An Ahmadi Muslim shopkeeper, Mr. Asad Shah, was recently stabbed to death in Glasgow, UK. Mr. Tanveer Ahmad, a Sunni Muslim of Pakistani origin, claimed he committed the act because Asad had "disrespected Islam." In his eyes, Asad was a blasphemer. The Sunni extremist group, Almi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatme Nubuwat (AMTKN), found to have links with Al Qaeda, sent out a message congratulating all Muslims on Asad's murder. Just a few days later, 'Kill Ahmadis' pamphlets were found at the group's Mosque in Stockwell. Other Sunni groups in Pakistan also praised Mr. Tanveer as a hero of Islam and congratulated the Sunnis on his "courageous act."
Following the murder, the Muslim Council of Britain released a statement clarifying that they would not identify Mr. Asad Shah as a Muslim. King's College academic Mr. Shiraz Maher also voiced the same sentiment, asking if there was a problem if he did not consider Mr. Asad Shah a 'real Muslim?' Also following the murder, a sign calling on fellow Sunnis to boycott the Ahmadi Muslims and sever all ties with them was put up at the largest Sunni Mosque in Slough, UK. "Qadianis (pejorative for Ahmadi Muslims) ... are not Muslims," the sign said.
Where Mr. Asad Shah's murder has brought different communities together in solidarity, it has also brought a deep-rooted, disturbing, sectarian phenomenon to the fore.
Ahmadi Muslims, who constitute the largest organized Muslim community in the world, have long been persecuted in Sunni-majority countries. In 1974, Pakistan declared the Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority in its constitution. In 1984, new laws restricting their religious freedom were passed. Since then, scores of Ahmadi Muslims - including three of my uncles - have been jailed for reciting the Quran, praying like a Muslim, saying the Muslim call to prayer, identifying as a Muslim etc. Interestingly, when Mr. Toaha Qureshi of the notorious Stockwell Mosque was questioned regarding this well-known apartheid of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, he conveniently placed the blame on the victims themselves. "No they do not (live in fear). That is their desire, to come here and get political asylum. Nothing else," he claimed.
It is not only the Pakistani State. Saudi Arabia also bans the Ahmadi Muslims from open profession. Indonesia has strict laws that restrict the religious freedom of the Ahmadi Muslims. The basis of this oppression is the orthodox Sunni view (shared by some Shia clerics) that aspects of the Ahmadiyya belief make them unfit to identify as Muslim. This certainly begs the question, who is a Muslim? And who has the authority to dismiss self-identifying Muslims as 'infidels?'
When people converted to Islam, Prophet Muhammad - the founder of the Islamic faith - only required them to pledge allegiance to the oneness of God and the truth of his prophetic mission. There was no other requirement whatsoever. This is why Muslims have long believed that the Kalima (proclaiming oneness of God and prophethood of Muhammad) is the basis of the Islamic faith. The question of who would be counted as a Muslim came up during the first census in the State of Medina. Prophet Muhammad asked that anyone who claimed to be Muslim be counted as one. Their profession of Islam was all he required to be considered a part of the Muslim community. There was no religious test devised to test a claimant's 'Muslimness.' Prophet Muhammad knew well that there were hypocrites living in Medina, some of whom were even conspiring against him. Prophet Muhammad knew that they did not even consider him a true prophet. Yet, not only did he never forbid them from identifying with the Muslims, he allowed them open access to his Mosque. Rather than forbid them from praying and punishing them for 'posing as Muslim,' he in fact prayed with them, and for them.
There are other traditions that shed more light on this issue. Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said:
"Whoever says, 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah', faces our Qibla (Mecca) during the prayers, prays like us and eats our slaughtered animal, then he is a Muslim, and has got the same rights and obligations as other Muslims have." (Bukhari)
In another detailed narration, Prophet Muhammad defined both Islam and the tenets of faith:
"One day while Allah's Apostle was sitting with the people, a man came to him walking and said, "O Allah's Apostle. What is Belief?" The Prophet said, "Belief is to believe in Allah, His Angels, His Books, His Apostles, and the meeting with Him, and to believe in the Resurrection." The man asked, "O Allah's Apostle What is Islam?" The Prophet replied, "Islam is to worship Allah and not worship anything besides Him, to offer prayers perfectly, to pay the obligatory alms i.e. Zakat and to fast the month of Ramadan." (Bukhari)
These sayings of Prophet Muhammad spell out how he defined a Muslim. He did not denounce self-identifying Muslims as non-Muslim. Such rejection and exclusion was the hallmark of his opponents. He repeatedly cautioned that judging someone's truth or sincerity to their claim of Islam was a prerogative of God alone. Once, the famous general Khalid bin Waleed suggested to the Prophet that there were many people who outwardly professed Islam while there was no faith in their heart. Prophet Muhammad responded firmly:
"I have not been commanded to pierce through the hearts of people, nor to split their bellies (to look what is inside them)" (Muslim)
There is another famous incident of a Muslim killing a non-Muslim during a battle, despite the man having recited the Kalima. When Prophet Muhammad found out, he was furious. The Muslim soldier said: "O Messenger of Allah, that man read the Kalima merely to protect himself from our sword." Prophet Muhammad reprimanded him:
"Did you open his heart and look inside it?"
Even the founder of the Islamic faith was not granted the authority to judge someone's 'Muslimness.' God commanded in the Quran:
The Arabs of the desert say, 'We believe.' Say, "You have not believed yet; but rather say, 'We have accepted Islam,' for the true belief has not yet entered into your hearts." (49:14)
This verse speaks of those Bedouins whom God Himself attests were completely faithless, yet were allowed to identify as Muslim. This prohibition of excommunication or Takfir is emphasized in the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, who equated such exclusion to murder.
How then did this culture of social boycotts and excommunication (Takfir) spread in the Muslim world? Why do many Muslim groups promote exclusion and prejudice? Why do even so-called moderate clerics like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf or Shaykh Umar Al-Qadri judge the faith of other Muslim communities in such a nonchalant way? Do these clerics believe they are a higher authority than Prophet Muhammad?
There are two ways groups like the Muslim Council of Britain or extremist Sunni groups in Pakistan try to dismiss other Muslims as infidel. The first is by discarding Prophet Muhammad's definitions and inventing others of their own. The second is by misrepresenting the beliefs of other Muslims and forcing them out of the Prophet's definition.
I call on all such Muslim clerics, bodies and States to realize how their sectarianism is directly linked to violence against the Ahmadi (and other) Muslims. That Asad Shah's tragic murder would lead to more sectarian calls of exclusion is an unfortunate and painful realization. I call on such Muslim bodies to see the beauty in diversity and appreciate the value in embracing pluralism and inclusivity within Islam. I call on them to the ways of Prophet Muhammad. When it came to him, it was quite clear who must be counted with the Muslims: Anyone who claimed to be one. And who actually was a true Muslim from within? He let God be the judge of that!