The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Pakistan


A review of Politics of Exclusion: Muslim Nationalism, State Formation and Legal Representations of the Ahmadiyya Community in Pakistan, by Sadia Saeed.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) founded Ahmadiyya Islam in the Indian sub-continent in the second half of the nineteenth century and found himself embroiled in controversy for his claim of being a Messiah and the Mahdi (the Muslim religious leader who is meant to appear before the Day of Judgement in the Islamic worldview). This is one of the main reasons why members of the Ahmadi community have continuously found themselves on the receiving end of attempts to delegitimize them as Muslims. Such attempts have been spearheaded by the traditional ulema or religious scholars who see a contradiction between such assertions and their understanding of the Prophet Muhammad being the seal of the Prophets.

Sadia Saeed’s dissertation, Politics of Exclusion, focuses on the Ahmadi community in Pakistan and aims to understand why the Pakistani state’s relationship with this community has undergone the shift that it has since Pakistan’s creation in 1947. Saeed illustrates this shift by highlighting three political moments in Pakistan’s history. She refers to these moments as those of accommodation (1953), when the State did not give in to the demands of the anti-Ahmadi campaign and maintained that Ahmadis had full citizenship rights; exclusion (1974), when the community was declared a non-Muslim minority by a constitutional amendment; and criminalization (1984), when any Ahmadi attempt to identify themselves as Muslim was deemed a criminal act and made punishable by law.

Saeed begins her dissertation by introducing her readers to the three moments described above, and follows this with a brief overview of the theoretical ideas upon which she relies to shed light on the Pakistani state’s different responses to the Ahmadis in different time periods. Saeed deliberately sidesteps the popular “gradual Islamization” theory as a means of understanding this shift. Instead, she deconstructs the State into its many elements and draws upon Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory (Sociology in Question. London: Sage Publications, 1993) to claim that national policy outcomes (with reference to the Ahmadi community in this case) can only be understood by studying the intra-state and state-society relations in particular moments. More specifically, she claims that national policy outcomes depend upon “which state subfield/s will emerge as victorious” (p. 17) as they compete for greater state power and a “quest for hegemony in the public space at large” (p.18). Legibility between the repertoires of contention of State and social actors are another important factor (Charles Tilly, Regimes and Repertoires. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), Saeed argues, that can help us understand why the national policy outcomes are what they are at different moments. This first chapter ends with a comprehensive account of the range of sources, both primary and secondary, that Saeed mobilizes to reconstruct Ahmadi history and understand the multi-faceted dynamics surrounding the three moments mentioned above. This understanding allows her to pursue her interest “in treating any two successive periods as loose comparative cases as well as analyzing how they form a larger sequence of social transformation” (p. 21).

An overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the current theories of state formation in Chapter 2 allows Saeed to make a case for a more comprehensive analysis by relying upon Bourdieu’s field theory. An application of this theory, along with his notion of capital, to the State, leads her to deconstruct the State into its bureaucratic, juridicial and political subfields, each with their own domain-specific capital that can be transformed into dominant state capital under the right conditions. Not treating the State as a “centralized, supra-natural body” (p. 63) is essential, Saeed claims, so that the tensions and “contradictory ‘position-takings’ and ‘dispositions’ of state actors” become visible and can subsequently throw light on policy outcomes (Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, as cited by Saeed, p. 63). Each of the mentioned State sub-fields and the nature of their capital are elaborated upon with reference to their presence in Pakistan. The chapter concludes with Saeed presenting the theoretical framework that she will use in the remainder of the dissertation to understand the State’s policies with reference to the Pakistani Ahmadi community. The elements that inform her framework include the two that have already been mentioned above — intra-state competition and legibility between the repertoires of contention of social actors. Other elements include the discursive space of nationalist strategies (or in other words, how much space state actors have to advance and implement their national policy) and the language of stateness or the habitus of state actors which may facilitate the attainment of capital, and subsequently dominant state power.

