Tracing the roots of early Islam Ahmadiyyat in the USA
Asif M Basit, London, UK
The Historic Significance of Mufti Sadiq’sra Confinement
The sacrifice that Hazrat Mufti Muhammad Sadiqra offered, by going through the ordeal of confinement in the Philadelphia Detention House in Gloucester, New Jersey, was not something that remained confined to his person. It was a sacrifice of greater historic value.
It seems to be the first ever instance when the American authorities explicitly showed a gross misunderstanding of Islamic doctrine by not only misinterpreting it, but also by passing a bill based on this gross misunderstanding (The Cambridge Companion to American Islam, p. 208).As stated above, the Immigration Act of 1870 clearly seems to take polygamy as a commandment of Islam, hence not allowing any Muslim to step on the soils of America. Mufti Sadiqra, by appealing against the deportation orders of the immigration authorities and by presenting his case before the American federal Government, became the first Muslim to initiate a campaign to remove Western misconceptions about Islam. What Mufti Sadiqra performed before the American government was a legacy he had inherited from the Holy Founder of Ahmadiyyat, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas of Qadian: the legacy of non-violent jihad (inner struggle) by way of reasoning and logical discourse.
This legacy of the Promised Messiahas continues to this day with his successor, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaa, Supreme Head of the Worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who travels throughout the world to remove misconceptions and to show the true and beautiful teachings of Islam.
Another factor that made this confinement historically important, was that this sacrifice of an Ahmadi missionary opened the otherwise closed gates of America for the active proselytisation of the faith of Islam.
There existed a strong discrimination against Indian and Muslim immigrants in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. The American immigration authorities had refused entry to many Muslim immigrants on the grounds that “they were neither Caucasian nor African.” (Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience, p. 117.) The racially oriented uprisings and riots of 1907 on the West Coast targeted immigrants from the British Indian Punjab, whom the local citizens saw as economic immigrants. This class of Punjabi immigrants included Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, but the American eye branded them all as Hindus for the turbans they wore on their heads. Agnes Foster Buchanan, writing in The Overland Monthly saw this as “the propitious moment for the State Department to […] tell our brothers of the East that while the earth is large enough for us all, there is no part of it that will comfortably accommodate both branches of the Aryan family.” (Agnes Foster Buchanan, The Overland Monthly, California, April 1908)
There existed a deep-rooted hostility in America against people of Asian origin, which laid the basis for the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1917, declaring an “Asiatic Barred Zone.” This zone included Arabia, India, Afghanistan, the East Indies, Indochina and all other Asian nations. The Johnson Act set up strictly limited quotas for Asian immigrants and in 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act set up a “national origins system” which was extremely discriminating as it virtually blocked all ways for non-European immigrants (Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience, p. 117). Mufti Sadiq’sra appeal to the higher immigration tribunal and the federal authorities of America, thus, played a pivotal role in opening up and paving the way for people of “other-than-white” ethnic origins in general, and for the peaceful teachings of Islam in particular, to reach America. (The definition of white given by American law was only European in the aforementioned laws.)
