Successor to the Promised Messiah
How are we to picture a "Caliph of the Promised Messiah" who is regarded as spiritual leader by millions of followers of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat (AMJ) worldwide? As a charismatic personality who with blazing words proclaims the message to the faithful, or more as a kind of remote saint who communicates with his disciples mostly in writing?
Both images would be wrong. Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, who was elected in London in 2003 as the fifth Khalifat ul-Masih ("Successor and Representative of the Promised Messiah") – for life, just like the others before him since 1908 – travels to Ahmadiyya events all over the globe.
He came for example to the 35th annual conference of German Ahmadis in Mannheim in June 2010 and held a speech about overcoming restlessness and achieving peace, reading the English words soberly and unemotionally from the printed page before him to an audience of some 30,000.
An agricultural economist by trade, the 59-year-old Punjab-born "Caliph of the Promised Messiah" first worked for a few years in the field of development aid in Ghana. He is great-grandson of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder and "Promised Messiah" of the Ahmadiyya, who declared in 1891 in the Indian town of Qadian that he was the both the second coming of Jesus and the Mahdi, an eschatological Islamic figure who, it is believed, will appear before the Last Judgement to fill the world with justice through his caliphate.
Problematic status of the prophet
For the majority of Muslims, Sunni and Shiite alike, it's not only Mirza Ghulam Ahmad's claim to embody the Messiah and Mahdi that is unacceptable, but most of all his supposed identity as a prophet. Because the Koran calls Muhammad "Seal of the Prophets", neither another prophet nor a further revelation can come after him.
Other Muslims regard as blasphemy the AMJ's explanation that, although the description in the Koran does mean that Muhammad is the best and final law-giving prophet, this does not rule out subsequent prophets. And particularly frowned upon is the argument made by the AMJ that anyone can become a prophet through spiritual growth.
Another major point of contention is Jesus. While most Muslims believe that Jesus did not die on the cross but rather ascended into heaven, the AMJ's followers view this as a contradiction of divine natural laws. They believe that Jesus wandered eastward and died a natural death in Kashmir at the age of 120.
Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was therefore for his followers not the second coming of Jesus in his physical form, but rather the fulfilment of his prophesied return, and that of other eschatological saviour figures, through a person thoroughly resembling him. This is why Ahmadis are not accepted as Muslim by many others of the faith.
Ahmadis see themselves however as the 'true' Muslims and hold the beliefs of non-Ahmadis to be false. At the same time, they emphasise that violence is utterly alien to Islam, that jihad, like the caliphate, is not of a political or worldly nature, but rather purely spiritual. Accordingly, a large banner at this year's conference proclaimed their recurring motto: "Love for All – Hatred for None".
In Pakistan, their country of origin, Ahmadis have been declared non-Muslims by law since 1974 and are banned from public service; they have a similar standing in Malaysia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
Since the Islamicization of Pakistan by General Zia ul-Haq (1977–1988) they are subject to criminal prosecution if they describe themselves as Muslims or conduct themselves as such in public. Assaults on Ahmadis have taken place time and again: most recently, 92 believers were murdered while at prayer in two mosques in Lahore on 28 May 2010.
The fact that members of the community can live out their faith and rites more freely in Europe and the USA than in many Arab countries, where they are often persecuted, is confirmed by Imam Abdul Basit Tariq from the Ahmadiyya mosque in Berlin-Heinersdorf: "The AMJ is persecuted in Islamic countries, and in Egypt and Saudi Arabia innocent Ahmadis, including women, have even been imprisoned. Ahmadis are also forbidden to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, because the Pakistani government declared them to be a non-Muslim minority in 1974. In 1984 the military dictator Zia ul-Haq banned all Ahmadiyya events and publications."
According to the imam, if Ahmadis reveal their religious identity they cannot obtain a visa from Saudi Arabia to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Renouncing pride, vanity and lies
Ahmadis strictly obey Islamic religious dictates. In their Friday sermons, broadcast in several languages by their own TV station, MTA, on their websites and in their writings, they repeatedly warn against polytheism and admonish the faithful to say their prayers and to observe the Islamic dress code, reminding both men and women to behave chastely at all times.
Members commit in a vow (bay'a) to obey ten commandments, or rules of conduct, such as praying, renouncing pride and vanity, and not telling lies
The vow also states that the faith and the cause of Islam should be more important to the believer than his own life and his children. One of those attending the annual conference, Muhammad L. explains: "The bay'a primarily functions as a vow for personal spiritual renewal, which should be seen in the context of the mystical tradition in Islam, to which the renunciation of worldly things is central."
