If you matriculated from a Pakistani secondary school, and studied science, you may recall a particular name – Mohammad Abdus Salam. A theoretical physicist, in 1979 Salam became the first Muslim and the first Pakistani to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, for his contribution to the theory of electroweak unification (whatever that is). He died in England around 1996, and in respect of his wishes, his body was returned to Pakistan and buried at Bahisti Maqbara in Punjab, with tens of thousands of people coming together at his funeral prayers. Initially, the epitaph on his tomb read: First Muslim Nobel Laureate. Then, a local magistrate got a little frustrated, banged on his little podium with his little gavel, and the word ‘Muslim’ was erased, consequently and nonsensically leaving Salam immortalized as the ‘First Nobel Laureate’. However, the reasoning behind the judgement was by no means flawed, because you see, Professor Abdus Salam was an Ahmadi, a pious adherent of the Ahmadiyya faction of Islam, and in Pakistan, legally non-Muslim.
The status of Ahmadis in Pakistan is an exceptionally complicated predicament, one that involves questions of both fact and faith (and even humanity, but more on that later). At the outset, it is important for us to understand where the contention between Ahmadiyya and contemporary Islamic doctrine stems from, and how this translates to affect their legal/social standing.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in the latter part of the 19th Century during the British Raj. It is characteristically a reformist movement, intent on a revitalization of Islam by purging it of fanatical beliefs and reviving its true essence. Ahmadiyya beliefs share many similarities to Islam, including the fundamental belief in the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad. They also accept the Qur’an as their holy scripture, face the Kaaba during prayers and put confidence in the authenticity of the Hadiths. In short, there’s a good deal that is entirely similar. That brings us to the dissimilarities, and this is where things become misleadingly confusing. The major question mark hangs about the finality of Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan currently has two Ahmadiyya communities, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and the Lahore Ahmadi Movement. The former believe that Allah still sends new prophets now and then, although they must be subordinate to Muhammad, and are sometimes seen as reflections of Muhammad rather than independent prophets in their own right. The latter, like most Muslims, believe Prophet Muhammad to be the last and only law-giver. Moreover (and this is also a focal point of friction), Ahmadis believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is the incarnation of the prophesied Imam Mahdi (the awaited divine reformer of the Muslim Ummah, who is supposed to unite the divided Muslim community and lead them in a holy armageddon-ish war, thereby restoring Islam to its former glory), while most Muslims brand Mirza as an apostate and a false prophet, thereby condemning all of his adherents to the same pits of hell. Unfortunately, this philosophical tension is not satisfied by merely branding Ahmadis as heretics, and over the years, has developed into a deeply ingrained and standardized persecution.
The history of our country has borne silently witness to this long-standing victimization of the Ahmaddiya community, and unfortunately sanctioned vandalism (as in the case of Professor Abdus Salam) is an example of a less-harrying incident, for Ahmadis have been systematically bullied, intimidated, oppressed and even brutally murdered under the nose of a political regime that overtly curtails their civil and human liberties, thereby marginalizing them as the outcast ‘others’ in Pakistani society. In 1953, anti-Ahmadiyya riots were triggered in Lahore at the behest of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, with agitation on the street escalating to such a point that the then-Governor General imposed a 70-day-long martial law in the city in order to quell the violent disturbances, and eventually dismissed the government of the day. The rioters had demanded that Ahmadis be branded as non-Muslims and removed from public offices (lest they somehow taint the undiluted religiosity of the state), and although their demands were met with strict military force, the damage was done. Political Islam had bared its ugly head, cautioning the Pakistani leadership of its potential capabilities. No wonder that only next year, Muhammad Zafarullah Khan (an Ahmadi scholar and international jurist) gave into the anti-Ahmadiyya demands and resigned as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. 1974 saw another string of bloody protests, and Prime Minister Bhutto cracked under the pressure, bringing about a key legislative reform that would become the bane of the Ahmadiyya community: the Second Amendment to the 1973 Constitution. The amendment redefined a Muslim as a person who believes in the ‘absolute and unqualified’ finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad, effectively branding Ahmadiyya adherents as non-Muslim. Then came Zia-ul-Haq, and with him – Ordinance XX. The instrument made it illegal for Ahmadis to ‘pose as Muslims’, call their place of worship a masjid (mosque), perform the Muslim call of prayer (azaan), cite either the Qur’an or the Hadith, or even proselytize their beliefs in any way or form. In short, the everyday life of an Ahmadi suddenly became criminalized and in the subsequent four years, more than three thousand Ahmadis were charged with various offenses under the regulation.
Collectively, the Second Amendment and Ordinance XX have put in place an official state machinery that singles out the Ahmadiyya community and their practices, and implicitly endorses the rampant societal prejudice against Ahmadis, prejudice that often culminates into some bizarre notion of fanatical-mob-led-vigilante-justice, which remains underreported in mainstream Pakistani media, and neglected by law enforcement agencies. Therefore, when news surfaced of two Ahmadi men being stoned to death in Shab Qadar in 1995, the only one to pick it up was the UN Commission on Human Rights, which reported that not only did the police refrain from intervening at the time of incident, not one man was subsequently charged for the crime. Such incidents of persecution continue – at the hands of local mullah-led gangs (who take the shaming/penalizing of apostates or converts as a religious duty incumbent upon them), through the police (who are allegedly responsible for desecrating a large number of Ahmadi tombs engraved with Qur’anic verses) and even extremist terrorist organizations (such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan that happily undertook responsibility for carrying out the May 2010 attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, which ended up killing more than a hundred people and injuring scores more).
Pakistani Muslims are a bizarre, emotionally volatile creed of men (and women). I can understand why they would make it a vocal point to draw a distinction between themselves and Ahmadis, since any perceived or real challenge to the finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad is taken as a personal affront to Islam, an audacious questioning of divine truth. This is a mindset that often results from ultra-conservative interpretations of Islamic texts, and the only thing we can truly do to counter this, is pray (and fix our education system). What I fail to understand however, is why such sensibilities should be allowed the override the state apparatus and become a part of our legal machinery, so that you not only have a societal bias against an entire one million people in the country, but also a state-sponsored intolerance that leaves them without any protection whatsoever.
Unfortunately, this issue has long transcended the trivialities of freedom of religion, and now involves the greater question of a right to life (free from interference) in the first place. All the while, I find that ‘true’ and legally-privileged middle-class Muslims blame the Ahmadiyya faction (who they often call Qadiani – a pejorative term) for being unpatriotic, for having links with foreign embassies that speedily deliver them visas and all that crap. Well, to be honest, if I thought I was Muslim, and was told I couldn’t call myself so or even live like one, I would also brush up on my pardesi connections.
PS. I found something very interesting, which sheds a bit of light on ‘actual’ external influences regarding the treatment of the Ahmadiyya community. The riots in 1953 and 1974 were both spear-headed by Jamaat-e-Islami, especially its founder-cum-Sunni-theologian Abdul Ala Maududi, a man who would later be presented with the King Faisal International Award in 1979 for his services to Islam. This is the least of it. Mubashar Hasan, a close confidant of Prime Minister Bhutto, admitted that the Second Amendment resulted from what the government believed were King Faisal-backed religious elements in the National Assembly. Those royal Saudi bastards.