The Ahmadiyya Controversy and the Roots of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

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The shadowy Prophet

Military coups are a run-of-the-mill reality in the Islamic world. And yet, the 1970 coup d ‘état in Syria, that set the wheels of a sectarian dictatorship in motion, kindled an unusual sense of unease in the Muslim world, particularly among its Sunni majority. The bloodless coup brought former defence minister Hafiz al Assad, who had an Alawi background, to power. The Alawis are a fringe Islamic sect, accused of heresy by many mainstream Muslims because they allegedly worship Islam’s fourth Caliph Ali. Although its adherents remain quite convinced of its Islamic credentials, the nineteenth-century advent of a messianic movement in South Asia—the abode to one-third of the world’s Muslim population—engendered a similar sense of trepidation that continues to gnaw at Muslim minds. Starting out as an Islamic reformist movement in the town of Qadian in British Punjab, once confined in an esoteric clique of a few upper-class Muslims, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, formally known as Jama’at-i Ahmadiyya, found itself at the centre of a centuries-long controversy that shows no signs of abating; rather, it continues to be a festering political issue in greater South Asia. In Pakistan, the Ahmadis are legally declared as non-Muslims; they are frequently subjected to religious persecution, and the Pakistan state has imposed severe restrictions on performing Ahmadiyya rites and rituals.

The controversy began when the movement’s founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani(1855-1908), once hailed as a great Muslim reformist by his contemporary leading Muslim religious and political leaders, declared himself as the long-awaited Messiah, whose arrival would coincide with the end of times, as prophesied in Islamic eschatology. In his revisionist account, Ahmad denied the long-held traditional Islamic and Christian belief in Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven. After surviving crucifixion, claimed Ahmad, Jesus Christ recuperated from his bodily wounds and embarked on a journey spreading the word of God before finally settling in Kashmir—where he spent a long, blissful life. Ahmad even identified an ancient tomb in Kashmir, claiming it as Christ’s final resting place. Denying the second coming of Jesus, long-anticipated by Muslims, a rationale he initially employed to undermine Christianity, Ahmad later declared himself as the promised Messiah—claiming his advent to be inspired by Christ’s first advent as the son of Mary.1 An ordinary death for Jesus Christ rendered his second coming on earth void since he did not ascend to heaven and is no longer alive. Ahmad’s adamant insistence on this point seems logical in the sense that he could not claim himself to be the second Messiah if the first Messiah, Jesus Christ, was still waiting in heaven for his second and final return. 2

 At the centre of Ghulam Ahmad’s controversial creed is his claim of being a shadowy (zilli) or a manifestational (buruzi) Prophet—an attempt to draw legitimacy from the Prophet Muhammad himself. By imitating the lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad so closely, through his complete devotion, Ghulam Ahmad argued, he achieved all the perfections which are traditionally attributed to Muhammad. As the Khalifat-ullah, God’s representative on Earth, Ghulam Ahmad declared himself a prophet on the grounds of his perfect spiritual imitation of the Prophet Muhammad.3 However, he insisted that, unlike Muhammad, he was not a law-bearing prophet. Ghulam Ahmad denied he had the authority to promulgate a new scripture or religious laws which could supersede previous revelations and the Shari’a.4 In addition to pinning their faith on Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s claim of being a Messiah, the Ahmadi Muslims also harbour beliefs that set them apart from other Islamic sects. Following their leader Ghulam Ahmad’s life-long condemnation of it, the Ahmadis have renounced violent jihad. This stance helped them to curry favour with the British rulers, but inadvertently also drove a wedge between the Ahmadis and their revolutionary compatriots in the British occupied subcontinent.

