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)
(Originally published in The Review of Religions, November 2015)
(To be continued…)