My team and I have recently found this new study on Ahmadiyya and their conversion through marriage scheme. We have written in the past about how Mahershalalhashbaz Ali converted to Ahmadiyya. We have also discussed how when young Ahmadis in the West fall in love with non-Ahmadis, their is a fake conversion process which allows these type of relationships to become Hilaal or Kosher or “accepted” by the Ahmadiyya jamaat.
Transnational marriage among Ahmadi Muslims in the UK
Ahmadi Muslims constitute a reformed sect of Islam founded in 1889 by a
charismatic leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. In this article I explore the character and
processes of transnational marriage arrangements among Ahmadi Muslims over three
generations in the UK. I suggest that the process of conversion to Ahmadiyyat and the
organizational structure of Ahmadi mosques have combined to produce a flexible
pattern of marriage among Ahmadis that is unusual among South Asians. A significant
number of earlier and contemporary Ahmadi marriages are interethnic, reflecting an
expansive Ahmadiya identity that is perceived to be independent of ethnicity. Further,
analysis of marriage proposals accepted as well as rejected suggests gender differences
in perceptions of and motivations for marriage. The analysis suggests that while gender
differences in expectations of marriage may have parallels in some other South Asian
transnational marriages, Ahmadi religious identity and organization plays a distinctive
role in shaping the processes of Ahmadi marriage arrangements.
British Ahmadi marriages are frequently transnational in the narrow sense of entailing
the migration of at least one partner from their country of residence to another as a
result of marriage. These marriages are also transnational in a wider sense in that that
social links are usually reciprocally maintained across international borders after the
marriage, often over two or more generations (Faist 2000; Kivisto 2001; Vertovec
1999). Such relationships, facilitated by modern forms of technology, speak of a
transnationalism that is as much a mind-set and attitude to place as it is a social
practice (Caplan 1988).
In these respects, Ahmadi transnational marriages share many of the characteristics
of transnational marriages among other British South Asian Muslim and
Punjabi Sikh populations. However, as I go on to argue, the processes of conversion
to Ahmadiyyat and the need to incorporate new converts through marriage have
resulted in flexible patterns of and attitudes towards marriage that are unusual among
South Asians. As Muslims, Ahmadis permit cousin marriages, which account for a
small proportion of contemporary marriages. Some of these cousin marriages are also
transnational. However, the research on which this article is based indicates that the
number of cousin marriages is declining among British-born and educated Ahmadis in
the UK. By contrast, among British Pakistanis there is local evidence of increased
rates of transnational cousin marriage (Shaw 2001) and among Mirpuris cousin marriage may account for 60 per cent of all marriages (Ballard 2002). Further,
although Ahmadis are not compelled to follow exogamous marriage rules, they are
nevertheless, like British Punjabi Sikhs, likely to marry non-kin and to find spouses
for their well-educated offspring from an increasingly global Ahmadi diaspora.
Indeed, as I suggest in this article, British Ahmadi women may be more likely to
choose a spouse from the UK or Canada than from Pakistan, but this is not necessarily
the case for Ahmadi men. However, unlike other British South Asian populations, the
Ahmadis as a community also welcome marriages between different ethnic groups
and so contract marriages that are both transnational and interethnic. The only condition
for marriage is that both parties to the marriage must be Ahmadi. A further
distinction between Ahmadis and other South Asian Muslim communities is that the
mosque may play a key role in arranging marriages.
I begin the article with a brief historical and organizational overview of the
Ahmadis to contextualize their contemporary marriage patterns and demonstrate the
historical precedent for interethnic marriage. I analyse specific cases in which
transnational marriages were suggested and refused, or conversely, successfully
contracted. I draw on data gathered by interview and by participant-observation,
supplemented by printed and electronic materials by and about the Ahmadis, and
intend to be suggestive rather than conclusive about current transnational trends.
Data were collected on 66 marriages and of these 30 were transnational in the
narrow sense that one spouse, normally resident in one country, migrated to another
country as a result of marriage. These marriages were more than one-way migrations
in that in all cases, links between two or more nation-states were maintained so that
those involved formed transnational communities ‘linked through exchange, reciprocity,
and solidarity to achieve a high degree of social cohesion, and a common
repertoire of symbolic and collective representation’ (Faist 2000: 208). In addition, in
this article I draw on cases of marriages that had been suggested and planned but did
not happen; these cases are instructive for the insights they offer into the motivations
and expectations that influence contemporary Ahmadi marriage trends.
