Ahmadiyya and the rhetorics of heresy

Daniel Boyarin argued in his book, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity, that the concept of heresy might be invented by the early church. As the church is not defined by race or natural birth, how do you distinguish those who are within the church and those who are not? It is different from its root, the Jews. You either have a good Jew who obeys YHWH or a bad Jew who worships idols. But a bad Jew does not cease to be a Jew. He or she remains a Jew. A Jew is a Jew (in the religious sense) because he or she is a Jew (by birth). Religion is intertwined with race. In the case of the church, especially with the inclusion of the Gentiles (non-Jews) into the church, a new question appears: what does it mean to be “the church”? Thus the concept of orthodoxy emerged in the early church. The church is defined not by race or natural birth but by beliefs or teachings (on its early days, it is called the rule or canon of faith). Orthodoxy, on the other hand, does not exist by itself, since a true teaching implies that there is a false teaching. From its early days, the church has been engaged (often vigorously) with those who hold and teach various kind of teachings. They include the Ebionites, the Valentinians, the Marcionites, the Gnostics, the Montanists, the Donatists, etc. You get the idea. The reality of foreign teachings is not foreign for the church.

Islam, then, followed this pattern as it was influenced by Christianity. Islam, of course, claimed to supersede Christianity. But naturally it would inherit conceptual tools from Christianity, and they include the concept of orthodoxy and heresy. Indeed, to characterize the genealogy between the two religions, it is legitimate to say that Christianity is an Islamic heresy and Islam is a Christian heresy. Christians believe in the finality of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God and Moslems believe in the finality of the Koran as the revelation of God and the finality of Mohammed as the messenger of God. This is what we call as the eschatological character of religion. Religions claim some kind of finality or turning point. Christians believe that they live in a new age which has been inaugurated in Jesus Christ. Moslems believe that Mohammed is the final messenger of God.

Thus, it is easy to see why Christians regard Islam to be a Christian heresy. It violates the eschatological character of Christ. Moreover, it is easy as well to see why the “mainstream” Moslems regard the Ahmadis as heretics. Ahmadiyya is thought to violate the eschatological status of Mohammed, as it claims some kind of semi-eschatological status for Ghulam Ahmad. Another problem then arises as the beliefs and praxis of Moslems and Ahmadis are actually very similar to each other. On the other hand, although Christians and Moslems still regard each other as heretics, they are significantly different in beliefs and praxis. The difference is further accentuated by the fact that Islam partly derived its identity from the Oriental Orthodox churches, which were deemed as heretics by the Western/Latin and Eastern/Greek churches in the councils at Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), and that Christianity as we know it is largely construed from the Western tradition. To put it differently, as the Oriental Orthodox churches are largely located in the Middle East, the difference between Moslems and Middle East Christians is not as strong as the difference between Moslems and Western Christians (i.e., the majority of us). My point is, because Ahmaddiya is so similar with (Sunni?) Islam, some Moslems will find it difficult to negotiate peaceful co-existence with Ahmadis. Familiarity, indeed, could breed contempt. To use a Christian analogy, people will be more confused if they face the Mormons. The difference is more subtle and not easy to point out. Would you mind if your son or daughter live in Salt Lake City and worship in a Mormon church?

Of course, it does not mean that the assault on the Ahmadis in Cikeusik is justifiable. In fact, it is otherwise. It is completely abominable. What I want to highlight is, although perhaps the majority of Moslems in Indonesia will not turn to such an inhuman act themselves, it does not remove the general prejudice among them that Ahmadiyya is a heresy. The problem is further exacerbated because for Moslems to say Ahmadiyya is a heresy is different from for Christians to say Mormonism is a heresy. They have different repercussions. We do have our own share of history of persecuting the heretics, as an example of Servetus will suffice (or, more recently, a religion-driven, mainly Christian, law in Uganda which, if approved, will have power to persecute the homosexuals; and, to be fair, Servetus would be dead everywhere he went — it just happened that he was in Geneva at that time). But, I guess now by large we have learnt to live peacefully with those who are similar-and-different from us. On the other hand, I am still unimpressed by the attitude of many Moslems, not all, toward heretics. The possibility of inciting violence against the heretics is real and never totally discounted. The response of the officials after the Cikeusik tragedy goes along the line of “We have warned you to stop but you disobey so you reap the rewards.” It is like silently endorsing the mob. The burden of proof is still on the Ahmadis to stop, and not on the majority to tolerate and protect.

I do realize that perhaps in the end the determining factor is money, as this mob is simply a group of unemployed men who need money to survive and fill their stomach. It’s the economy, stupid. But, note that this economic factor simply rides on and exploits the existing religious prejudice. It is a time bomb waiting to be detonated and explode. Thus, the problem is more fundamental than arresting the mind behind all this. It is important, of course, but I guess what is more important is to change how we perceive heretics. Heretics are not to be killed. They are to be respected for what they believe. They are, indeed, to be loved. Paul might have handed over Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan, but that’s the point: He never took up the judgment by himself. When we say that judgment belongs to God, we mean it literally — and we reflect on ourselves immediately afterwards.

(Thus, Islam too must provide its own theological basis to love heretics. I still believe it can.)

Who shall be responsible to witness such love? Do we expect the government to do it? Of course, we do, but I would like to make a suggestion, following Barth and Hauerwas, for us to take the church seriously. Too often we think that the solution is out there and too seldom we take up our own responsibility and live according to our identity in Christ. We need to say that, no matter what the government and the public do, we will love those who are similar-yet-different with us.

(I will suspend the question of whether the word ‘heretics’ or ‘heresy’ in itself is pregnant with violence, since if it did then we should abandon the term altogether. I do think it can be intrepreted non-violently, as I would never, ever consider to kill a Mormon when I say that he or she is a heretic. I think he or she is a heretic; he or she thinks I am the one who is a heretic. What’s the difference? Orthodoxy and heresy go both ways. And most of the time it is only a matter of numbers to decide which is which. Usually, the larger ones are the orthodox, and the smaller ones are the heretics. On the other hand, I also think that we must minimize the rhetorics of heresy, particularly in Indonesia, when, indeed, the term in itself has some pejorative meanings and historically is potential for violence.)

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