In the late 1800s in the provincial town of Qadian, in the Punjab, a spiritually inclined government clerk proclaimed himself a Prophet. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad further considered himself to be the fulfillment of several Islamic and non-Islamic prophecies, in particular, to be the Messiah (Mahdi) expected at the end of the Age by Jews, Christians and Muslims. To sceptical Hindus he spoke of being Kalki, the final and yet to appear incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

Although his self-identification horrified mainstream Islam, his message was well received by many. Today Ahmadis are in every country of the world, with the largest population of four million in Pakistan, where they occupy a social space akin to the persecuted Baha’i community in Iran. Pakistani law has declared it illegal for an Ahmadi to claim to be a Muslim; Ahmadis and their places of worship are frequently attacked.

Spreading their unique take on the cosmos and of brotherly love has been a key feature of the Ahmadi movement with missionaries setting out from the subcontinent to Europe and North America and Africa in the early years of the 20th century.

In 1920, Mufti Muhammad Sadiq, an Ahmadi missionary landed in New York and was promptly thrown in immigration detention. He had hoped to spread his message to all Americans but found most Christian white Americans feared his message. But within the African American community, the heterodox, distinctly non-mainstream religious movement caught on.

By appealing to the poor treatment African Americans had received under Christian slave masters and politicians Ahmadi missionaries welcomed them to “Islam the real faith of Universal Brotherhood”.

Tens of thousands heeded the call, including many jazz musicians. Indeed, the Ahmadi stream of Islam quickly became the dominant one in America until the 1950s when the Nation of Islam, a largely Black Muslim movement (as opposed to a Muslim Movement), modulated its radical nationalistic stance somewhat to appeal to Ahmadi followers who were growing disillusioned with the leadership’s inability to truly accept and reward African American converts and embrace their culture.

Here are several clips of some very prominent jazz figures who adopted the Ahmadi message.

Art Blakey
Buhaina



Born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1919 hard bop drummer Art Blakey played drums behind Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis and Bud Powell, among other giants of jazz. While on a visit to West Africa (where Ahmadi Islam was quite strong), Blakey converted to Islam. "I went over there to see what I could do about religion,” he once said. “When I was growing up I had no choice, I was just thrown into a church and told this is what I was going to be. I didn't want to be their Christian. I didn't like it. You could study politics in this country, but I didn't have access to the religions of the world. That's why I went to Africa. When I got back people got the idea I went there to learn about music."

Though he changed his name to Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, he continued to perform and record as Art Blakey, though friends called him “Bu”. In 1947, Blakey formed an all-Muslim band called the Seventeen Messengers.

Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad’s Blues



A very groovy live recording from one of jazz music’s enduring maestros. Like Blakey, Jamal was born in Pittsburgh and converted to Islam by way of other musicians who found, in Jamal’s words, "brought me peace of mind" in navigating the painful racist world of Jim Crow America. Jamal continues to play around the world, including a visit to Bangalore earlier this year.

Ahmed Abdul Malik
Rooh (The Soul)



Though Malik claimed his origins were in Sudan most scholars suggest otherwise: his family were immigrants to New York from the Caribbean. Converting to Ahmaddiya Islam early in his life, he played bass for Monk, Randy Weston and others as well as branching out into north African music. He mastered the oud (Arabic lute) and made several albums that were either influenced by Islamic music or straight-ahead interpretations of Afro-Islamic music.

McCoy Tyner
Inner Glimpse



Tyner adopted the name Sulaiman Saud at the age of 17 when he converted to Ahmaddiya Islam. A pianist from Philadelphia, he earned his chops playing with Coltrane before launching an influential and much acclaimed solo career. Tyner, like several other jazz men who adopted Islam, including Blakey, kept their personal life separate from their professional one. But in pieces such as this, Inner Glimpse, the spiritual dimension breaks through.

Yusuf Lateef
India



Yusuf Lateef’s passing earlier this year was greeted by great sadness and high praise for one of the giants of modern jazz. A woodwind specialist who played flute, sax, oboe and bassoon as well as several eastern wind instruments including, on this track, the shenai. A lifelong adherent to Ahmaddiya Islam, he complemented his jazz composing and performing with musical and spiritual instruction, keeping alive the flame of this supposedly heretical stream of Islam burning in a younger generation.