Jalsa salana in the twenty-first century
By contrast with the situation in the early decades of the twentieth century, the UK Ahmadi jalsa today is well-known to MPs, local officials and representatives of many organizations and charities. Politicians and dignitaries attend, give speeches or send messages of support if they are unable to take part in person. The event has grown from a small gathering in Southfields in the 1930s to one that now takes up a large area on a Hampshire farm, bought when the Ahmadi site known as Islamabad in Surrey was no longer large enough to cope with the year-on-year growth of participants who came from across the country and beyond to hear the khalifa speak.28 So onerous is the organization required to manage and cater for the shelter, dietary, sanitary and other needs of 35,000 people each day over three days that the committee which plans and prepares for the jalsa now meets all year round. As soon as one jalsa ends, the jalsa committee gathers to debrief and then immediately begins to plan for the next one.
A leaflet from the first jalsa I attended, in 2003 in Islamabad in Surrey, explains the meaning and purpose of jalsa as holding:
deep spiritual importance for members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
Jalsa Salana is the focal point of the year for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and provides members ... with the opportunity to:
Jalsa also provides an opportunity for the UK community to reflect on .. . its contribution... in developing and enhancing ... multi-cultural society...
Not only are the religious expectations of jalsa highlighted in this leaflet, but so too is the commitment to place and to the national links established between UK Ahmadis and the country in which they live. The leaflet also allowed the Ahmadi national president the opportunity to focus on what he considered to be distinctive about Ahmadis, in a then still palpably recent post 9/11 context, when he wrote:
The Annual UK Convention event is indeed a blessed occasion and unique experience. Ahmadi Muslims from . . . around the world meet at the Jalsa Salana in a spirit of fraternity. It enables individuals to strengthen their faith and establish friendships with people of all races, colour and nationalities. In the wake of September 11th when Muslims are portrayed in a negative light, we feel it is important to demonstrate the true spirit of Islam - of love, tolerance and goodwill for all. This peacefill message would be a welcome relief from the noise one hears from the fanatical Muslim clergy.
We welcome you with warm greetings and to come and experience for yourself the true Islam through the Ahmadiyya Community whose simple motto is ‘Love for All, Hatred for None’.
The three day jalsa is one of the few events in the ritual calendar that all Ahmadis, including those who are not otherwise particularly active in the jama 'at, will make an effort to attend, even if they can only manage partial attendance on just one day out of the three. While the jalsa is particularly important for Ahmadis themselves it is an event that also has an outward facing aspect as important guests, including national and international politicians, are invited to speak at jalsa or simply to attend to have the opportunity to visit the displays and exhibitions and to listen to the many speeches and prayers over the course of the three days.
And yet despite the scale, regularity and media coverage of the jalsa, there continues to be, in certain quarters at least, some debate about the nature, purpose and meaning of the event. After noting that the second-ever jalsa in Qadian in 1892 catered for some 500 participants who had travelled from as far as Mecca, Delhi and Aligarh to attend, Lavan (1974:92) adds: ‘[f]or Ahmadiyah the annual
jalsah became a kind of hajj for the supporters of Ahmad’s claims’ and, as Arjana (2017:33) more recently elaborates:
[t]he annual gathering in Rabwah, known as jalsa salana, functions for some Ahmadiyyah as a replacement for hajj, in part because Ahmadis are banned from entering the holy city of Mecca. This is one of many instances where Muslims have a substitution pilgrimage for hajj that is seen as being as meritorious as visiting Mecca, or as a reasonable alternative due to political or financial circumstances.
These statements are problematic for various reasons, not least because Ahmadis have not been permitted to hold their annual jalsa in Rabwah since 1983 and also because Ahmadis who have the necessary means have never stopped going, and continue today to go, on hajj.29 For British passport holders, this is facilitated by the fact that the passports do not include details of the passport bearer's faith. I have myself seen the photo albums of UK Ahmadis who have been on hajj, in some cases more than once, and it was only in 1973 that the Saudi authorities stopped issuing hajj visas to Ahmadis. Prior to this time Ahmadis who were able to go to Mecca for hajj did so quite openly. Included among prominent Ahmadis who undertook the pilgrimage prior to 1973 were the second khalifa who went on hajj in 1913 and again in 1924, and Zaffrulla Khan who even wrote a book-length account of his 1967 pilgrimage to Mecca (Metcalf 1990:170).30 Given this, it is difficult to understand jalsa as a replacement for hajj. And even if any Ahmadi were wont to consider jalsa as a ‘a substitution pilgrimage for hajj that is seen as being as meritorious as visiting Mecca’ (Arjana 2017:33), the current khalifa has made very clear that this is not the case. In a sermon given at the 2016 jalsa in Germany he categorically stated: ‘We do not say, God forbid, that the status of the convention [Jalsa] is that of Hajj as some of our adversaries blame us that we go to Qadian and give it the status of Hajj. This is incorrect’.31 The need to make this point at all to an Ahmadi audience, however, suggests that the idea that jalsa is the Ahmadi hajj is one that is widespread and one the Ahmadi leadership considers it important to address. I have attended several jalsas over the years since I was first invited to attend in 2003, and have talked about jalsa with many Ahmadis including some of those on the jalsa organizing committee, yet I have never once heard any Ahmadi describe this event as a pilgrimage. Indeed, when I asked one Ahmadi woman I know well if she had ever thought of jalsa as a kind of pilgrimage, her response was one of surprise that I would even think such a thing before discounting this notion as simply ‘bizarre’. The Ahmadi literature on jalsa describes the event as a ‘convention’ or ‘gathering’, never as a pilgrimage. If jalsa was indeed a substitute pilgrimage or had the features of such for Ahmadis it is difficult to understand why no one would have simply described it as such.
