Chapter I - Mirza Ghulam Ahmad

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad1 Khan was born in the village of Qadian, Gurdaspur District, Panjab, on the eighteenth of June, 1839,2 the year marked by the death of Ranjit Singh, the great Sikh ruler and warrior. He boasted of a good Mughal ancestry, and hence bore the title, " Mirza," which is used to designate one who belongs to the Mughal race. His family emigrated from Central Asia to India in the sixteenth century, in the reign of Babar, and settled in the Panjab, where they were granted a large tract of land, about seventy miles from Lahore. The capital of this little State was known as Islampur, and is the modern Qadian. The family suffered persecution and expulsion in the early days of Sikh rule, but under Ranjit Singh the father of Ghulam Ahmad, Mirza Ghulam Murtaba, received back a portion of the property which had belonged to the family and returned to Qadian. Under the British Government, which succeeded to that of the Sikhs, Mirza Ghulam Murtaba set an example of loyalty to British rule, in the days of the great mutiny of 1857, to which his son has often referred with justifiable pride. The father was by profession a native physician of some learning, and desired that his son, who early showed an aptitude for study, should be well educated in accordance with the ideas and standards of the time. From his sixth to his tenth year he studied with a Persian tutor. From that time until he was seventeen an Arabic scholar and holy man was his instructor, and under his tuition he laid the foundation of that exceptional facility of expression in the Arabic language which was to serve him so well in later years. Some time after his seventeenth year his father secured for the studious, visionary lad employment in Government service, in a subordinate capacity, in the office of the Deputy Commissioner at Sialkot ; but a few years of this service sufficed to convince Mirza. Ghulam Murtaba that his son possessed no aptitude for business. He then endeavoured to induce him to study law, with a view to his becoming a pleader, but this the lad resolutely refused to do.

One fruit of his residence in Sialkot was an acquaintance which it yielded with some missionaries of the Church of Scotland, residing there, with whom he spent many hours in religious discussion. The importance for future Ahmadiya doctrine of this contact with Christian missionaries, during the formative years of Ahmad's life, it would be difficult to exaggerate.

After four years of this service he resigned and returned to Qadian, where he was desired by his father to assist the family in connection with the law-suits arising out of the estate. There also his entire lack of business acumen soon became evident. Some time before his father's death, in 1876, the efforts of the latter to assure to the young man some measure of worldly advancement had ceased, and he was left to his own devices. After his father died the slight constraint which the parental ambition may have exerted was removed, and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad lived quietly at Qadian, studying the Qur'an, the traditions and the commentators, and making himself somewhat familiar with the tenets of the different religions of the world. His hatred of the world grew upon him, and various eccentricities developed. His friendly biographer, Mi'raj-ud-Din, writing after his death, in 1908, tells of some of his personal peculiarities, developed in those early years of obscurity, such as his habit of eating bits of earth and his abnormal fondness for sweets. As he walked the streets, with his thoughts in the heavens and his pockets filled with sweets, the urchins of the street, aware of his weakness, would abstract the sweets and make off with them, while the erstwhile owner proceeded innocently on his way. In one instance mischievous youths stuffed a brick into the pocket where the sweets had been, and its presence was not discovered until the Mirza. Sahib lay down to sleep at night. At another time, writes a more recent biographer, Mirza Yakub Beg, he neglected to remove one of his shoes at night and slept unconscious of the fact until the morning, when, after a long search, he accidentally discovered it. On another occasion his clothes caught fire, and the fire was extinguished by a friend, while he himself remained oblivious of the danger. A story, which is told to illustrate both his detachment from worldly affairs and his recognition of the working of Divine Providence in all things, relates how on one occasion his little son, aged four (the present "Khalifa," Bashir-ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad), came into his room and burned all of his father's writings which he could discover. The Mirza Sahib paid no attention to what was happening, and when informed of it merely remarked, "There is some benefit from God in this." When told that a poor woman had stolen some rice from his kitchen, he is said to have replied, " Let us say nothing about it, but give her some more if she is in need of it." All his life he suffered from diabetes (polyuria) and vertigo. From his youth he had strange visions and dreams, which he interpreted himself, and in which he always figured in some pre-eminent capacity.

