In the first post of this series I introduced the figure of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, an Indian Muslim reformer and sectarian who argued that Jesus did not die on the cross. Instead, according to his 1909 book Jesus in India, he went into a coma, woke up, and escaped to Kashmir in northern India. There Jesus lived as a spiritual teacher until he died a natural death at 120. Ahmad’s story about Jesus runs counter to both the Christian and the mainstream Muslim view. I argue that his counter-myth was specifically designed to target Christian missionaries of his time. But to understand Ahmad’s Jesus myth in context, I first need to give some background about Jesus in Islam, a topic I just finished an entire course on.
The Qur’an mentions many biblical characters, including Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Mary, John the Baptist, and especially Jesus. Most of these figures, including Jesus, are interpreted as prophets whose teaching is a precursor to the final revelation given to Muhammad. As most Muslims read it, the Qur’an reveals that Jesus never went on the cross at all, but taught Islamic tawhid (unity of God) and ascended into heaven. The New Testament’s crucifixion and divinization of Jesus were later inventions of false followers.
So according to most Muslims, the Ahmadis contradict the Qur’anic account of Jesus. While the Qur’an affirms the ascension and denies the crucifixion, Ahmad affirmed the crucifixion and denied the ascension. Why? I do not take Ahmad’s message as revelatory, so I can only ask what might have motivated Ahmad to create this myth of Jesus that was not only historically unprovable but theologically unorthodox enough to make most Muslims ignore him and his movement.
One of the major issues the Indian umma faced in Ahmad’s day was the presence of foreign missionaries in India. Due to the British colonization of India, missionaries not only had easy access to this “heathen” nation, but those missionaries could have the funding and force of a mighty nation behind them. Christian missionaries translated Bibles and evangelical pamphlets into Punjabi, Urdu, Persian, Hindi, and Kashmiri. Ahmad jumped into these debates, publishing a massive work of Islamic apologetics from 1880-1884 and even proclaiming death prophecies against Christian missionaries.
This counter-myth is calibrated to respond to missionary arguments. One of the most common arguments missionaries used against Islam ran thus: whereas Muhammad is a human who died a natural death, they argued, Jesus was ascended into heaven by God, proving his greater prophethood. Ahmad saw that he needed to refute this belief in order to counter the missionaries’ arguments. This explains why Ahmad was so keen on denying the ascension and proving that Jesus died a natural death. He wanted to undermine the credibility of the missionaries by creating his own story about Jesus.
While all Muslims appropriate the figure of Jesus through the Qur’an, Ahmadi went one step further. He marshalled historical evidence (dubious as it may have been) to support his narrative of Jesus, most famously claiming to have found the tomb of Jesus in Kashmir. Not only is the Bible theologically wrong about Jesus, Ahmad could say, but we have his tomb right down the street! The tomb of Jesus was a visible proof that the Christians were wrong. Jesus’ dead body in the tomb is the proof that the ascension could not have happened. Ahmad’s story of Jesus directly responds to claims made by the missionaries. This is what makes it not just a myth, but a counter-myth designed to sway people from the Christian narrative of Jesus’ life. Ahmad’s claim to have the true story about Jesus was akin to British scholars’ claim to have the true Buddha:
“I bear the same feelings of love and sincerity towards Jesus as do the Christians; rather, I have a stronger attachment to him, for Christians do not know the man whom they praise, but I know him whom I praise, for I have as good as seen him.” (Ahmad, Jesus in India, 50)
There is very little scholarship on Ahmadiyya theology, but two good starting-places might be Friedmann’s Prophecy Continuous and Valentine’s Islam and the Ahmadiyya Jama’at. In the next post I will conclude this series by looking at the New Age Jesus in India and speculating on the significance of these tales for biblical scholars.