While most of these data concern Ahmadis of South Asian descent living in the
UK, several interviews were conducted in the USA, and a few others via email. The
interviewees were well-established in terms of education, professional standing, home
ownership and other indicators of economic and social success. They tended to be
among the more active members of the mosque. In this sense they may not be fully
representative of the total Ahmadi population in Britain today. Genealogical material
collected from individuals covered a minimum of four generations and this permitted
general trends in migration to be discerned. These data were organized into kinship
charts of a standard anthropological form and all the charts included several transnational
marriages, frequently over two or more generations.
Origins and organization
Ahmadi Muslims today constitute a transnational population that has its origins in the
Punjab in India. While some migrated to Africa three or more generations ago and others came further west, their numbers in the UK remained small until 1984 when
anti-Ahmadi legislation in Pakistan effectively criminalized their daily lives and
religious practices (Gualtieri 1989; Home Office 2004; Hyman 1989). In 1984 the
Khalifa, the Ahmadis’ spiritual leader, had no option but to leave Pakistan. He chose
to relocate in the UK where a flourishing Ahmadi community had been established in
the early decades of the twentieth century and where the national language was one
with which the Khalifa and many middle-class Pakistanis were familiar. At this point
the Ahmadis, who had always had a transnational, if not frankly global, outlook
became essentially a Western-based organization with its roots in the subcontinent.
Since 1984 there has been an increase in Ahmadi emigration from Pakistan to the UK
and other western countries.
Ahmadi Muslims are members of a reformed sect of Islam founded in 1889 by a
charismatic leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. From its inception Ahmadiyyat has been
‘one of the most active and controversial movements within modern Islam’ (Friedmann
The seeds of this success were to be found in the organization from
the very start, for within a decade of its foundation Ahmadiyya Islam ‘had sufficient
membership, pledged to the founder through bai’at (initiation) of a traditional Sufi
kind, and centralized through regular fund raising, the publication of journals and the
establishment of schools, to justify’ its claim to be a distinct religious community
(Powell 2000: 129).
While the Ahmadis may not be quite like the Anglo-Indian ‘transnationals of the
mind’ described by Caplan (1998), they too are one of the possible outcomes of
cultural interaction in a colonial environment and in that sense ‘an acculturative
movement’ that is the product of transnational exchange (Jones 1989: 115ff). Ahmadi
missionaries, for example, used the tactics of the Christian missionaries in India
against the Christians themselves, and in an explicit move of ‘reverse colonialism’,
were sent to the UK and USA in the early twentieth century to convert the Christian
populations of those countries to Ahmadiyyat, or ‘the true Islam’.2 Further, the Ahmadis, in their beliefs and practices combine extreme conservatism with an allegiance to science and rationalism, thereby synthesizing distinct national and cultural heritages into a single new and transnational religious movement (Fisher 1963). The Ahmadis constitute a highly mobile population that simultaneously looks both east and west, is prepared to assimilate, within limits, to the cultures in which it finds itself yet adheres strictly to basic tenets of Islam.
The initial converts to Ahmadiyyat were middle class, largely town-based professionals
but within a short time many less educated and more rural people also
converted. This resulted in a ‘bipolar’ pattern of conversion (Jones 1989: 119) that
makes any homogenizing statement about the origins of the Ahmadis or their
general educational attainment before migration to other parts of the world
impossible. While many Ahmadis were economic migrants, others migrated as
missionaries. As the latter founded new missions the number of Ahmadi communities
around the world grew. Nowadays, economic migration to the UK is very
difficult for South Asians and some communities can only ‘import’ kin through
arranged marriages (Ballard 2001; Shaw 2001). Unlike many South Asian communities, the Ahmadis, who may use the marriage route to migration, also enter as asylum-seekers.
Many Ahmadis are compelled to seek asylum because of religious persecution
based on their belief in the prophethood of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. This has led orthodox
Muslims to declare them heretics. It has also suited Pakistan’s political leaders to
have a ready internal target for disgruntled and increasingly Islamist sections of the
population. However, a large community of Ahmadis continues to live in the Ahmadi
city of Rabwah in Pakistan, and many British Ahmadis have kin there. Rabwah, and
all it stands for, forms part of the transnational mind-set of Ahmadis everywhere.