Sowing the Seed of Muslim Identity
All historians agree that Mufti Sadiq’sra steps on American soil served as the dawn of an Islamic identity in the American nation (The Cambridge Companion to American Islam, p. 141 & 208). Yvonne Haddad, with her co-author Jane Smith, declares that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community was “unquestionably the most influential group in African American Islam.” (The Oxford Handbook of American Islam, p. 146.) The aspect of Mufti Sadiq’sra approach that attracted the Americans, especially the African Americans, was his openness to people of all ethnic origins (Ibid.).Richard Brent Turner very justifiably sees the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as “unquestionably one of the most significant movements in the history of Islam in the United States in the twentieth century, providing as it did the first multi-racial model for American Islam.” (Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience, pp. 109-110.) Mufti Sadiqra highlighted the anti-racist teachings of Islam, that became highly attractive to African Americans in particular. (The Cambridge Companion to American Islam, p. 53)
Mufti Sadiqra, under the guidance of the second Khalifa, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra, proactively “established mosques and reading rooms, translated the Quran into English, and countered what they saw as the distortions of Islam by the media.” (The Oxford Handbook of American Islam, p. 146.) Mufti Sadiqra “missionised through lecturing and writing. By May 1920, he had contributed twenty articles on Islam to various American periodicals and newspapers, among them The New York Times. During his first year of missionary work in the United States, he delivered fifty public lectures on a variety of subjects in American cities, including Chicago, New York, Detroit and Grand Haven, Michigan.”(Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience, p. 118.) Historians of Islam in America all admire his intellectual, literary and missionary capabilities. Richard Brent Turner describes him as a “learned man” who “was a graduate of the University of London, a philologist of international repute, and an expert in Arabic and Hebrew whose work had been published in [The] Philomath.” (Ibid.)
Nabil Echchaibi draws our attention to a very important aspect of Mufti Sadiq’sra contribution, in emphasising a Muslim identity in America. He initiated the publication of The Moslem Sunrise (later spelt The Muslim Sunrise and is still in print in the USA) – the first English-language Muslim newspaper to be published in America (The Cambridge Companion to American Islam, p. 125). This historic journal “featured articles on the missionary work of the Ahmadiyya leaders, introduced new Muslim converts to the proper performance of religious rituals, and defended Islam against misrepresentation in the American press.” (Ibid.) Readers will agree that this publication was a great milestone for Islam in America. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has historically always been at the forefront of demystifying myths and misconceptions concerning Islam in the West. Under the leadership of Khalifatul Masih V, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaa, Ahmadiyyat is the torchbearer of actively taking the true and peaceful message of Islam to the corners of the earth, primarily through the teachings of the Holy Quran.(The Oxford Handbook of American Islam, p. 144)
The Ahmadiyya Tradition of Winning Hearts
The Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, from its very inception, laid emphasis upon the fact that Islam was meant to be spread by winning hearts not territories. He stressed that territories had been won alongside hearts in the early phase of Islamic glory, but that was a by-product of the political state-of-affairs of the world at that time. The second phase of Islamic glory, Hazrat Ahmadas taught, was to dawn upon the world through winning hearts and not political-geographic territories. (The British Government and Jihad by Hazrat Ahmadas sheds light on the true Islamic notion of jihad.)
This teaching has always been at the heart of Ahmadiyya missionising. Mufti Sadiqra had set foot in America with the same philosophy. Sally Howell gave a very befitting description of Mufti Sadiq’sra efforts for propagating the message of Islam to the American public. She describes him as “an energetic agent of Islam in the United States, speaking at whatever public engagements he could arrange, writing frequently to local newspapers, and launching The Moslem Sunrise, the newsletter of the Ahmadiyya Movement in America.” (The Cambridge Companion to American Islam, p. 52)
Mufti Sadiqra, and his co-missionaries, had “attracted more than one thousand converts, most of them African Americans in cities such as Chicago and Detroit.”(Ibid., p. 88.) Historians credit the Ahmadiyya contribution to Islam in America by acknowledging that it was Mufti Sadiqra who “established the first, and in some cases, the only, centres for Islamic gatherings.” (Ibid., p. 141.) In 1923 alone, Mufti Sadiqra “gave five lectures at the UNIA [Universal Negro Improvement Association] meetings in Detroit and managed to convert forty Garveyites to his faith.” (Ibid.)
Sylviane A Diouf credits the efforts of Mufti Sadiqra by crediting the fact that the Ahmadiyya Movement provided “Qurans and other Islamic literature in English.” (The Oxford Handbook of American Islam, p. 23)
Mufti Sadiq’sra contribution to the propagation of Islam in the United States laid the foundation for the Islamic identity taught, practised and upheld by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community; the identity of Islam as a winner of hearts through the Ahmadiyya motto of “Love for All, Hatred for None”.
