Standing the Test of Time

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Comparing the works of Humphrey J. Fisher 

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 John H. Hanson

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Asif M Basit

Humphrey J Fisher wrote a book titled Ahmadiyyah: a study in contemporary Islam on the West African coast. It was published by the Oxford University Press, London in 1963. From an established scholar, one would expect a work of research that is unbiased. This work, unfortunately, seems full of bias and prejudice, which I yet see as unfounded. Fifty-five years on, it is awe-inspiring to see how time can lay prejudices and biases bare, even if they were wrapped in academic diction and style. Now, with demonstrative proof at hand, it is about time that the work of Humphrey J Fisher is called to the dock before the court of history.

Not much needs to be said about the book as the “Conclusion” at the end says a great deal about it. Fisher, concluding his research, asks a question, “Is it possible to estimate the future of Ahmadiyyah in West Africa?” He then goes on to answer it himself by stating, “The future is therefore not secure for Ahmadiyyah. A careful assessment of the realities should guide policy. It is exactly such an assessment which, by reason of their strong propagandist bias, Ahmadis are likely to have great difficulty in making. By too great a profusion of unjustified claims, the directors of Ahmadiyyah blind themselves to the true needs of their position, and weaken their argument in the minds of their hearers, for the West African is as shrewd as another in discerning disparity between vaunt and achievement.”

Before running a comparison between what Fisher predicted and what actually happened over the course of the last half-a-century, let us read how contemporary academia, who stood to uphold the values of academic research, viewed this work by Fisher. Joseph Schacht, the British-German professor of Islamic studies at Columbia University, reviewed the work for the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1964. I present here some passages from the two-column, one-page review:

“I have, however, some reservations to make… Firstly: Mr Fisher is, of course, aware of the differences which divide the two branches of the Ahmadiyya, the Qadian branch and the Lahore branch, but I do not find a clear distinction made in the book…

“I cannot accept some of Mr Fisher’s statements and assumptions, e.g. his assumption that the first aim of orthodox West African islam should be ‘gradual growth within a pagan setting’, as opposed to the ‘reforming energies’ of the Ahmadiyya (p. X); several of his explicit or implied assertions as to the teaching of orthodox Islam as opposed to the doctrine of the Ahmadiyya (pp. 35 ff); or his apparent lack of understanding of the issue involved in the teaching of the so-called Quranic People (p. 92)… 

“I also regret that the spread of Ahmadiyya is not set more against the background of the spread of ‘orthodox’ Islam; it comes as a surprise to read on p. 97, without having been prepared for it in any way, that at a certain, not clearly identified period, the Muslims constituted ‘already nearly half of the Lagos population’ (p. 97)…

“My third reservation concerns the validity of Mr Fisher’s method of collecting information on the spot. It appears from Mr Fisher’s account that the effort of the Ahmadiyya in Sierra Leone has been practically unsuccessful (pp. 121-5) and, we must infer from other passages in his book, rejected by orthodox Muslims; now imam Abd al-Karim Ghazali of Sierra Leone speaks highly of the Ahmadi mission which came to his country in 1945, whereas according to Mr Fisher, ‘it was about 1948 that Ahmadiyyah finally found a noticeable foothold in Freetown… but thus far progress has been very slow’. I merely state this difference. Appendix II (p. 191) is concerned with the Ahmadiyya in East Africa; in these two pages, too, I found a few inaccuracies, and I should have liked to see a reference to Damman’s paper on the Swahili translation of the Quran…”

Schacht’s review is remarkable as it was not only written by a contemporary of Fisher at around the same time as the book came out, but also for the fact that he seems to have first-hand knowledge of the situation in West Africa. He has brilliantly highlighted the discrepancies in Fisher’s account by way of knowledge, research and personal experience.

