Tracing the roots of early Islam Ahmadiyyat in the USA
Asif M Basit, London, UK
The history of Islam in America dates back to the time of the thirteen colonies, thus Islam has existed in this vast country throughout its modern history. (The Oxford Handbook of American Islam, p. 15)
Like many other deep and lasting socio-cultural impressions of the African slave trade on American society, Islam is no exception. West African slaves that were traded into America had brought with them their faith of Islam and continued to practise it even when it was near impossible for them to live and act freely. (Ibid.)
It is interesting to note that the areas of Africa first victimised by the transatlantic slave trade had been the first to be introduced to Islam. Both phenomena had coincidentally been through trade; Islam was brought to the West Africans by Muslim merchant-missionaries and slavery through the worst trade of human trafficking. Their deep-rooted affiliation to Islam is evident from the fact that they managed to practice Islamic rituals like Salat (obligatory prayers), fasting and even offered Zakat (prescribed alms).
It was in the final two decades of the nineteenth century that the formerly enslaved Africans began to decrease and with their deaths, Islam as a religion started to wane from America. The descendants of these Muslim slaves had no connection with the faith of their forefathers, although they had saved their prayer mats, prayer beads and their sacred book, the Holy Quran, as relics and souvenirs. (Ibid., p. 21)
By the early twentieth century, Islam had virtually disappeared from the canvas of American society. This may be classified as the first phase of Islam in America. The second phase was destined to coincide with the final phase of Islam itself, which was prophesied by the Prophetsa of Islam. Islamic eschatology, agreed upon by all sections and denominations of Muslims, has it that the second phase of Islamic glory is to resume with the advent of the Messiah in the latter days. It is also unanimously agreed upon by all canonical works of Islamic tradition that this would be the time when the sun would rise from the West, symbolically meaning that the message of Islam would reach the Western hemisphere.
Advent of the “Mohammedan” Messiah
All major religions of the world awaited a Saviour or Messiah, to relieve the world of social, moral and spiritual ailments. Islamic and Christian eschatology foretold the advent of Jesus Christas, or someone in his similitude, in the latter days for the reformation of all mankind. The middle of the nineteenth and almost all of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of reform movements in almost all major religions. All faiths sought to reform their beliefs so as to make their doctrines compatible with the challenges of modern life. They felt that by not being able to do so, their faiths were prone to becoming extinct.
Islam was no exception and a vast array of reform movements arose in various parts of the Muslim world. From the anti-innovation movement of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab in Arabia to the South Asian Anglophilic movement of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, a number of Islamic reform movements took off during the aforementioned span of time, bearing testimony to the fact that the need for reform and a reinterpretation of Islamic doctrine was acute.
Whilst the interpretations of certain Islamic doctrines were mooted, the most powerful stroke came from Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas of Qadian, India. Through Divine guidance, he set out to rectify the most fundamental of misconceptions: that of Jesusas being alive in the heavens. Hazrat Ahmadas proved from the Holy Quran that Jesusas had died a natural death and that the Messiah that was prophesied was meant to be a person with similar characteristics to Jesusas, rather than Jesusas himself. This metaphorical reincarnation of Jesusas, Hazrat Ahmadas claimed, was fulfilled through his own self. He claimed to be the Messiah and Mahdi (Divinely Guided Leader) who had been Divinely commissioned to reform the world of all wrongdoing and stray behaviour.
The Dual Challenge for Hazrat Ahmadas
With this claim, Hazrat Ahmadas had to face fierce opposition from not only the Muslims, but also Christians. The arguments put forward by Hazrat Ahmadas were so logical that both groups found no way to counter them, hence resorting to illogical and nonsensical accusations against the person and character of Hazrat Ahmadas. Muslim circles accused him of being an agent of the British Government commissioned to destroy the Muslim nation; a baseless allegation with no grounds whatsoever, as the prevalent Muslim appetite for sectarianism and exclusionism left the Muslim “nation” in no need of an external agency to erode them. Another fact overlooked by such an allegation was that how could a person be an agent to a nation, whilst challenging the very foundations of their faith through his claims and widely publicised writings?
A great deal of the writings of Hazrat Ahmadas focused on proving that Jesusas had died a natural death, was not alive in heaven and would not return to this world in person. This was no less than a fatal attack on the very foundations of the Christian faith. Christian missionaries took serious notice of this “new Messiah” and their agitation was noticed in their reports sent back home from India. Christian missionary societies were perplexed at this “novel approach” taken by a Muslim against Christian beliefs. (Asif M Basit, The Holy War, http://reviewofreligions.org/8918/the-holy-war)
Amidst such tensions, where conflict and fierce opposition clouded the skies, Hazrat Ahmadas stood firm not only in adhering to his claims, but also to publicising and proselytising his understanding of Islam. The whole world, of course, included the Western hemisphere where Christianity was the dominant religion.