Meantime he was exercising and developing his ability as a writer of excellent Persian, Arabic and Urdu. In 1880 appeared the first two parts of his most celebrated work, the Barahin-i- Ahmadiya (Ahmadiya Proofs), and although in the exposition of Muslim doctrines contained therein there was already present the germ of the unique Ahmadiya teachings, which formed the basis of his later quarrels with orthodox Muslims, this book was quite universally acclaimed (in so far as it was read), throughout the Muhammadan world, as a work of power and originality.

The turning point in the career of the Mirza Sahib and the real beginning of the independent existence of the Ahmadiya movement occurred on the 4th of March, 1889, when he announced a divine revelation giving him the right to accept bai'dt (i.e., homage paid to a king or to a religious leader) from a disciple. There then came into existence a little group of individuals who accepted his guidance in all matters pertaining to the spiritual life. It was not until 1891, however, that Ahmad made the declaration which caused a sharp line of demarcation to be drawn between himself and the larger world of Islam. He then announced that he was both the promised Messiah and the Mahdi expected by Muslims, and sought to make clear his position in three books : — Fateh Islam, Tanzih-i-Maram and Izala-i-Auham. From that time forward his life was involved in bitter controversy with orthodox Muhammadans, Arya Samaj leaders and Christians. Through the activity of one of his most persistent enemies, Maulvi Muhammad Husain, formerly his friend and co-worker, a fatwa (legal pronouncement by a Muslim authority on canon law)3 was secured, bearing the confirmatory seals of many important mullahs throughout India, excommunicating Ahmad and his followers from Islam on account of heresy, and declaring that their destruction was thenceforth sanctioned in accordance with orthodox law.4 On his part, the Mirza Sahib now became very active and vocal in his denunciation of his enemies. Again and again he was haled into court — particularly in connection with his various prophecies of death or disgrace to be visited upon particular foes. In some cases, as will appear hereafter,5 these were so literally fulfilled as to cause strong suspicion that steps had been taken by Ahmad's followers, with or without his cognizance, to see that the prophecy should not fail of fulfilment.

A memorable hour in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad's life occurred in December, 1896, when he read a paper at the Conference of Religions in Lahore, entitled " The Sources of Divine Knowledge,"6 which gives an extensive summary of the Ahmadiya interpretation of the Qur'an and the Islamic theory of salvation.

From the year 1892, in addition to several vernacular periodicals, an English monthly magazine, The Review of Religions, was published by the sect in Qadian, whence it still issues. One of the cleverest of Ahmad's followers, Maulvi Muhammad Ali, M.A., LL.B., was called to the editorship of this periodical, and at one time he was assisted by Khwajah Kamal-ud-Din, of whom we shall have more to say further on.7 This paper was well named, for it has given its attention to a remarkably wide range of religions and to a great variety of subjects. Orthodox Hinduism, the Arya Samaj, the Brahma Samaj and Theosophy ; Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism ; Baha'ism, Christian Science and Christianity have all received attention, as well as Islam in all its ramifications, both ancient and modern, such as the Shl'ites, Ahl-i-Hadis,8  Kharijites,9  Sufis and such representative exponents of modern tendencies as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan10  and Syed Amir 'AH.11  In another chapter we shall deal with the Ahmadiya attitude toward Christianity. We would only pause here to comment on the alertness and diligence of the group of Ahmadiya leaders who have kept the rank and file of the movement informed of the currents of thought and life in present-day Christianity. The Review of Religions refers, for example, to Mormonism and Zionism, and to Professor George B. Foster's book, The Finality of the Christian Religion (Chicago, 1906), which involved him in a heresy trial in America ; to R. J. Campbell's New Theology, and the Keswick movement in England ; to the Johannine sect in Russia, the great revival in Wales and the World's Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910; to the modern critical school of theologians in Germany, to Modernism in the Roman Catholic Church in Italy, and to Christian missionary activity in Palestine, Japan, Iceland, South Africa, Egypt and other lands. Books by Western students of Islam such as Pfander, Hughes, Margoliouth, Zwemer, Gairdner, Snouck Hurgronje, Noldeke, E. G. Brown and Canon Sell receive due attention. The new Leyden Encyclopedia of Islam is heartily commended. There are frequent quotations from the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Encyclopedia Biblica and the Jewish Encyclopedia, and from such periodicals as The London Quarterly Review, The Contemporary Review, The Review of Reviews, The Westminister Review, The Hibbert Journal, The Biblical World, The East and the West, The Moslem World, and others too numerous to mention, including, of course, all of the important Christian missionary periodicals in India. It must be said, however, that the comments on the scattered quotations show a woful lack of balanced judgment and of any broad and fixed principles of scholarly criticism.

