In our present age many talk about the clash of civilizations and in general the agitation against the Middle East is high. Still, we can find that the knowledge about Islam is very limited. Has it not been so, it would be impossible to find so many political currents gaining popularity, and not only in the West. Not as the current matters of mass migrational crises and growing militancy in so many parts of the world don’t pose rightful questions and worries. These fears exist even in the Middle East and in general in the Islamic world, as these matters concerns that part of the world as well, and present their own very existential dangers to the Muslim community. But it is more surprising to find how many research centers and so called scholarly communities, though mostly with very limited knowledge and real first-hand experience, support these political currents with great simplifications. These opinions usually spring from limited understandings of primarily sources, which might in some cases have real basis, but so many times fall far from the reality on the ground. Just as if the present Western societies would be characterized by simplistic comparison between the New Testament and some of the gruesome episodes of European history. And that is with availability of massive amount of studies and scientific progress, and with the huge amount of truly valuable research centers.
Therefore it is not surprising to see that there is almost no public knowledge about some of the more untraditional denominations, which sometimes present themselves as a form of Islam is one way or another, sometimes the only true form, while in other cases as entirely separate religions. And since they usually fall far from the most concerning phenomenons exclusively attached to Islam, like militancy or terrorism, they are neglected totally. That is again not really surprising, as many of these rather special denominations are almost absolutely unknown even in the Middle East, or surrounded by myths and accusations. Until some shocking or scandalous episode don’t cause controversy. Some of these examples constitute our topic for this week.
Muslim, but different.
It is generally known that Islam views itself as the continuation and the perfection of the major monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity, and its prophet, Muḥammad is held as the last and most perfect one in the long chain of prophets. After his death the community, which grew to be one of the largest religious community with all its forms in our days was lead by his successors, the Caliphs. Since the House of Othman was dethroned and the Caliphate abolished in 1924 it has no single leader, however. Yet, less known, but very much present, there is Caliphate and there is Caliph today, even thought his followers consider themselves as one natural denominations of Islam. And of course, here we don’t mean the leader of Dā‘iš, or other self proclaimed group leader.
Islam views, just like its forerunners, Judaism and Christianity that at the end of times a promised Messiah would come and bring about the new world. In Judaism that is the true Messiah, while in Christianity and even in Islam that would be Jesus Christ. It would also be surprising to find that some Muslims believe the promised Savior, the Mahdī, or the Jesus Christ not only has come, but even passed away, and the propagation of the last, most pristine form of the true faith has already begun.
As the completion of the long chain of prophets and divine revelations by God, Islam views itself on the same, only more perfect track as Judaism and Christianity, but holds no continuity with other, especially non-monotheistic religions. Yet again, some groups, while sometimes considering themselves as Muslim, believe continuity with practically all other religions and expand their held perfection to all of them.
If such notions are mentioned, even with specific references to such groups as the Aḥmadiyya, the Bābism, or the Bahā’iyya, these are dismissed as minor and insignificant groups. But their global presence is very much alive and sometimes can cause shock to the Middle East. Like as it happened in March 2017, when sudden revelations in Algeria caused huge debates, only to sink back to the obscurity from which it emerged.
Bābīs and Bahā’īs
Bābism and Bahā’ism are two very similar, but not completely identical versions of the same religious movement, largely sharing a similar history. The movement appeared in Iran in the middle of the nineteenth century. Iran was at that time was still emerging from disarray. Only a few decades before it was taken over by the Qāğār dynasty, with turmoils in the previous century after the collapse of the Ṣafavī state. The Qāğār dynasty’s rule, which never managed to develop to functioning centralized state and produced the most inefficient and corrupt rulers of Iran, was still fresh at the time when the Bābism appeared. And that probably played a major role in its rapid spread.
