InsightSeptember October 2007

The Beliefs and Politics of a Pseudo-Mahdist Cult

Yoginder Sikand


This paper looks at the origins and development of the cult of Riyaz Ahmad Goharshahi (1941-2001), who, a large section of his followers believe, claimed to be the Imam Mahdi. It begins with a brief description of his teachings and his life and goes on to deal with the cult after his death, when his followers split into two main groups: the London-based Mehdi Foundation International (MFI) and the Pakistan-based Anjuman-e Sarfaroshan-e Islam (ASI). It then focuses, in particular, on the beliefs of the former group and its political involvement in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Note on Sources:

The paper is based largely on material hosted on the several websites run by both groups of Goharshahi’s followers as well as literature by the cult’s critics. Claims on behalf of Goharshahi put forward by both the ASI and the MFI need to be taken with extreme caution, as both groups present him in an obviously exaggerated, hagiographic mould and are very likely to be false. To add to this, it is clear from a reading of these sources that both groups put forward several claims on behalf of Goharshahi that may not necessarily be in accordance with Goharshahi’s actual teachings. Be that as it may, these claims reflect the way in which Goharshahi’s followers presently perceive him. Both the ASI and the MFI have fairly contradictory views on Goharshahi on several crucial points, each claiming to be his legitimate successor. This itself suggests that their claims are disputable.

Riyaz Ahmad Goharshahi: His Life, Teachings and Claims:

The Goharshahi cult is centred on the figure of Riyaz Ahmad Goharshahi, who was born in 1941 in the village of Dhak Goharshahi in the Gujjar Khan tehsil of the Rawalpindi district of Pakistan’s Punjab province.[1] Little is mentioned about his early years in the available literature. He is said to have studied in a regular school till the matriculation level. He did not receive any formal Islamic education, but he claimed to have been directly taught by the Prophet Muhammad himself. [2]

In 1975, Goharshahi publicly claimed that what he called the jussa-e tawfiq-e ilahi, or ‘the sub-spirit of God’, had entered him. [3] Five years later, he began preaching, presenting himself as a Sufi of the Qadiriya order. He set up a centre in the town of Hyderabad and then shifted to the town of Kotri in Sindh, where he established what he called the Khuda Ki Basti (‘The Locality of God’). Over time, his controversial views about basic tents of Islam as well as claims about himself brought him into conflict with several Pakistani ‘ulema, who accused him of blasphemy.

In the late 1990s, a number of criminal cases, including related to murder, illegal possession of arms and illegal possession of land, were instituted against Goharshahi, forcing him to flee to Britain. Soon after his arrival there he was given life sentence in absentia by the Sindh High Court. In Britain, he succeeded in making a fairly significant number of followers, particularly among expatriate Pakistanis. For his bizarre beliefs and teachings, he was stiffly opposed by some Muslims there, too, and his house in Manchester was bombed. Yet, he kept up his preaching work, traveling to several other European countries and America and making converts, mainly among people of Pakistani origin. In addition to the ASI, which he had set up in Pakistan in 1980, he established the Riaz Ahmad Goharshahi (RAGS) International and the MFI in Britain and the American Sufi Institute in the United States to propagate his views, giving these small outfits high-sounding names in order to portray them as larger than life.

According to the MFI, Goharshahi went into occultation or ghaiba in London on 27 November 2001, while according to the ASI he died a natural death. Consequently, the ASI constructed a tomb for him at Kotri, in Sindh, where he had preached for many years, which was later to become a major bone of contention of the two rival groups. In addition to these two major groups, some splinter groups, now with very few followers, emerged following Goharshahi’s death, each claiming to inherit his legacy.[4]

Goharshahi’s Teachings and Claims

Goharshahi was credited with having written several books. The most important of these, in the eyes of his followers, is the Din-e Ilahi (‘The Religion of God’), which he wrote after he fled Pakistan. [5] It appears, in parts, like a Sufistic text, focusing particularly on love for God and His creation. However, in this and in other texts penned by him, Goharshahi made claims that were fiercely contested by Muslim clerics, resulting in several fatwas of disbelief against him. Thus, for instance, a tract penned by a Pakistani Sunni Barelvi scholar, Muhammad Afzal Kotalvi, claims that Goharshahi sought to justify the consumption of drugs and womanizing by seeking to provide what he called ‘exoteric’ (batini) interpretations for the explicit (zahiri) commandments of Islam. [6] By claiming privileged access to what he called the ‘esoteric meaning’ of the Qur’an, Goharshahi is said to have argued that the ‘luxorious cars and vehicles’ in which he traveled in the company of ‘young girls’ and the ‘luxorious life’ that he led were comparable to the ‘precious horses’ used by the Prophet Muhammad during his military campaigns. [7] These and other similar claims naturally earned Goharshahi considerable opposition from the Pakistani ‘ulema.

According to some sources, Goharshahi opposed the strict following of the shar’iah, arguing that it related only to the ‘external’ dimension, while ‘true’ religion, so he claimed, was solely of the heart and pertained to what he labeled as ‘the love of God’. [8] He is said to have gone so far as to claim that key aspects of Islamic ritual practice, such as salat, zakat, saum and haj, were only of a temporary nature and did not have continuing relevance. [9] He claimed that the salience that Muslims gave to the external shari’ah was a principal cause of sectarianism and conflicts among them, owing to differences of opinion about and interpretation of rules of the shari’ah, as well as placing barriers between Muslims and others. Thus, in his Din-e Ilahi he argued that ‘true’ religion did not take cognizance of externals. He claimed to preach what he termed as a ‘universal’ religion in which all people, Muslims and others, could equally participate.

Curiously, while critiquing the external shari’ah, on several occasions Goharshahi also argued to the contrary, and insisted that his teachings were entirely in consonance with Islam. [10] He announced that if his teachings could be proved to contain anything against the shari’ah he was prepared to face any sort of punishment. It is probable that this was merely a tactic to deflect criticism of the movement as un-Islamic and also to appeal to the essentially Muslim audience that Goharshahi was addressing.