Nonetheless, while the jalsa is not, for Ahmadis, a pilgrimage or in any sense a replacement for hajj, there are aspects of the three-day convention which align rather closely with much of the anthropological literature on pilgrimage. Taking part in jalsa requires participants to journey from the everyday world of routine and work to a place that is outside of the quotidian and the profane to a place where the spiritual and sacred are foregrounded. This is similar to the journey of the pilgrim and to ‘the temporal structure of the pilgrimage process, beginning in a Familiar Place, going to a Far Place, and returning, ideally “changed”, to a Familiar Place’, a process which ‘can be ... related to van Gennep’s concept of the rite of passage, with its stages of separation, margin or limen, and reaggregation’. Further, as Turner notes, ‘the liminal stage, when the subject is in spatial separation from the familiar and habitual, constitutes a cultural domain that is extremely rich in cosmological meaning’ (Turner 1973:213). Attendance at jalsa requires participants to leave behind profane concerns, to journey to the jalsa site and ideally spend three days there, during which one is exhorted:
to make an effort to be attracted towards God, to advance in knowledge and understanding, to bring about positive changes making them part of one’s life, to save oneself from the desires and futilities of the world, to make a pledge and a promise to spread the message of Islam in the world, and to fulfill it with all of one’s abilities and capabilities, and to enhance the relationship of love, affection and of brotherhood (khalifa’s sermon, 2 September 2016).32
Jalsa attendees are expected to cut themselves off from the world for three days and to benefit from this time outside profane time to absorb ‘the blessings of Allah despite living in this [profane] world’ (ibid.). As with traditional pilgrimage, the jalsa is viewed as a time away from mundane distractions to renew and strengthen faith and from which to return to the quotidian realm spiritually reformed. The ‘relationship of love, affection and of brotherhood’ the khalifa considers should be cultivated during the jalsa is perhaps best encapsulated in the moment on the last day of the jalsa when Ahmadis collectively reconfirm their faith and commitment to Ahmadiyyat through a pledge of allegiance, the bai ‘at. This moment unites everyone at jalsa and exemplifies, perhaps, what Victor Turner called ‘communitas’ - a feeling made possible in the liminal space of jalsa in which the ‘direct, immediate, and total confrontation of human identities’ (Turner 1969:131) is experienced and made visible. The pledge results in a ‘feeling of unity and comr adeship that bonds the group of initiates, irrespective of their previous social status, political or economic power, or class affiliation; a recognition that despite social differences, all are the same' as they share together in a moment of ‘Dur-klieimian collective effervescence: a fleeting, rejuvenating feeling that occurs outside of quotidian experience’ (Di Giovine 2011:251). Certainly, this is a very powerful moment during jalsa, when men place their right hand on the shoulder of the man in front and in this way reach out to touch the khalifa himself. This symbolically charged moment reveals that:
the passion which is seen through the tears which are shed is proof enough to the fact that bai‘at is not a physical but is an emotional and spiritual thing....
This is a chain, a strong and sturdy chain, almost like a spider web. It has the ability to expand unlimitedly. Each bond is just as important and vital as the other. If one bond breaks, the whole chain will fall apart. This is brotherhood. This is Ahmadiyyat. This is Islam.
Men who are not sitting in the hall where the khalifa is present at the time of the renewal of the bai ‘at pledge stop whatever they are doing, turn to face the nearest television screen on which the khalifa is being broadcast and place their right hands on those of the men in front of them while the bai ‘at pledge is renewed?3 There is a strong sense that this moment of collective pledge unites not only the Ahmadis who are present but connects them also to those from earlier years and ultimately back to the first 40 men who took bai ‘at at the hand of the promised messiah on 23 March 1889. Yet this international bai 'at ritual first took place only in 1993. It is now repeated each year in the UK and watched by Ahmadis around the globe as described in a text for Ahmadi children.
The Baiat is performed in the following manner. Huzoor stretches out his right hand; persons sitting immediately close to him put their hands on his sacred hands while others put their hands on the shoulders of these persons to make a continuous link with Huzoor. Everyone in the assembly puts his/ her hands on the backs of others, thereby the entire gathering is connected with each other leading up to Huzoor. Huzoor recites a portion of the words of Baiat in English, he then pauses so the portion is translated into various languages. When the whole text of the Baiat is completed, Huzoor recites the Istighfar [act of seeking forgiveness from Allah]. At the end everybody prostrates along with Huzoor?4
Figure 2.4 Bai‘at at a UK Jalsa
Women, despite the use of the pronoun ‘her’ in this quote, for their part, do not place their right hands on the shoulders of those in front of them but quietly watch the large screen in the women’s hall which shows what the men are doing and, from my observation, some will quietly repeat the bai'at pledge to themselves. While this is indeed a key moment during the jalsa and a powerful, emotionally charged, collective symbol of unity and strength, the bai ‘at pledge is just one, albeit very important, part of the jalsa as a whole and it would be difficult to maintain that communitas, at least as Turner understood it, pervades the jalsa. Rather, as Sailnow (1981) and other pilgrimage scholars have repeatedly found, most pilgrims do not understand their pilgrimage in terms that exemplify communitas. It might perhaps be said that the repeated exhortations to the faithful to turn their thoughts to spiritual affairs and to share in brotherly feelings with their fellow Ahmadis is evidence that this does not come easily to many, and that while some enduring communitas-like experience may be desired by those who organize and plan the jalsas, the mass of the faithful may, for the most part, fall short of such high expectations.