Traditionally, the Ahmadis also interpreted a few Quranic verses differently than orthodox theologians (ulama). Most notably and much to the chagrin of the ulama, the Ahmadis interpret the Quranic verse that introduces the concept of khātam al-nabiyyīn (Q. 33.40) in an unorthodox fashion. Ghulam Ahmad explained the term as “seal of prophethood”, a term traditionally understood by Muslims as “finality of prophethood” which, according to Sunni Islam, cements Muhammad’s status of being the last Prophet sent by God. In Ghulam Ahmad’s understanding, the term indicates Muhammad as the best of the prophets—not the last one to appear.5 He then drew a distinction between legislative prophets and non-legislative prophets. Ghulam Ahmad claimed that Muhammad should be understood as the final legislative Prophet who brought scripture as part of his mission. There is no hindrance for the continued appearance of non-legislative prophets—provided that they don’t contradict the revelations God made to the Prophet Muhammad. Such interpretation of the term allowed Ghulam Ahmad to corroborate his claim of being a non-legislative prophet without challenging Muhammad’s superior status of being the best and last of the law-bearing prophets.

Drawing the borders of Muslim identity

Mainstream Sunni Muslim theologians have found themselves in a theological quandary in their attempt to determine the legal status of Ahmadi Muslims under the Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). While the Ahmadi Muslims always considered themselves as reformers, their main adversaries, the Sunni ulama, failed to reach a unanimous verdict in placing the Ahmadis in one the following classical fiqh categories: apostates (murtaddūn), masked-apostates (zanādiqa), heretics (mulhidūn), innovators (mubtadi’ūn), unbelievers (kuffār).6 Unlike the followers of the Persian religious scholar Bahá’u’ lláh, who practice different rituals, and whom the ulama unanimously placed beyond the pale of Islam, the Ahmadis follow many Islamic rituals in minute detail just as any other pious Muslim—a fact universally acknowledged by the orthodox ulama. Nonetheless, many Muslims also find some unique Ahmadi rituals objectionable, and therefore, reject to welcome even the most devout Ahmadis into the fold of Islam, for example, their refusal to pray behind a non-Ahmadi imām, the Ahmadi doctrine of intra-community marriage, the Ahmadiyya Caliphate, and the concept of monetary donation (Chanda).7

In search of guidance, some theologians have turned their attention into Islamic history; especially, they have sought inspiration from their medieval predecessors who often had to deal with Muslim groups they deemed deviant at that period. In his two books, titled Faysal al-tafriqa and Faḍā’ih al-bāt˙iniyya, the medieval Sunni philosopher, jurist and theologian al-Ghazālī’ (1058-1111AD) laid out a strict set of criteria in determining the fringes of the Muslim identity. 8 In doing so, al-Ghazālī’ broke ranks with his predecessors. While previously only a public declaration of break-away from Islam was considered as apostasy, a crime that carries a possible death penalty. Under the new circumstances, a Muslim could be charged with apostasy for harbouring any heretical conviction. Al-Ghazālī’ thereby equated masked-apostates with apostates and prescribed the same punishment for both groups. 9

Al-Ghazālī’s predecessors, notably, the founder of the Shāfiʿī school of Islamic law, al-Shāfiʿī (767-820AD), equated the masked-apostates (zanādiqa) with the hypocrites (munāfiqūn)  rebuked in the Quran (Q. 63.1-10). According to al-Shāfiʿī, if a Muslim harbours a heretical conviction or performs a ritual deemed incongruous with the Islamic principles, although such practice makes them an unbeliever, they do not necessarily deserve capital punishment—any such unbeliever should be declared an apostate only when they publicly renounce Islam. Al-Shāfiʿī maintained that, as long as they outwardly claim their allegiance towards Islam, the hypocrites can’t be excluded from the fold of Islam and remain members of the Muslim community. Al-Shāfiʿī based his argument on the Quranic injunction that no Muslim can judge the belief of a fellow Muslim—such prerogative exclusively belongs to God. 10 However, while al-Shāfiʿī was in favour of allowing the apostates the opportunity to repent (istitābah), al-Ghazālī’ declined to extend any such right to both apostates and masked-apostates whom he considered equally culpable of apostasy and, therefore, deserve to be put to the sword. 11 

