There are several Muslim-majority countries where Mahershala Ali’s Oscar win for his role in Moonlight won’t be celebrated. That’s because he belongs to the minority Ahmadi sect.
In countries such as Malaysia and Pakistan, Ahmadis are reviled by hardline Sunni Muslim groups as heretics, apostates and even infidels.
So much so that Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s envoy to the United Nations, deleted a tweet on Monday that noted Ali was the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award. The tweet, however, was spotted by eagle eyed Twitter users who saved screen grabs.
Ali, who was born a Christian, converted to Islam in his final year at graduate school after the woman who would become his wife, Amatus Karim, invited him to an Ahmadi mosque.
In Pakistan, the government of then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was pressured by religious hardliners to amend the Constitution in 1974 to declare members of the Ahmadiyya sect “non-Muslims”.
Another constitutional amendment by military ruler Zia-ul-Haq in 1984 further restricted religious freedoms of Ahmadis, who were barred from referring to themselves as Muslims and from calling their places of worship mosques. Anyone doing so could be sent to prison for three years.
Even now, every Pakistani applying for a passport has to sign a declaration that states Prophet Mohammed was the final prophet and that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya sect, an “imposter nabi” (false prophet) and his followers “non-Muslims”.
Who are the Ahmadis?
The Ahmadi or Ahmadiyya sect takes its name from Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who was born on February 13, 1835 in the town of Qadian in Gurdaspur district, currently in Indian Punjab. In Pakistan, the derogatory terms “Qadiani” and “Mirzai” are often used to refer to Ahmadis.
Ghulam Ahmad angered other Muslims when he claimed he had been chosen by Allah as the “Mahdi” or messiah in the late 1880s. His followers too regarded him as a prophet, further angering Sunnis who considered this heretical as they believed Prophet Mohammed was the final prophet.
He died in Lahore in May 1908 and was buried in Qadian. During Partition in 1947, Ghulam Ahmad’s followers shifted the movement’s religious headquarters from Qadian to Rabwah in Pakistani Punjab, which they projected as their “promised land”.
But less than a decade later, Ahmadis were targeted in violent riots in Lahore in 1953 that followed protests spearheaded by groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Following years of persecution, the Ahmadis moved their central headquarters to London. The sect now has adherents in Britain, the US and African and European countries though there are no reliable numbers for the followers.
In Pakistan, Ahmadis continue to be targeted by religious hardliners and terror groups. In May 2010, nearly 100 Ahmadis were killed in near simultaneous terror attacks on two mosques of the sect in Lahore.
The country’s only Nobel laureate, Abdus Salam, who played a key role in the nuclear programme and whose work led to the discovery of the so-called God Particle, has been shunned in Pakistan because he was an Ahmadi. More recently, army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa was the target of a vicious whisper campaign that claimed he was an Ahmadi because his wife reportedly has some Ahmadi relatives.
Besides Pakistan, members of the sect have also faced persecution in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia, where the country’s top Islamic body declared Ahmadis as “deviants” in 2008.
Follow @htshowbiz for more