Another feature common to pilgrimages around the world is the connection made to a particular place, often one that is held to be sacred because of where the place is or because of some apparition, miracle or event that took place there.35 In this respect also Ahmadi jalsas do not fit the pilgrimage model. If a pilgrimage entails a journey to a place made sacred because of what is said to have transpired there at some point in the past, then the Ahmadi jalsa which can take place anywhere a sufficiently large and suitable space can be found is not a pilgrimage. Jalsas take place in countries where there are sufficient numbers for a convention to be held and in these countries the location for the jalsa depends on the size of the gathering and other practical matters such as links to transportation. In the UK, the location of the Ahmadi jalsa salana has changed over the years as existing sites became too small and larger ones were required. Nor do the jalsas in every country take place at the same time as each other. In fact, they are spread across the year in part to fit with local conditions with regards to practical matters such as weather conditions and times that the largest possible number can be absent from work to attend. The khalifa spends a good deal of his time traveling from country to country, going from one jalsa to another around the world. If there is a focus and centre which holds the jalsas together and helps to unite the global Ahmadi diaspora, it may well be the presence of the khalifa himself at many of the jalsas that take place each year. And certainly, for those Ahmadis who make the effort to attend the UK jalsa, beyond the opportunity to visit family and friends in the country, the key reason is to be in the presence of the khalifa and to hear him speak in person at jalsa.36 For Pakistani Ahmadis, attending jalsa in India, the UK or some other Western nation is the only way to take part in this important annual event as jalsa in Pakistan is no longer permitted by the Pakistani authorities or, to be more precise, while the Ahmadi jalsa has not been officially banned, each year when the Ahmadis apply for the licence to hold the event their request is turned down.
A 2018 jalsa blog describes the loss felt by Pakistani Ahmadis after the exile of the khalifa to London. For those millennials who never had the opportunity to attend jalsa, we are told of childhoods spent:
in a constant state of interval. Jalsas will happen when Huzoor comes, or Huzoor will come when Jalsas happen.... By the late eighties and early nineties, the waiting became burdensome. It was nearly a decade that Jalsas were banned in Pakistan, Khalifa was in some far off land and soon they started to realize that they are missing out big time. Now they were old enough to do Jalsa duties, but there was no sign of Jalsas to take place in Pakistan anytime soon.37
While this is still the case it is now possible for those who cannot attend in person to watch Jalsa live on MTA. This is the culmination of a long process of media development which has made the separation between the khalifa and the Ahmadis in Pakistan one that can now be bridged, to some extent at least, through technology:
gradually ... Video tapes replaced audio cassettes and brought 4th Khalifa's Jalsa speeches to his people. It seems trivial now, but back then it was a giant step especially for the kids. Now they could actually see their beloved Huzoor and could establish a connection with him. As they were getting used to this model of waiting for the Jalsa UK guests to return to Pakistan and watch those video tapes upon their arrival, something amazing happened. In the summer of 1992, out of the blue, they were able to watch the live transmission of Jalsa UK. . . . Little did they know that a new era was dawning upon them. From then on, Jalsas became late night events for them during their summer break. It couldn’t have gotten any better. The sheer fact that they could listen to Huzoor as he was speaking was surreal. . . . Dish antennas mushroomed on Ahmadi rooftops across Pakistan. As teenagers, with the blessing of MTA, millennials developed such a strong relationship with Khilafat that left older generations startled. They were deprived of Khalifa's presence in Pakistan, and now because of MTA the Khalifa was personally mentoring each single one of them.38
Counter intuitively perhaps the relationship between the khalifa based in the UK and young Ahmadis in Pakistan is here presented as one of individualized mentoring mediated by television. Geographical distance is erased through the intimacy young Ahmadis experience when viewing the khalifa on television and, perhaps a little paradoxically, some Ahmadis who have never met the khalifa in person even told me that they felt they knew the khalifa personally because they see him so regularly on MTA. Yet, other Ahmadis did not express this shared feeling of co-presence with, and assumed knowledge of, the khalifa and so, as must be obvious for any large cohort, there are different ways of experiencing and being Ahmadi whether or not this is (partially) achieved through mediated experiences such as MTA.39
The immediate, repeated and sensory experience of hearing and seeing the khalifa (and also in particular the fourth khalifa whose programs are popular and regularly repeated on MTA), and keeping up with his sermons and travels allows those Ahmadis who desire it to be with their spiritual leader and to have him in their homes with them at all times. The complex and expansive Ahmadi technological machinery which records in film, in photographs and in writing all public events and Ahmadi gatherings produces an archive so large and continually added to such that no individual could possibly hope ever to gain a comprehensive overview of it. For jalsa this means that any given convention happens once in real time during which it is live streamed across the globe but also continues to be re-experienced in edited versions broadcast on MTA, on YouTube and in Ahmadi publications and other media.40 Here Ahmadis can witness their own participation in jalsa and view the success of the jama ‘at as evidenced in the large-scale, disciplined and orderly unfolding of the jalsa programme.