Marriage: a flexible arrangement
A precedent for the flexibility of contemporary marriage patterns that distinguishes
the Ahmadis from other South Asians can be discerned in narrated accounts of the
marriages of those who first converted to Ahmadiyya Islam. These accounts are
drawn from detailed interviews with children and grandchildren who heard these
marriage stories as part of their family history. If a single woman became an Ahmadi
in early twentieth-century India, the immediate personal impact on her life would be
that she could not marry a non-Ahmadi and so the usual channels for finding a spouse
within a biradari or zat (extended kin group) were no longer available to her. If such a
woman were already married she might find her husband unwilling to convert with
her and unwilling to keep her as an Ahmadi. The result was that those who had
already become Ahmadis would arrange suitable marriages, or remarriages, for these
women thereby helped them to find a place in an Ahmadi social network. In this way
the honour of women was protected, and the faith strengthened both in the present and
future through children born to these converts. Flexibility in choice of marriage partner was thus, in part, a product of necessity.
If a man converted to Ahmadiyyat his family position would be a good predictor
of how many others would convert with him. A senior well-respected man would be
able to bring not only his own immediate kin into Ahmaddiyat but also brothers and
their families. Others, perhaps younger or less influential, might convert as individuals
and persuade only their wives to convert with them. As a result, extended
families were often divided into Sunni and Ahmadi branches, which mostly ceased to
British Ahmadis today do not feel obliged to choose spouses for their children
based on biradari or other (stereo)typically South Asian grounds. Of course, Ahmadis
can and do marry among kin and find spouses for their children who are from the
same regional or linguistic background as themselves but these are never cited as
primary considerations in the choice of a son/daughter-in-law (Shaw 2001). More
interesting still is the openness to interethnic, often also transnational, marriages
found among Ahmadis in the UK. Ahmadis are evangelizers for the faith and
proselytize whenever and wherever possible. Often new converts are single and
relatively well-educated. Once converted, the mosque and the Ahmadi social network
will help to arrange a marriage for the convert and so secure her or him within mutually reinforcing and supporting Ahmadi links. So where shared cultural background
is often a prerequisite for a marriage within many South Asian communities,
the only condition the Ahmadis explicitly state and always cite for accepting a
marriage is that the ‘outsider’ be Ahmadi and therefore, in religious terms, not an
outsider at all. Maintaining ethnic group endogamy, which is a central consideration
in many South Asian arranged marriages and is taken to be a ‘key feature in the longterm
maintenance of transnational networks’, is not a primary concern (Ballard 2001:
46). In fact, given that the long-term goal is to convert the world to Ahmaddiyat, such
inward-looking and self-limiting marriage practices would only delay the inevitable
global victory. The Ahmadi endogamy of faith not only maintains transnational networks
but also helps develop new ones and so spreads the faith.
As if to underline this last point, while other South Asian communities accept
interethnic marriages for a minority, often on condition that the in-marrying outsider
conforms to family and group ideals in terms of education, income and looks (‘tall
and fair’), the Ahmadis seem to make a point of publicly supporting marriages of a
very different kind. Examples from West Africa and Australia illustrate this point.
Pakistani Ahmadi missionaries in West Africa, who were figures of religious
authority, married local women and thereby led by example (Fisher 1963: 150). A
1994 Ahmadi souvenir brochure includes a photograph of the Australian Khan family.
The legend reads: ‘The first fruit of the mosque … Mrs Khan is the first Aboriginal
person to accept Ahmadiyyat’ (Ahmadiya Muslim Association 1994: 46). Although
the photograph does not make it explicit, it is highly likely, given the relatively recent
establishment of an Ahmadi community in Australia, that Mr Khan was not born in
Australia and this marriage is both interethnic and transnational.