Foreign Missions and the Outreach Scheme
Hazrat Ahmadas began sending literature for worldwide printing during his lifetime. Newspapers from Australia to London and from Europe to the Americas would, from time to time, carry his message in their publications.He had also begun a seminary in Qadian to train missionaries who could take the message of the true Islam to the corners of the earth.
Soon after the demise of Hazrat Ahmadas, Ahmadi missionaries were sent to many countries, notably to England and America, where the population was predominantly Christian. What paved the way for early missionary deployment in the Western hemisphere was based on a vision of Hazrat Ahmadas, when he had seen himself conveying the message of Islam to the Western world and its acceptance. An even more basic motive was a tradition of the Prophetsa of Islam where the sun is symbolically said to rise from the West in the latter days.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim mission in London was established in 1914 and Hazrat Chaudhry Fateh Muhammad Sayalra was appointed as the first missionary. The London mission served as a training camp for almost all missionaries heading to various parts of the world in the early twentieth century.
Mufti Muhammad Sadiqra in London
One prominent name among the many missionaries who stayed in London and gained hands-on experience of preaching to the Western public was Hazrat Mufti Muhammad Sadiqra. Mufti Sadiqra would later be the first Ahmadi missionary to take the message of Islam to America, and among the very first to actually revive the message of Islam in America. Mufti Sadiqra is unanimously described as “a learned and well-respected representative of his faith, a philologist and expert in Arabic and Hebrew. He also had a deep spiritual commitment, and came to his task with ardour.” (The Oxford Handbook of American Islam, p. 146.) But before moving onto his services for Islam in America, it is important to take a look at the time he spent in London as it laid the foundation for many successes that came his way later serving as a missionary in America.
The approach taken by Mufti Sadiqra, like other early Ahmadi missionaries in London, was to propagate the message of Islam to members through general lectures in Hyde Park on Sundays, and to members of various societies and clubs during the week.
Mufti Sadiqra and a co-missionary, Qazi Muhammad Abdullahra, would actively proselytise through printing and distributing literature and delivering lectures far and wide in the country. An example of such booklets was The Crying Need of the Age Fulfilled, a print copy of a lecture delivered by Qazi Abdullahra, introducing the advent of the Promised Messiahas and the revival of Islam (British Library shelf mark: X.100/26796). The booklet offered universities and societies an opportunity to invite Mufti Sadiqra or Qazi Abdullahra to deliver lectures. Such offers were readily accepted by a great number of institutions across the country.
These lectures won him great renown amongst the intellectual circles of the country. It attracted the attention of literary and religious societies which felt honoured to have him as a speaker. His command on philology earned him acclaim and he was invited as a regular speaker at the Société Internationale de Philologie, Sciences et Beaux-Arts. This “society was founded in 1875 for the advancement and encouragement of all branches of Science, Literature, Music, and the Fine Arts generally, and particularly the science of Philology.” (The Philomath, October 1921.)
The Society registered him as a member and granted him an honorary degree of B. Phil., acknowledging his work on the “comparison of the Arabic and Hebrew languages.” The Philomath, the literary journal that worked as the organ of the Société, acknowledged his lectures with high esteem (British Library shelf mark: “General Reference Collection Ac.9756”). These lectures and publications not only won degrees for Mufti Sadiqra but also the hearts of many English men and women who embraced Islam after receiving its true message.
The Sunrise from the West
Mufti Sadiqra was instructed by Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra (Second Successor to the Promised Messiahas) in December 1919, to proceed to America and take the message of Islam Ahmadiyyat to Americans (Al Fazl, Qadian, 11 December 1919). Mufti Sadiqra boarded the SS Haverford (a major transatlantic steamship) from Liverpool that set sail for the American state of Pennsylvania on January 24, 1920, arriving on February 15, 1920 (Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience, p. 115). This first step of the representative of the Promised Messiahas and his Khalifa, was the first significant step towards the revival of Islam in America.
The first difficulty faced by Mufti Sadiqra upon his arrival was that he was arrested by the American authorities on suspicion that he had landed in their country to preach polygamy (Ibid., p. 116). This arrest was based on the Immigration Act of 1891 that deemed “Polygamists; or persons who admit their belief in the practice of polygamy” inadmissible to the United States of America (The Cambridge Companion to American Islam, p. 208). The immigration officers wanted to deport him, however Mufti Sadiqra asked for a chance to present his case before the federal authorities. He argued before the tribunal that there was a difference between Halal (permissible) and Fardh (obligatory) in Islam. Islam, he argued, does allow men to marry up to four women at a time, but does not make it obligatory to do so. His argument was heard and accepted, resulting in him being allowed to walk free with the condition that he would not promote polygamous trends in America. (Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience, p. 116)
The time spent behind bars was not wasted as Mufti Sadiqra utilised this time in propagating the message of the true Islam. Many in the detention centre showed an interest and he converted nineteen inmates in a very short period of two months before his release in April 1920. (Ibid., p. 117)
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)