The preservation in digital media and the reproduction of jalsa events and talks, not only those of the khalifa, but also of the invited guest speakers additionally allows those who cannot, for whatever reason, attend jalsa or who experience jalsa only partially because they cannot attend all three days, or because, as women, the male jalsa space is not one they can move about in at will, to take part in events that they might otherwise miss altogether. For while jalsa is now open to all it is not experienced in the same way by all attendees.
The first jalsa was held in Qadian in 1891 with 75 invited male participants, and it was not until 1914, under the leadership of the second Khalifa, Bashir ud-Din Ahmad, that women were invited to attend. This was one element of the second khalifa’s organizational changes to institutionalize and modernize the Ahmadiyya community, in effect, providing it with a viable and long-term bureaucratic structure that has enabled the growth and development of the community for over a century. In 1914, the first 400 women to attend jalsa were provided with instruction in the form of religious lectures scheduled over three consecutive days. And it was the wife of the promised messiah herself, Hazrat Ummul Momineen, who is said to have overseen arrangements for the accommodation and meals of the female attendees. From 1917, separate jalsas were held for Ahmadi women which included the partial attendance of the khalifa who gave speeches to the women.
While records from the National Ar chives make clear that the jalsa as an annual event was held in the London Mosque in the 1930s, it appears that the practice fell into abeyance and was revived from the late 1960s in the UK when five jalsas were held over consecutive years. These, however, did not include the participation of women. Since 1971, women have held their own jalsas and have made their own arrangements to ensure that the event runs smoothly for women and children. From the very first women’s jalsa, female journalists have been invited to attend and publish articles on their experiences.41 In the women’s jalsa, Ahmadi women volunteers act as security personnel and direct attendees through the air-port-style security scanners that are now one of the unfortunate requirements to ensure the safety of those at the convention. Once through security each attendee is given a badge that denotes her particular status at the event. The badges are colour-coded and, depending on the colour grant different privileges including access to particular areas of the jalsa grounds to the bearer.
In 20171 attended the jalsa with some women friends: two sisters and the adult daughter of one of the women. During the course of the day at jalsa we also met the mother of the two sisters, a sister-in-law with her three children and some other female members of the extended family who had travelled from Europe primarily to take part in jalsa but also to meet with family and friends. Not every woman at jalsa, however, was fortunate enough to be able to meet her family members and one woman we met lamented the fact that she had come to jalsa, in part at least, to meet cousins who had travelled from Australia to be there but had not been able to find them. This woman had not managed to locate her relatives and said that she remembered jalsa in the 1980s at the Fazl Mosque when the community gathered from across the country was still small enough for everyone to fit in the mosque and for everyone to know each other. Even when the jalsa later moved to Islamabad in Surrey, she said, the community was larger but still small enough for her to know just about everyone attending, if not personally, then at least she knew the families and recognized people as familiar faces that reappeared at jalsa from one year to the next. Nowadays, she said, the jalsa is so ‘massive’ that it is difficult to meet up and see people.
During the journey to the convention by car from London, it transpired that the woman driving us had not gone online to pre-register her car licence plate and receive a designated parking pass for jalsa. For some years now this has also been a requirement, partly because of the sheer number of attendees and the advance planning needed to work out where each car should be parked to avoid chaos, as tens of thousands of people arrive almost simultaneously at the jalsa site, and partly, again, for security reasons.42 Undaunted by this news we continued to drive towards the jalsa entrance when a volunteer in a stab vest, another unfortunate sign of the times, told us we had to turn around and leave because we did not have a pass for the car park we were heading towards. Not willing to be turned away so easily, one of the women in our group asked everyone to look round to see if we could spot anyone we recognized. As we reached what looked like the literal end of the road to jalsa, the daughter with us saw one of her uncles ahead directing cars to their parking spots at the convention. He was called over by one of the older women, his cousin, and our plight quickly explained to him. The man who was, as are all those who actually make the jalsa ran smoothly, a volunteer, shook his head in disbelief that we had managed to get as far as we had without the right paperwork and then, discretely, directed us to a parking space that was available and remarkably well positioned, close to the jalsa entrance. This was one of those fortuitous situations when bonds of kinship can make all the difference.