Such interethnic and transnational marriages constitute only a minority of all
Ahmadi marriages, but one final example is a contemporary British Ahmadi case of
Nadia. Nadia is 45 years old and one of seven sisters and a brother. Five sisters have
university degrees, two of them doctorates, and three have married converts. One of
Nadia’s brothers-in-law is a white German citizen who converted to Ahmadiyyat in
Israel and married a sister who had read Hebrew at university. This couple has
recently moved from California to Israel where the husband now works for the United
Nations. Another sister is married to a white English convert. The third brother-in-law
converted from a Christian Goan family. Nadia’s only brother is married to a Russian
convert. This family is exceptional, with four of the eight siblings marrying converts
and with three of these marriages being both interethnic and transnational.
Even if it could be shown that Ahmadis and other South Asian communities contract
the same proportion of interethnic marriages, evidently the processes that lead to
such marriages, which include the desire to integrate converts to the faith, are
distinctive to Ahmaddiyat.3
The organization of contemporary Ahmadi transnational marriages
The organizational structure of the Ahmadis means that besides being organized
through family networks, marriages may also be arranged through the mosque. As outlined above, contemporary Ahmadi transnational marriage patterns combine
features already noted for other South Asian communities. Like British Sikhs, many
Ahmadis are well-educated with access to professional international networks where
marriages may be arranged and for whom spouses do not have to be sought within a
limited kin-defined group. However, as Muslims, Ahmadis permit cousin marriages,
and most marriages are arranged for the partners in their early to mid-twenties, which
is younger than the norm for the British population. Ahmadi women mostly veil in
public and often work part-time or interrupt careers to raise families, which tend to be
larger than the British average. The combination of accepting consanguineous and
also more broadly-based marriages maximizes choice of spouse in a globalized social
network where social mobility is just one factor in the pragmatic decision-making that
takes place for each marriage. The marriage network is often defined by social
interactions at the mosque and, in this respect, the Ahmadi organization itself is
transnational in a way that is unique among Muslims.
There is a central mosque, located wherever the Khalifa is resident, and all mosques
around the world send information to and receive instruction from this centre.
The Ahmadi mosque network is designed, in fact, rather like the ancient Roman
colonies where each new colony replicated the form and structure of the imperial
centre, a kind of Rome away from Rome. By contrast, in most other Muslim communities
mosques do not share any organizational structure or necessarily combine to
present a uniform approach to matters Islamic. Indeed, they may often work as rivals
to each other and have congregations that are ethnically distinct from each other.
Ahmadi mosques provide a religious, social and recreational environment in
which, unusually for Muslims, women are expected to attend in equal numbers as
men. Every Ahmadi mosque has a uniform organizational structure with women’s and
men’s committees and youth organizations for girls and boys. Committee membership
rotates by election. Each country has a national women’s and a men’s president and
an annual timetable of functions to bring the community together. In each country
each region also has a local women’s and men’s president and associated committees.
The mosques are ‘greedy institutions’ that depend on the voluntary work of their
members and many individuals devote long hours to mosque functions. Such volunteering,
expected of all members according to their capacities, provides individuals
with a ready network of acquaintances and social interactions that regularly result in
the establishment of marriage networks extending beyond kin connections and that
are often also transnational in nature. Any Ahmadi migrating from one country to
another can simply offer to volunteer in a mosque and join an instantly recognizable
organization with familiar rituals and events. Such organizational conformity facilitates
transnational movement and provides a strong sense of an integrated community,
which, to answer the questions posed by Guarnizo and Smith about the practical
modalities of transnational network construction, fosters ‘principles of trust and
solidarity … across national territories’, provides the ‘discourses and practices’ to
hold the networks in place, organizes ‘social closure and control across borders to
guarantee loyalty and curtail malfeasance’ and puts in place ‘the sociocultural basis
supporting transnational relations and ties’ (in Ballard 2001: 8). Some of the sociocultural basis is reinforced by the technology available to the Ahmadis. This
includes the global Muslim Television Ahmadiya (MTA), which produces some of
the time/space compression declared to be an aspect of transnationalism and is a
means of communication for ‘communities without propinquity’ (Faist 2000: 208).4
For many Ahmadis migration from the periphery to the metropolitan centre
offered opportunities for educational advance and financial reward not as readily
available in the home country. Marriage patterns for earlier generations correspondingly
show that those established in the UK married spouses in Pakistan who then
migrated westwards. This was the most common form of transnational marriage for
people who are now in the ‘grandparent’ generation. While interviewees overwhelmingly
stated that the cultural expectation is for women to move to their husband’s
home on marriage, it is clear from actual migration patterns that if the wife is based in
the UK the husband leaves his home to join her. However, marriage to a British-based
spouse was not always merely a ticket to the UK. For example, I came across the
example of an unmarried doctor who already had official permission from the British
government to work in the country. He asked his family to find him a bride who was
already living in Britain. In this case the marriage was not a route to migration but a
way of establishing a family with a woman who would not have simultaneously to
deal with leaving her natal family and also her country of residence. Today, a popular
marriage route is from the UK to Canada and, here again, if a woman is Canadian her
British husband is more likely to migrate to join her. In these instances migration
westwards takes priority over the gender norm that expects women to move on
marriage. It is also clear that as a significant Ahmadi population has established itself
in the UK, the need for spouses from abroad is not as pressing as it once was. More
British-born people are marrying each other and there is a large enough local
community for this to be possible.