In 1844 in the busy trade center of Shiraz a young merchant, Sayyid ‘Alī Muḥammad Širāzī claimed himself to be a messenger of God, choosing the title “Bāb”. The term, literally meaning “Gate” has a special meaning in Shia Islam, as in many Shia groups the refers to forerunners of great prophets, like John the Baptist for Jesus. The Bāb claimed to have a divine mission by God warning that a new prophet would soon appear, and he is laying the ground for his mission, for he started to produce teaching. The new movement, which at that time was still clearly Islamic in nature and was spreading rapidly claimed the unity God, mankind and therefore all religions. He claimed himself to be the Hidden Imam in Shia faith, the one who will bring about the last days, which will be glorified with the appearance of the long awaited Mahdi. In 1848, while his following was rapidly growing, but largely in secrecy since at that time there was no clear distinction between them and ordinary Shia Muslims, he was arrested and trialed by both the state and the religious authorities. The clergy clearly renounced him as an apostate, but the state feared an uprising and therefore favored to renounce him as insane. In 1850 the grand vizier Mīrzā Taqī Hān Farāhānī, otherwise known as Amīr Kabīr, one of the greatest statesman of Iran ordered the execution of the Bāb. The reason was that large Bābī uprisings and assassination attempts were foiled, and the movement was found declining, yet still dangerous. The Bāb with a large number of his followers were executed in Tehran and massive purges started, which eventually resulted in a large scale secrecy within the movement. Most of the surviving members went into hiding, but continued to find followers in high places and planned later on a number of assassinations against the Persian kings and princes. But the movement did not die here.
The Bāb, while always claimed the the true savior would soon come, therefore there should be no authority after him, appointed one of his followers, Mīrzā Yaḥyā – later known as Ṣobḥ-e Azal – to lead the movement as a caretaker. He was, however, largely unpopular and unsuccessful, and the movement was to rejuvenate by another prominent follower of the Bāb. That person was Mīrzā Ḥussayn-‘Alī Nūrī, later known by his divine name, Bahā’u’llāh. The young merchant was of noble birth, whose father held prestigious government posts.
Bahā’u’llāh was an early follower of the Bāb and given his connections helped a lot to spread the mission. When Bābī uprisings started in 1848 he tried to pacify the movement, since the Bāb was in prison, but failed, and the following violence lead to the massive purges and executions. His noble birth saved him, however, and during the purges he was “only” imprisoned in Tehran in 1852, where he spent four moths in the “Siyāh Čāl”, the black pit. Later he claimed that it was here, where he received divine revelations that the promised prophet is him. A claim he hid even from his followers for long years. In 1853 he was exiled to Baghdad, under Ottoman sovereignty at the time, where he stayed until 1863. During that time he spent two years in rural Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, where he disguised himself as a monk, making contact with a number of Sufi orders, which might made serious impressions on him.
When he returned to Baghdad he took over the Bābī movement, which largely resettled there. Here he made his first public claims that he was the awaited Mahdi, or Jesus, who would bring about the unity of mankind and the end of times. In 1863 Ottoman authorities removed him from the border zone, fearing he would cause unrest, but also seeing a possible asset in him against Iran. He was moved to the Istanbul, but not cooperating he was exiled to Edirne, where he remained until 1868. Here he wrote extensively, most of the Bahá’í scripts originate from this era, and Bahā’u’llāh wrote a number of letters to heads of states to accept him as the new Messiah and give up former state methods for the good of humanity. He, however, largely seeing himself leading a new movement, made his claims not only to Muslims, but to all religions. Claiming that the promised savior of humanity is him, promised in all religions.
In 1868, right after the Bābī movement completely split between the two possible leaders, Bahā’u’llāh with his followers was exiled to Acre, close to modern day Haifa, where he spent the rest of his life, until he died in 1892. Here he wrote his most important book, al-Kitāb al-Aqdas, containing his rulings and later prophecies, and counts as a cornerstone of the religion.
The movement after him was carried on by his descendants until 1963, when the Universal House of Justice, the main center of the religion was built in Haifa. Since then the leaders are elected here. Haifa is still the spiritual center of the movement, which by now is largely held as a separate religion, but largely disappeared from the Middle East. However, it gained considerable following in the West, mostly in the United States. Their most important temple is here, in Illinois. It is still very actively promoting Bahā’u’llāh’s teaching, trying to gain a recognition by the tradition major religions as an equal. Presently their numbers are estimated between 7 and 10 million people, but they have active centers all around the world.