That Ahmad himself, like his most intelligent followers, kept abreast of the times to a considerable extent, and possessed at least a superficial knowledge of conditions in the religious world, his own articles and addresses give ample evidence. The pity was, and is, that with his learning and his cleverness in controversy there was not associated an honest and discriminating judgment, a passion for truth stretching beyond the sole confines of the Islam of his conception, and an irenic spirit which could disagree and dispute with others without becoming angrily uncharitable and unfair. Because of these weaknesses he cannot be considered seriously as a scholar in any field.

It is difficult for one who knows Ahmad only through his writings to appraise his character. That he was a man of simple habits and generous impulses all the evidence at our disposal would indicate. His courage in the face of bitter persecution, amounting to attempts at physical violence, is certainly commendable. Only a man of magnetic and pleasing personality could have attracted and held the friendship and loyalty of such numbers of men, of whom two, at least, died for their faith, in Afghanistan, in accordance with orthodox Musalman law. 1 Those older Ahmadis whom I have questioned as to their reasons for joining the movement, have most of them laid greater stress on the personal impression made upon them by the Mirza Sahib's forceful and winning personality than on the nature of his peculiar teachings. The real puzzle emerges in the case of Ahmad, as also of his great master, Muhammad, when we come to judge of his alleged revelations, particularly those relating to himself and his claims. We shall deal with these in detail in the next chapter. Here we are only interested in them as far as they relate to his character. Some have believed that one who could sincerely make such stupendous claims must have been mentally affected. On one occasion an Indian Christian teacher, named Daniel, visited Ahmad at Qadian, and left with him seven questions of which the first three, relating to the mental state of Ahmad, were as follows :12

  1. "Have you ever been affected with a brain disease? If so, what and when? Does its attack recur?
  2. "Did you begin to have revelations before you suffered from an attack of such disease or after that ? Have any of your relations ever made strange pretentions? If so, what and when?
  3. "Has the idea ever had access to your mind that your claims may be wrong ? If so, how was the doubt removed? Is it not possible that the doubt may be valid?"

The editor of Review of Religions (V, p. 150), it may be assumed with Ahmad's acquiescence, wrote in reply :

"The drift of the first two questions is that the revelations of the promised Messiah are due to dementia ; in other words, they are [not ?] revelations from God. . . . The diseases to which Mr. Daniel alludes were foretold by our Holy Prophet as being the signs of the promised Messiah." He then goes on to argue, by a somewhat forced interpretation, that a tradition had declared that the promised Messiah would make his appearance clad in garments dyed yellow,13  and that, since " there is a consensus of opinion among all interpreters of dreams that yellow garments signify disease," the reference is, of course, to Ahmad's two diseases, "syncope and polyuria." As far as there is any direct answer given here to Mr. Daniel's questions about the presence of mental irregularities in Ahmad, it would seem to be in the affirmative, although, of course, there was no intention on the part of the writer to imply that any physical and mental irregularities of the human medium could be held to have interfered with the validity of the divine revelation. On the contrary, in Muslim eyes it might even strengthen his claims to pre-eminence in spiritual rank.14  There seems to be a confusion here, however, between Mr. Daniel's allusion to brain disease and the Ahmadiya reference to syncope and polyuria, as being Ahmad's troubles, since actually those diseases do not affect the mind.

That he was neither insane nor a conscious imposter, but self-deluded, is the opinion of Dr. H. D. Griswold, of Lahore, who was personally acquainted with Ahmad, and of whose paper, on "The Messiah of Qadian," read before the Victoria Institute of Great Britain, the editor of the Review of Religions wrote," Excepting occasional remarks, which were necessary to make the paper fit for reading in a Christian meeting, the author has very clearly stated the necessary facts for forming a true idea of the Ahmadiya movement, and has taken immense pains to collect from different places all the arguments bearing on the subject and to collate them in order." Dr. Griswold, in his pamphlet, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Mehdi Messiah of Qadian,15 wrote : —