When tested against both the two standards of Muslim status set by al-Shāfiʿī and al-Ghazālī’, how do the Ahmadis fare? It is worth noting that the Quran, the most authoritative source of Islamic law, doesn’t mention any punishment, corporal or otherwise, for apostasy in this world but postponed a verdict until the Day of Judgment. Given the array of eccentric beliefs they harbour, the Ahmadis may at best be accused of being masked-apostates under both al-Shāfiʿī and al-Ghazālī’s ruling although, understandably, the Ahmadi Muslims would vehemently contest such conclusion. Contrary to popular belief, Islamic mores are not set in stone; they evolved over the centuries and absorbed many idiosyncratic ideas. Most importantly, from its very birth, Islam remains a syncretic religion with many pagan and Judeo-Christian accretions. There never existed a pure, unadulterated version of Islam—the same is true for every other major religion. It would, therefore, be unfair to accuse the Ahmadis of being solely responsible for inventing unorthodox beliefs and practices. Moreover, since they always considered themselves as Muslims and never publicly renounced Islam, the Ahmadis cannot be categorised as apostates, nor can they be deemed as unbelievers—because their movement sprang out among a group of Muslims who belonged to no other religion and professed no faith other than Islam. 12

The practice of excommunication (takfīr) is one of the few controversial practices that, since the death of Muhammad, stirred bitter disputes among Muslims. Through the pronouncement of takfīr, a Muslim, or a group of Muslims, can be declared unbeliever(s) because their religious beliefs and practices are no longer found congruent with the ‘Muslim’ status. Unlike the Catholic Church, because of the dearth of a central institution and a general willingness to allow different beliefs to coexist, historically Muslims have been mostly tolerant of unorthodox views. 13 If the theologians are discordant in determining the boundaries of Muslim identity, if the most sacred Islamic scripture refrains from meting out punishments for espousing unorthodox beliefs in this life, and if excommunication, as a controversial practice, has been successfully applied on very few occasions, none by democracies, over the past 1400 years, how did the Ahmadis found themselves declared as non-Muslims by a modern nation-state like Pakistan? Although formed around the Muslim identity, at the time of the declaration of excommunication, Pakistan was not a fully fledged theocracy, nor is it today. Pakistan instead claims to be a Muslim democracy; albeit remain dysfunctional. The answer to this question cannot be found by navigating through the theological jargon, because declaring the Ahmadis as non-Muslims was not a religious act—it glaringly lacked theological justification—rather a political one that was finally enacted in 1974, thanks to the combination of decades of anti-Ahmadiyya propaganda campaigns and a few but significant political blunders committed by Ghulam Ahmed’s successors in the Ahmadiyya leadership.

Poured into a different mould

Both Jama’at-i Ahmadiyya and its detractors found themselves on the wrong side of the border after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Qadian, Ahmadi Holyland and administrative base, was given to India. Under these circumstances, the Ahmadis were forced to relocate to Pakistan since they could ill afford to favour Hindu-majority India. It also meant that they had to rebuild their mission in a nascent Muslim nation that soon grew wary of them. The task became even more daunting since Jama’at-i Ahmadiyya was not a unified movement anymore. Immediately after Ghulam Ahmad’s death, an ideological rift over Ghulam Ahmad’s claim of Prophethood erupted that eventually split the movement into two factions. Majlis-i Ahrar, a group formed in opposition to Ahmadi political involvement in the Kashmir crisis, and an ally of the Indian National Congress in its opposition to the partition of the subcontinent, suddenly found itself in a country whose creation it opposed and its chief political opponent, the Muslim League, at the helm of power. In its bid to justify its relevance, Majlis-i Ahrar had to rebrand itself in a pro-Pakistan mould, and the Ahmadiyya issue provided it with the right context and pretext. Ahrar declared its allegiance to Pakistan; at the same time, it denounced the Muslim League for tolerating the Ahmadis—thus both carving out a space for itself in Pakistan’s political landscape and heralding a new chapter of anti-Ahmadi agitation. 14