Though they are largely unknown in the West by the public, and even less in the Middle East, they made a lasting impression in Iran, where they are viewed as a dangerous, scheming and secretive movement, which actively tries to infiltrate the state and influence state affairs. This image is very vivid in Iran, since many leading members of the 1905 Constitutional Revolution were active Bābīs Or at least that is widely held. Being a Bābī in Iran was such a serious charge that caused many leading politicians to fall, up until the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This image is the main cause, though not completely unfounded given their history in Iran, that the Bahā’ī religion is banned in most Middle Eastern countries. And the suspicion usually grew, where Western government, where it is viewed as one of the many forms of religions, pressure Middle Eastern states to recognize them and lift sanctions against them.
Though no straight connection is proven between the Bahā’ī faith and the Aḥmadiyya Movement, given the similarities and the relatively same time it appeared, many Muslim scholars do draw equation between the two.
There is large obscurity still around this movement, which still claims itself to be a form of Islam, and for a number of reasons. Partially given their level of secrecy, their perceived influence and to the fact that they are particularly present in Africa, Pakistan, India and Indonesia, where Sufism have deep roots. And there is an Aḥmadiyya Sufi order in North and Middle Africa, which has nothing to do with this movement. The confusion is so vivid that for example, when a major scandal erupted in Algeria in 2017 around their activities and number of their members along with their local leader were arrested, a topic which will be elaborated on later, reporting on the matter even France 24 attached videos on the Sufi order, instead of the movement itself.
This movement, officially called al-Ğamā‘a al-Islāmiyya al-Aḥmadiyya, the Aḥmadiyya Muslim Community, was founded by Mīrzā Ġulām Aḥmad, and Indian Muslim in 1880’s. He was from the small town of Qādyān, for which the movement is still many times referred to as qādiyānī, though mostly by Muslims as a derogatory term. He was coming from an upper class Muslim family, not much after the famous Sepoy revolt in 1857, which left India to major turmoil and a struggle against the British rule. Mīrzā Ġulām’s views were largely affected by the Christian missionaries and Hindu revivalists at that time, which caused his claims to be universal. However, given the time period, it is not definitely refutable that there were Bābī, or Bahā’ī impressions as well.
By his own account Mīrzā Ġulām Aḥmad first received divine revelations of leadership and awakening in 1882, but it was in 1888, being already an acclaimed religious leader and reformist that he took allegiance from his followers. A practice still active today amongst the Aḥmadīs. The following year he wrote his first works and founded his own distinct movement. He claimed specifically that he was the promised Mahdi in Islam, the one who would usher in the end of times. Also that he is the reincarnation of Jesus and a number of prophets, including non-Abrahamic faiths, like Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. That is how he became Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster and so many other as well. Interestingly at that time a number of Christian missionaries in India laid similar or identical claims. Mīrzā Ġulām, however, stated that he is a Muslim, only a major reformer, the renewer of the faith, just like Muḥammad was in his own time. By his version he is to end the divide in Islam, bring it back to its original form as it was after the first four Caliph, after whom Islamic traditions are invalid. He claimed that the end of times arrived, all former doctrines are invalid, but Islamic practices are to be held. He started a major propagation that his form of Islam should be spread around the world, which, given he is the long promised last prophet, should achieve global unity.
He died in 1908 in Lahore. Strangely enough, after his death his followers chose a Caliph, just like after Muḥammad, and this practice goes on until today with their fifth Caliph, Mīrzā Masrūr Aḥmad. He lives in London now, which is the center of the movement. His official title is Halīfatu l-Masīḥ, follower of the Messiah, which term in Islam refers to Jesus Christ, but also Amīr al-Mu’minīn, commander of the believers, which is a distinctly Islamic ruler title. The community built a large city in modern day Pakistan, Rabwa, which along with Qādyān count to be the spiritual centers of the Aḥmadīs. They are largely held by Islamic scholars and authorities as infidels or heretics and therefore as non-Muslims. For which in a number of states they are banned, like in Pakistan, and banned from official performing annual pilgrimages to Mecca by Saudi authorities. That sort of persecution led them to leave their homeland and take their operational center to London.
