Ceremonial occasions: repetition and time
The early part of the twenty-first century was for the Ahmadis marked by two commemorations that were of great historic and symbolic significance for the community, both globally and nationally. In 2008 Ahmadis all over the world celebrated the centenary of the Ahmadi khilafat, the institution of the chosen successor to Ghulam Ahmad, the Ahmadi promised messiah.1 More locally, British Ahmadis just a few years later in 2013 celebrated the centenary of the arrival of the first Ahmadi missionary in the UK. The events of both commemorations forged relations across time and inserted the Ahmadi present into a historical trajectory which not only looked back into the past to find legitimacy and authority for its institutions in the present but also looked forward to the continuation of the Ahmadi khilafat into the future. For example, a special issue of Tariq, a UK Ahmadi magazine, published on the occasion of the centenary of the khalifat, explained that 2008 represented ‘a most significant milestone in the history of Islam and Ahmadiyyat, the true renaissance of Islam’, because ‘it is the Ahmadiyya community that today stands unique amongst all Muslims to have at its helm a spiritual leadership which reflects the very essence of the divinely inspired leadership of Khalifat’, a khalifat that follows in a direct line from ‘the advent of the Holy Prophet Mohammed’ (Ahmad, T. 2008:7). It is by such means, by creating particular relationships to the past, that individuals and groups can imagine, and hence fashion, possible futures for themselves: as Munn puts it, in this process ‘temporalizations of past time create modes of apprehending certain futures’ (1992:112).
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Association (AMA) UK set about commemorating the centenary of the khilafat within the community but also with special events that were ‘outward facing' and aimed, as I was told by one of the committee members who has helped organize some of the larger national celebration events in recent years, to fulfil the Ahmadi mission of ‘spreading the word’. These outward facing events included the first-ever visit of an Ahmadi khalifa to the Houses of Parliament in London to address parliamentarians, ambassadors and invited guests on 22 October. And four months earlier, on 10 June, there was a VIP reception and dinner to mark the centenary, held not at the Baitul Futuh Mosque but at the
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, close to the Houses of Parliament. This was another important event for the Ahmadis to showcase their faith and celebrate the centenary in the presence of high-ranking British politicians, including Jack Straw, Lord Avebury and Baroness Warsi, who all spoke at the event.2
But alongside such high-profile events there were many other more modest local events which allow us to see no less clearly how in 2008 contemporary Ahmadis situated themselves in relation to their own history and to the nonAhmadi communities around them. And all these events, it should be noted, were planned, organized and funded by the AMA UK in addition to the many regular religious and community events held, as usual, throughout the year. These events included innovations on past charity fund raising events such as when three separate charity walks organized annually by three sub-groups within the AMA, the women’s organization (Lajna Imailldh), the senior men’s organization (Majlis Ansarullah) and the junior men’s organization (Majlis Khuddam ul Ahmadiyya), joined together for the centenary year in a united single walk from the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Merton to the Fazl Mosque in Southffelds. The start and end points of the walk linked the two Ahmadi mosques, each built in a different century, and so also marked a walk across not just space but time in Ahmadi London history. To commemorate this special event, a pre-walk dinner was held at the Baitul Futuh Mosque on 18 June 2008 at which the deputy mayor of Merton spoke. Representatives from the charities to which the funds raised in the walk were to be donated were also present to explain how the donations would help them carry out their work. For this dinner, organizers of the event had set up an exhibition to celebrate the khilafat centenary with large print colour photographs of missionaries and newly built mosques. To mark the centenary, the halls and corridors of the mosque were decorated with fresh flowers and the windows of the ground floor festooned with strings of white and green lights. All events in 2008 were thus also venues for the presentation and display of the khilafat centenary to visitors, not simply as the survival of Ahmadi Islam but its growth, spread and continued vitality.
On the occasion of the pre-walk charity dinner, I sat in the large Tahir Hall with the Ahmadi women, separated by a screen from the men and non-Ahmadi women who had also been invited to attend the dimier. After the speeches and prayer, as food was served, the women I sat with talked about how they too, as Ahmadi women, wanted to organize their own celebration of the khilafat centenary. While there was swift and broad agreement on a women-only khilafat celebration dinner, the focus of the discussion centred on precisely when to hold the event. A suggestion to have the dinner event around Christmas time when women were likely to be free from work commitments was quickly ruled out because so many families in 2008 had already booked trips to visit Qadian during their winter break as they planned to celebrate the khilafat centenary in the birthplace of Ahmadiyya Islam itself. The year 2008 was so important that a return to the site where Ahmadiyya Islam began, a place of origins and a significant place to visit at any time, was all the more meaningful for those who were able to travel to India to spend this time in the birthplace and hometown of the promised messiah.