Based on his claim of having access to ‘secret divine knowledge’, Goharshahi is also said, by some critics, to have claimed that the existing Qur’an was not complete in itself. In his Kitab Haq ki Awaz he is said to have argued that the thirty existing parts (paras) of the Qur’an were meant for ‘ordinary’ mortals and pertained to ‘external’ or zahiri matters. However, he is said to have alleged, there were ten other paras of the holy scripture which were accessible only to the ‘spiritual elite’ (khawas), such as he claimed himself to be. This allegedly ‘hidden’ portion of the Qur’an, he is said to have written, pertained to what he called the batini aspects of faith, and he claimed to have full knowledge of these. [11] He is said to have gone to the extent of claiming that ‘The batini and the zahiri Qur’an are in conflict with each other’, and that hence there was no need for his followers to follow the rules of the external shari’ah. [12] Thus, for instance, he argued that there was no need for non-Muslims to recite or believe in the Islamic creed of confession (kailma shahadah), and that they could attain salvation by remaining in their own religions. [13] In fact, so a section of his followers claims, he went to the extent of declaring that all existing religions, including Islam, had lost their relevance and had merged into the new religion that he was expounding, which he called Din-e Ilahi (‘The Religion of God’), which, he claimed, was based on love of God (‘ishq-e ilahi) and contained all the good points in other religions. [14]

More details about Goharshahi’s absurd teachings are available in a tract produced by another Pakistani critic, the Deobandi Sunni scholar Ahmad Miyan Hamadi, in-charge of the Sindh provincial unit of the Majlis Tahaffuz-e Khatm-e Nabuvvat, an organization concerned particularly with rebutting groups that question the belief in the finality of the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad. Hamadi quotes from Goharshahi’s pamphlet Kitab Haq Ki Awaz, where he claimed that his teachings were not his own. Rather, Goharshahi wrote, they were provided to him by God and the Prophet Muhammad and he was commissioned by them to preach them. [15]

One of Goharshahi’s major claims was that God had allegedly provided miraculous signs to prove that he was His chosen one. In this regard, Hamadi refers to Goharshahi’s claim that his own image had appeared in the moon, the sun, the black stone in the Ka’aba in Makkah (hijr-e aswad), in an unnamed Hindu temple in Pakistan and in several other such places, and points out that Goharshahi used this claim to argue that he had been divinely appointed to unite all the peoples of the world, irrespective of religion, and to preach to them a new religion, the Din-e Ilahi, which he claimed was meant for all of humanity. [16] To deny these images, Goharshahi announced, would be to defy God, for God, so he claimed, had arranged these to be displayed in order to glorify Goharshahi’s name.[17]

Goharshahi’s grandiose claim that his image had appeared in several places, particularly in the hijr-e aswad, was carefully calculated to garner publicity for himself. In several letters to the Paksitani President, he insisted that the government investigate this claim if it were really true to Islam. To rebut his detractors, he claimed, without, of course, supplying any proof, that in 1998 the Imam of the Ka’aba had allegedly announced that he had seen a human image, which Goharshahi claimed was his own, in the hijr-e aswad, but that the Saudi rulers and Wahhabi ‘ulema had quickly painted it over in order to conceal this image from the Muslim public. [18] This meant, Goharshahi announced, that Muslims visiting the Ka’aba for the Haj were unable to complete their pilgrimage, because, he wrote, ‘Just as if one polishes one’s nails, one’s wuzu (ritual ablutions before prayer) is not complete, so, too, one’s haj cannot be complete as the Saudi government has coated my image in the hijr-e aswad with paint’. He argued that kissing the hijr-e aswad was ‘the most important item of Haj (sic.) ritual’, but since the Saudis had allegedly covered it with a coat of paint, the pilgrims were unable to kiss the stone but were forced to kiss the paint instead, which was inadmissible. Hence, he went on, the Saudis were effectively ‘responsible for making the Haj of millions of Muslims null and void’. [19] ‘But’, he added, ‘since Allah wants to make this image clear, it cannot remain hidden for long’.

The bizarre claim of his image being contained, among other things, in the hijr-e aswad soon emerged as the single most salient aspect of Goharshahi’s message and certainly the most controversial. It appeared to have been carefully calculated to inflame Muslim passions and thereby attract attention for himself. In an article published shortly before he fled Pakistan, Goharshahi announced that his image was contained in the hijr-e aswad ‘since eternity’. He claimed that the Prophet Muhammad had kissed the stone because ‘the soul of the person whose image is in the stone [i.e. Goharshahi himself] and that of the Prophet Muhammad were together in the skies. When the Prophet came into this world, he saw this person’s image and remembered that this person was he whom he had loved greatly […] The Prophet recognised this person by seeing his image and so kissed the stone’. [20] This absurd claim was to be later further magnified and elaborated upon by the MFI soon after Goharshahi’s death or alleged ‘occultation’ in 2001, winning the cult widespread condemnation from Muslim groups in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Another contentious issue that set Goharshahi against his Muslim critics was approval of the replacement of the phrase ‘Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah” (muhammadur rasul allah) in the kalima shahadah or Islamic creed of confession of faith by his own name. This was a major point in the criminal case instituted against him in 1999 by Ahmad Miyan Hamadi, author of the above-mentioned booklet Fitna-e Goharshahi. The case was tried and decided by the Anti-Terrorism Court in Mirpurkhas in Sindh, but Goharshahi escaped punishment as he had already fled to England by the time the court announced its decision. [21] Goharshahi was also accused by Hamadi of claiming that a certain syllable used in several places in the Qur’an actually referred to him. [22]

Splits in the Goharshahi Cult and the Formation of the MFI

Following the death of Goharshahi in 2001, the cult that had developed around him split into several factions. Essentially, these splits had to do with contestations over leadership of the cult and rival claims to Goharshahi’s legacy, although complex religious arguments were marshaled to back each position. The two major groups of Goharshahi’s followers are today represented by the ASI and the MFI.

The ASI has its headquarters in Kotri in the Dadu district of the Pakistani province of Sindh and has branches in several places in the country. [23] Among the top leadership of the group are several of Goharshahi’s relatives, including his wife [24] and children [25], his father Syed Fazl Hussain [26], as well as some of Goharshahi’s close disciples. [27] The ASI claims to be the true heir of Goharshahi’s legacy, a claim which is hotly contested by the MFI.