" The opinions on this point concerning him may be summed up under three judgments : (1) that he is a conscious deceiver, (2) that he is insane, (3) that he is self-deluded." After quoting judgments of others in favour of each of the first two alternatives, Dr. Griswold gives his own opinion as follows : —

" On the whole, however, it seems to me that the third judgment is the safest one, namely, that the Mirza Sahib is honest but self-deceived. So far as I am able to judge, his writings everywhere have the ring of sincerity. His persistency in affirming his claims in the face of the most intense and bitter opposition is magnificent. He is willing to suffer on behalf of his claims. And besides this, if, in the sober and matter-of-fact West, Dr. Dowie, of Chicago,16 can claim to be the promised Elijah, we ought not to be surprised if, in the warmer and more imaginative East, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, has claimed to be the Messiah. To both alike may be granted a measure of pity on the ground that they are probable victims of unconscious self-deception."

I am indebted to Professor D. B. Macdonald, of Hartford, U.S.A., for the suggestion here advanced as perhaps best accounting for Ahmad's claims and so-called revelations, viewed in the light of our modern knowledge of psychology. May not he, like his great leader, be best described as "a pathological case" ? Let me quote here a few passages from Professor Macdonald's chapter on "The Person and Life of Muhammad," in his Aspects of Islam,17 setting forth this theory of the nature of Muhammad's inspiration: — "As I have said before, the fundamental thing in him was that he was a pathological case. It is evident that from comparatively early days he had trances ; fell into fits in which he saw and heard strange things. There came to him voices, either apparently in a trance condition or when he was awake. Driven by fear for his soul, he had got into the habit of retiring into desert recesses, and there spending days in solitary prayer. So there the voices came to him ; there he even saw figures — vague, dim — and the fear fell upon him, What are they ? What is the matter with me ? Is this of God ? Or am I possessed by some spirit ? . . . Again he was not, as so many have thought, a schemer, a politician, a man who set out to unite Arabia and to become its head, and who at every move knew exactly what he was doing and why he did it. He was not a schemer ; he was very often the most impolitic of men. . . . So, then, I take it that the essential and characteristic elements in the prophetship, in the creed, in the personality, in the philosophy of Muhammad all lead us back to something unhealthy, ununified; but to something also in its earlier phases, and through the greater part of its life and growth, absolutely sincere — absolutely, entirely real."

That Ahmad also was to some extent sincere in his belief that his revelations (particularly the earlier ones which defined his unique office) came from some source that was external to his own mind all the evidence at our disposal would lead us to believe. His revelations for the most part came in brief, ejaculatory Arabic sentences.18 A few of the early ones, however, came in English, a language which Ahmad professed not to speak. Two instances of these English revelations, given by Mirza Yakub Beg, are the following : — " I shall help you : You have to go Amritsar "; ' He halts in the Zilla (township) Peshawar." It will be noticed that the English is imperfect.

That he later, like Muhammad (according to Professor Macdonald's theory) and many modern mediums, produced alleged revelations that had been deliberately forged, in the interests (in his case) of a growing ambition and an ill-disguised cupidity, a mass of reliable evidence compels us to believe.

All that we know of Ahmad's early years reveals in him the nervous, abstracted manner of the typical medium. As the revelations began to come — whether through automatic writing, or in a trance, or through some other means, we can only surmise — he was, let us say, profoundly moved by their mysterious nature and easily convinced of their having proceeded from a supernatural source. Thereupon he became, in his own eyes and in those of his followers, the "next step" in the divine scheme of progressive revelation, and possibly the inevitable centre of a proselytizing cult.

We can find many suggestive parallels of this mental and spiritual progression in the history of such modern mediums as D. D. Home and Rev. Stainton Moses, of a generation ago, and the late W. T. Stead and Elsa Barker in the past few years. In such cases it seems to be an easy, and indeed almost inevitable, thing for the controlling intelligence, whether it be " ibrail" (Gabriel) or " Imperator,"19  "Julia"20  or "X,"21  to convince the medium that the source of the communications is wholly external to the personality of the "sensitive," and that the medium has been chosen to be the vehicle of a divinely inspired revelation.22 

The last ten years of Ahmad's life were increasingly shadowed by physical weakness and characterised by waning aggressiveness, as he realised that he was drawing near to the end. In December, 1905, he published his " Will,"23 in which he wrote, "As Almighty God has informed me, in various revelations following one another, that the time of my death is near, and the revelations in that respect have been so many and so consecutive that they have shaken my existence from the foundations and made this life quite indifferent to me, I have, therefore, thought it proper that I should write down for my friends, and for such other persons as can benefit from my teachings, some words of advice." As will appear in Chapter VI, the content of this " Will " was destined to prove a source of controversy and division in the Ahmadlya community in years to come.

