In July 2005, several thousand followers of the Ahmadiyah movement were holding a jalsah, or annual gathering, at their headquarters, the Mubaraq campus in Bogor, just outside Jakarta, when a mob invaded the campus grounds. This attack received considerable media publicity in both Indonesia and around the world. But it was just the latest and most dramatic episode in what increasingly looks like an organised and systematic campaign of violence against Ahmadiyah.
Ahmadiyah, an Islamic religious movement founded by a nineteenth century visionary, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, from present-day Pakistan, first appeared in Indonesia in 1925. It has approximately 500,000 followers in the country, part of a world-wide movement led from Britain. Its views on some key matters are very different from mainstream Muslims. For example, followers of Ahmadiyah believe that Ahmad was the promised messiah. As a result, its followers often come under great pressure in Indonesia and elsewhere.
The July 2005 attack began when a group of activists from the well-known Islamist group the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), hung a banner outside the meeting ground proclaiming ‘Ahmadiyah is un-Islamic, its Prophet is Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, its holy book is the Tazkirah.’ An FPI leader, Abdurrahman Assegaf, as well as others, made speeches denouncing Ahmadiyah as a ‘deviant sect’ and demanding that the meeting be cancelled.
Failing to have their way peacefully, on the second day, about 100 FPI members attacked the meeting. They began by throwing rocks at whoever they could see in the campus grounds. None of the Ahmadiyah members responded in kind, but 15 of them received head wounds. Although there was a police post located at the campus gates, the authorities did not prevent the growing crowd pushing down the gate, destroying and looting whatever they could find, breaking windows and burning copies of the Qur’an.
Most of the attackers came from the area of Parung, about one kilometre away from the campus. Other local people could do little more than look on. One of them, Trisno, told an Ahmadiyah production crew (who later produced a VCD detailing the attack) that it was the anarchy of the mob that seemed un-Islamic to him, and that the Ahmadiyah followers had behaved well and not disrupted the locals.
History of discrimination
This attack was just one of many attempts to forcefully dissolve Ahmadiyah in Indonesia. Between 1993 and 2005, 35 separate violent attacks on Ahmadiyah members were recorded around Indonesia. And since the attack in Bogor, there have been more.
Ahmadiyah’s problems in Indonesia flow from more than just mob rule. Since 1980 the movement has faced structural discrimination. In that year, the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (the government-endorsed Council of Islamic Scholars) released a fatwa (legal ruling) that Ahmadiyah was ‘outside Islam’, that it was ‘deviant’ and could lead others into error. Then Minister for Religion, H Alamsyah Ratu Prawiranegara, signed off on the decree. Eventually, in 1984, the Ministry of Religion in Jakarta issued an instruction to its offices in the regions to carefully monitor the movement and do what they could to prohibit its activities.
At the July 2005 attack, one of the main speakers denouncing Ahmadiyah was Amin Jamaluddin, a leader of the Islamic Institute for Research and Study (LPPI). LPPI is itself part of MUI. Its job is to study the religious credentials of movements within Islam, and its views are typically endorsed by the Ministry of Religion.
A few days after the attack on the Bogor campus, MUI again reconfirmed its view, issuing another fatwa declaring that Ahmadiyah are kafir (infidels). Since then, the Minister of Religion, Maftuh Basyuni, has repeatedly spoken out against Ahmadiyah. For instance, in February 2006 he warned them that its adherents would have to choose between returning to core Islamic beliefs or proclaiming themselves a new religion.
What is Ahmadiyah?
In sociological terms, the followers of Ahmadiyah are not strikingly different from other Muslims. They perform the five pillars of Islam: they pray five times a day, fast in the month of Ramadhan, read the Qur’an, recite the confession of faith and partake in the haj pilgrimage if they are able. Theologically speaking, however, Ahmadiyah is unique because it believes that prophets can appear after the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him [pbu]). They believe that Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the movement’s founder, was himself such a person.