We made our way to the women’s registration section to enter the women’s jalsa, only to find that while my friends went through the security screening and picked up their jalsa badges without any problems, I was a cause of some consternation for the women volunteers on security duty. One of the women, who as it happened turned out to be someone I knew and had often spoken with in the past, explained that the problem was that if I was given a badge of a particular colour, such as silver that granted me privileges, then I would not be able to stay with my friends in the women's section for the jalsa but would be ushered off to another section of the convention. However, iff was given the same badge as my friends, I would not easily be able to access all sections of the jalsa grounds and might miss out on some of the events and exhibitions. There were in fact not just two but several categories of badges, each colour coded and granting the wearer access to different parts of the jalsa grounds and different privileges. Reassured that I was more than happy to just have whatever badge my friends did, I was, after a short delay and a discussion about whether I should have a purple or a blue badge, able to rejoin my jalsa companions and share in their experience of the convention. And the women’s jalsa is a very different experience to the VIP ones I had previously enjoyed in the men’s jalsa. As might be expected, there were more facilities for women with young children and also more reminders about modest dress that applied to women only, along with a notice about the Rishta Nata (marriage) office meet and greet to find spouses for community members who wish to marry.
In the marquee which live-screened the sermons and speeches from the men’s jalsa, women had brought their own picnic blankets, cushions, low foldout seats and baskets with provisions to demarcate the space on which they and their family members sat. Women volunteers, wearing armbands to distinguish them
Figure 2.5 Notices at the UK Women’s jalsa 2017
from ordinary jalsa attendees, patrolled the marquee urging women to be silent, pay attention to the proceedings on the screen and to adjust their veils in accord with Ahmadi notions of modesty. Despite this, most of the speeches by nonAhmadis, including a pre-recorded message from Prime Minister Theresa May were, for the most part, ignored as women dealt with children, met relatives and discussed matters that were of more pressing concern to them. The jalsa is, for some women, a good time to look for suitable spouses for their sons and for mothers of daughters of marriageable age to make discreet inquiries about suitable boys from respectable families. It was only at prayer time, during recitations from the Qur’an and when the khalifa himself spoke, that the atmosphere in the marquee markedly changed. At prayer time, the mood became one of quiet concentration, as women prayed and young children were kept as quiet as possible while older ones were encouraged to follow along as best they could. When the khalifa spoke, women who did not understand Urdu would wear headphones providing simultaneous translation into whichever of the many languages available they required. When prayer was over, and if the khalifa himself was not speaking, women would also visit the stalls at the jalsa to buy religious books, visit the bazaar, look at the exhibitions or get tea. Yet, while all these facilities were available for women, the jalsa program for 2017 offered women the following advice:
Ladies are advised that they should take care not to roam around aimlessly. However, those ladies who are not Ahmadis and do not observe Purdah, should only be requested to do so politely. There is no need for force or coercion. If there is an Ahmadi who has difficulty to cover her face, she should not wear make-up and remain simple. Spread the habit of keeping your head covered. It should be remembered that we are spending our time in a spiritual environment during these days. We should not try to find excuses not to observe Purdah.
As with the khalifa’s reminder that the jalsa is a call to brotherhood, to focus on the spiritual and a rejection of the profane, the advice for women from the jalsa organizers is repeated each year in the knowledge that for a proportion of those who attend jalsa this is more likely to be honoured in the breach than in the observance.
The women’s jalsa included a range of talks and presentations by women, including the UK Lajna Ima’illah women’s president who in 2017 spoke on ‘Istighfar43 - the True Key to Bringing One’s Soul to Peace’. Earlier in the day, other talks by and for Ahmadi women included one on ‘Maintaining Your Muslim Identity in the West’ and another, in Urdu, on ‘Avoiding Bad Rituals and Innovations'. A highlight of the women’s jalsa, however, was the arrival of the khalifa to give his address to the women and to distribute academic awards to girls and women who had performed particularly well in national examinations or at degree level. This part of the women’s jalsa was transmitted live from the women’s section to the rest of the jalsa and to the rest of the world.
There were also in the women’s jalsa some small tents with exhibitions of the charity work and history of the jama‘at. One such tent in 2017 celebrated the lajna diamond jubilee and included a display of the history of the UK lajna. To celebrate this and to help fund future lajna initiatives, postcards had been designed by the Ahmadi women and were available for purchase.
Other lajnas, both local and international, had prepared displays and art works to commemorate the 60 years of the lajna and these included lavishly decorated cakes made of papier mâché and 3D models of Ahmadi mosques. Another display showcased the books used for religious study by Ahmadi women and girls. Ahmadi women and girls are encouraged to take part in programs of study which lead to examinations as part of the ongoing education programmes in place for the lajna and nasirat. The professionalization of such courses of study is relatively recent, and the textbooks which are now produced by the lajna for girls of different ages, for example, were not available just a generation ago. Yet while the women’s tents were informative and welcoming, they were relatively small in scale by comparison with the exhibitions, lectures and presentations in the men’s jalsa.