The ASI claims to be a Muslim Sufi group within the broader framework of Islam, a point that is constantly stressed in its literature. It argues that Goharshahi, too, firmly believed in Islam and that he insisted that going against the shari’ah is a sin for Muslims, although he also claimed that the tariqa or the Sufi path was necessary in order to complement it. [28] Those who violate the shari’ah, the ASI claims Goharshahi stressed, were not his true followers. [29] However, given the fact that several of Goharshahi’s beliefs, particularly regarding the shari’ah as well as grandiose claims about himself, were seen as placing him outside the fold of Islam by his ‘ulema detractors, the ASI’s claim of being ‘Muslim’ is hotly contested by its Muslim opponents. Given the mounting opposition to the cult after Goharshahi’s death, the ASI has perhaps sought to conceal some of the more bizarre or un-Islamic beliefs and teachings of Goharshahi in order to present itself as just another Muslim group.

No sooner had Goharshahi died than his followers began contesting with each other, each claiming to represent his legacy. Ever since Goharshahi’s death, fierce polemics have characterized the relations between the ASI and the MFI, the two main groups of Goharshahi’s followers. Based in London, the MFI was set up soon after Goharshahi’s death by Yunous al-Gohar, who styles himself as its ‘Chief Executive Officer’. Yunous has been accused by the ASI of hijacking the official website of the movement after Goharshahi’s death and using it to spread blasphemous and anti-Islamic beliefs which he wrongly attributes to Goharshahi. [30] It also accuses Yunous of being a ‘hypocrite’ [31] and an ‘agent of the Jews’ and of ‘enemies of Islam and Pakistan’ by deliberately seeking to distort Goharshahi’s message. [32] It claims that Yunous’ distortion of Goharshahi’s teachings was motivated by ‘his desire for wealth’. ASI leader and Goharshahi’s father, Syed Fazl Hussain, sent a letter to the group’s activists, warning them against Yunous, who, he said, was bent on sabotaging the group and who, he claimed, was ‘in league with the Jews and was being paid by them’. [33]

Of particular importance in the ongoing conflict between the ASI and the MFI are the contradictory stands of both groups on the issue of whether or not Goharshahi claimed to the Imam Mahdi. It is not clear if Goharshahi himself explicitly claimed to be the Imam Mahdi at any point. The ASI claims that Goharshahi himself denied being the Imam Mahdi and even said that those who believed him to be so were wrong. It sees Goharshahi as a Sufi murshid, and not as the Imam Mahdi. Goharshahi’s father, Syed Fazl Hussain, claims that Goharshahi appeared to him in a vision and informed him that ‘He had only indicated the signs of the Imam Mahdi, and that he was not the Imam Mahdi himself, although some foolish people had claimed him to be so’. [34]

The MFI denies the ASI’s claims and insists to the contrary. MFI sources offer muddled, confused and contradictory responses on the issue. The MFI argues that Goharshahi did claim to be the Imam Mahdi in 1997 before he fled to England [35] as well as in the Introduction to his main work, Din-e Ilahi. [36] Elsewhere, it argues that he kept this concealed but arranged for certain ‘enlightened souls’, by which is obviously meant the MFI’s leaders, to ‘automatically recognize him as the Imam Mahdi’ without his having to publicly declare this as such [37]. Elsewhere it claims that Goharshahi ‘revealed’ the ‘fact’ of his being the Imam Mahdi only to a select few, including, and particularly, Yunous al-Gohar. [38] Yunous claims that he was close to Goharshahi and knew many of his ‘secrets’, including that ‘according to the Divine plan, Goharshahi did not publicly announce that he was the Imam Mahdi’, and adds that in 1999 Goharshahi had said, after claiming to see his image in the sun, the moon and the hijr-e aswad, that he might be the Imam Mahdi. Goharshahi said, so Yunous claims, that he could be sure of this only when ‘the saints testify to this’. Yunous argues that although Goharshahi did not publicly claim to be the Imam Mahdi, ‘his images that appeared in all religious places, including mosques, churches and temples’ were a divine way of informing ‘enlightened beings’ that he was indeed the Imam Mahdi, and that he had come as the saviour promised by all religions. He claims that Goharshahi had informed him that ‘owing to some reason’ he did not openly preach that he was the Imam Mahdi, but had, instead, appointed Yunous and his followers to do so, ‘in order to test their faith’. [39] Yunous insists that by denying that Goharshahi was the Imam Mahdi, the followers of the ASI are ‘heretics’, ‘hypocrites’, ‘frauds’, ‘enemies of Goharshahi’, ‘worshippers of Satan’ [40] and ‘bastards’ [41]. In addition, the MFI announces that because the ASI does not accept Goharshahi as the Imam Mahdi, it ‘will announce war and jihad against it’. [42]

The MFI: Beliefs and Claims

The MFI has its headquarters in London. Its name has been probably deliberately chosen so as to give it a larger than life image, as a respectable ‘international’ organisation, rather than the bizarre cult that it actually is. Yunous al-Gohar, who styles himself as the outfit’s ‘Chief Executive Officer’, is said to be a London-based billionaire and hypnotist of Pakistani origin. He claims to have been specially selected by Goharshahi to carry on his mission as his deputy and to be in constant touch with him. He argues that Goharshahi is omnipresent, although in communication only with him [43], and that he will again reveal himself in his physical form in London, shortly before a grand apocalyptic battle that he will wage, along with Jesus, against the Dajjal or Anti-Christ that will herald the Day of Judgment. He claims that in December 2001, Goharshahi ‘transferred all his light’ into him. After this, Yunous claims to have ‘flown to the grand castle of Ra Riyaz Goharshahi’. [44] Several of the MFI’s bizarre beliefs, such as the claim that Goharshahi is God, that Yunous is the only person he is in communication with and that those who do not believe in or oppose Goharshahi or doubt his claims are in league with the Devil and are ‘dogs of Hell’ [45], are, so Yunous claims, said to have been ‘revealed’ to him by Goharshahi after his alleged ‘occultation’ in 2001.

The MFI operates through a number of fronts. Its main vehicle for disseminating its propaganda is the Internet. In order to create the impression that it is much larger than it actually is, Yunous and his followers, almost all Pakistanis based in England and America, run numerous sophisticated websites with different names, although these contain much the same material. [46] These are in several languages, including Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, English and French. The MFI also hosts an online radio station. It has sponsored advertisements in numerous popular newspapers in different languages in various countries, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada and Britain, announcing its claim of Goharshahi being the Imam Mahdi and inviting those who want to know more to contact the group through its websites. [47] In these advertisements, it presents its claims about Goharshahi in the guise of being an apparently benign, spiritual and apolitical inter-faith group, which, it claims, is committed to peace, harmony and love of God and of humanity.

