Behind the belief: The Ahmadis of Singapore

Nicholas Yong
Senior Correspondent
(L-R) Retiree Syed Ali, religious teacher Ataoul Qudus and retiree Sulaiman Adnan are part of Singapore’s tiny Ahmadi community. Photo: Nurul Amirah

How much do you know about the diversity of faiths in Singapore? In a new series, Yahoo Singapore explores the lesser-known rituals and branches of religions in the country.

When Syed Ali and his wife became members of Singapore’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the 1980s, the couple encountered strong family objections because of their faith.

The 64-year-old father of six and grandfather of 10 recalled, “We were separated (from my wife’s family) for seven or eight years, with no contact. But my wife was very firm. That’s why I was very grateful for her firmness.”

Back in the 1940s, his father Syed Ahmad, a sailor from Indonesia, was one of the first people in Singapore to embrace the Ahmadi faith. Ali himself was brought up in a mainstream Muslim family.

The retired administrative assistant admitted that in the early years, it was “disheartening” to hear other Muslims dismissing his faith. “To be an Ahmadi, you see how people reject you, even when you try to explain. But now, for me, it doesn’t matter what they say.”

Who are the Ahmadis?

Video by Nurul Amirah

Ali is one of about 280 active members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Mission in Singapore, which is based in a mosque along Onan Road. These believers claim that the Ahmadiyya movement is a branch of Islam, with one key difference: while it accepts the divinity of Prophet Muhammad, it does not believe that he is the last messenger of Allah. Ahmadis look to their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a 19th century religious leader from the Punjab, as the prophesied Mahdi, or redeemer of Islam.

Among other things, Ahmadis also believe that Jesus Christ survived crucifixion and died of old age in Kashmir, and that the likes of Confucius, Lao Tzu and Buddha are messengers of God sent to other peoples. There are said to be some 10-20 million Ahmadis around the world, including the Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali, who starred in the critically acclaimed “Moonlight”. Their current spiritual leader is Mirza Masroor Ahmad or Khalifatul Masih V, the fifth successor of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.

Founded in 1889, the Ahmadi faith was first exported to Singapore by the missionary Ghulam Ahmad Ayyaz in 1935. Adherents subscribe to many of the same articles of faith of Islam. For example, they pray five times a day while facing towards Mecca, fast during Ramadan and are guided by the Koran. The Kalimah, or declaration of faith, is also the centrepiece of their religion: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

However, mainstream Muslims around the world do not consider the Ahmadis to be their co-religionists. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, or MUIS, issued a fatwa (ruling) in 1969 declaring Mirza Ghulam to be “not only a kafir (unbeliever) who is murtad (a Muslim who has rejected Islam), his teachings are misleading and could lead people astray from the real teachings of Islam”.

The fatwa stands to this day. Consequently, Ahmadis in Singapore cannot be interred in Muslim graves, with a plot of land set aside for them in Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. Their marriages cannot be registered with the Registry of Muslim Marriages either, while they are ineligible for assistance from Malay/Muslim Organisations such as Mendaki or MUIS. Ahmadis also do not qualify for Singapore’s official haj (pilgrimmage) quota.

There have also been tensions with the Muslim community. In 1986, The Straits Times reported that then Minister-in-charge of Muslim affairs Ahmad Mattar said the Ahmadis were being provocative by “blatantly” calling their premises a mosque. In 2008, a dozen Ahmadi graves – located about a kilometre away from the Muslim graves – were desecrated, though the perpetrators were not identified.

Freedom to believe

The Ahmadi community in SIngapore is centred on the Taha Mosque. Photo: Nurul Amirah

Around the world, Ahmadis have faced intense persecution. For example, in Pakistan, Ahmadis are considered apostates and are even barred by law from using the traditional Muslim greeting Assalam Alaikum. They have also been the victims of mob violence. But Ahmadis whom Yahoo Singapore spoke to said that they have been largely untroubled in Singapore.

Ataoul Qudus, 42, has been a religious muallim (teacher) for 13 years. A former service manager in an engineering company, he is grateful that Singapore is a “tolerant country”. Recalling his experiences in school, Ataoul said that his schoolmates did not ostracise or persecute him. “They say, ‘You believe what you want to believe and I believe what I want to believe, as long as we respect each other.'”

“Who is Muslim, who is not, is in the heart and it’s up to Allah to decide who is Muslim,” said Ataoul, who is a third-generation Ahmadi.

Sulaiman Adnan, Ataoul’s father, said he can remember his late grandmother doing her best to keep him away from the Ahmadi faith when his father converted. She even brought him to Malaysia in the 1950s to attend a mainstream Islamic religious school. The 68-year-old retiree added, “I watched my father…he prayed as the others pray. I thought, ‘What’s wrong with my father? Why are these people saying that he’s not Muslim?’

“Being in a family, you’re in a dilemma,” Sulaiman said. Eventually, after his grandmother passed on, Sulaiman reconciled his dilemma by studying the Koran and embracing the Ahmadi faith.

Asked if he feels free to practice his faith in Singapore, Sulaiman replied emphatically, “Yeah, of course. Very thankful, we are quite fortunate. Our government is…very particular that we should not instigate or use religion to incite others. Otherwise, we could not have (this building).”