In these ways, the women’s jalsa is distinctive and has, as one would expect, a stronger focus on matters that are more directly relevant to the lives of women. It also provides a space to meet friends and family and to share news and information. As I had always been told that women were given allocated times to visit the exhibitions or could sign up to hear lectures, in the men’s jalsa I was somewhat surprised to find that the women I travelled to jalsa with in 2017 - all lifelong Ahmadis from an established UK-based family - were unaware of the events and exhibitions at the men’s jalsa. So with the youngest member of the group I was with, I set off to see if we could cross from the women’s jalsa over to the men’s jalsa to view, among other things, the Review of Religions exhibition of Islamic calligraphy, writing implements, Islamic pottery and Qur’ans, which has been a feature of the jalsa for the last few years.44 Access from the women’s jalsa to the men's jalsa where these exhibitions were located required that we first get the appropriate stickers to be able to cross from the women’s to the men’s jalsa. My outsider status facilitated this, and we were each given two stickers while being told that we should only be allowed to have one but that an exception was being made ‘just for us’. Each sticker allowed us entrance to one of the exhibitions in the men’s jalsa. Once in the men’s jalsa, we queued outside the Islamic calligraphy exhibition tent until there was room in this popular exhibition for us to enter. The exhibition was made up of Islamic material objects, some centuries old, many of them very fine, belonging to a single Ahmadi collector.
Another exhibition in another large tent was based on Ahmadi archives and included laminated reproductions of newspaper articles, several of which dated from the 1924 visit of the khalifa to the Wembley Conference. There were also photographs of the promised messiah and the khalifas, covering in particular the visits of the latter to the UK. Architectural plans for the Fazl Mosque as well as material artefacts such as wedding rings and turbans from the family of Ghulam Ahmad were also on display. One of the exhibitions I did not manage to visit on this occasion celebrated the first 25 years of MTA. Some of the exhibitions that are now a feature of the jalsa are curated to what appeared to be a professional or near professional standard, with display cases that would not be out of place in a museum, and reflect the increasing confidence and expertise of the Ahmadis to set up and present such exhibitions. The exhibitions also incorporate presentations by knowledgeable individuals including university academics and independent researchers who discuss aspects of the objects on display. One of the messages a visitor to the jalsa comes away with is that the Ahmadis, contrary to the views of their detractors, are self-evidently Muslim. The display of Islamic calligraphy, Qur'ans, textiles, Seljuk pottery, thirteenth-century Mamluk period ink pots and so forth makes this tangible. Another message is that the Ahmadis have a long history in the UK and are an established and well-regarded community. The Ahmadi archives exhibition make this point clear. Additionally, the organization of material objects on display and the academic talks for attendees and visitors also strongly suggest a rational, scientific and modern approach to religious knowledge. At the far end of the calligraphy exhibition tent, we caught the end of a talk on the Shroud of Turin, and as we had missed most of it, we were advised to watch a YouTube film called ‘A Grave Injustice’ to find out what had been said.45 This was just one of several talks about the Shroud of Turin, Jesus and related matters that have become recent fixtures at the jalsa. It is to these I now turn to present the Ahmadi perspective on Jesus, the crucifixion and the implications of these for non-Ahmadis and for Christians in particular.
Just as the account of Gog and Magog became an important aspect of the centenary celebrations of the Ahmadi Khalifat at the Guildhall, so too at the jalsa one could argue that the Ahmadi engagement with the biography and fate of Christ (rather than a debate about the relationship of Ahmadiyyat to other Islamic traditions) allows us to see Ahmadi self-fashioning clearly from the periphery of the event.
Since 2015 the Review of Religions team has organized talks and exhibitions at the UK jalsa on the Shroud of Turin, the Orviedo sudarium and the science relating to these objects. The speakers invited to talk about their work on the Shroud of Turin are not Ahmadis, and this continues a long history of Ahmadi willingness to incorporate others who have expertise which speaks to Ahmadi matters of longstanding concern. While interesting, informative and always crowded with listeners, these talks seem at first glance out of place at a Muslim religious convention. Yet the Ahmadi conception of Jesus is one that is at the very core of what it means to be Ahmadi and one that goes back to the revelations of the Ahmadi promised messiah. Ahmadis do not believe that Jesus died by crucifixion; rather they believe that he swooned and was then taken down from the cross, unconscious but alive. His injuries were tended to and, once revived, he went on to live for many more decades in order to complete the mission Allah had set for his prophet.46 After recovering from his ordeal, Jesus, unable to remain in safety in Palestine as a prophet and a mortal man, set off towards India and made his way to Kashmir where he lived out his days in exemplary piety, dying at the age of 120. A tomb, which still exists, located in Srinagar on Khanyar Street, was declared by Ghulam
Ahmad to be the final resting place of the prophet Jesus (Lavan 1974:50). Some of the speakers who attend the jalsa to describe their research and ideas about the Shroud of Turin serve the purpose of casting doubt on the death of Jesus on the cross and hence provide support for Ahmadi convictions on this matter. On this point Arif Khan (2015:50-51) states:
several scholars have argued it proves Jesus“ survived the crucifixion, thus validating the belief and teaching of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad“. There are Shroud researchers who have reached this exact same conclusion based upon their study of the Shroud of Turin. Those that have argued this viewpoint draw attention to the large amounts of blood on the Shroud, and highlight that it would take an active heart to produce this. Others have stated that for an even formation of the image, the body would need to have been at a constant temperature, again requiring a living body.