With five decades having passed since this work was published, Fisher’s claims regarding the life-expectancy of the Ahmadiyya Jamaat on the West African coast need to be assessed against tangible, demonstrative evidence. I wouldn’t want to counter bias with my own opinion as that too could be classed as a bias by many, so I present here a thoroughly researched work by an established academic of the Indiana University, Professor John H Hanson. His book, The Ahmadiyya in the Gold Coast is a marvellous piece of research, and the entirety of it is worth a read. Let’s see how Hanson’s work answers the question posed by Fisher.

Summing up the 287 pages of thorough research, Hanson opines:

“Maulvi Wahab [long-time serving President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Ghana] brought Ghanaian sensibilities to his leadership, such as mirroring the efforts of the early era and relying on lay missionaries: he sent them into regions of Ghana where no Ahmadiyya presence had been established, and they successfully increased membership significantly.” 

Hanson goes on to narrate how the Ahmadiyya in Ghana have “grasped the possibilities of new media and made inroads with broadcasts on Ghanaian public television”.

“Maulvi bin Salih [now President of the Ahmadiyya in Ghana], as regional missionary in the 1980s, spearheaded efforts to expand the movement into Burkina Faso…”

The in-depth analysis of the Ahmadiyya missionary activity has led Hanson to conclude that the Ahmadiyya missionary activity in Ghana “is rooted, as all Ahmadi missionary efforts have been from the start, on the active support and assistance of lay Ghanaian Ahmadi Muslims who volunteer time and make regular financial contributions to the Ahmadiyya.”

No work on the Ahmadiyya presence in West Africa today can be complete without acknowledging the contribution of the Ahmadiyya in the fields of education and public health. Hanson states:

“The provision of education remains a primary Ahmadiyya activity. The increasing number of residential Pakistani missionaries after the Second World War supported this effort, but over time Ghanaian Ahmadi Muslims have assumed positions at these schools as teachers and headmasters. Currently the Ahmadiyya runs 85 preschools, 124 primary schools, and 51 junior secondary schools in Ghana. These schools are open to students of all religious backgrounds. Operating in partnership with the Ghanaian government, many schools are in underserved rural areas.”

Hanson, very rightly so, gives credit of the current stature of Ghanaian branch of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat to “the ties Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the current successor, forged when he was a missionary in Ghana”.

The remarkable services of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat in public healthcare are duly credited by Hanson. “The Ahmadiyya added the provision of health care into its local operations. With funds from the global community, the Ahmadiyya in Ghana has established seven hospitals, all accredited by the Ghanian government. Most are staffed by Ahmadi medical missionaries from South Asia, but a few Ghanaian Muslim physicians have served, and scores more worked as other medical staff. Other initiatives of Ahmadiyya include homeopathic medicine; the movement opened a clinic in Kumasi, the first homeopathic clinic run by the Ahmadiyya anywhere in the world, to produce medicines and to train homeopathic doctors. Herbal medicine also is promoted by Ghanaian Ahmadi Muslims who produce and sell herbal compounds to address a range of illnesses. The combination of biomedical, homeopathic, and herbal approaches to healing is a distinctive medical presence and widens access to a broad range of users, both Ahmadi Muslims and others.”

Supported by a detailed analysis of the past and present of the Ahmadiyya in West Africa, first-hand experience and the evidence now available, Hanson responds to the prejudice of Fisher and his likes in a very appropriate manner. “The postwar expansion of Ahmadi missionaries from South Asia led Humphrey Fisher to stress external control of the movement in West Africa and J Spencer Trimingham to argue that the Ahmadiya was a ‘maritime implantation’ in West Africa. Both Trimingham and Fisher allowed the changes of the mid-twentieth century to obscure their view of African initiative in the movement’s genesis in the West Africa.”

If I was to be asked to give a one-liner about Hanson’s book, I would, fully agreeing, quote Hanson again:

“This book contends that the arrival and consolidation of the Ahmadiyya in the Gold Coast was a culmination of African efforts to establish a Muslim community.”

Staying within the scope of his title, Hanson’s magnificent work covers only Ghana. The story of the unequivocal growth of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat is equally inspiring in all of West Africa, as is in the rest of the world; it just needs to be told.

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