Many people have asked me in recent days if I was a Muslim given the fact that I used to belong to a sect known as Ahmadiyyat. In case you have not heard of Ahmadis before, they are a peaceful yet heavily persecuted community mostly originating from India and Pakistan. Muslims groups and governments have been persecuting and murdering Ahmadis for decades. The human rights violations continue to this day: last week in Pakistan, for example, a plan to murder many prominent Ahmadis was was brazenly announced in public and has yet to be hindered. You can read about this incident and some other recent occurrences here, here, and here.
That these are human rights violations, at least by Western standards, is beyond doubt. Their plight ought to be our fight. No one should suffer this kind of persecution for their beliefs, least of all peaceful people. It is a tragic irony that the one group of Muslims who denies physical Jihad is so regularly victim to it.
What is less clear to many is whether Ahmadiyyat is actually a sect within the fold of Islam. That is the topic of this brief investigation.
Defining Beliefs and Practices
By my reckoning, a person ought to be categorized into a religious group according to core beliefs and practices. In the case of traditional Islam, the core beliefs are the 6 articles of faith: tawheed, belief in the prophets, belief in the books, belief in the unseen (e.g. angels and jinn), belief in the day of judgment, and belief in the decree of Allah. The core practices are the 5 pillars: reciting the shahada, praying the salaat, paying the zakaat, fasting, and performing hajj.
Ahmadis hold to all 6 articles of faith and all 5 pillars. Some might argue that Ahmadis do not hold to the belief in the prophets or the recitation of the shahada the way orthodox Muslims do, but we will understand the falsity of their claims shortly. In sum, the core beliefs and practices of Ahmadis are those defined by Islamic origins and tradition. This is enough to classify Ahmadis as Muslims.
Another way to determine whether Ahmadis are Muslims is to refer to the Qur'an and ahadith. From the very beginning of the Qur'an, Muslims are defined by what they believe and do (2:3-4). The beliefs and actions listed are always roughly those that are found in the articles and pillars (in this case: belief in the unseen, performance of salaat, payment of zakaat, belief in the books, and belief in the judgment.) So it seems the Qur'an agrees with my system of classification: a person's religious affiliation is determined by their actions and beliefs.
Muhammad more explicitly defines what makes a Muslim in hadith #2526 in Sunan Abu Daud: a person who says "There is no God but Allah" is a Muslim, and no sin he commits can justify his excommunication. Clearly, by Muhammad's standards, Ahmadis are Muslims.
So What's the Problem?
The reason Ahmadis are considered non-Muslims by others is primarily due the doctrine of Khatam-an-nabiyeen, or the seal of prophethood. The Qur'an mentions in 33:40 that Muhammad is the khatam of the prophets. Orthodox Muslims take this to mean that no prophet will come after Muhammad. Ahmadis point out that all Muslims believe in the return of Jesus, so it cannot mean no prophet will come after Muhammad in an absolute sense. They say the word khatam allows for the interpretation that Muhammad's prophethood is the last "law-bearing" prophethood; in other words, prophets coming after him would have to be subordinate to him and teach in his way. This is how they justify their position that their founder and namesake, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet.
In addition to the primary disagreement over khatam-an-nabiyeen, Ahmad pointed to the second coming of Elijah in the form of John the Baptist and said that Jesus' return would also be in the form of another human. He then claimed to be that human. This flies in the face of orthodox Muslim eschatology.
Mirza Ghulam Ahmad's claims and life are an interesting study for another day. What's pertinent for now is this simple fact: orthodox Muslims accuse Ahmadis of being non-Muslim due to disagreements arising from peripheral doctrine. This is not enough to consider them non-Muslim.
It has been said that Ahmadiyyat is to Islam what Mormonism is to Christianity. As nice as Ahmadis are, and much as I'd like to see them wearing suits with helmets and riding bikes, this is wrong. The reason Mormonism falls outside of Christianity is because it contravenes a defining belief of Christianity: monotheism. Christianity is partially defined by, and has always taught, monotheism. Mormonism teaches that only God the Father should be worshiped, but that humans like you and me can become gods. In other words, Christians are monotheists and Mormons are henotheists.
The disparity between Ahmadiyyat and orthodox Islam is nothing like that; as above, the dispute is over peripheral doctrine. It is true that the implications of the dispute plays out powerfully in the realms of ijtihad and fiqh, but certainly less than the division among sunnis and shias.
Another reason why Ahmadis are so often declared non-Muslim is on account of misinformation and propaganda. Orthodox Muslim imams often tell their congregations that Ahmadis do not pray the salaat, or when they say the shahada, they mean something else. This is patently false, but it does generate fervent finger pointing in the West (and murders in the East).
A slightly more complex problem is that some Muslim apologists will accuse Ahmadis of certain positions and beliefs based on what Ahmad and his close followers said and published (specifically declarations of kufr and the like). The problem with this is that the average Ahmadi has never heard or been taught those beliefs. To call an Ahmadi a non-Muslim by saying he believes something he hasn't even heard of is ridiculous. Of course, even if he had heard of it and believed it, he still wouldn't be a non-Muslim.
Alternative Methods of Categorizing Religious Affiliation
The classification of people into a religion based on their core beliefs and practices is one system of classification (and I think it's the best system). Here are some alternatives and their flaws:
- A person is whatever he says he is: In other words, if a person says he's Muslim, then he's Muslim. There's a big problem with this. What if someone who worships Jesus, Buddha, and say... Alex Trebek, calls himself a "Muslim?" I would say he's wrong. His beliefs contradict the core teachings of Islam, and therefore he's extorting the title "Muslim." The same can be said for agnostic "Christians," atheist "Muslims", etc.
- A person's religious affiliation is declared by others: In other words, if the majority of followers consider you to be outside their fold, you cannot be a member of their religion. The problem with this (and its converse) is that the criteria of exclusion (or inclusion) might be highly subjective and temporal. In other words, if a large group of adherents does not like you for whatever reason, they can declare you outside their fold. If you were to go on practicing and believing the same things in spite of their declaration, I would argue that you still follow the same religion.
- A person's religion is defined by their birth. Some people actually argue that if you are born to Muslim parents, you are Muslim. Although this might be a valid argument for children who have not yet come to full awareness, it is no means to classify adults who may disagree with their parents' religion and might have abandoned its ways.
So if you're asking the question "Are Ahmadis Muslims?" you ought to ask yourself, what is the best way to classify a person's religion?
A Rose by Any Other Name Would Still Smell Muslim
Another issue to consider is why you're asking the question. If you are asking the question as a Christian who wishes to evangelise to Muslims, then you ought to consider the level of the dispute: it is a dispute over minor doctrine in Islam. This dispute in no way affects your ministry to Ahmadis as Muslims.
If you refer to the declaration of ulema and consensus of the ummah as your source of religious conclusions, then no amount of argumentation or explanation would convince you otherwise. There's no point in reading about the matter.
If you're a Muslim who's trying to discredit an ex-Muslim Christian and you really want to hinder his work by some means, well, then declaring him a non-Muslim is a good distraction tactic. You can even point to the opinions of orthodox Muslim scholars for added support; no one will notice the fact that such an appeal is a flawed method of religious classification, as explained by #2 above.
Ahmadis are Muslims. The vehement disagreement by orthodox Muslims has to do with peripheral doctrine, not defining beliefs or practices. It is a symptom of their readiness to label each other kafir at the drop of a hat.