Published in Malay Mail Online
Earlier this week, American actor Mahershala Ali bagged the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his critically-acclaimed role in 2016’s Moonlight.
Immediately he was celebrated across the world as “the first Muslim to win an Oscar.”
But not everybody saw it that way. As covered by several news outlets, there were scores of Muslims online who denounced the honour.
Their reason? Ali is a member of the Ahmadiyya community, a much maligned religious movement that mainstream Muslims count as infidels and apostates. Ali, to them, is not a real Muslim.
The most public of this response was by the Pakistani envoy to the United Nations, Maleeha Lodhi, who deleted her tweet moments after she wrote “That’s a first” celebrating Ali’s win.
Lodhi was perhaps only protecting her reputation. After all, despite having the largest population of Ahmadis in the world, Pakistan is perhaps their worst hell. In 1984, Pakistan implemented Ordinance XX, effectively barring Ahmadis from practising their faith.
The ordinance kicked off decades of persecution against Ahmadis, and forced the community to move its headquarters to London in exile.
In Malaysia, several Malay language dailies such as Utusan Malaysia and Sinar Harian had also reported Ali’s win as a first for Muslims. Ironically, these same papers had also published negative coverage against local Ahmadis, even using the derogatory slur “Qadiani” to refer to them.
By sheer coincidence, I stumbled upon By the Dawn’s Early Light, an anthology of short stories by American Muslim converts printed in 2009. One of the stories was of Ali’s conversion, and it left quite an impression on me this week.
Ali was born into Christianity as Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore, named after a child mentioned in the Old Testament’s Book of Isaiah. His mother, aunt and grandmother were all ordained ministers.
He was moved to leave Christianity after he started questioning why adherents pray to Jesus and not God, before he found himself spiritually moved after he joined a Muslim Friday prayer session despite not knowing what it meant.
And he made the conscious decision to join the Ahmadiyya community, even when he had studied with Sunni Muslims. Mainstream Islam, he thought, was too rigid.
He said it emphasised too much on hadith, the collection of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) deeds and sayings — perhaps almost too similar to his experience with Jesus and God.
“The non-Ahmadi Muslim perspective was not practical in certain matters, making Islam feel difficult to the point that I developed a fear of the religion, which I feel Allah would not want anyone to have,” Ali wrote.
With the Ahmadis, Ali found simplicity and logic. And I bet he found that the Ahmadis were not as judgmental and always inviting, as I have found them ever since I started covering their issues in 2014.
To me, the Ahmadis have always been warm towards outsiders. Every time they organise their annual symposium, the attendees would be gifted with a copy of their translation of Quran. I have at least two copies by now.
But not all were happy with that of course. Last year, a viral social media post had warned students who attended their symposium to not keep the Qurans, for fear of leading them astray.
Perhaps it is the decades of persecution that lead them to be more aware and cognisant of human rights issues and freedom of worship.
It is estimated that there are 2,000 practising Ahmadis in Malaysia, many of them Malays. Their community is centred in Kampung Nakhoda in Selayang, Selangor.
And all of them are counted as infidels and apostates by the Selangor Islamic authorities, made official by a fatwa in 1998. Their headquarters-cum-mosque was “labelled” with a huge orange signboard erected by the state, stating “Qadiani is not Islam.” Muslims are not allowed to join Friday prayers there.
The community faces periodic raids and harassments. In 2011, Selangor Islamic enforcers had even stopped them from performing Friday prayers.
The last straw came in 2014 after enforcers arrested 39 Ahmadis, including eight Pakistani asylum seekers, two Indian nationals, one Indonesian. In utmost irony, their alleged offence was performing Friday prayers in a place that is not a mosque.
The 39 has since filed for a judicial review of their arrest, claiming that Islamic authorities have no jurisdiction over them, since they themselves have declared the Ahmadis as infidels. The case was granted leave, but remains in limbo.
The root of the Sunnis’ hatred against the Ahmadis is simple. Although the latter adhere to the same beliefs as the former, they also believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the Imam Mahdi, Islam’s prophesied redeemer and messiah.
It is a legitimate worry. Even Ali admitted that he thought the Ahmadiyya community might be a cult, with its adherence to a Promised Messiah. But above all, blind loathing and moral superiority were the drive behind the persecution by Sunnis here.
Muslims tend to forget that they are followers of Sunni teachings thanks to luck of birth, more than others.
If the Ahmadiyya community was not already outlawed, there may have been more like Ali here, who see little reason to ever choose to Sunni path.