The Aḥmadiyya still strongly claims itself to be an ordinary Sunni Muslim denomination. They are very active in proselytism and translation of the Quran and other Muslim scripts for a large number of languages. One of Western Europe’s biggest mosque is theirs in London. Given their incomes by the strongly emphasized donations from the followers they own a large number of papers and their own 4 satellite tv channels, Muslim Tv Ahmadiyya (MTA). All these activities run under the aš-Šarikatul l-Islāmiyya (Islamic Corporation), under the direct supervision of the Caliph and his representatives.
Their claims and practices, however, in a number of ways contradict the traditional forms of Islam. Thought they kept all Islamic practices from praying to fasting and to pilgrimage, they claim that Jesus was put on the cross, unlike in Islam, but not crucified like in Christianity, and lived a long life after that, moving to India, where he died. By the teaching Mīrzā Ġulām, and that claim later caused serious political controversy, the interpretation of jihad as a religious duty of self defense against oppression is forbidden, and Muslims in any case should obey the laws of the given state. Even in oppression. That notion was later seriously debated, as it was viewed as a tool to pacify Muslims under colonial rule. On religious term, however, they are usually refuted as heretics on the grounds that Mīrzā Ġulām claimed himself as the Mahdī, and also the return last savior of all religions. And it is indeed puzzling to see the movement as a conventional Islamic group, as they have their own Caliph, to whom official allegiance document exits and asked from the followers. And the Caliphate started in 1908, when the Ottoman rulers still held the official title of Caliph. And that is not disputed in Sunni Islam. The most obvious contradiction is, however, that if Mīrzā Ġulām was indeed the reincarnation of all the divine prophets, the Mahdī and the returned Jesus, how come the world still continues and the end of days hasn’t occurred yet. Mīrzā Ġulām produced a very extensive amount of written works, which were mostly not translated until the early 2000’s. And when they did that even caused many former leaders to abandon the movement. Because, as many Muslim scholars claimed before, many of these writing are either extremely vague and general, or in straight contradiction with Islamic teachings.
Political accusations usually focus on the secretive nature of the movement, their usually cordial ties with Western governments, which do actively endorse their activities. Equally suspicious is the fact that their Middle Eastern center is in Haifa, under Israeli supervision.
In general, however, out of the Indian Muslims the Aḥmadiyya was a largely unknown matter, until the major scandal in Algeria in 2017.
The Algerian scandal
In October 2016 the Algerian authorities arrested 20 Aḥmadis, which was was followed on 21 February 2017 by the arrest of the of the local President and the local Secretary-General of the community. For all later debate it is important to point out in advance that the Aḥmadī community did apply for legal status in Algeria, which was denied, therefore at the time of the arrest they enjoyed no legal status. The matter was louder in the West, as a number of NGOs, from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International protested, along with a number of media channels connected to the community, and it was even discussed in the European Parliament. Was that not suspicious enough, it probably did not help that the European MP, who raised the issue was the same Charles Tannock, who between 2006-2011 was the Vice-Chairman of the European Friends of Israel, and between 2014-2019 President of the European Parliament Friends of Kurdistan. Such attention to the arrest of some 270 members of an allegedly 2000 big, but unofficial Muslim organization in a country of 38 million people is in itself is very curious.
The real scandal, however, which was largely hidden and not reported about in the West, blew up in March 2017, when a documentary was aired about them on an Algerian channel. A local journalist, Salīm Ġarbī infiltrated the Aḥmadī community, made contact with a number of their leaders, and recorded every contact with them, from which he produced the documentary, the Secret Caliphate. He first posed as an advisor to the judiciary, than later he admitted to be a journalist, but all along posed to a devoted Aḥmadī. The local members always insisted secrecy, but they were very keen to enlist both government officials, and local journalists. As it turned out later, they especially favored local journalist, because they claimed to have enough international media influence, but very few internal to move the Algerian public. As it turned out the whole community was founded in Algeria only in 2006 by an Algerian residing in Germany, a so called Samīr Abū Haṭṭā, who died in 2013. By the time of the documentary their alleged number reached some 2000 members, which is an impressive increase. Ġarbī was specifically interested how could the community spread so fast, and seemingly all hidden from the authorities. As the local leader explained their first converts were members of the security apparatus from policemen to more higher ranking, and they reached up to advisors to the president. Therefore they obtained a level of official protection and the leadership is not concerned about them. As for the rapid growth, it was clarified that apart from their propagation of Islam, they fund a number of health facilities, hiding their true inclinations, and promise foreign scholarships to the families of the members, which they can proved through their international connections.