The demagoguery of political pragmatism

In the following decades, influential figures and cliques, both civilian and military, fanned the flames of the anti-Ahmadi agitation—hoping it would serve their own vested interests. In 1953, it required the military to quell the anti-Ahmadi riots in Punjab, the first of many military involvements in the country’s civilian affairs. The top government brass couldn’t escape unscathed, however. The chief minister of Punjab was fired for exploiting the riots for political benefits, and later the prime minister and his entire cabinet were dismissed by the Governor-general. For his involvement, the Islamist ideologue Maududi was sentenced to death, a sentencing that was later commuted to a life in prison. But it was not until 1974 that the Pakistan government finally acceded to anti-Ahmadi demands and that, too, was a government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)—which, before coming to power, gained Ahmadi support for its promise of delivering a more liberal and secular Pakistan. Under mounting political pressure and witnessing unprecedented popular support for the anti-Ahmadi movement, the National Assembly formed a committee to decide the legal status of those who deny the finality of the Prophet Muhammad. The committee also included an Ahmadi representative. On September 7, 1974, in a unanimous decision, the National Assembly brought an amendment to the Article 260 of the constitution which declared that anyone who doesn’t believe in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad, or claims to be a prophet, or recognises any claimant of prophethood to be a prophet will not be regarded as a Muslim by the constitution. Furthermore, in Pakistan government’s interpretation, section 295A of the penal code penalises any Muslim who professes, practices or propagates against the concept of the finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad as cemented in clause (3) of Article 260 of the constitution.

Even setting aside the question of whether a democratically elected parliament has the authority to practice excommunication, the changes brought in the constitution and the penal code are problematic for several reasons. It is clear from the wording of the amendment that it considers those who deny the finality of the Prophet Muhammad as unbelievers (kuffār) or non-Muslims. However, the penal code identifies the same group of people as Muslims and charges them with apostasy (irtidād). A person can’t be both an unbeliever and an apostate at the same time since the Islamic jurisprudence clearly draws a distinction between the two. Even if an individual Ahmadi is found to be either an unbeliever or an apostate, the verdict can’t necessarily be applied to every other Ahmadi. In essence, it would require case-by-case investigations since both the constitution and the penal code focus on individuals, not any group(s). In other words, even if Mirza Ghulam Ahmed is found to be an apostate, his followers can’t be declared as apostates en masse.15  Neither are the Ahmadis any longer a monolithic group. The Lahori faction maintains that Ghulam Ahmad never claimed to be a prophet. They regard him only as a great Muslim reformer. The Pakistan National Assembly didn’t take this fact into consideration before it declared all Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Returning back to the question of whether the National Assembly has the right to declare Ahmadis as unbelievers or apostates, the answer is a definite no. The National Assembly lacks religious credentials, and as a consequence, its judgements are theologically nonbinding. Moreover, any constitutional amendment is reversible, while a theological consensus (ijmā) is binding and irreversible.16 Determining the religious status of the Ahmadis requires a global Islamic consensus which is clearly not reached yet.

Both those who demanded the excommunication of the Ahmadis and those who acceded to this demand were motivated by political necessity, not religious convictions. Because of its anti-partition stance, Majlis-i Ahrar’s political survival in independent Pakistan depended on its attempt to garner popular support for the anti-Ahmadi cause, in which it clearly succeeded. The PPP government would not have survived without acceding to the demands of the anti-Ahmadi movement. The lack of religious knowledge of the National Assembly members was reflected in the ambiguous amendment they brought to the constitution and in the government’s interpretation of the penal code as the two contradicted each other. It was not until the introduction of section 298C in the penal code in 1984 by the military ruler Zia-ul-Haq’s government that this contradiction was addressed. Section 298C made it a punishable offence with imprisonment that could extend to three years, including fines, if an Ahmadi claims to be Muslim or propagates the Ahmadiyya creed. 17 Section 298C is at odds with al-Shāfiʿī’s ruling, which allowed anyone to identify as Muslim, as long as they didn’t publicly renounce Islam.