The MFI claims to have several hundred thousand followers in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Europe, North America, and South-East Asia, although these numbers are probably grossly exaggerated. In these countries it has its representatives who work as missionaries, distributing MFI literature and organizing public events. These programmes are presented as get-togethers to promote ‘divine love’ and ‘peace’ but are actually means for the cult to propagate its bizarre beliefs. The MFI has also participated in some programmes organized by inter-faith groups in order to present itself as motivated by universal love, a claim that is completely belied by its claims and its politics, as we shall see later in the course of this paper.

Key Teachings of the MFI

Yunous’ critics in the ASI have accused him of deliberately distorting the teachings of Goharshahi and of attributing to him beliefs and statements which they say were not his. They claim that Yunous has done this deliberately in order to sabotage the movement. Yunous, on the other hand, defends his stance, saying that what he preaches is precisely what Goharshahi taught his disciples and also what Goharshahi secretly continues to ‘reveal’ to him while in ‘occultation’. He insists that he says nothing on his own. [48] He claims that he has been in ‘external’ (zahiri) and ‘esoteric’ (batini) closeness with Goharshahi for over two decades [49], and that he has privileged access to him as his ‘representative’ in his supposed phase of ‘occultation’. He claims that in addition to the ‘external’ knowledge that Goharshahi imparted his disciples, as contained in his book Din-e Ilahi [50], he is privy to ‘secret’ knowledge (batini ‘ilm) which he says Goharshahi provides to him and other ‘special’ (khawas) people in the MFI. Referring to the ASI, he says that this group limits itself only to ‘external’ knowledge and hence has ‘gone astray’.

Yunous argues, referring to himself, that those who also have access to the ‘secret’ knowledge from Goharshahi ‘are on the right path’. [51]He claims that the knowledge imparted in the Din-e Ilahi represents the ‘secret knowledge’ that the Prophet Muhammad transmitted to Imam ‘Ali. This knowledge, he claims, had been kept a closely guarded secret all this while but the Prophet had, so he wrote, given it to Goharshahi, who, in turn, had ‘opened’ it for all to access easily by simply reciting his name. In other words, he claims, the batini ‘ilm of the Prophet Muhammad was the zahiri ‘ilm of Goharshahi, implying that the batini ‘ilm that he claims Goharshahi possessed was superior to the batini ‘ilm of the Prophet as well as the zahiri ‘ilm that the Prophet imparted through the Qur’an. Goharshahi, the MFI proclaims, is privy to that ‘secret’ knowledge that ‘the Prophet Muhammad wanted but was denied’. [52] Going even further, the MFI claims that the ‘secret knowledge’ that Goharshahi possesses is not from God but from his own self, suggesting, thereby, the argument of Goharshahi’s alleged superiority to God. [53]

In contrast to the ASI, which believes that Goharshahi is dead, the MFI, as mentioned earlier, believes that he is alive and physically present in the world, being allegedly ‘immortal’ [54], although concealed from everyone except his ‘chosen’ followers, i.e. members, particularly leaders, of the MFI, especially Yunous al-Gohar. The ‘concealment’ of Goharshahi is said to be ‘an unparalleled miracle’, which will ‘drown the entire world in amazement’, causing ‘all souls to believe in him’. [55] In this alleged period of ‘concealment’, Goharshahi is said to commune with Yunous in person and sometimes, so Yunous claims, even appears before him. The MFI believes that Goharshahi’s alleged occultation is actually a test for his ‘true’ believers, who, in this period, might have to suffer persecution while proclaiming his ‘impending arrival’. These ‘true believers’ are assured that if they faithfully carry on the work of ‘proclaiming the Imam Mahdi’, ‘all their sins will be washed away’. [56] In this test, the MFI insists, the ASI and its followers have miserably failed, proving themselves to be ‘hypocrites’ and engaged in ‘a Satanic conspiracy’ to distort Goharshahi’s teachings, as they claim that Goharshahi is dead and conceal or deny the claim of his being the Imam Mahdi. [57]

The single most salient feature of MFI propaganda, which is constantly repeated in all its literature and on the websites that it runs or sponsors, is that Goharshahi is the Imam Mahdi of the Muslims, as well as the Promised Messiah of the Christians and Jews, the final Buddha of the Buddhists and the Kalki Avatar of the Hindus. [58] The MFI claims that the Christian and Jewish belief that the Messiah would rule the world has been fulfilled in Goharshahi’s alleged establishment of his ‘global spiritual dominion’. As for the Hindu belief that the Kalki Avatar would make all people Hindu, the MFI claims that this, too, has been fulfilled by Goharshahi in that he will allegedly make all humans ‘devotees of someone connected to the Indian subcontinent’, that is, himself.[59]

‘To preach about the Imam Mahdi’, in the form of Goharshahi, Yunous writes, is ‘the basic aim’ of the movement. ‘We will carry on preaching about the Imam Mahdi’, he announces, ‘even if we have to wage war against others’. [60] For this purpose, although MFI leaders insist that the group is not Muslim, and that, instead, it preaches a new religion, what they call ‘the Goharian Philosophy of Divine Love’, the MFI frequently refers to Islamic scriptural resources but misinterprets them to put forward its bizarre claims about Goharshahi. Thus, the MFI insists that its teachings are ‘based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad’ [61], but it uses this argument to arrive at conclusions which Muslims will find completely opposed to Islam. This is a central theme in MFI propaganda, and geared essentially to appear innocuous and more acceptable to a largely Muslim audience, [62] or else, in several cases, to deliberately provoke Muslim anger and thereby perhaps win the support of anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic forces, particularly in the West.

The MFI makes numerous absurd claims related to the Prophet Muhammad in order to press its argument that the Prophet had allegedly predicted the arrival of Goharshahi as the Imam Mahdi. Thus, it claims that the Prophet Muhammad had predicted that the Imam Mahdi would ‘look exactly like him’ and says that this holds true in the case of Goharshahi. [63] It claims that the Prophet Muhammad ‘transferred all his knowledge to Goharshahi’. [64] It claims that the Muslim belief that near the Last Day, the sun will rise from the West is actually a reference to Goharshahi, whom it identifies with the ‘sun’. The ‘West’ here refers, the MFI claims, to the city of London, where Goharshahi stayed for some years, and where the MFI believes he will ‘reappear’ after his period of ‘occultation’ is over in order to herald the end of the world.