Limits to transnational marriages: place and gender among UK Ahmadis
Against this outline of trends in Ahmadi transnational marriage, in this section I
consider some specific marriages and mosque-organized proposals that failed to
materialize for what they reveal about the motivations for contemporary transnational
Ahmadi marriages and the limits to the transnational reach of such marriages.
Understanding why particular transnational marriage proposals are refused offers us
insights into the motivations for marriage that may be more revealing than attempts to
quantify the frequency of transnational marriages. The first two cases discussed here –
Ahmad and Naila – concern British Ahmadis with kin in Pakistan and wellestablished
transnational networks linking Britain and Pakistan: in both cases, the
British partner was asked to consider marriage to a Pakistani first cousin. The first
case concerns a transnational first-cousin marriage proposed by relatives that never
Ahmad, who had spent time in Pakistan with his extended family, chose not to
marry his Pakistani cousin citing possible genetic disabilities in offspring for his
decision. His reasoning, the result of imbibing British attitudes to cousin marriage, or the statement that marrying a first cousin is ‘like marrying a sister’, is repeatedly
heard among younger British Ahmadis. In this case, the transnational marriage was
not pursued and Ahmad suggested a local marriage with the sister of his best friend.
This marriage transformed friendship into kinship while relations with family in
Pakistan continue as before and the usual forms of transnational social reciprocity
remain in place.
The second case concerns a transnational marriage arranged by the families of the
intended spouses that did not happen. The couple had agreed to the marriage and all
arrangements were in place when the woman finally decided, just days before the
marriage was due to be celebrated, that she did not want to go through with it. Naila is
well-educated and intent on pursuing a professional career. Her Pakistani cousin was
less educated and Naila felt that the cultural and educational differences between herself
and her cousin would diminish the likelihood of a successful marriage. Despite
family attempts to persuade her to change her mind, Naila persisted in her decision
and the marriage was called off. She later married a local man in the same profession
as herself. The Pakistani cousin went on to make a transnational marriage to another
An intention to marry someone who has also grown up in Britain is widespread
among Ahmadis born and raised in the UK, but does not fully explain contemporary
marriage patterns. My informants cite the educational successes of Ahmadi women in
the UK as a major factor fuelling a trend for British Ahmadi men to find wives in
Pakistan. British Ahmadi men consider Pakistani women to be not quite as Western,
less well-educated and with lower aspirations than their British peers. The British men
use established transnational social networks to find Pakistani wives who then migrate
to the UK. However, these marriages between British men and Pakistani women
mean that it is becoming more difficult for some British Ahmadi women, particularly
the well-educated over twenty-fives, to marry.
The Rishte (marriage, literally ‘proposal’ or ‘match’) Office at the mosque has
now stepped in to try to find a solution to this problem. Until very recently the office
was considered a place of last resort for those whose kin and social networks had
failed to find marriage partners for them. However, the recent success of this office in
finding matches for women over 25, some of whom are divorced, has begun to
change community perceptions. All the marriages that have been agreed are between
British-resident Ahmadis. Here, therefore, the perceived problem resulting from the
decision of some Ahmadi men to marry transnationally has led to the mosque
interceding to facilitate local marriages for some Ahmadi women. This suggests a
possible gender-based distinction in who marries transnationally and this in turn is
informed by the level of education and acculturation of the women and men in
specific local contexts as well as their access to transnational networks.
