By Tahir Mahmood
August 17, 2016
“Every departure from orthodoxy is not apostasy, although witch hunt is not the monopoly of any particular religion,” the late V. R. Krishna Iyer once observed. The issue before the learned judge, then on the Kerala High Court bench, was if adopting the Ahmadiyya faith by a Muslim would amount to apostasy. His verdict, in the Shihabuddin Koya case of 1971, was: “Looking at the issue devoid of sentiment and passion and in the cold light of the law, I have no hesitation to hold that the Ahmadiyya sect is of Islam.” Before Independence, the high courts of Patna and Madras had delivered similar verdicts. The recognition of the Ahmadiyya community as a sect of Islam in the census report of 2011 conforms with this legal position.
According to the holy Quran, after the creation of the world, god sent numerous divine messengers, generally called the prophets, for guiding humankind. There has always been a broad consensus in the international Muslim community that Prophet Muhammad was “Khatam-un-Nabiyin” (seal of the prophets) after whom god did not send any other prophet.
The Ahmadiyya community regards its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian in Punjab, as a prophet and, for that reason; mainstream Muslims do not recognise them as a part of their community. But the fundamental declaration of faith in Islam — there is none to be worshiped but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet — does not expressly say that Muhammad was the “last” prophet. Lawyers and judges use this declaration to categorise Ahmadiyyas as a sect of Islam. They also cite the community’s religious literature that describes Ghulam Ahmad as a “sub-prophet”, who carried Prophet Muhammad’s mission forward.
While delivering the verdict in the Kerala High Court, Iyer, had exclaimed that, “It should… be startling if one of the most distinguished representatives of a country which has adopted Islam as the state religion should himself be deemed an apostate.” The country he alluded to was Pakistan and the “distinguished representative” he referred to was Barrister Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, who put forth the claims of Ahmadis to be recognised as Muslims in the cases in the Patna and Madras high courts.
Zafrullah Khan was born in undivided Punjab in 1893 in a family professing the Ahmadiyya faith. He participated in the round table conferences in London between 1930 and 1932, served as a member of the Central Legislative Assembly and went on to become a judge of the Federal Court. After creating Pakistan on religious grounds, Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared, in the newly created nation’s constituent assembly, that Pakistan would be a secular nation. He drew Zafrullah Khan to his side of the torn subcontinent in the hope that he would be his right hand man in developing Pakistan as a modern country.
During one deliberation in the Pakistan constituent assembly, Zafrullah Khan remarked, “It is a matter of great sorrow that, mainly through mistaken notions of zeal, the Muslims have, during the period of decline, earned for themselves an unenviable reputation for intolerance. But that is not the fault of Islam. Islam has from the very beginning proclaimed and inculcated… tolerance.” Jinnah did not live to develop his country as a non-theocratic state, but his successors, Liaquat Ali Khan and Khwaja Nazimuddin, used Zafrullah Khan’s legal acumen for establishing Pakistan’s secular credentials. He was made the newly-created nation’s foreign minister and later its permanent representative in the UN. He earned the distinction of being the first Asian president of the UN General Assembly.
Zafrullah Khan served as a judge of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague — the first from the subcontinent. By the time he demitted office at ICJ; religious orthodoxy had assumed alarming proportions in Pakistan. Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had been pressurised into amending the country’s constitution of 1973; the amendments made the Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority in Pakistan. Zafrullah Khan decided to settle in England. He lived there for 10 years, but returned to Lahore — despite the hostile atmosphere there against the Ahmadis — to breathe his last on September 1, 1985.
I am opposed to India’s secular courts adjudicating on purely theological issues and have nothing to say about the judicial decisions regarding the religious status of the Ahmadiyyas. But I can never forget that memorable day in September 1970 when I had the good fortune of meeting Zafrullah Khan. I was a student in London then and meeting Zafrullah Khan was indeed a dream fulfilled.
In our part of the world, religious beliefs — or misbeliefs — can throw into the oblivion even the most extraordinary academic achievements. The great legal genius who, in the fitness of things, should have been remembered is unsung on both sides of the border because he belonged to a community called the Ahmadiyya.
Tahir Mahmood is former chairman of National Minorities Commission and ex-member, Law Commission of India