How Ahmadis Became Non-Muslim | TQ SALON

Feb 2015

Conversation: Difference and the State

This is the first essay in this conversation. TQ Salon is a series of conversations among scholars of South Asia. Each conversation is clustered around a motivating text. The second essay is here and the third essay is here.


TQ Salon is a series of conversations among scholars of South Asia. Each conversation is clustered around a motivating text. The second essay in this conversation is here and the third is hereSee other conversations here.

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Modern forms of governance do not simply enumerate citizens; they produce them by rendering them into being through the states’ practices of categorizing identities and populations. In Seeing Like a State, James Scott has aptly observed how the state works to render the society and the population transparent and simplified so that the various state functions–conscription, taxation, quotas, even rights–can be carried out. Legibility, as Scott says, is “a central problem in statecraft.” 

In this TQ conversation, we explore the production of legibility by the Pakistani state. How does the state produce normative and marginal populations? How are minority rights, sexual rights and religious rights mediated by the state? What is the relationship between the central problem of statecraft–legibility–and disbursement of rights and justice? What might failures of the state to render certain beings legible tell us about the legibility project as well as possibilities of countering the logic of the state? 

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In 1974, the Pakistani state constitutionally declared the Ahmadiyya community a non-Muslim minority. Exactly 10 years later, in 1984, military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq passed an executive ordinance that, among other things, makes it a criminal offence for Ahmadis to refer to themselves as Muslims or to their religion as Islam, and bans them from publicly practicing Islam. These laws highlight that the enactment of religious laws is intimately entangled with how the relationship between religion and politics is understood, articulated and contested in the public sphere. States are unlikely to support religious norms that do not have at least some degree of visibility in the public sphere. Secondly, once formed, laws regulating religion require elaborate supporting narratives in order to stick and successfully authorize new narratives and sensibilities about religion. Such laws, in other words, need mechanisms of support and, unsurprisingly, courts are one of the key institutions that perform this task. The Pakistani state’s anti-Ahmadiyya legislations elucidate both of these points well.

A host of scholars have demonstrated that the modern state, armed with a plethora of institutions, governance apparatuses and techniques, turns its gaze upon the population it governs to enumerate, divide and normalize the social classifications that it deems salient. The modern state has a distinct way of “seeing,” as famously noted by James Scott. Its gaze is geared towards making populations legible in ways that aid its own projects of acting upon the social space under its territorial jurisdiction.

In this vein, it can be suggested that the anti-Ahmadiyya legislations allowed the Pakistani state to penetrate society and fulfill its cultural project of creating a modern Muslim polity. Through inscribing the religious distinction between Ahmadis and non-Ahmadis into law, and by articulating it as a political distinction between non-Muslims and Muslims, the Pakistani state effectively marked out and affixed Ahmadis as religious deviants. In the process, it created a marginal, excluded and legally discriminated group. Clearly, Ahmadis do not enjoy the same rights that non-Ahmadis do. In fact, Ahmadis do not enjoy any religious rights. They cannot publicly proclaim their religious faith. They live in a social landscape increasingly characterized by physical violence directed not only towards them but religious minorities at large while state authorities remain silent and inactive. And, Ahmadis continually navigate and negotiate a culture of religious vigilantism.


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The “Ahmadi question” in Pakistan, however, begs the question of why the issue of the religious status of Ahmadis has become a focal point of the Pakistani state’s gaze. The most obvious answer is that it pertains to a core doctrinal issue of khatam-e-nabuwwat, or the finality of Prophethood, in Islam. This doctrinal question is powerfully evoked by Ahmadiyya religious thought. Ahmadi Muslims interpret this doctrinal principle to mean that Islam and the Qur’an complete the message brought by Abrahamic texts. However, guides or religious reformers may continue. Ahmadis make this claim in the context of a conservative Sunni Muslim sensibility in Pakistan that is inspired historically by Deobandi ulema and strongly centered on the singular veneration of Prophet Muhammad. While this sensibility certainly does not capture the full spectrum of the variegated everyday religious lives of ordinary Muslims, it has steadily become dominant in the public sphere since the colonial era. In a self-identifying Muslim nation-state, this sensibility has been crucial in raising the questions “Are Ahmadis Muslim?” and “Who is a Muslim?” as constitutional questions of national significance.

In the 1950s, the Pakistani state nonetheless vocally refused to lend legitimacy to these questions when the Majlis-e-Ahrar-e-Islam and the Jamaat-e-Islami together launched a powerful religious movement demanding that the state officially declare Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority. This era bequeathed two powerful documents to Pakistanis that contain, either implicitly or explicitly, two competing narratives about the relationship between Islam and the Pakistani state. The first is the Munir Inquiry Report (1954) in which Justice Muhammad Munir staunchly advocated a secular state. The second is Maulana Maududi’s short pamphlet titled Qadiani Masla (1953) (“The Qadiani Problem” – “Qadiani” is a pejorative term to reference Ahmadis) that continues to provide the dominant cultural narrative defending the criminalization of Ahmadis. The first document symbolizes the potency of the modern state that stands above society and is the final arbiter of which religious classifications have a legal relevance. The second exemplifies the power of the public sphere and modern politics to articulate the cultural questions that citizen-subjects deems important for the nation and worthy of adjudication by the state. Here, we encounter the antinomy between state and politics. Or, to put it differently, we witness the constitutive and creative tension between “seeing like the state” and what may be termed “making the state see.”