In the Algerian mindset these were shocking revelations, and clearly not indications of a genuine religious movement. But there was one detail, even more scandalous for the Algerian public. Aḥmadīs usually renounce any forms of holy war, even against invaders. As it turned out from the documentary, the leaders not only consider any resistance in Palestine against Israel as sin, already a scandal in the Algerian mindset, but also the Algerian revolution against the French. At that point it was that Ġarbī tried to get into contact with the Middle Eastern head of the community, Muḥammad aš-Šarīf ‘Awda, who later in a number of television programs defended the community as ordinary Muslims. Only then he learned that the Algerian leader, whom Ġarbī, who he regularly meets with is not Algerian, but a Canadian born Moroccan, who regularly visits the center Haifa.
Naturally all these news caused such a scandal in Algeria that the authorities had to react, and that is why the arrests commenced. But the official charges, which included blasphemy and illegal cooperation, also included that the community was amassing huge amount of money in charity, many times the donors not even knowing to whom they give their money, which is later being shipped out and spent on the media network. Which is in a form money-laundering, a charge strangely missing from practically all Western reports. Yet, the very charge appeared in Pakistan against the present Caliph, who squeezed huge sums from there, only to invest them in the West as family property.
The obscurity even grows by the fact that even though at that time it was a huge scandal, news practically died out on the matter since. Yet, in a region so full of coups and foreign conspiracies it is not surprising to see that many look suspiciously onto such groups, and don’t only see simple money embezzlers in them.
Some of these movements and their features in the religious sense might be ridiculed, and in strategic sense, especially the illusive nature of some of these groups might be viewed as alarming, but it should be understood that these are far from being unique cases. These groups, like many eccentric forms of Sufism, or the two previous claims of Mahdism, appeared on the fringes of the Islamic civilization. In space on the fault lines with other faiths, like Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Hinduism or Christianity, and in times, when rapid political developments prompted a new beginning. And given the cultural set in these places and times, syncretism was not a surprising choice. In time they subtly transformed and in our present globalist world managed to gain significant presence, while also holding on to some level of obscurity. But is that all surprising or unique to the Islamic civilization?
Just like the Bābism appeared in Iran under very controversial circumstances, the Aḥmadiyya began in India, both far from the traditional spiritual centers of Islam, but exposed to very different cultural settings. The same was the case for the Mormons, Jehova’s Witnesses, and so many pseudo-Christian revivalist movement, all coming from rural North-American conditions, so far away from the traditional Christian moral centers. They as well are usually refuted as non-Christians, or Christian heretics by the traditional churches, many times not even understanding them, yet they also many times present themselves not only as Christians, but as the only perfect form of Christianity. Sometimes showing very pleasing compassion for other, mostly older faiths, yet at the same time vitriolic disdain for the traditional forms of their own faiths. And these gain impressive following in Western societies. After all, it was not long ago that a Mormon candidate almost became the President of the United States, therefore one of the most powerful leaders of the world.
However, the Algerian experience with all its revelations is hugely important. If a group managed to infiltrate a society and gain following even among the security apparatus and intellectual and political leadership of the state, while staying almost completely hidden from the public eye, and all that only within a decade or so, then that is indeed a very serious matter. After all, it is the same experience the Turkish leadership claims to have with Fethullah Gülen and his group. Which originates from a completely different Islamic revivalist, or reformist movement, but the methods used are surprisingly similar. And the Algerian lesson should serve as a general message to all, not even within Muslim world, because the exact same methods and technics by certain pseudo-Christian groups are applied all over Europe. Even on its more traditional, still much less individualistic Eastern part, which still held on to much of its traditions.
Therefore, while the general disregard is understandable, it is worthwhile to have more knowledge about these seemingly small groups, which are in some cases not even that small anymore. And whose inclinations are rightly questioned, especially if they act in the name of the whole larger community.