Years ago, I discovered the Ahmadiyyas, a Muslim sect that originated in Pakistan in the late 1800s. I was struck by how similar this community was to the Latter Day Saint movement (often called Mormons). The patterns are remarkable:
- Both began in the 19th century.
- Both saw their founders as prophets even though the larger tradition they came from considered prophethood as something confined to the past.
- Both communities continue to have a single global leader (called a prophet by the Mormons and a caliph by the Ahmadiyyas).
- Both founders saw themselves as a continuation or even culmination of the larger tradition.
- Both communities have faced persecution. Early Mormons were evicted from Missouri (even killed) and their founder, Joseph Smith, was later killed by a mob. Ahmadiyyas have faced persecution in Pakistan where they are currently barred from calling themselves Muslims, from attending the pilgrimage to Mecca, or even using the Muslim greeting of “peace be with you.”
- Mormons and Ahmadiyyas consider themselves Christians and Muslims respectively, but many in those broader traditions see these folks as heretics and thus not as “real” Christians or Muslims.
- Both are very proselytory movements and went global very fast (Ahmadiyyas are in over 200 countries). Each movement now numbers between 10 and 20 million members.
Of course, not everything is the same. The Mormon founder brought a completely new text (the Book of Mormon) which has no parallel for the Ahmadiyyas. Uniquely, the Ahmadiyyas believe their founder is the future figure they see promised in so many traditions (the second coming of Christ, the Buddha Maitreye, the return of Krishna). They also claim that all religions originally taught the same message but diverged due to later distortions. As a result, they see their tradition as the culmination and unification of those many diverse religions, a teaching that echoes the Bahá’í faith, another 19th century movement that emerged out of Islam, this time from Iran.
As Ahmadiyyas continue to suffer persecution, they have become strong advocates of religious freedom. In Ontario, Canada where I live, they have sponsored an interfaith conference for 40 years. They have a large presence in Canada (including the country’s largest mosque in Calgary) where they seek the right to practice their faith freely.
Mahershala Ali is one of the best known Ahmadiyya Muslims in the West and the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.