Referring to the Muslim belief that the Imam Mahdi would ‘distribute the treasures of the Ka’aba’, the MFI claims that this is an allegorical reference that has been fulfilled by Goharshahi’s alleged distribution of ‘the spiritual food for all human beings in the form of love of God (‘ishq-e ilahi)’. [65] It claims that in accordance with a prophecy that Imam Jafar Sadiq is said to have made, Goharshahi has the ‘seal of Mahdihood’ (mehr-e mahdaviyyat) and the kalima shahada inscribed on his body. It refers to what it calls a hadith and claims that the Prophet Muhammad prophesied that the Imam Mahdi would appear in Makkah between the rukn yamani and the maqam-e ibrahim, and says this is fulfilled in the alleged appearance of Goharshahi’s image in the hijr-e aswad. It claims that all the prophets, from Adam to Muhammad, deeply revered the hijr-e aswad because it allegedly contains the picture of Goharshahi. It even argues that ‘from the very first day, every being, including every prophet, has prostrated before the supposed image of Goharshahi in the hijr-e aswad’. [66] It refers to what it claims is a hadith report, according to which the Prophet kissed the hijr-e aswad and wept, and says that this was because he allegedly saw Goharshahi’s image in it. It claims that Imam ‘Ali informed Hazrat ‘Umar that the hijr-e aswad was not just a stone, but, rather, had a pair of eyes, ears and a tongue and that it would intercede for those who kiss it on the Day of Judgment. It argues that this means that the hijr-e aswad has a human image in it and that this is that of Goharshahi. [67]

In what is perhaps a deliberately designed claim to infuriate Muslims, the MFI argues that, in addition to Goharshahi, images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Hindu goddess Durga have also appeared in the hijr-e aswad. [68] Hence, the MFI argues, it ought to be accessible to all peoples, and not just Muslims, as at present. Because it claims that the hijr-e aswad contains an image of Goharshahi, and since it argues that Goharshahi is meant for all humankind, it claims that allowing only Muslims to visit the shrine is ‘unfair’ and that this rule must be changed at once.[69] It claims that Adam brought this stone from heaven ‘for the sake of the blessing and intercession of all human beings’. Hence, this stone, presented as the ‘first place of worship in the world’, was allegedly revered by all communities. ‘Ever since it came under the control of the Muslims’, the MFI says, ‘other peoples have been forbidden to kiss it’. It argues that the MFI is the ‘rightful owner’ of the hijr-e aswad and claims that Goharshahi will ‘soon snatch it back’ from the Saudi rulers after deposing them and make it accessible to all human beings, not just Muslims, so that everyone can ‘kiss the stone that contains the picture of Goharshahi’. [70]

The MFI claims that in addition to the hijr-e aswad, the image of Goharshahi has appeared in a large number of places, including the moon, the sun and numerous stars, as well as churches, mosques, imambarghas and temples. This, it says, shows that Goharshahi is meant for all peoples of the world, transcending boundaries of religion. Its propaganda material contains numerous photographs of these objects, with claims alongside that the image of Goharshahi is visible therein. However, to an unbiased observer, these images are, of course, not apparent at all.

According to the MFI, the word mahdi actually means ‘man of the moon’ (chand wala). Hence, it argues, the supposed image of Goharshahi on the moon is ‘proof’ of him being the Imam Mahdi. It claims that Imam Ja’far Sadiq had allegedly prophesied that the Imam Mahdi’s face would appear on the moon and argues that this face is that of Goharshahi. [71] It claims that the medieval Jewish scholar, Nostradamus, had predicted the arrival of ‘the main of the moon’, who would ‘spiritually revolutionise the world’, and states that this figure is none other than Goharshahi.

Using this argument of Goharshahi’s image being allegedly visible in the moon, MFI propaganda material repeatedly makes grandiose claims on behalf of Goharshahi that clearly sets the group outside the fold of Islam. The MFI exhorts people to gaze upon the supposed image and then utter the word ‘Allah’ thrice for seven days, whereupon they are told that the image would ‘enter their hearts’ and that they would acquire a particular ‘meditation chant of the heart’ (zikr-e qalb) from Goharshahi himself, reciting which they can attain ‘salvation’. This easy path to ‘salvation’ is said to be open to all people, irrespective of religion. According to the MFI, prayers to the supposed image of Goharshahi in the moon can be made in any language, for, it claims, he can understand all languages. This image, if beseeched, the MFI claims, can cure all ills. [72]

Indeed, so ‘great’ is Goharshahi, the MFI claims, that the size of his ‘hidden’ (batini) face is 150 times that of the sun. [73] The MFI even claims, of course without any reference or proof, that NASA scientists in America have attested to this and to have declared that his image is ‘suspended in the space’.[74] ‘The whole of humanity’, it announces, ‘will look up to him as the world approaches its end. His teachings shall be honoured and adopted by all human beings open-heartedly’. ‘One day’, so it claims Goharshahi had declared, ‘all souls will bow down before me and accept me as the Imam Mahdi’, adding, ‘If they refuse to do so, God will force them to recognize me as such’. [75] ‘Every soul, accepting the greatness of Goharshahi, will prostrate before him’, the MFI insists. [76] ‘As humanity awakens’, Yunous writes in clumsy English in an article hosted on the MFI’s official website, ‘every nation will claim “Gohar is ours”. True saviour of humankind is the one who turn (sic.) the (sic.) humanity into Divinity. And that is Gohar Shahi. Gohar Shahi is already turning humanity into Divinity. No wonder he is the Promised Messiah, Awaited Mehdi and Predicted Kalki Avatar. Yunous says so. Prophets came for nations, saints for groups, but Gohar is for all humanity’.