A Prophecy Fulfilled
The services that Mufti Sadiqra carried out for the cause of Islam resulted in the fulfilment of a prophecy. Mufti Sadiqra always had an ardent desire to acquire knowledge. While seeking a Bachelor of Arts degree, he had partially qualified, with one examination remaining. He asked the permission of the Promised Messiahas to travel to Lahore to sit the examination. The Promised Messiahas replied, “You have already resigned from state service, why should you seek further qualifications? You do not need to attempt for this examination, degrees will themselves come to you.” (Al Fazl, 4 January 1944, reporting on a speech by Mufti Sadiqra on the Annual Convention of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community held in Rabwah on 26 December 1943.)
Acknowledging his aforementioned qualifications and the papers he read before various learned societies and the articles he wrote for a range of journals and newspapers, he was awarded honorary degrees by various British and American degree-awarding bodies and universities of his time. Mufti Sadiqra “was awarded degrees from the College of Divine Metaphysics, a New Thought-oriented institution, and the Oriental University, which was affiliated with the spiritualist Universal Theomonistic Association.” (Founded by Dr Joseph Perry Green in 1918. Dr Green was a pioneer of The Metaphysical Movement in America. He is amongst the signatories on Mufti Sadiq’sra degree. The college has ever since remained functional.) (The Cambridge Companion to American Islam, p. 87.) He was also awarded a degree by Lincoln-Jefferson University, Chicago, in recognition of his work. This university was founded on the principle that educational qualifications should be made accessible to those who had a desire to learn but could not afford, due to lifestyle constraints or lack of finances, to join established resident universities. (Lincoln-Jefferson University Bulletin, 1922-1925, Vol. V, No. 1b. British Library Shelf Mark R.ac.2691.ek)
Lincoln-Jefferson University would also award honorary qualifications to individuals of the general public who had achieved outstanding performance in their disciplines of knowledge.(Ibid.)
The prophecy of Hazrat Ahmadas, the Promised Messiah, was thus fulfilled.
The Saga of Jazz Musicians
The arrival of Mufti Sadiqra in America “coincided with the height of the search by African Americans for a new identity in the American context.” (The Oxford Handbook of American Islam, p. 144.) As mentioned above, the Islam brought to American soil by the West African slaves had become extinct with their deaths. Their descendants were left without Islam but with Islamic impressions on their very troubled lives, where an identity crisis plagued them. The Western African slaves had called out Adhan (Islamic call to prayer) and sang anthems while at work in the fields. Their descendants carried out this tradition with some similarities and more variations. This musical impression left by the West Africans modified and evolved into a musical genre known as the blues. As more and more African Americans migrated from rural areas to cities, this genre gained popularity and led the African-American musicians to create bands and try their luck in other genres. This popularity created more forms of music that have their roots in the African melancholy songs of the long-dead African slaves.
Some jazz musicians of international renown, like the Grammy Award winner Dr Yusef Abdul-Lateef, joined the Ahmadiyya Community. This generation of African Americans had inherited the artistic rhythm of the adhan (call to prayer) and they replaced the recitation of the Holy Quran with music. This nation found its lost soul in Ahmadiyyat, which brought back the true, original, artistic beauties of Islam. All sections of American society were deeply moved by the arrival of Islam, musicologists being no exception.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has the honour and privilege to have taken the message of Islam to America – the nation now considered a superpower; a nation that always questioned and continues to pose questions about Islam.
Mufti Sadiqra, a devout companion of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas of Qadian, was chosen by Allah to be the first ray of light to bring about the prophesied sunrise from the West. His intellect, his fervour for sowing the seed of Islam in the hearts of the American people, his enthusiasm to bring about the revival of Islam, and above all, his contribution to Islam in America, is acknowledged by all who knew him.
(Originally published in The Review of Religions, November 2015)