This view about prophets and prophecy is the central source of conflict between followers of Ahmadiyah and most other Muslims in Indonesia. The Ahmadiyah understanding is quite unique. As Mirza Ghulam Ahmad himself wrote in the Tazkirah (Our Teaching), to confirm whether a person has truly been appointed by God as a prophet, he must first proclaim himself to be acting on God’s mandate. The community of believers then must make their own evaluation of the claim on the basis of the previous scripture.
This belief conflicts with that of the mainstream Islamic community. Mainstream sunni Muslims believe that there is a total of 25 prophets, and that none would come after the Prophet Muhammad (pbu). This view is based on an interpretation of the Al-Ahzab verse (33): 40 of the Qur’an which includes the Arabic phrase khataman nabiyiin, which is usually translated into English to mean that Muhammad (pbu) is the ‘seal of the Prophets’. The mainstream interpretation is that Muhammad (pbu) is the ‘last’ of the prophets. However, the Arabic word khatam in fact has several meanings, including ‘most perfect’, ‘most glorious’ and ‘ring’ or ‘seal’. Ahmadiyah followers interpret the phrase to mean that the Prophet Muhammad (pbu) was the main or most important of the prophets, thus not excluding the possibility that others would come after him. For them, it is thus not inconsistent to be both a Muslim and to believe that the founder of their movement was a prophet.
For many Muslims in Indonesia, however, this interpretation of the phrase ‘khataman nabiyiin’ is a dangerous insult to their own beliefs. MUI scholars are particularly angered by the belief that Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad could be considered a prophet, as well as by the view that his book, the Tazkirah, is a revelation from God and that Ahmadiyah followers make the haj pilgrimage not to Mecca but to Qadian.
In my own view, it is possible to reconcile Ahmadiyah’s beliefs with mainstream Islamic practice. Six centuries ago the famous theologian Ibn Arabi wrote that there would be prophets after Muhammad (pbu). In his view, the spiritual light provided by the Prophet Muhammad (pbu) would continue to glow after his departure. Indeed, he believed that the phrase ‘khataman nabiyiin’ guaranteed that there would be prophets after Muhammad (pbu); if there were not, this would mean that the spiritual strength of the message of the Prophet Muhammad (pbu) was weak, which could not be. In this respect, it might be possible to think of prophets after Muhammad (pbu) as carrying forward the mission of their great predecessor, in the way that, in Islam, Isa (Jesus) is seen as carrying forward the prophecy of Musa (Moses). Such prophets do not bring their own law, but instead revive and implement the law their predecessor has brough.
The theological controversy about the status of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is the root of violence against Ahmadiyah. The movement has been attacked not just in Indonesia, but also elsewhere, including in Bangladesh and Pakistan. As a result of the pressure they face from others, Ahmadiyah has become both more cohesive internally, and more exclusivist in how it deals with others.
Even so, Ahmadiyah is a fast-growing religious movement in many countries, including Australia. In Australia, the movement is based in Blacktown, Sydney, and has a beautiful large mosque and a congregation of about 2000 people, mostly Pakistani migrants. From the movement’s headquarters in Britain, Muslim Television Ahmadiyya (MTA) is broadcast globally. The channel provides information about Ahmadiyah’s vision of a rational Islam which can be applied easily in daily life, and which lays heavy emphasis on moral teachings and peace.
In Indonesia, it is almost as if the all the pressure has helped to promote Ahmadiyah. Many people have been attracted by Ahmadiyah’s peaceful resistance, and by the message of love that is at the heart of its vision. Data from 2004 suggests that over the preceding 12 years, there had been about 150,000 new converts in 298 branches around the country. This remarkable growth itself refutes the view that Ahmadiyah has no place in Indonesian society, as the movement’s detractors suggest. Indeed, it might just be that the cause of the violent reaction against Ahmadiyah is not just theological, but also derived from resentment at the movement’s success.
Munawar Ahmad (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lecturer at the Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta. He is currently writing a PhD thesis on the political thinking of Abdurrahman Wahid. This article was translated by Edward Aspinall.