Ahmadiyah and the Catholic Experience

July 14, 2008 at 3:38 pm (Indonesian Culture, Islam)

In some ways its a bit frustrating that you have to start with a disclaimer. Perhaps it has something to do with the extent to which some Muslims today truly do feel insecure about their own religiosity as well as that of fellow Muslims. Nonetheless in order to avoid any unnecessary controversy (there’s enough of the real stuff around), here goes:

I am not a member of the Ahmadiyah community. Nor do I believe they can seriously be considered Muslims as long as they claim that there is another prophet (Mirzan Ghulam Ahmad) after the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an and the Prophet himself were fairly clear about the idea that he was the last in a line of messengers sent by God, and that his job was to tie up loose ends and bring (at least revelation) to a conclusion. To be perfectly honest Islam offers a broad scope for interpretations regarding any number of teachings (one need only see the different madhab in Sunni Islam, and even then the different groups and interpretations within each madhab as proof of this), but the basics are pretty clear. God is one. Muhammad was the last Prophet.

So why the controversy over Ahmadiyah in Indonesia? From the debates I’ve seen (although television debates too are admittedly designed to be as adversarial as possible, to make them interesting), I see more and more proof that Islam in Indonesia is slowly being ripped in half by two opposing extremes, neither of which is offering a clear forward path for the Muslim community either in Indonesia or in the world.

On the one hand its embarrassing to see some (admittedly not all) ‘liberal’ Muslims trot out one after the other to try and make theological justifications for the Ahmadiyah community’s claim they are ‘Muslims’. Most of this argument is centered around the groups claim that they really are Muslims, they solat like everyone else, its just that they have a different interpretation of the concept of prophethood.

That of course is a nice sentiment and has more to do with the liberal Muslim project of developing ‘inclusive’ Islam than with any real commitment to the Ahmadi understanding of prophethood (as far as I know most ‘liberal’ Muslims are not Ahmadis). While these sentiments are noble, they are ultimately wasted as the broad majority of the Muslim community accepts the common sense understanding of prophethood which is that the Prophet Muhammad was the final messenger and represented the conclusion of revelation. As a result anyone else coming along claiming to bring new revelation is generally considered to have already deviated from Islam.

What is equally embarrassing is the reaction of conservative, radical and vigilante Islamic groups. While at least grasping the idea that the Ahmadiyah, for all their similarities, differ on rather vital points of theology with Islam and thus can not be considered Muslims, the way they go about handling this is an absolute joke. Things started with calls for the group to be banned in the country, generating concern amongst other non-Muslims (Christians in particular) wondering if they would be next, and since have culminated in the ultimate low point of seeing FPI thugs chasing down veiled women who were participating in a religious freedom protest.

Much like liberal Muslims however, conservative, radical and vigilante Islamic groups have no great interest in the Ahmadiyah itself, but rather in promoting their own political agenda, and their reaction is guided by this. As much as they attack liberal Muslims for focusing too much on ‘unimportant discourse issues’ such as religious freedom rather than more ‘pressing’ issues such as poverty and the price of petrol, conservative Muslim’s obsession with sects (and their destruction) shows they waste just as much, if not more, time on ‘unimportant’ issues. The goal of conservative groups is to strengthen their own political position in society by shoring up support at the grassroots level. The Ahmadiyah issue merely conveniently plays into this running agenda.

It’s at times like this I’m reminded of my previous faith in Catholicism. Though I am now a Muslim I have by no means any hard feelings against Catholics or the Catholic religion (perhaps a topic for another post, but unlike some other Muslim converts I haven’t seen my conversion as a ‘break’ from the past but rather as part of an evolutionary process), and for all its faults in the past, the Catholic Church nowadays generally deals quite sensibly with breakaway Christian movements.

Although in the past it has acted like some conservative Muslims do today, nowadays, rather than going about trying to have other Christian movements banned, the Catholic Church merely states they are not a part of the Church and that Catholics should not follow their teachings. Done. Simple.

Why can’t Muslims take this same approach? Not only does it protect the basics of Islamic teachings, but it does so without reducing the community to looking like medieval raving lunatics. The benefits are obvious, yet nobody seems to be interested.

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