The Munir Inquiry Report prevailed in the 1950s but ultimately it is the Qadiani Masla that triumphed. In 1974, Pakistan’s first democratically elected National Assembly was converted into a special committee to deliberate the religious status of the Ahmadiyya community. This political move was preceded by a nation-wide anti-Ahmadiyya agitation that was led by prominent religious parties. Its primary demand was that Ahmadis be constitutionally declared a non-Muslim minority. When it became clear that the agitation would not die down on its own, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto placed the issue before the National Assembly for deliberation. A motion passed by Law Minister Abdul Hafeez Pirzada “to discuss the question of the status in Islam of persons who do not believe in the finality of Prophethood of Mohammad” was adopted. The hope, according to Pirzada, was to arrive at “an effective, just and final solution.”1 Subsequently, the National Assembly began its proceedings and called on Ahmadiyya community leaders to appear before it and answer questions posed by members of the National Assembly. These proceedings, which lasted a little over a month, were held in camera and have since been made public. Following these proceedings and deliberations, Ahmadis were unanimously voted a non-Muslim minority, and the Second Amendment to the Pakistani Constitution passed effectively declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim.

The issue is not just one of the modern state turning its gaze upon society and determining which religious classifications ought to be inscribed into law. Conceptually prior to all this lies a broader question: how do certain issues that are articulated in the public sphere find their way into the domain of institutional politics and legislation? In this regard, the continuing power of Maududi’s Qadiani Masla coupled with the ability of national organizations such as the Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nabuwwat whose local branches reach deep into the recesses of Pakistan’s towns and villages, as well as speeches and khutbas of the petit-ulema, who often belong to such organizations and have access to local mosques, cannot be underestimated. These factors can explain how, and with effects, the “Ahmadi question” became a political issue.

The Second Amendment, despite all the noise surrounding it, did not make a substantive impact on the religious lives of Ahmadis. Nor did it lead the Pakistani courts to curtail the religious rights of Ahmadis. Notable here is the Lahore High Court judgment in the case of Abdur Rahman Mobashir v. Amir Ali Shah (See: PLD 1978 Lah 113). This case constituted an appeal filed by a group of Ahmadis. In the lower courts, charges had been brought by ulema of Dera Ghazi Khan against the religious practices of Ahmadis of that city. They argued that in light of the Second Amendment, courts should a) bar Ahmadis from constructing their places of worship in the shape of masjids b) ban them from referring to their places of worship as masjids and c) stop them from calling azaan and from praying in a manner in which Muslims pray. The lower courts ruled in favor of the non-Ahmadis and temporarily prohibited Ahmadis from engaging in these Islamic practices. Upon appeal, the Lahore High Court overturned the judgment of the lower courts and plainly held that Ahamdis could not be barred from practicing Islam.

The 1984 Ordinance passed under the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq made matters more complicated. It explicitly stipulates that the use of “epithets, descriptions and titles, etc., reserved for certain holy personages or places” such as azaan and masjid is reserved for Muslims and “misuse” by Ahmadis is liable to punishment by fines and imprisonment. Another section criminalizes any Ahmadi who refers to herself/himself as Muslim, who preaches or propagates her/his faith or in any manner whatsoever outrages the religious feelings of Muslims.”2 As I have noted elsewhere, the last phrase is highly amorphous. By elevating the sentiments and “religious feelings” of the putative Muslim Pakistani citizen, this law defers to those religious actors who claim to know the sentiments of Pakistani Muslims. Thus, the Ordinance becomes pivotal in shaping religious sensibilities within traditional religious fields, through religious education about “Islamic” laws. The Ordinance, undertaken in the name of the putative Muslim citizen of Pakistan, effectively consolidated the religious establishment’s vision of an Islamic polity within the domain of criminal law.3

It is with the 1984 Ordinance, then, that the Second Amendment finally “stuck.” This ordinance effectively established a single overarching nationalist narrative of the Pakistani nation-state as constituted for “authentic” Muslims whose religious sensibilities must be protected against all odds and at all costs. Judgments of numerous court cases in which this Ordinance was interpreted attests to this.4 We must approach these laws and the supporting religious nationalist narratives in which they are embedded as moments in the authorization and legitimization of historically specific religious affects and sensibilities. Ostensibly, it is the hand of the state that lies behind this accomplishment. Upon closer scrutiny, we see the work of a vibrant political field. It remains an open question whether this political field can become the site for undoing the laws that it has helped institutionalize.

Sadia Saeed is a visiting lecturer at the Department of Sociology at Boston University.


  1. National Assembly of Pakistan Debates, June 30, 1974: 1303. []
  2. Ordinance no. XX of 1984, Government of Pakistan. []
  3. Sadia Saeed. 2013. “Desecularisation as an Instituted Process: National Identity and Religious Difference in Pakistan,” Economic and Political Weekly 48(50): 62-70. []
  4. For example, see judgments in Mujibur Rehman v. The Federal Government of Pakistan (PLD 1985 FSC 8) and Zaheeruddin v. The State (1993 SCMR 1718). []

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33 Responses to How Ahmadis Became Non-Muslim | TQ SALON

  1. Ammar on Mar 2015 at 2:18 PM

    I request TQ to translate this in urdu and publish it.

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