The first women’s dinner event was eventually set for 22 November at Baitul Futuh Mosque. The arrangements for the ladies-only dinner included an exhibition displaying Ahmadi mosques around the world, and one in particular was pointed out to me as only recently completed in Berlin. The woman who showed me around this display had attended the opening of the Berlin mosque a month earlier and announced that it was Ahmadi women who had raised the funds to build the mosque in the khilafat centenary year. This was another significant event for the Ahmadis as they had first set out to build a mosque in Berlin in the 1920s and had even purchased land for this purpose but were prevented from completing their goal for various reasons, including the state of the German economy in the 1920s, anti-Ahmadi Muslim groups in the country who campaigned against the building of the mosque and, to some extent also, by the German authorities who, at the time, were inclined to consider that the Ahmadis were too pro-British to be trusted (Majoka 2017). The money which had been raised by Ahmadi women in India in the early twentieth century and initially intended for the Berlin mosque was used to build the Fazl Mosque in Southfields in London instead, thus altering the future course of Ahmadi history. Almost a century later, another generation of Ahmadi women had succeeded in getting their Berlin mosque built and on this occasion an Ahmadi woman architect was commissioned to design the mosque (Majoka 2017:38, fn 39). That all this should have been achieved in the year of the centenary of the khilafat was somehow all the more fitting, and the important role of Ahmadi women from the past, and in the present, was highlighted demonstrating that Ahmadi women too make and record their own history. The first Ahmadi women's dinner event was a well attended and successful occasion and the Ahmadi women have since gone on to institute regular women’s dinners and use the organizational expertise they have developed over recent years also to host their annual Ladies Peace Symposia. So while the UK Ahmadi women used the 2008 centenary to reaffirm their faith through travel to Qadian and to commemorate communally accepted narratives of collective Ahmadi history, they also used the occasion to re-position themselves as women within the community by founding a new calendar of events independent of the male Ahmadi administration.
However, rather than simply enumerate the very many events that are organized by the different groups that make up the AMA UK each year and the additional events in years which have particular significance for the Ahmadis, this chapter focuses on just two events to develop from these an Ahmadi perspective on time, place and events. The decision to hold an event, the audience the particular event is aimed at, the precise narratives and messages about the Ahmadiyya Muslim community the event seeks to transmit, and the location and recording of the event all serve to place the Ahmadis in a context they manage and control that proclaims not only the truth of their message but the inevitability of their presence and establishment in the UK. This is achieved by drawing on verifiable historical events, a chronicle of undisputed occurrences, in other words, the ‘historicity’ of historians, as well as on prophecies, a form of historicity that is culmrally coherent if not one that traditional historians would consider strictly ‘factual’, and by locating the Ahmadis of today in a space that is self-evidently British but now also equally an Ahmadi space, in part at least as a consequence of the fulfilment of past prophecies.
The first event I consider was of particular importance to the UK Ahmadi diaspora as it celebrated the arrival of the first Ahmadi missionaiy to London. This was in many respects, therefore, a local rather than a global Ahmadi event and drew on a local history and on Ahmadi prophecies which are well known to UK Ahmadis precisely because they refer to the development of the Ahmadi community in Britain. While there were many celebrations designed specifically for Ahmadis on this occasion, I focus my discussion here on just one of the outward facing 1913-2013 centenary events, the Conference of World Religions: God in the 21st Century. This was a one-off event, but one which drew for its inspiration on a history of Ahmadi participation in previous conferences, and referenced these across a range of media to establish the significance of the message of Ahmadi-yyat for the people of Britain. It also served to place the Ahmadis themselves at the heart of long-established British institutions and so into a British history that extends into the distant past. In effect, Ahmadi faith was inserted into a history of Britain that long preceded not only the arrival of Ahmadis in Britain but even the advent of Ahmadi Islam itself.
The second event I consider in this chapter is a repeated annual event, the jalsa salana, a community-wide gathering which today takes place in some 25 countries where the Ahmadis have sufficient numbers, and where they are permitted to hold the event. For Ahmadis the jalsa salana is an opportunity to come together to repeat the first Ahmadi jalsa that took place in Qadian from 27 to 29 December in 1891 with just 75 invited male participants.3 Over a century later, the UK jalsa in 2018 catered for an estimated 35,000 participants, including women and children, per day on each of its three days.4
These two events, the centenary conference marking the arrival of the first Ahmadi missionary to the UK and the jalsa salana, are clearly very different in terms of frequency and scale. Where the latter welcomes some 35,000 people a day over three days, the former had an invitation list of some 500 guests. The centenary conference was a singular event, even if it was, in fact, a modified repetition of a conference that took place in London 90 years earlier, and the jalsa an annual event recalling and reprising the original jalsa first held in Qadian. Both events re-enact earlier events and so actualize Ahmadi faith and practice in relation to time, as both repetition and continuation of earlier precedents. The conference was in the style of an academic gathering while the jalsa, which also incorporates lectures and exhibitions, is a gathering more centred on the development of the spiritual and religious aspects of the faith. The jalsa has elements of what may, by some, be thought of as a distinctive Ahmadi form of pilgrimage, a repeated ritual event that brings the community together to celebrate and take stock of their faith in a liminal place. Both events were also similar insofar as they were organized by the Ahmadi jama ‘at and so the histories presented and messages shared about Ahmadiyyat were those the Ahmadis chose to make known. Both events thus incorporated time ‘as a dimension of the exercise of power’. Temporality, as Hodges reminds us, ‘is a hinge that connects subjects to wider social horizons’,
to ‘control over pasts and futures that are temporalized’ and that ‘also influence action in the present' (Hodges 2008:406). It is the case with both the events that I examine that Ahmadi engagements with Christian belief and Biblical narratives, elements that seem at first to be at best peripheral to the events themselves, prove upon reflection to be especially helpful for understanding the ways in which each event helped Ahmadis pursue self-fashioning and self-positioning in relation to their conception of time and the sacred.