Ahmadis of Pakistan

Alternative names: Qadianis, Lahori group
Location: Pakistan, mainly Punjab and Sind
Population: 3-4 million
% of population: 3.1%-4.2%
Religion: Ahmadi
Language: Punjabi, Sindhi, Urdu

The Ahmadis are a Muslim sect which was founded in Qadian, Punjab, in the nineteenth century. Its founder was Mirza Ghirlam Ahmad, a Muslim who claimed prophetic status as the Mahdi or Messiah, in succession to Krishna, Jesus Christ and Mohammed. The Ahmadis accept four of the five basic principles of Islam, namely prayer five times a day, the Ramadan fast, the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Haj) and alms-giving. They do not accept the fifth principle, that of the Jihad or Holy War against non-believers. Many Muslims regard them as heretics and refuse to accept them as a legitimate part of Islam.

Today Ahmadis are found all over the world but the core community is in Pakistan: estimates vary from half a million to six million people out of a total population of over 96 million, but three million to four million is the most commonly accepted figure. During British rule of undivided India many were employed in government service and after partition many crossed the border from Indian Punjab into Muslim West Pakistan, where they continued to play a prominent part in the civil and diplomatic services and in industry and commerce.

Like many successful minorities the Ahmadis attracted hostility. It was felt by many that their influence in society was out of all proportion to their numbers and there was agitation calling for them to be declared non-Muslim on the grounds that they did not accept the principle of the Jihad. In 1953, several newspapers, which had allegedly been paid by conservative parties, waged a campaign of anti-Ahmadi sentiment culminating in riots in Lahore; however, the subversion involved was publicly exposed and for some years there was little overt hostility towards the Ahmadis.

In the election of 1970 the Ahmadis supported President Bhutto and Ahmadi members were returned to the National Assembly and the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab. Despite their influence in government affairs they were unable to prevent the government voting with the majority at the Islamic States Conference in 1974, when the Ahmadi community was formally declared non-Muslim and forbidden to perform the Haj Pilgrimage to Mecca. There was a wave of sectarian riots during April and May 1974 and President Bhutto agreed to a re-examination of the Ahmadis’ position. In September of that year the National Assembly adopted a constitutional amendment to the effect that those persons not believing in the absolute and unqualified finality of the prophethood of Mohammed were not Muslims under the law and would not be eligible to become president or prime minister or indeed to marry Muslims; further, the practice or propagation of such a heretical creed would

1Worldwide there are about 10 million Ahmadis, including 10,000 in the UK where the leader, Mirza Tahir, has been in exile. There is a growing Ahmadi community in the USA, especially among Black Americans.

be punishable by law. However the Ahmadis, who consider themselves to be faithful Muslims, continued in their beliefs.

After the overthrow of President Bhutto by General Zia ul-Haq, and the imposition of martial law in July 1977, pressure on the Ahmadi community increased. This was given institutional form in Ordinance No. 20 of 1984, which came into effect on April 26, 1984, and forbade Ahmadis from describing themselves as Muslims, from using any Islamic terminology to describe any of their buildings or from using the azan or public call to prayer. Ahmadis who were convicted of violating these prohibitions could be punished by fines or prison sentences of up to three years. Ahmadis were disenfranchized unless they agreed to register with the electoral authorities as non-Muslims. These restrictions resulted in the spiritual leader of the Ahmadi, Mirza Tahir, leaving Pakistan for London. There was also public violence against Ahmadis by extreme Muslim fundamentalists, both against property, such as mosques, and people; 10 leading Ahmadis were murdered between 1983 and 1985.

Martial law was lifted on December 30, 1985 but the Ordinance remained in force, becoming part of the Constitution of Pakistan. Therefore, arrests and detentions of Ahmadis who professed their faith or displayed the article of their faith, the Kalema, continued. According to Ahmadia sources, in the 18 months following the lifting of martial law 228 people were arrested under these provisions. In February 1986, after a violent attack on an Ahmadi mosque in Sahiwal, which resulted in the deaths of two people, a military court sentenced two Ahmadis to death; a similar death sentence was passed only weeks later on two Ahmadis in the town of Sukkar. These sentences aroused worldwide protests to the Pakistan government. In 1986 the punishment for making supposedly derogatory remarks about the prophet Mohammad was changed to include the death penalty, and this was seen as aimed especially at the Ahmadia community.

In August 1988, the sudden death of General Zia in an air crash completely altered the course of Pakistani politics and, after elections in November 1988, Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party took office. There were Ahmadi hopes that the discriminatory laws operating against them would be lifted; however to date this has not happened, although a general advance in human rights practice should give Ahmadis some protection against arbitrary arrest and the death penalty. Ahmadi prisoners were not among those amnestied after Bhutto’s election and in 1989 Ahmadis continued to be arrested and imprisoned as before. Nor does it appear that the government is committed to the repeal of the ordinance.

In the general elections of November 1988 the system of separate electorates for minority groups gave the Ahmadis one of the 10 seats reserved for minorities (although the Ahmadis are certainly greater in numbers than the Christians or Hindus who were each awarded four seats). This implies a degree of recognition of the Ahmadis as a separate minority group; however it also ensures that it is highly unlikely that any Ahmadi will ever reach high office as has happened in the past. Increasing ethnic violence and economic difficulties, however, may once again place the Ahmadi as convenient scapegoats, and their future status in Pakistan is problematic.

(See also Hindus of Pakistan; Baha’is of Iran in Middle East and North Africa)