Another example of mosque-level intervention in match-making suggests that
being an Ahmadi is not always enough when it comes to marriage and that local
ethnic, gender and cultural issues play a role in the decisions made by individuals
about their marriages. This case concerns the experience of black American Ahmadis
and is also an example of the way in which different diasporas may intersect or clash with each other within a religious movement. In the USA the first contact of many
converts to Islam is through the Ahmadis (Turner 1988). In New York Walbridge and
Haneef (1999) describe one Ahmadi mosque that was, for a period, predominantly a
black American site of religious worship. As South Asian migration increased after
1984, South Asians began to take over the committees running the mosque. This led
to tension and the departure of a significant number of black American men from the
mosque. The result was that many of the remaining black American women were
unable to find spouses within the community (Walbridge and Haneef 1999). The
Khalifah intervened and a number of Pakistani Ahmadi men willing to move to the
USA to marry the black American women were identified. In this instance, a local
shortage of suitable men was tackled institutionally by suggesting transnational
marriages that would have led to the migration of South Asian men to the USA, once
again reversing gender norms in a general westward migration pattern. However, the
women in New York did not take up the offer of the Pakistani spouses, citing cultural
differences as justification (Walbridge and Haneef 1999).
In these examples of transnational marriages, arranged at individual and institutional
levels, and regardless of whether they are refused or successfully contracted,
the trends suggest that women and men currently make choices differently. British
men are more likely to agree to marry a Pakistani wife and British women tend to be
more concerned about finding spouses with common local cultural and career
aspirations. This gendered concern appears to be one that British women share with
their black American counterparts. It does not mean that women do not make transnational
marriages; it may simply mean that for some women transnational marriages
may be contracted with men of Western ethnic origins who have converted rather than
with Pakistan-based Ahmadis.
While the Ahmadi population of the world is growing, is increasingly ethnically
diverse and values interethnic and transnational marriages, local individuals may,
because of their personal circumstances and interests, choose not to make certain
types of transnational marriages while accepting others. The gender and country of
residence of the individual in each case appears to be a reasonable predictor of
decision-making relating to marriage in a transnational context.
Conversion to Ahmadiyyat and the organizational structure of Ahmadi mosques have
combined to produce a flexible pattern of marriage among Ahmadis that is unusual
among South Asians. The first unusual feature of these marriages is that a significant
proportion of them are interethnic, reflecting an expansive Ahmadiya identity that is
perceived to be independent of ethnicity, and which can be understood with reference
to the origins and political context of the Ahmadiya movement.
The cases of British Ahmadi marriages discussed here also indicate gendered
differences in the expectations of a marriage that are linked with social class and
place of residence, and that seem to be placing limits on certain forms of transnational
marriages. While these gender differences in expectations of marriage have parallels in some other South Asian transnational marriages, in this article I have argued that
the processes that lead to these outcomes are distinct for the Ahmadis, reflecting
aspects of social class and education linked with Ahmadi religious identity and organization.
Finally, in this preliminary exploration of Ahmadiyya marriage trends, I also
suggest that there may be as much analytical value in paying attention to marriage
proposals that have been rejected as in ones that result in actual marriages, for the
insights they can offer into current expectations of and motivations for marriage.
School of Business and Social Sciences
80 Roehampton Lane
1. According to Ahmadi figures there are now over 10,000 Ahmadi mosques and 200 million
members of the faith in Europe, North America, Asia, Africa and Australia. The best
available non-Ahmadi estimates for the number of Ahmadis in the UK range from 10,000
to 15,000. The Ahmadis’ own website can be accessed from http://www.alislam.org/.
2. The title of a book written by the son of the founder and second Khalifah, Mahmud Ahmad.
3. Cf. Ballard (2004: 8): ‘the fact that 16.1% of those who identified themselves as being of
mixed White and Asian ancestry [in the 2001 census] also identified themselves as Muslim
may indicate that a higher proportion of Muslim immigrants have had children with White
partners than is or was the case amongst Hindus or Sikhs.’
4. MTA was set up in 1992 on Sky. It broadcasts 24 hours a day in eight languages. The
Ahmadis also have their own websites. Embracing the latest technology continues the mass
printing programmes that were a part of Ahmadi practice from the start.
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Transnational marriage among Ahmadi Muslims in the UK