This is a preprint of a review whose final and definite form has been published in Contemporary South Asia © Taylor & Francis; see publisher's version and entry in my publication list. The book itself is here.
Islam and the Ahmadiyya Jama'at: history, belief, practice, by Simon Ross Valentine, London, Hurst, 2008, xvi + 263 pp., ISBN 978-1-85065-916-7
'To provide an account of the history, beliefs and purpose of the Ahmadiyya Jama'at' (xvi), a disowned splinter group of Sunni Islam, the Methodist preacher and scholar of religion Simon Ross Valentine settled in Bradford/UK and later traveled to Rabwah/Pakistan and Qadian/India. This setup is not without irony, given that Mirza Gulam Ahmad initiated his movement in the 19th century to counter Christian theology; as a self-proclaimed prophet, he challenged many a British missionary in public debating contests about the relative merits of Islam. Against this backdrop, but devoid of missionary zeal, 'Islam and the Ahmadiyya Jama'at' wants to be an exercise in 'objective' description of about every aspect of Ahmad's movement. The Methodist Valentine is driven by 'the need to present "real Islam", the need to move away from media stereotypes and, the need to let the world know of the persecution faced by the Ahmadi at the hands of their co-religionists' (63).
Valentine begins - after a brief introduction - by recounting his attempt to ascertain a key Ahmadi teaching: that Jesus was buried in Kashmir and that Christian belief in his ascension to heaven is thus mistaken. While one wonders why he needs to enter a substantive debate here, the chapter nonetheless convincingly demonstrates that 'the roots of the Ahmadiyya lie in the desire to develop a response to Christian Mission' (xiii). Chapter two introduces the movement's founder, who was so 'particularly keen to refute the idea of the physical existence of Jesus in heaven' (44). Chapter three and four deal with the history and organization of the Ahmadiyya and illuminate the split between the Lahori and Qadiani branches (the former rejecting Ahmad's claim to prophethood). Valentine's theological training impressively comes to the fore in chapters five and six, which deal with the most contentious aspect of Ahmadi rituals and beliefs - Ahmad's interpretation of prophethood - as well as with his wider theology, which shares with other Sunni revivalist movements an emphasis on interiority and this-worldliness. Chapter seven is concerned with 'internal dissent and cultural adjustment, tensions between older patterns of life and "new" forms of social behaviour' (156) in Britain, while chapter eight looks at Ahmadi family life. Chapters nine and ten develop the book's main claim: that the Ahmadi are 'a peaceful people, genuinely hospitable and welcoming' (63). With theological finesse and careful inquiry, Valentine unpacks the trajectory of Ahmad's 'Jihad of the pen' (202) and argues that missionary tabligh and da'wa form 'the life-blood and raison d'etre of the movement' (211). A chapter on the Ahmadi's persecution in contemporary Pakistan and a brief conclusion follow.
While the breadth of his description is impressive and Valentine's respectful language laudable, his dated epistemology, poor engagement with wider literature and general lack of argument seems unfortunate. In the introduction, he only refers to a rather eclectic set of Chicago-influenced sociology and 1960s social anthropology and 'emphasised the need for objectivity' (5) - but ignores contemporary methodological advances. By extensively narrating his everyday research practice, for instance, he tends to mistake reflexive ethnography for a travelogue: rather than learning of flight details, countless cups of tea, unsuccessful interview attempts or clothes worn per se, one would want to know how he thinks such positionality shaped his conclusions. Unfortunately, he does not even pose, let alone answer such questions, which would have added a good deal of analytical depth. Still, 'Islam and the Ahmadiyya Jama'at' is rich in observation, sympathetic in outlook and hopefully inspires further research.