Yet, other Ahmadi authors also note that the sudarium has ‘blood stains and blood mixed with pleural edema fluid - that is, the fluid that collects in the lung during asphyxiation, suggesting that the person whose blood was on the cloth died of asphyxiation’ (Ahmad 2018:35). If both the shroud and sudarium belonged to the same man, and if that man was Jesus, the presence of post-mortem blood on the sudarium might suggest, to someone listening closely to the lectures at the jalsa or carefully reading the articles in the Ahmadi journals, that the crucified man did not survive his ordeal. The strategy here, whether or not consciously pursued by individual authors, is to present information which suggests that the Turin shroud was placed on a still living man and to also include possible evidence that might disprove this. By doing so, the impression of comprehensiveness of the data presented and the transparency and neutrality of the writer is maintained while still guiding the reader towards the conclusion that it is possible to survive crucifixion and that in time science and reason will prove the Ahmadi position on the matter to have been the truth all along. One way in which this is achieved is by describing how past science has been shown to be wrong when assessing the shroud, for example, with the carbon-14 dating of the shroud in 1988 (Khan 2010). Science itself is thus upheld as rational and as leading to understanding but particular scientific discoveries can always be disputed and discarded when better answers from better science come along. From an Ahmadi perspective, science will eventually prove the revelations of Ghulam Ahmad on Jesus to have been right all along.
During his lifetime, the Ahmadi promised messiah held debates to promote his views on Jesus with both Muslims and Christians (Friedmann 1989:6, 108). To put the matter succinctly, as far as most Muslims were concerned, if Jesus had been raised bodily to heaven and was awaiting the time set for his return to earth in his physical form, then Ghulam Ahmad’s claim to be the messiah, that is his claim that he was Jesus in spiritual likeness, was not credible and amounted to heresy (Lavan 1974:38). For their part, the Christian missionaries in nineteenthcentury Punjab wielded the belief, shared by Muslims, in a living Jesus as evidence when proselytizing of the superiority of Christianity over Islam with its deceased Prophet Muhammad (Friedmann 1989:111-121). In response to the missionaries, to assert the superiority of Islam over Christianity and the superiority of Ahmadi-yyat above all, Ghulam Ahmad sought to prove both that Jesus was not divine as Christians asserted but a man, and that he had died not on the cross but in old age. The death of a human Jesus on earth was necessary for Ahmad’s claim that he himself was the messiah of the latter days and bore an ‘absolute affinity with Jesus’ to be accepted by his followers (Friedmann 1989:117). That Ahmad was to perform the expected role of Jesus in the latter days was based in part on divine revelation and in part on his study and reinterpretation of hadith concerning Jesus (Ibid.). Ghulam Ahmad’s study of the life of Jesus, his revelations concerning his own status and his conclusions on these matters are to be found collected in his 1899 book Jesus in India: Jesus 'Deliverance front the Cross & Journey to India J1 In this book Ahmad sums his position up by stating:
The truth is that Jesus, having escaped from those accursed people, graced the land of the Punjab with his presence, where he met the ten lost tribes of Israel and God blessed him with great honour and eminence. It seems that most of them had adopted Buddhism and some had degenerated into idolatry of a very low kind. But with the coming here of Jesus, most of them returned to the right path, and since the teaching of Jesus contained the exhortation to believe in the coming of another prophet, all the ten tribes who came to be known in this land as Afghans and Kashmiris ultimately became Muslims. Jesus was accorded great esteem and respect in this land.
(Ahmad 2016 :59-60)
Throughout the book, evidence from religious textual sources, both Chr istian and Muslim, is cited as evidence that Jesus survived his ordeal on the cross, and further evidence, including some of a somewhat dubious comparative etymological nature, is used to shore up the argument about his final resting place. So for example, we are told that the name of the city where Ahmadis believe the tomb of Jesus to be, Srinagar, is composed of two Hindi words, sri meaning ‘skull’ and nagar meaning ‘place’ and that the place of the crucifixion, Golgotha, similarly means ‘place of the skull’ (Ibid. :61—62). More plausible etymologies for Srinagar, however, derive the name from terms that refer to radiance, wealth or the sun, hence Srinagar is, rather, the city of radiance or sun.48
In addition to the theological and the etymological arguments, Ahmad recounts evidence from medical science which purportedly disclosed knowledge of an ointment known as the marham-i-Isa, or ointment of Jesus, said to have been recorded in ‘hundreds of medical books’, some of which are listed (Ibid. :65-68). This ointment was prepared to treat Jesus’s crucifixion wounds and so render him fit for his journey from Jerusalem through what is now Iran and Afghanistan to his final destination in Kashmir. These travels themselves are described, and evidence to prove them in the work of Ahmad is given from historical sources divided by faith group, Muslim historical sources, Buddhist historical sources and so forth. The range of sources, ancient and modern, Muslim and other, scholarly and popular, give the work the appearance of wide-ranging research which allows for the incorporation of references to the serious academics of Ahmad’s day such as Monier Monier-Williams, a professor of Sanskrit, and Max Muller, a philologist, both based at Oxford University. It also permits, however, the incorporation of some rather less scholarly sources which are mined for material to support the case Ahmad is making or used to show how flawed the reasoning of others writers is.
