The Ahmadiyya movement was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in the Punjab Province of British India in 1889, at a time of competition for converts among new Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Christian reform and missionary movements. Divisions among Sunni Muslims on appropriate responses following the failure of a widespread rebellion against the British in 1857 were reflected in the growth of new religious movements in the northwest, particularly at Deoband and Aligarh. Ghulam Ahmad claimed to be the recipient of esoteric spiritual knowledge transmitted to him through visions, which attracted attention in such a setting. Doctrinally, he aroused hostility among Sunnis mainly because of his own claim to prophethood. His definition of jihad, understood as the “cleansing of souls” rather than military struggle, was less controversial at a stage when most Muslims had accepted the practical necessity of acquiescence to British rule. Some have viewed the insights that drew disciples to him as sufistic in essence, though his denunciation of rivals caused detractors to question the spirituality of the movement.
In 1889, shortly after publishing his first book al-Barahin al-Ahmadiyya (Ahmadiyya proofs; 4 vols, 1880–1884), Ghulam Ahmad began to initiate disciples. Two years later, his claims that he was both masih (messiah) and Mahdi (rightly guided one), and subsequent claims to powers of prophethood caused outrage among Muslims, which was expressed in tracts and newspapers and in fatawa condemning him for denying the doctrine of khatm al-nabuwwa (finality of Muhammad's prophethood). Public controversies also marked relations with his non-Muslim rivals, notably the Hindu revivalist leaders of Arya Samaj, especially after he claimed to be an avatar of Krishna. Ghulam Ahmad also clashed with Protestant Christian missionaries in the Punjab, who objected to his view that he was the promised “second messiah” and that Jesus had died naturally in Kashmir. He cultivated good relations, however, with the British colonial authorities who appreciated his advocacy of loyalty to the Raj. His personal dynamism, including the fear he inspired through issuing death prophecies, was responsible for his notoriety among his Punjab enemies, but it also drew many initiates, mainly from Sunni Islam. Following his death, a disciple, Maulvi Nur alDin, became his khalifa (successor) from 1908 to 1914.
The movement took stronger institutional form on 27 December 1891, when Ghulam Ahmad called the first annual gathering at Qadiyan, which subsequently became the center for all Ahmadi activities. Newspapers were soon established, including al-Hakam (1897) and The Review of Religions (1902). Ghulam Ahmad directed that Ahmadis should demand separate categorization from Sunnis in the 1901 census, and that non-Ahmadi Muslims were kafirs (unbelievers), which intensified Sunni hostility. The community nevertheless prospered. Although scorned for their allegedly low social origins, many Ahmadis were of middle-class professional status (landowners, entrepreneurs, doctors, and lawyers). Those of lower origins took advantage of opportunities offered within the community to raise their educational level and social status. Many Ahmadi women were also well educated. By 1911, numbers rose to approximately nineteen thousand in Punjab, increasing to about twenty-nine thousand by 1921. Careful marriage arrangements and missionary activity helped increase the membership, which then spread outside of India, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia, through well-organized overseas missionary programs.
A split in 1914 divided the movement in the Punjab, but this did not obstruct progress. Those who remained at Qadiyan, and a new Lahore-based secessionary branch, continued to use similar missionary and disciplinary methods to consolidate their communities. Differing mainly on understandings of Ghulam Ahmad's status, the Qadiyanis retained the caliphal leadership, whose incumbents (the sons and grandsons of Ghulam Ahmad since 1914) have reinforced belief in the founder's prophetic claims. The Lahoris, organized as the Ahmadiyya Anjuman-e Ishaʿat-e Islam, regarded Ghulam Ahmad as the “mujaddid [reformer] of the fourteenth century [AH],” and are more similar to Sunni Muslims, aside from holding Ghulam Ahmad to have been the “promised messiah.” The crucial difference over prophethood has maintained the separate identities of the branches wherever Ahmadiyya has since spread, although missionary work among non-Muslims, especially overseas, tends to stress common ground in Islam. While Ghulam Ahmad's direct successors, notably his son, the second caliph Bashir al-Din Mahmud Ahmad together with Sir Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, have contributed the most influential publications to Qadiyani proselytism, the Lahoris received notable intellectual and missionary leadership from Maulana Muhammad ʿAli in the Punjab, and Khwaja Kamal al-Din in London.
During the period of overt nationalist struggle in India in the 1920s and 1930s some Lahoris began to support wider Indian-Muslim agendas. Even though Zafrullah Khan was made president of the Muslim League conference in 1931, most Qadiyanis maintained their strong pro-British stance while clashing verbally and violently with some militant Sunni movements, notably the Ahrars. Yet, both groups’ generally loyal stance ensured them considerable practical protection against possible recriminations from Muslims while colonial rule lasted.
Independence and partition brought new problems for both groups. When the Gurdaspur district was allotted to India, many Qadiyanis migrated to Pakistan where they established a new headquarters at Rabwa. Pakistan has not proved congenial to the interests of either branch, although Zafrullah Khan was made Pakistan foreign minister and others initially gained important posts in the civil service, army, and air force. Latent antagonism escalated during the constitution-making controversies of the late 1940s, coming to a head in 1953 when anti-Ahmadiyya riots, encouraged by ulema seeking the constitutional declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslims, resulted in many deaths. Although the government fell and a judicial inquiry condemned the attacks, continual pressure on the community culminated in the National Assembly's declaration of the Ahmadis as non-Muslim in 1974. The military rule of Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, which favored Islamization policies on a narrowly Sunni basis, proved disadvantageous to all minorities: His Ordinance XX of April 1984 prohibited Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslim. Subsequent prohibitions, notably on publishing and on calling their places of worship mosques, have severely restricted Ahmadi religious life in Pakistan. The head of the Rabwa community, the fourth khalifa Mirza Tahir Ahmad, migrated to London in the mid-1980s, and many South Asian Ahmadis have since settled outside the subcontinent. This strengthened the generally economically prosperous Ahmadi missionary communities of both branches, which were already established in many parts of Africa, in Fiji, and in Southeast Asia, as well as in North America and Europe. Although both branches report growth, there are no reliable statistics on numbers and distribution. Both branches continue to publish prolifically, but there has been little scholarly evaluation of academic and institutional developments for each branch, especially since most accounts use the general term Ahmadi to describe both branches.
SEE ALSO India; Pakistan.
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