Equally bizarre is the MFI’s claim that the ‘soul of Muhammad’ had entered Goharshahi’s body. Hence, it argues, if one prays for blessings on the Prophet (durud) and utters the phrase ya muhammad, the prayer ‘collides against the body of Goharshahi and changes into ya gohar ‘automatically’. Likewise in the case of prayers and supplications to God. If someone does zikr of God or the Prophet Muhammad, that prayer relates only to God or the Prophet, the MFI argues. But because the MFI claims that Goharshahi is above even the Prophet Muhammad and God, zikr of Goharshahi, it says, includes the zikr of God and Muhammad as well. The implication, therefore, is that one need not do the zikr of God and Muhammad, and that the zikr of Goharshahi is sufficient. [77] By simply chanting the phrase ya gohar, the MFI says, Goharshahi will provide people assistance. [78] Accordingly, those who ‘turn away from’ the zikr of Goharshahi are warned that God would turn away from them, too. [79] Hence, the MFI argues, ‘there is no greater worship that the glimpse of Goharshahi’ and ‘prostrating before him’. [80]

The MFI presents Goharshahi as having supposedly ‘renewed’ all other religions, including Islam, and to have caused them all to merge into a ‘universal faith’, the Din-e Ilahi, which it terms as ‘a brand new religion’. [81] This faith, Yunous says, is ‘superior’ to all other religions, including Islam. [82] While in the past this religion was accessible only to a select few, who had to undertake stern austerities for this, Goharshahi is said to have made it easily accessible to everyone, irrespective of religion, who believes in him. One can now reach God, the MFI insists, only through Goharshahi’s Din-e Ilahi. All other religions, including Islam, so it claims, have now become ‘useless’, having degenerated into sources of ‘strife’ because, among other reasons, of their alleged excessive concern with external rituals. [83] Accordingly, Muslims as well as others who refuse to accept Goharshahi as the Imam Mahdi are said to possess ‘devilish souls’ and to be ‘hypocrites, like the assassins of Imam Hussain’. [84] They are accused of opposing the very religions that they claim to follow, because, the MFI claims, all the religions of the world have prophesied Goharshahi’s arrival as the messiah. [85]

In some places, the MFI writes that the religion that Goharshahi preached was ‘given by God’, whereas other religions are described as having been made by ‘prophets who were mere mortals’. [86] Goharshahi’s religion is described as the ‘religion of the soul’, because of which, it is stressed, there is no need to follow the shari’ah and external forms of worship, the argument being that these allegedly relate only to the body while ‘true ‘religion pertains only to the soul. [87] It is argued that prior to Goharshahi, the religions taught by the various prophets to most of their followers pertained only to the ‘body’ and to the external rules of shari’ah. The ‘true religion of love’ that is said to ‘transcend’ the sharia’h was taught by them to only a very few select followers. However, now, it is claimed, Goharshahi had made this ‘true religion’ of Din-e Ilahi accessible to all, irrespective of religion. Goharshahi is described as being allegedly unique in this regard, for no prophet or saint is said to have provided access to the ‘love of God’ to all of humanity, they being said to have been sent only to a particular community. [88]

In contrast to the Islamic understanding that the Prophet Muhammad was sent for all of humankind, the MFI believes that this position was granted to Goharshahi alone. In thus ‘uniting’ all of humanity into one ‘universal ummah’, the MFI says, Goharshahi has allegedly caused ‘all other ummahs to be finished’. [89] Falsely claiming that the Prophet Muhammad ‘shed tears in the hope of getting a glimpse’ of Goharshahi, Yunous insists ‘our guide is not Muhammad’ but Goharshahi. [90] He even goes to the extent of writing that the Muslim saints who attained help from God ‘did not get this through Islam but, rather, through learning the Din-e Ilahi of Goharshahi. [91]

Significantly, Yunous explicitly states that he and his followers are not Muslims, but, instead, what he calls ‘Goharians’. He claims that Goharshah, too, never followed Islam, and critiques the ASI for claiming the contrary. [92] Yunous claims that the ‘final limit’ of Islam taught by the Prophet Muhammad is ‘love for God'(muhabbat- e ilahi), which, he says, is ‘the beginning’ of Goharshahi’s Din-e Ilahi, whose ‘limit’ is ‘passion for God’ (‘ishq-e ilahi), which is said to be ‘much higher than muhabbat-e ilahi’. Hence, he says, Goharshahi’s religion is superior to Islam. Islam, he says, ‘is limited by the kalima of Muhammad’, while Goharshahi’s Din-e Ilahi ‘has no limitation of a prophet but is universal, so that all people, irrespective of religion, can gain spiritual merit from Goharshahi’. In this way, he says, ‘the superiority of Islam has ended’. [93] He argues that Goharshahi claimed that ‘the verses of the Quran have been abrogated’. [94] He announces that Islam was meant only for Muslims, and that because, so he alleges, it has ‘lost its spiritualism’ and has ‘been reduced by the ‘ulema to the shari’ah’, it has ‘lost its relevance’, being now supposedly used to promote conflict and hatred. Hence, he says, Goharshahi’s ‘new religion of Din-e Ilahi’ has ‘put an end to Islam’ [95]

Again marshalling Islamic scripturalist resources for what critics would argue is an un-Islamic purpose, Yunous claims that Prophetic traditions that allegedly talk about the sudden disappearance of the Imam Mahdi and then the return of Jesus Christ and his joining forces with the Imam Mahdi to kill the Dajjal and establish the rule of God throughout the world are being fulfilled through the person of Goharshahi. Thus, he claims that Jesus came to meet Goharshahi first in London in 1997[96] and then later in the same year in a hotel in the town of Taus, in New Mexico, in the United States. [97] Meanwhile, he writes, Jesus is now somewhere in Sri Lanka, while Goharshahi, although physically present in the world, is concealed from others, save for his closest companions, whose leader Yunous presents himself as. In the period of the ‘occultation’ of Goharshahi, Yunous says, the ‘foremost worship’ would be to ‘wait for the Mahdi’ (muntazir-e mahdi). Hence, he insists, those, such as members of the ASI, who believe that Goharshahi is dead, have actually reneged on their faith, while the MFI’s followers, awaiting his ‘re-appearance’, are walking faithfully on his path, for which they are told that they would earn a place in heaven. [98]

Goharshahi’s Stature in MFI Propaganda

The MFI’s claims about the spiritual stature of Goharshahi goes far beyond what the ASI claims for him. While the ASI accuses the MFI of deliberately distorting Goharshahi’s teachings and of claiming a stature for him which they say he himself did not claim, the MFI insists that it strictly abides by what Goharshahi preached to his followers, as well as what he is said to have ‘revealed’ to a small select group of his disciples before his ‘occultation’ and what he is said to continue ‘revealing’ to Yunous after that.

