Today (actually beginning at sundown yesterday) is, on the Islamic calendar, the date traditionally identified as Muhammad’s birthday, or Mawlid al-Nabi. While your immediate assumption might be to equate Mawlid with Christmas, they’re really not analogous (just as Muhammad’s role in Islam is not analogous to Jesus’s role in Christianity), and Mawlid is not a major holiday for Muslims. Many, particularly fundamentalists, don’t celebrate it at all, while for other Muslims it’s usually a day for small gift giving. And then there are the folks in Pakistan who decided to honor Muhammad’s birthday like this:
Thousands of protestors stormed a mosque belonging to the minority Ahmadi sect in Pakistan’s Punjab province on Monday, firing at worshipers and wounding several before police dispersed the attackers, police and an Ahmadi spokesman said.
A procession of around two thousand Sunni Muslims marking the birthday of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad entered the Ahmadi mosque despite resistance by police, hurling stones and bricks and firing weapons.
The Ahmadi minority holds that a prophet followed the Prophet Mohammed, who founded Islam. But that view runs counter to the Muslim religion’s central belief that Mohammad was the last of God’s messengers.
In 1974, a Pakistani law declared Ahmadis non-Muslims and in 1984, a new law made it possible to jail Ahmadis for “posing as a Muslim” or “offending a Muslim’s feelings”.
To be fair, it’s likely that the mob wasn’t honoring Muhammad’s birthday so much as it was trying to prevent the Ahmadis from doing so. Many fundamentalists, the kind of folks who will threaten people who dare to practice a different variety of the faith, believe that celebrating Muhammad’s birthday crosses a line into worshiping Muhammad, which is blasphemous.
I’m not sure we’ve ever talked about the Ahmadiyah, but if you’re not familiar then it’s worth taking a minute or so to fill in some details. The Ahmadi movement, Ahmadiyya or Ahmadiyah, was founded in the 1800s by a Punjabi man named Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908), though ostensibly the movement is not named after him but rather after the Prophet (“Ahmad” and “Muhammad” share a common Arabic root, Ḥ-M-D). He was born in the town of Qadian, which at the time was part of the Sikh Empire, and it’s through the interchange between Islam, Sikhism, Christianity (via missionaries), and Hinduism that he became something of a self-taught religious scholar and defender of Islam. Starting in the 1880s, Ahmad began to claim that he’d been appointed by God as a religious reformer and began to ask his group of followers to take oaths of loyalty (bayʿah) to him.
As the 1880s wore on, Ahmad’s claims began to get more grandiose. Instead of saying he’d been chosen as a reformer, he began to claim that God had selected him to be the Mujaddid (“renewer”), a figure who’s supposed to come around every so often (every century is the usual frequency) to weed out all the unwelcome accretions to Islam and restore it to a more pristine form. Then he began to claim that he was the Mahdi, the promised messianic figure who’s supposed to appear near the End of Days to defeat evil. He identified himself with Jesus–mainstream Sunnism teaches that Jesus will return at the End of Days as the Messiah, alongside the Mahdi, and together they will defeat evil, but Ahmad taught that the “Messiah” and the “Mahdi” were one and the same, and that Jesus’s “return” was figurative and spiritual, not physical. So he wasn’t calling himself Jesus so much as declaring that he represented the figurative second coming.
As Ahmad’s pronouncements began to take him further and further away from established Sunni beliefs, he began to be seen by other Muslim religious leaders as less a righteous defender of Islam and more an apostate, who should maybe be put to death for his heresies. He spent the rest of his life explaining, clarifying, debating (both with other Muslim scholars and messianic Christians who also claimed to be the second coming of Jesus), until he eventually died of dysentery in the city of Lahore. Dysentery may seem like an ignoble end for the Messiah-Mahdi-Mujaddid, but the Ahmadiyah take a long view of the End of Days, arguing that Ahmad’s teachings will slowly defeat evil over a period of centuries rather than in one great battle for all the existential marbles. His ministry was taken over by a series of successors who have styled themselves “caliphs”–the current caliph, the fifth in the line, is Mirza Masroor Ahmad.
So that’s all nice, but it doesn’t fully explain why crowds of Sunnis are protesting and attacking Ahmadi mosques on Muhammad’s birthday, or why the state of Pakistan considers Ahmadis to be non-Muslim as a matter of law. Naturally anybody who declares himself the Savior of Mankind is going to make some people angry, but Ahmad pushed some particular buttons that caused him to be poorly received by most of the Islamic community. For starters, there’s his view of Jesus. Sunnis believe that Jesus was not crucified and was later taken bodily into heaven to await his return. Ahmadis believe that Jesus was crucified, somehow survived his crucifixion, and journeyed to the east before dying of presumably natural causes in Kashmir (they believe the Roza Bal shrine in Srinagar is Jesus’s tomb).
Then there was Ahmad’s conception of jihad–he taught there were three kinds: the Greater Jihad, which he defined as the struggle against evil within oneself; the Great Jihad, or the spreading of Islam through peaceful means; and the Smaller Jihad, which is the armed struggle (though only as a last resort when under extreme duress) that many of us Westerners have been conditioned to associate with the word “jihad” nowadays. The idea of an “internal” jihad is an old one, much older than Ahmad, but Ahmad pretty much flat out rejected the validity of a violent jihad, arguing that it was incongruous with the modern world. I don’t think I need to explain why some categories of Sunni fundamentalist might find that teaching unacceptable. Ahmad also taught a cyclical view of history that is at odds with the more linear view of mainstream Islam.
But by far the biggest issue that mainstream Islam has with the Ahmadiyah is the fact that Ahmad described himself, and is still described by his followers, as a “prophet” and a “messenger,” terms that Muhammad, the “Seal of the Prophets” and the deliverer of God’s authentic message, was supposed to have rendered defunct. Mainstream Islam rejects the notion that there could be any prophets after Muhammad, and religious figures who have tried to claim prophethood in the centuries since Muhammad have generally found themselves cast out as heretics. Ahmad taught that Muhammad was the “Seal of the Prophets” in a more metaphorical sense, in that he was the greatest and most perfect of all the prophets God has sent mankind, but not the last of them. Clearly most Sunnis weren’t on board with that idea. There’s a splinter branch of Ahmadis, the Lahoris, who say that Ahmad’s references to himself as a “prophet” and “messenger” were figurative and that he never meant to suggest that Muhammad wasn’t the last true prophet. So this kind of talk was even a bridge too far for some of Ahmad’s own followers.
Consequently, Ahmadis are routinely assaulted, murdered, prevented from freely exercising their faith, deported, and all manner of other terrible things, all over the Islamic world, but especially in Pakistan, where they’re legally non-Muslim and their rights are severely curtailed, and in Saudi Arabia, where Ahmadi workers are constantly at risk of deportation and Ahmadis in general are forbidden from entering Mecca to perform the Hajj. Ironically they’re treated better in India, a place that isn’t terribly hospitable to Muslims in general, than they are in any majority Muslim country in the world. Ahmadi’s make up an estimated 1% of the Muslim population, with the largest populations in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Tanzania, and are one of the fastest-growing branches of Islam.