Proselytizing through Print: The Ahmadiyya from 1880-1908

Shazia Ahmad, School of Oriental and African Studies, 2010

The Ahmadiyya emerged in India in the late 19th century and is regarded today as one of the most controversial sects in Islam. To many Muslims, their belief in continuous prophecy after Muhammad places them outside the acceptable boundaries of Islam. In 1974 an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution defined them as non-Muslim. Since then, a number of legal innovations have been introduced to restrict the group from employing Islamic symbols and terminology, thus rendering their status as non-Muslim more obvious. Few historical studies[1] have been done on the Ahmadiyya, and historians remain baffled as to how a group that is regarded as so outside mainstream Islam attracted enough followers to remain viable until now.[2]

This paper sheds light on conversion to the Ahmadiyya sect during the lifetime of its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad between 1880 and 1908 through the use of vernacular newspapers and the publication of an English language journal Review of Religions, which started in 1902. Through these two outlets, the nascent sect drew attention to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s messianic claims in novel and innovative ways. Using the newspaper to prophesize the death of his opponents, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad gained attention in 1897 when he published an announcement that the assassination of Arya Samaj leader Lekh Ram fulfilled the prophecy he had published 10 years earlier. Thus, the obscure “Prophet of Kadian” became tied up with the most sensational news story of the day, bringing him fame (and notoriety).[3]

While the newspaper was a means of drawing followers from the native population in India, the Review of Religious was directed towards conversion of the British in India and Christians abroad. Through this medium, the group defended Islam against the challenges that Western scholarship posed. For example, articles written by the magazine’s editor include a defense of the reliability of prophetic traditions and criticism of the methodology employed by Islamic historians William Muir and A. Sprenger. Issues of the journal were then mailed to individuals who might benefit from learning about the “true” Islam that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad preached. According to Ahmadi sources, this is how the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy came to learn of the founder’s teachings.[4]

Analysis of the Ahmadiyya sect’s use of print for proselytizing suggests two levels of conversion: those who entered the fold because of the charisma and prophetic claims of its founder, and those for whom a rationalized defense against Western scholarship appealed. This suggests how the Ahmadiyya developed a complexity that makes it at once religious and sectarian, but also modern and influenced by Western ideas.

[1] Major studies on the Ahmadiyya are: Yohanan Friedmann, Prophecy Continuous: Aspects of Ahmadi Religious Thought and Its Medieval Background, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003; Spencer Lavan, The Ahmadiyah Movement: A History and Perspective, New Delhi: Manohar Book Service, 1974; H. A. Walter, The Religious Life of India: The Ahmadiya Movement, Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1918.

[2] See Warren Fusfeld’s untitled review in International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2 (May, 1992), pp. 347-148

[3] Bharat Sudhar, Lahore, 13t March 1897, L/R/5/181, IOL, pp. 180-209

[4] Review of Religions (November 2002), pp. 20-1