The stature of Goharshahi, the MFI claims, is far superior to that of the saints. [99] Yunous writes that Shaikh ‘Abdul Qadir Jilani, founder of the Qadriya Sufi order, had predicted to his disciples that Goharshahi would appear as the Imam Mahdi and that ‘only he would rule the entire universe’. Hence, he adds, the Qadriya order, as well as all other Sufi orders, have been ‘absorbed’ into the Din-e Ilahi of Goharshahi. Consequently, he announces, ‘Till the Day of Judgment, the spiritual benefits of the names of God can be had only from Goharshahi’. [100] This means, he elaborates, that Goharshahi is ‘the last of the saints’, and even that ‘all the prophets have transferred the spiritual benefit that they provided their followers with to him’. [101]

Yunous also argues that Goharshahi is superior to all the prophets. [102] He claims that till now the various prophets of God ‘have taught only two of the twenty-seven letters of knowledge’ and that Goharshahi would teach the rest twenty-five. [103] He claims that Goharshahi alone ‘is able to awaken a evil doer’s soul by just one look at him’, and says that this is a miracle that none of the prophets was able to perform. [104] He describes Goharshahi as the ‘spiritual master’ (pir) of the prophets. [105] Because, according to a Prophetic tradition, Jesus would give the oath of allegiance (bai’ah) to the Imam Mahdi, Goharshahi is claimed as the ‘guide of the prophets’ (nabiyon ka pir). [106] A picture hosted on the MFI’s website depicts Jesus touching Goharshahi’s feet. [107]

Because, allegedly, Jesus would come back to the world to ‘have a glimpse’ of Goharshahi [108] and to take him, and not the Prophet Muhammad, as his guide, Goharshahi is, it is sought to be implied, ‘superior’ even to the Prophet. [109] This claim is further advanced in Yunous’ announcement that Goharshahi is allegedly ‘assisted by numerous prophets’, including the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus.[110] 30 Furthermore, Yunous claims that the Prophet Muhammad kissed the hijr-e aswad and wept because therein he allegedly saw the image of Goharshahi and was overwhelmed with ‘his love and faith in him’, thus implying the claim of Goharshahi’s superiority over him. [111] Yunous claims that the Prophet Muhammad represents the zahir or ‘external’ aspect of God, while Goharshahi represents His batin or real, hidden self, and writes that God refused to let the Prophet see this self despite his desire to. In contrast to the Prophet, Yunous claims that Goharshahi is ‘immortal’ (la fani). [112] In short, then, the MFI portrays Gohar Shahi as a super-divine figure superior even to the Prophet Muhammad.

Not stopping at claiming Goharshahi’s superiority to the prophets, the MFI goes so far as to claim that Goharshahi is superior even to God. Goharshahi, announces an issue of the Hatif-e Mehdi, the MFI’s Urdu-cum-English tabloid, is, in fact, God himself. ‘La Ilaha il Al Gohar’ (‘There is no god but Gohar’) its cover page proclaims. MFI members are asked to recite this phrase as part of their daily zikr, [113] and it is claimed that this phrase also appears on the sun. [114] Goharshahi, announces one of the several MFI-sponsored websites, is ‘Lord of the Lords’ and ‘The Emperor of all the Worlds’ (malik ul-muluk). [115]Yunous announces this claim of Goharshahi being above God when he says ‘I am a slave of Riaz [Goharshahi]. I swear by the Mahdi! I don’t know anyone—neither Allah nor the Prophet of Allah—except for Ra Riyaz Goharshahi’. [116] He further insists, ‘My God is Riaz Ahmad Goharshahi’ [117]. Goharshahi is said to be ‘The Master of Everything’ (maula-e kul), [118] the ‘ruler of the whole world’, [119] and ‘creator of all beings’. [120] Accordingly, in place of Khuda Hafiz or Allah Hafiz, the standard South Asian Muslim way of saying farewell, MFI activists use the phrase Gohar Hafiz. Similarly, Inshallah (‘God willing’) is replaced by Insha Gohar, and the place of the Qur’an is taken by Goharshahi’s tract Din-e Ilahi. [121] Those who have the picture of Goharshahi in their hearts’, Yunous writes, ‘have a much higher spiritual status than those whose hearts are drawn to Allah’. [122]

Further illustrating the MFI’s belief in Goharshahi being superior even to God, Yunous writes that the aim of the ‘esoteric knowledge’ imparted by Goharshahi is to ‘attain a being (zat) beyond even Allah’, whom he identifies as none other than Goharshahi himself, and who, he says, resides in the highest form of paradise which he names as riyaz ul-jannah. Allah, or God, Yunous suggests, is subordinate to Goharshahi. Because God has a religion (din)—love (‘ishq)—He must, Yunous argues, ‘have a deity whom he worships’ (ma’bud). Since one of Allah’s names is mu’min or ‘believer’, he claims that this implies that God ‘must have faith in some other being’. This ‘being’, Yunous implies, is none other than Goharshahi, whose religion he describes as ‘being the treasure of all esoteric knowledge’. [123]

Further elaborating on what he claims is Goharshahi’s exalted spiritual stature, Yunous writes that ‘the path of Allah’ can ‘lead one at most to the vision of God’, but ‘God will not let one sit next to Him but will, instead, send him to some heaven or the other’. In contrast, he says, following ‘the path of Goharshahi’, one will be taken by Goharshahi to the ‘highest heaven’ where he ‘resides’—riaz al-jannah—where one will get ‘eternal closeness to Goharshahi’. This, however, can only happen when ‘one worships no one but Goharshahi’. [124] Those who have been provided ‘secret knowledge’ by Goharshahi, Yunous claims in an obvious reference to himself and his coterie, will enter this paradise. [125] This supposed ‘secret knowledge’, Yunous says, was not given to the Prophet Muhammad but Goharshahi had given it to Yunous. [126]

