It’s a hot Sunday evening, and around 40 Muslims are getting ready to break their Ramadan fast inside the Baitul Hadi Masjid in Sangam Vihar. However, these 40 odd Muslims are forbidden from making the pilgrimage to Mecca, a religious requirement for every practising Muslim at least once in a lifetime. Why? Because they belong to the Ahmadi Muslim community. The Ahmadis are an Islamic sect regarded by orthodox Muslims as heretical since, like other Muslims, they don’t subscribe to the belief that Muhammad was the final prophet sent to guide mankind.
Instead, the Ahmadis believe that the founder of their faith – Mirza Ghulam Ahmad – was a true messiah and a prophet. From the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where Ahmadis have not been recognised as Muslims since 1974, the story of Ahmadis has been a story of a constant struggle to be recognised as true believers of Islam because of this belief. In Delhi, the Baitul Hadi Masjid is the only place that gives credence to this idea.
And India, with its 172 million strong Muslim population, has been one of the few countries where Ahmadis have felt secure practising their faith. For the first time in independent India, Ahmadis were even recognised officially as a sect in Islam by the 2011 Census. And even though the count identified only 119 members, it is estimated that there are roughly 1,00,000 Ahmadis living in India.
That is not to say that the community doesn’t face discrimination. Discrimination occurs but in subtle ways. For example, a Quran exhibition organised by the community in Delhi was called off in 2011 after protests by Ahmed Bukhari, the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid and an All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) member because they were not spreading the ‘correct’ message of Islam. Ahmadis, in fact, are not represented on the AIMPLB.
So what is life like for one of Islam’s most invisible and marginalised communities?
“According to the Muslims, Hindus are bad. But for them, Ahmadis are even worse than Hindus,” says Mohammad Anwer Raza, who converted from being a Sunni to an Ahmadi in 1984, despite the hostilities he witnessed against the community while growing up in Bhagalpur, Bihar.
Staying in a Muslim neighbourhood of about 10,000, Raza still remembers how miscreants would throw stones inside Ahmadi mosques when they organised religious events of their own.
“I particularly remember this incident when a stone thrown inside a mosque just missed my father” (His father converted in 1972), he says. The violence also impelled him to convert. “They (the Barelvi Sunni school) used to talk about hatred. The Ahmadiyya Jamaat always spoke about love.”
G Farhan Mubash also has memories of a time when Ahmadis were even denied drinking water in the locality he lived in Bhagalpur because of their identity. Talking about a particular incident, he said, “They (other Muslims) organised a jalsa (gathering) on Khatme Nubuwwat (anti-Ahmadiyya organisation). On the last day (of the congregation), they announced a social boycott of the Ahmadis. We were not allowed to take water from public water taps, we were not allowed to buy vegetables and groceries from the shops that were around. After this fatwa was announced, even our cousins stopped talking to us.”
Since he moved to Delhi, he says such discrimination has stopped. In Delhi, he says, he can openly talk about his faith and even has many Muslim friends. There are times when he feels an unspoken tension inhabiting certain conversations, but the sense of being the ‘other’ is definitely not as obvious nor the attacks as vicious or targeted, as say, in Pakistan.
Openly organising religious functions, however, poses problems. “If we go to a mosque like the Jama Masjid, and conduct some show or distribute leaflets, then there would be trouble… It would come from Muslims and no one else,” Shaikh Fatehuddin, the deputy-in-charge of the Baitul Hadi Masjid tells YKA.
The othering, however, seems to go both ways. And on their part, the Ahmadis too seem to have formed their own prejudices against ‘other’ Muslims. So Fatehuddin talks about how despite Muhammad’s emphasis on cleanliness, ‘Muslim areas like the Ajmer Sharif or Nizamuddin are dirty’.
And when it comes to questions related to politics or Islam, the Ahmadiyya views become even more divergent and contrarian compared to the mainstream narrative. Many (including Muslims) may have been raising questions about India’s polarised political climate and the role of the Modi government in it, but Fatehuddin believes that Narendra Modi deserves to be re-elected as the Prime Minister in 2019.
“Our government and Constitution gives every religion full freedom. It’s the good fortune of India, I believe, that you’ll find people believing in every religion… Many have hatred towards us but they cannot bring it out in the open because of this reason,” Fatehuddin says.
On the question of the controversy surrounding beef, Fatehuddin points out that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad had written that “even if Islam gives you the permission to eat such things (beef), you have to look at the sentiments of others. If because of this (beef consumption), the heart of a Sanatan Dharmi is pained, you should leave such things.”
When it comes to the Islamic faith, Mubash for example, is of the view that it is ‘understandable’ for non-Muslims to have questions regarding the Muslim faith, since violent acts of terrorism have been committed in its name. “It is incumbent on us to be put into scrutiny and answer those questions and clarify this is not what real Islam is,” he says.
The contrarian views not only gives an idea of what Ahmadis feel towards other Muslims but also the gratefulness they feel towards the Indian government for accepting them.
After all, the Baitul Hadi Masjid can at least be called a mosque in India. If it existed in Pakistan, it could legally only be called a ‘worship place’. Pakistani law doesn’t even give Ahmadis the right to say ‘Assalaam Alaikum’ (Peace be upon you), a holy greeting used by all Muslims.
For the Ahmadis, the struggle to be recognised as Muslims has stretched for over a century now. It is heartening to know that at least in the country of its birth, the community has found some acceptability.