The most tangible legacy

Pakistan’s recent blasphemy laws, including the one that carries a potential death penalty, haven’t come out of a vacuum; instead, they stemmed out of its anti-Ahmadi laws. True, Pakistan originally inherited its blasphemy laws from the British Raj. But it is the Anti-Ahmadi laws that reared Pakistan’s new generation of blasphemy laws—endowed them with a lethal potency. The blasphemy laws also reflect the growing power of the religious zealots who didn’t sit idle even after successive governments met their demands. At the same time, hoping to earn cheap populist mileage, Pakistan’s political establishment is often eager to propitiate the religious right. Couched in the language of upholding the sanctity of Islam, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have exacted an enormous price from its religious minorities.  Zia-ul-Haq’s government introduced blasphemy laws targeting Pakistan’s Shia minority that in the past played influential roles in its politics—Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder, was a Shia Muslim.18 The Ahmadis, too, regularly fall victim to blasphemy laws. Upholding the 1984 ordinance in a majority decision, the Pakistan Supreme Court found some of the writings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as blasphemous. It went so far as to condoning vigilante action against the Ahmadis. In recent years, Pakistan’s minority Christians have found themselves disproportionately targeted by accusations of blasphemy.19 It transpires that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are enacted hardly to defend the sanctity of Islam since, in addition to owning their heritage to movements that were launched to achieve political objectives, they are exploited by different religious, political, and military interest groups driven by the same goal of exerting influence in Pakistan’s domestic politics and settling personal scores. Both the blasphemy and the anti-Ahmadi laws are forged in the crucible of hatred and bigotry. As long as they exist, Islamism and its murderous twin authoritarianism will continue to use them to the full extent.


  1. Qasmi, p.37
  2. Khan, pp.43–44
  3. , p. 53
  4. Qasmi, p. 38
  5. , p.37
  6. Burhani, p.286
  7. , p.287
  8. , p. 286
  9. Griffel, p.352
  10. , pp. 346–348
  11. , pp. 354
  12. Burhani, p.289
  13. Bulliet et al., p. 160
  14. Khan, pp.148–149
  15. , p. 162
  16. , p. 163
  17. , p. 164
  18. Zaman, p. 179
  19. , p. 193


  • Bulliet, Richard, David Cook, Roxanne L. Euben, Khaled Fahmy, Frank Griffel, Bernard Haykel, Robert W. Hefner, Timur Kuran, Jane McAuliffe, and Ebrahim Moosa. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. Edited by Gerhard Bowering, Patricia Crone, Wadad Kadi, Devin J. Stewart, Muhammad Qasim Zaman, and Mahan Mirza (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2012).
  • Burhani, Ahmad Najib. ‘Treating Minorities with Fatwas: A Study of the Ahmadiyya Community in Indonesia’. Contemporary Islam 8, no. 3 (September 2014): 285–301.
  • Griffel, Frank. ‘Toleration and Exclusion: Al-Shāfiʾī and al-Ghazālī on the Treatment of Apostates’. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 64, no. 3 (2001): 339–354.
  • Khan, Adil Hussain. From Sufism to Ahmadiyya: A Muslim Minority Movement in South Asia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).
  • Qasmi, Ali Usman. The Ahmadis and the Politics of Religious Exclusion in Pakistan. Reprint edition. (London: Anthem Press, 2015).
  • Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. Islam in Pakistan: A History (S.l.: Princeton University Press, 2020).


Siddhartha Dhar is a writer and translator. He is currently a student of Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden. His twitter handle is @dh_siddhartha

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