In MFI propaganda, God is described in crude anthropomorphic terms. He is said to ‘look like Adam’ and to be similar to a ‘virgin youth, a handsome boy, like a seventeen years (sic.) youth’. He is said to ‘walk on two legs’ and to have ‘for his companionship, beautiful females to make him happy’. God is thus presented as a mere physical being, and is sought to be contrasted with Goharshahi, who is described as ‘the Grand God’, and who, so it is claimed, ‘created God’. Accordingly, Goharshahi is said to be ‘the only spiritual personality who not only directed people towards God […], but He rather (sic.) opened doors (sic.) to human intellect to quench its thirst to know what is beyond God’. Further, this alleged ‘Grand God’ or ‘Lord of Lords’, Goharshahi himself, is said to have ‘created 35 million God-like figures’, and God or Allah is said to be ‘just one of them’. [127]

Goharshahi is described in such a manner as to clearly suggest his proclaimed ‘superiority’ over God in even physical terms. He is said to have ‘innumerable model bodies which can be seen at the same time all over the world’. [128] He is said to be ‘present in all the worlds’. ‘The prayers of all worshippers pass through him’ and he can ‘deny the prayers of anyone that he wants’, Yunous claims. [129] Arguing the ‘superiority’ of Goharshahi over God, Yunous claims that ‘there are innumerable worlds beyond Allah’, and that is why, he says, ‘we have left the path of Allah and adopted that of Goharshahi’. [130]

Since Goharshahi is presented as a super-divine figure, it follows from this that the MFI believes that those who do not believe in him or oppose him are destined to doom in hell. Likewise, it is argued that salvation is possible through Goharshahi alone, because, the MFI claims, ‘all other religions have lost their value’. [131] It is striking how while making this claim on behalf of Goharshahi, the MFI also claims to be committed to universal harmony and spirituality that transcends religious barriers, although both claims are obviously irreconcilable. MFI propaganda material is replete with claims that Goharshahi did not preach any religion and that he is for all humankind, irrespective of religion, pointing the way to God. This claim of Goharshahi’s message of ‘spiritualism’ that transcends religion being for people of all religions is obviously hollow rhetoric, because, at the same time, the MFI announces that the only way to salvation is through Goharshahi and none other. [132] Likewise, the claim that Goharshahi leads the way to God is also fallacious given the fact that Yunous describes Goharshahi as ‘superior’ to God. Clearly, these claims are meant only for public consumption and are a rhetorical device to conceal the MFI’s bizarre beliefs.

MFI’s Missionary Work Among Non-Muslims

Given its brazenly anti-Islamic teachings, it is hardly surprising that the MFI has met with stiff opposition from Muslim circles, although several of its activists are of Pakistani Muslim background. Seeking to conceal the real reason for Muslim opposition to the cult, the MFI projects this opposition as a reflection of what it calls its ‘broadened (sic.) approach and universal peace-loving teachings’. [133] Of late, particularly since early 2006, the MFI seems to have begun deliberately seeking to cultivate support among non-Muslims, particularly Hindus and Sikhs as well as Pakistani Christians, opening it to the charge of playing on the latent anti-Muslim prejudices among sections of these communities.

Accordingly, in recent years MFI activists have organized numerous programmes in Pakistan under the banner of two letterhead outfits—’Welcome Jesus International’ and the ‘Interfaith Spiritual Movement’—aiming at winning the support of local Christians for its claims about Jesus and the Imam Mahdi and for its stance on what it calls ‘Islamist extremism’. [134] It has also organized numerous missionary programmes among Hindus in Sindh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and Hindus and Sikhs in America, Australia and Thailand. [135] Several of these programmes have been held in temples and gurudwara premises and the MFI has sought to win over Hindu and Sikh priests to its cause. The programmes inevitably seek to convey the same message: that Goharshahi is the Kalki Avatar of the Hindus and that the hijr-e aswad is actually a phallic object (ling) associated with the Hindu deity Shiva, whom it identifies as Adam, and who, it says, brought the stone down to earth from heaven. In order to endear itself to Hindus, it claims that the image of the Hindu goddess Durga has also appeared in the hijr-e aswad [136]along with that of Goharshahi, and exhorts Hindus to join it in its demand that Hindus, as well as other non-Muslims, be allowed to enter Makkah. It appeals to Hindus to gaze at the supposed image of Goharshahi in the moon, and they are told that by taking his name all their problems can be solved. [137] The MFI has also floated a outfit called the Kalki Avatar Foundation to work among Hindus. Despite its bombastic-sounding name, the outfit is probably just a letterhead organization, working as a front of the MFI.

Is the MFI ‘Muslim’ in Any Sense?

The answer to this question is, of course, an explicit ‘no’, as the above outline of the basic beliefs of the MFI makes amply clear. In fact, Yunous has explicitly claimed on numerous occasions that he and his followers are not Muslims and that the religion that they propagate is not Islam. However, it is important to note that on some other occasions Yunous and the MFI have claimed that their group is ‘Muslim’ in a sense [138] and have even announced that if anything in what they teach is found against the Qur’an, they are willing to accept any punishment. This, of course, must be seen simply as a propaganda gimmick, geared essentially to win more prospective converts and also the favour or attention of Muslim leaders to whom the MFI has dispatched numerous letters, seeking their support in proclaiming Goharshahi as the Imam Mahdi, as we shall see further in the course of this paper.

Violence in Pakistan and Accusations of MFI involvement

Given its brazenly anti-Islamic beliefs, the MFI has naturally faced considerable opposition in Pakistan from Muslim religious groups as well as from the police, resulting in the arrest of several of its activists. The MFI claims that these activists have been ‘wrongly’ and ‘falsely’ accused of blasphemy, but a perusal of the tenets of the group clearly marks them out as blasphemous from the Islamic point of view. It appears that the MFI relishes controversy as a means to win public attention, making bizarre claims for Goharshahi that seem to be deliberately calculated to win the opposition of Islamic groups, on the one hand, and the sympathy of the West as well as certain forces inimical to Islam, on the other.

MFI activists have been involved in pasting posters on the walls of Pakistani towns with the provocative claim that ‘There is no God but Riyaz Ahmad Goharshahi’, which caused Islamist groups as well as ‘ulema organizations to demand that if the government did not stop this they would take the law into their own hands. These groups described this as a conspiracy to divide Muslims, and denounced the cult’s leaders and activists as kafirs and as traducers of the Prophet, appealing to people to boycott the cult and to the government to ban it. [139] In response, the MFI declared that it would not ‘sit back’ and that it would ‘retaliate’ against a range of Islamic groups, whom it branded as ‘Satanic’. It even threatened that this might lead Pakistan to civil war.

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