Chapter 3 provides rich empirical detail about the Ahmadi community — their origin, leadership, religious beliefs, political position(s) — their detractors, the grounds on which and the strategies through which they were critiqued and de-legitimized, and the community’s relationship with the British colonists. Primarily focusing on the pre-partition period, the information Saeed is able to generate plays a critical role in illustrating when the anti-Ahmadi narratives that have now become a part of the public consciousness in Pakistan began to be constructed by the religious right and the extent to which they did not reflect reality, which was far more nuanced.

Chapters 4 and 5 cover the years between the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and passage of the 1984 Ordinance, and provide details about the moments of accommodation, exclusion and criminalization. Saeed offers a multi-faceted examination of these moments that pays meticulous attention to: (1) the larger socio-political climate and challenges the nation was facing in these moments (e.g. the separation of East Pakistan in 1971); (2) the nature of the religious right’s continuing attempts — supported by a number of newspapers — to propagate a discourse of Ahmadi hate among the public and to pressurize the State into declaring them non-Muslim; and (3) the nature of the competition between and distribution of power among the intra-state subfields over time. The application of her theoretical framework (outlined in Chapter 2) to her multi-faceted historical reconstruction of these periods allows Saeed to demonstrate convincingly that the lack of legibility between the judiciary’s (the state subfield with the greatest power in 1953) language of stateness and the agitational tactics undertaken by those wishing the State to declare Ahmadis non-Muslim, in a time period when the State had greater autonomy to decide upon which nationalist discourse it considered legitimate, played a critical role in its maintaining that the Ahmadi community had equal citizenship rights as a Muslim minority community. A similar analysis is presented for the other two moments under consideration whereby shifts in intra-state power and a greater legibility between the dominant state actors’ language and the society’s demands — in a larger context where there was less space to choose from a variety of nationalist discourses — resulted in the Ahmadi community being declared non-Muslim in 1974, and their attempt to “act” like Muslims deemed a punishable offense in 1984.

Saeed begins Chapter 6 by offering a critique of the popular view of the judiciary as an autonomous and independent body. She suggests that General Zia-ul-Haq’s transformation of the judiciary after his attaining state power as a military dictator in the late 1970s played a critical role in curtailing the autonomy of state actors within this subfield. A close examination of the court cases concerning Ahmadis, and interviews with many of the leading people involved in judging those cases, allows Saeed to demonstrate that the transformed judicial structure and environment subsequently transformed the judicial discourse of judges and resulted in their giving paramount importance to the rights of the national Muslim community, to which the Ahmadis were not seen as belonging after 1974. Ahmadi attempts to challenge the 1984 Ordinance and to fight the accusations filed against them through various cases were thus largely unsuccessful.

Saeed ends her dissertation by summarizing her key arguments in Chapter 7 and rightfully reminding the reader that contemporary attacks on the Ahmadis can be better understood through her analysis. Her dissertation’s contribution lies in the role it plays in shedding light on how narratives about the Ahmadi community now naturalized in Pakistan were a construct of the community’s detractors and in explaining how and why they were eventually given legitimacy by the State. Saeed’s nuanced examination of specific moments is a unique approach for understanding how intra-state and state-society dynamics can shape national policies and offers a rich, multi-faceted understanding of why the State’s relationships with the Ahmadis have shifted over time. Her work fills a significant gap in the scholarship about the Ahmadi community, which has largely focused on the community’s theological views or the discrimination they have faced. It straddles multiple disciplines (e.g. political sociology, social history) and is highly recommended for both academics and non-academics who are interested in the region and its thematic offerings.

Sadaf Ahmad
Associate Professor
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Lahore University of Management Sciences

Primary Sources

Interviews (e.g. of the state and religious actors involved in the events of 1974 and 1984)
Government Publications and Archives (at the India Office Records at the British Library, UK, the Library of the National Assembly of Pakistan, etc)
Newspaper Archives (at the National Archives of Pakistan and the National Library of Pakistan)
Pamphlets and other material by religious organizations (at the Khilafat Library in Rabwah, the Library of Aalmi Majlis-e-Tahaffuz-e-Khatam-e-Nabuwwat, etc)

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 2010. 394 pp. Primary Advisor: George Steinmetz.


Image:  Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908, seated center) with some of his companions at Qadian ca. 1899. Wikimedia Commons.