A few days before his death he wrote a paper called "The Message of Peace,"24  which he intended should be read in his presence at a religious conference in University Hall, Lahore, in May, 1908. While, even here, he could not refrain from repeating some of his customary carping criticism of Christianity and Hinduism, he nevertheless comes nearer than he had probably ever done before to exemplifying the principle which in this paper he lays down :

"That religion does not deserve the name of religion which does not inculcate broad sympathy with humanity in general, nor does that person deserve to be called a human being who has not a sympathetic soul within him."

His death, caused by intestinal trouble, occurred very suddenly, on May 26th, 1908, in Lahore, whither he had come to attend the conference above mentioned, and to secure some medical assistance for his wife. His enemies made much of the fact that, with all his boasted prophetic knowledge, he should not have foreseen the date of his own death, which, had it accorded with his wishes and plans, would certainly have occurred in Qadian, and at a later period. "The Message of Peace" was read at the conference by Khwajah Kamal-ud-Din, just after the author's death. Ahmad was buried in an unpretentious tomb in Qadian, which had been previously prepared.

1 The sources from which the facts regarding Mirza Ghulam Ahmad's life have been culled are conversations with his followers and with Christian missionaries and others who were personally acquainted with him, a brief biography in Urdu by Mi'raj-ud-Din, prefixed to the first edition of the Bardhin-i-Ahmadiya, a recent biography in Urdu, of which all the parts have not yet appeared, by Mirza Yakub Beg (Qadian, 1916), and a memorial article in The Review of Religions for June, 1908 (p. 171)

2 Recent references to the date of Ahmad's birth place it vaguely " some time in 1836 or 1837 " (Review of Religions, XV, p. 26), but the date given here is the one generally accepted by his biographers.

3 Cf. p. 69, Note 1.

4 Cf. p. 74, Note 1.

5 Cf. p. 43.

6 Later published, with the title, The Teachings of Islam, by Luzac & Co., London, 1910.

7 Cf. p. 113ff.

8 Literally, " People of Tradition," a name used in India by the puritanical sect of Wahhabites, and in particular referring to a group of about forty thousand of these Muslim purists in the Panjab.

9 The adherents of this sect of Muslims, neither Sunnis nor Shi'ites, respect the first three Khalifas but reject and abuse 'Ali.

10 Cf. p. 66, Note 1.

11 Cf. p. 65, Note 3.

12 Review of Religions, II, p. 405. See pp. 70, 71.

13 In the resume of Muslim traditions regarding the second coming of Christ contained in the Mukaddima of Ibn Khaldun, there is an obscure reference to the expected one descending at Damascus, "between two yellow robes," which may be what Ahmad had in mind. See De Slane. Ed., Quatremhe, Vol. II, p. 170.

14 For the connection between idiocy and sainthood in Islam, see Macdonald, The Religious Attitude and Life in Islam, Chicago, 1909, pp. 103, 104.

15 Published at Ludhiana, Panjab, in 1902.

16 Cf. p. 45, Note 1.

17 Macmillan, New York, p. 63ff.

18 See the translations of several of these revelations on p. 33.

19 Cf. M. A. Oxon (Rev. W. Stainton Moses): Spirit Teachings, London Spiritualist Alliance, 1894.

20 Cf. W. T. Stead: "After Death— A Personal Narrative," Review of Reviews, London, 1912.

21 Cf. Elsa Barker: Letters from a Living Dead Man. Wm. Rider & Sons, London, 1914.

22 A later example of this tendency is seen in the case of Sir Oliver Lodge's Raymond, which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has called "A new revelation of God's dealing with man." See Appendix I for quotations from a recent article in Review of Religions, in which further unconscious evidences are given of the mediumistic character of Ahmad's revelation.

23 Obtainable in pamphlet form from the Qadian headquarters.

24 This can be obtained from Ahmadlya headquarters at Qadian. It appeared in the Review of Religions for July, 1908 (VII, p. 7). Cf. pp. 50, 51.