The Buddhist materials cited in Jesus in India for their part serve to highlight assumed similarities between the lives and religious teachings of the Buddha and Jesus, the alleged congruities of which have had a considerable, contested and still continuing history (Ahmad 2016 :83-106; Hanson 2005; O'Collins49 2008; Joseph 2012).50 In some of this literature, Jesus’s lost years are said to have been spent in India learning about Buddhism, and this is what shaped Jesus’s ministry after he returned to Jerusalem, thus accounting for the apparent similarities between Christianity and Buddhism. Alternatively, Jesus is said to have learnt about Buddhism from his exposure to the teachings brought by Buddhist missionaries and others who travelled along established trade routes. As Joseph (2012:177-178) notes:
There are many ways in which Buddhist traditions could have traveled as far west as Palestine. As a missionary religion, Buddhism had been expanding westward for several centuries by the time of Jesus. The East-West trade route commonly known as the ‘Silk Road’ connected Palestine, India, and China.... A number of cities along this route had significant Buddhist populations in the first century ce. Moreover, there was a sea route connecting India and Egypt. Roman coins have also been found in Indian cities. By the first century ce, 'the people of the Roman Empire traveled more extensively and more easily than anyone before them did or would again until the nineteenth century’ (Meeks 1983:17). This appears to have been the culmination of a centuries-long, diffusion-based relationship between the Greek West and the East.
The position on the life of Jesus taken by Ghulam Ahmad after much reflection, study and revelation was that Jesus had not made his way to India in his youth, from the age of 13 to 29, before returning to Jerusalem and to his final years of preaching prior to his crucifixion. This meant, for Ahmad, that as Jesus did not travel to India before the crucifixion he could not be accused of ‘plagiarising the moral teaching of the Buddha’ which some claimed he had learnt in his youth in India (Ahmad 2016 [ 1899]:86). Nor did Ahmad consider the possibility, as some later writers have, that Jesus may have learnt about Buddhism in Palestine from missionaries, migrants and travellers along the Silk Road. Rather, Ahmad concluded that as some of the lost tribes of Israel51 had earlier migrated towards India, where some had become Buddhist, this was where the post-crucifixion Jesus headed to fulfil his mission on earth (Ahmad 2016 [ 1899]:86). It was after Jesus had made his way to the now Buddhist lost tribes of Israel, who accepted him asthe messiah, that Ahmad states the facts of Jesus’s life were written down and incorporated, anachronistically, into the life story of the Buddha, even though the Buddha had lived centuries before Jesus himself (Ibid.:86-87). In this account, it is the life of Jesus which is assimilated into the life of the Buddha and the notion that Jesus himself was a follower of the Buddha, hence accounting for a life history and teachings that had striking similarities with that of his predecessor, rejected. Much is also made by Ahmad in his Jesus in India of the supposed similarities of terms such as ‘Metteyya’, referring to the Buddha and ‘Messiah’ for Jesus (Ahmad 2016 [ 1899] :95). For Ahmad, rather than Buddhism finding it way to Palestine via travellers and hence into the teachings of Jesus, it was Jesus who made his way to ‘the rocky soil of Nepal, Tibet, and Kashmir' (Ibid.:99).
In these ways Ahmad reverses the account found in Notovitch’s 1890 book of the unknown life of Jesus, which Ahmad certainly knew about as a short outline of Notovitch’s work is referenced in an appendix to Ahmad’s work on Jesus in India (Ahmad 2016 : 129- 13O).52 While for Ahmad, Jesus first travelled to India after his crucifixion, for Notovitch, whose work is now generally considered to be a hoax (Hanson 2005:79), the missing years in the life of Jesus were ones he spent in the study of Buddhism in South Asia (Hanson 2005:79; Joseph 2012:162—163).53
The details of the journey of a post-crucifixion Jesus, the evidence derived from etymology, the alleged parallels in the life of Jesus and the Buddha and so forth, all served, for Ahmad, one ultimate purpose and goal, to show that Jesus was not divine, that he did not die on the cross and that thus the very foundation on which Chr istianity was based was untrue. This, together with the revelation Ahmad had received that he himself was the messiah of the age, the servant of God in the spirit of Jesus on earth, allowed him to reveal to his followers that God had:
watched from on high that man-worship was running rampant the world over, and worship of the cross and the supposed sacrifice of a human being had alienated the hearts of millions of people from the tine God. In His indignation, He sent to the world his servant in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, to demolish the creed of the cross. And he did come as the Promised Messiah in accordance with the old prophecies. Then at long last came the time for the breaking of the cross, the time when the error of the creed of the cross was to be exposed beyond any doubt quite like a piece of wood torn asunder. Heaven has now thrown open the way for the demolition of the cross, so that the seeker after truth may look around and investigate.
(Ahmad, G. 2016 :99)
Ghulam Ahmad believed that he was the promised messiah who had come to break the cross of Christianity and so clear the way for the seeker of truth to find the true religion. The breaking of the cross for Ahmad could only happen:
in the time of the Promised Messiah, [when] God would create conditions which would lay bare the truth about the crucifixion. The creed of the cross would come to an end and complete its life span, not through war or violence, but exclusively through heavenly causes, in the form of scientific reason and argument.
(Ahmad, G. 2016 :73-74)
And it is the connection made in Ahmadi thought between revelation and prophecy and ‘scientific reason and argument’ that explains the presence of exhibitions on the Shroud of Turin which have become a regular and popular feature of recent UK jalsas. Science and rational argument are marshalled in the service of a faith Ahmadis consider to be both rational and based on reason.