of missionary zeal. “May this mosque be a milestone in spreading the true message of Islam in this area,” he prayed.
Aysha Khan is a journalist in Boston. She reports on American Muslims.
*Correction: This sentence has been updated to reflect the fact that it was Ghulam Ahmad’s son and not Ghulam Ahmad who sent Sadiq to the United States.