He pointed out that this could be traced back to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad's intensive involvement in mysticism. The press spokesman for the AMJ, Hadayatullah Hübsch, likewise declared this vow to be a "spiritual act" with which to put oneself "at the service of humanity" and achieve the "liberation of humankind from sin".
This was also the spirit of one of the banners hanging in the women's tent: "The joy of life lies in not exceeding the bounds of morality". Another promises: "Hardship and exertion can improve a person's character."
The project "100 Mosques", financed by member donations toward the construction of 100 mosques in Germany, has caused an uproar in various German cities.
Hiltrud Schröter, for example, lecturer in the education department at the University of Frankfurt/Main, was one of the severest critics, referring to the Ahmadiyya as a "brainwashing sect".
In her book "Die Ahmadiyya-Bewegung im Islam" ("The Isamic Ahmadiyya Movement") (2002) she portrays the organisation as hostile to democracy and insinuates that its goal is clandestine Islamicization. On the Internet in particular, in so-called "Islam-critical" forums, similar fears have been voiced that the statements made by the AMJ with regard to tolerance and the separation of Church and State in the spirit of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad are based purely on strategic considerations. In reality, the sceptics say, the community is out to undermine German society.
Press spokesman Hübsch counters that the Jamaat has no interest whatsoever in exercising worldly power. He underscores that the Koran instead calls for a strict separation between politics and religion, just as Ahmadiyya caliphs have always maintained.
Head covering for men
The three-day conference in Germany described itself as a "festival of the love of God and his Holy Prophet Muhammad, of renouncing worldly pleasures and of earnest yet joyous devotion to the beauty of the spiritual world".
Imam Abdul Basit Tariq explains: "The annual conference is a purely religious event, the foundation stone of which was laid by God with his own hand. According to the prophecy, various nations will take part in this event. These events are a hallmark of brotherhood and our loving treatment of one another."
Among the various services at the conference, there were also some more profane offerings: a bazaar with Pakistani food and Pakistani clothing as well as pizza, kebabs and cola; free BMI measurement including advice in the women's area, and – in both areas – a tent with matchmaking services for those looking to marry.
Not only the food was Pakistani, but also the outfits worn by many of the participants. Most of the women wore colourful and richly ornamented salwar kameez, the traditional Pakistani garment, which consists of a long tunic with slits on the sides worn over trousers. Many of the men likewise wore a salwar kameez, adding a Pakistani head covering, because according to the precepts of the Ahmadiyya, not only women should cover their heads. "The Holy Prophet Muhammad taught that men, too, should dress discreetly and cover their hair when outside the home. He himself always wore a turban," say Ahmadiyya religious leaders.
From the Hippie movement to Ahmadiyya
The question-and-answer session on the second day of the event, geared mainly for German-speaking guests, was led by Hadayatullah Hübsch and Abdullah Uwe Wagishauser. Both are German converts who were active members of the extra-parliamentary opposition back in the late 1960s, involved, among other things, in Commune 1.
After finding his way to Ahmadiyya in India, Wagishauser has been chairman of the AMJ in Germany since 1984. Hübsch, in addition to his political activities in the 1960s, has published several volumes of poetry and articles in various newspapers; his jobs included a stint as commissioning editor for the Hessischer Rundfunk broadcasting network.
After suffering a series of LSD-related breakdowns, he had a visionary experience of God during a trip to Morocco and joined the AMJ in 1970. Today he is not only press spokesman for the AMJ in Germany, but also a preacher at the Ahmadiyya-run Nuur Mosque in Frankfurt.
The two men, in the meantime in their sixties, bear no traces today of their hippie past. Eloquently and in a friendly tone they explained what distinguishes the Ahmadis from other Muslims. Here both once again stressed the peaceful aspect of their religion, the rejection of any form of violence and their dissociation from radical Islamist groupings.
The annual conference was framed by a colour guard that was established back in 1939: the guard watches over both the black Ahmadiyya flag with its white minaret, full and crescent moons as well as the German flag.
"It is the responsibility of every Muslim to live at all times as a loyal and law-abiding citizen of his country", Mirza Masroor Ahmad declared at the opening of the Bait ul-Futuh Mosque in London in 2003. At this mosque, considered the biggest in Western Europe, the "Caliph of the Promised Messiah" regularly holds Friday sermons. When he's not away on one of his frequent trips, that is.
Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf and Leslie Tramontini
© Qantara.de 2010
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de
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