Convention and Community Pt 2; The Ahmadiyya

Source: Vegreville Observer –

Along with my chaperones for the weekend of July 6-8 were other members of the AMYA executive team like Noman Khalid and Aleem Farooqi. Khalid was one of the members who visited Vegreville in the spring to provide information sessions about the Qur’an and the Mother Mary and the views of women in Islam according to the Ahmadi. One of his youth volunteers was bitten by a dog while door knocking in the community and shepherded away by a flagrantly unapologetic owner. After being having his hand bandaged up he was raring to go out and meet people again, but Khalid told him to take it easy for a day. While the incident was reported to local authorities, Khalid wasn’t sure if any action was taken to secure the animal. “In spite of the incident, I still really enjoyed Vegreville,” Khalid said. “It’s a beautiful town and the people that we met were very friendly and helpful.”

 

Plight of the Ahmadi Muslims

 

What makes the Ahmadiyya so unique among the Muslim sects is that they are, without question, the most punished and oppressed Muslims in the world – at the hands of other Muslims. The Ahmadiyya sect was started by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in 1889, who later claimed he the Promised Messiah which the prophet Mohammed had mentioned would come.

Non-Ahmadi Muslims believe that no prophet can come after the Holy Prophet Muhammad, although they still believe that Jesus would return in the latter days. Ahmadi Muslims believe that Jesus had died a natural death and that Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian has come in the power and likeness of Jesus, as a subordinate prophet to Prophet Muhammad.

Ahmadi’s, rather than becoming embroiled in a war of survival against other Muslim sects, condemn the use of violence and force. The fact that they advocate for empowerment and education of women likely hasn’t earned them any favours among more strict Muslim counterparts either. That being said, men like Rizwan are aware of the stereotype that Ahmadi face. They are Muslims with a tolerant belief system that is largely ignored because it’s easier for people to simply lump them into the same category as the violent, often uneducated Muslim men who are coerced into becoming terrorists by radical Islamic sects.

“You know, in Hollywood when two Muslims pick up a white guy from the airport, it means he’s being abducted,” Rizwan had joked as he picked me up from Toronto Pearson International Airport. “If we can convert you to Islam, we get a commission.” Rizwan’s sense of humor let me know he’s aware of the tension many whites have around what he affectionately refers to as ‘brown people.’ He’s working to change those perceptions with each encounter he has.

A truck driver for his family business during the day, Rizwan’s second job as Executive Director for the AMYA is a simultaneous gig. He spends over 13,000 minutes a month on his blue-tooth talking to people and coordinating and organizing events for the association. Recently, the Canadian Blood Services allowed them to go into northern Ontario and run one of their blood drives. The association came back with double the number of donations that usually comes from that area. Last year, Rizwan and his team of executives organized the world’s largest smiley face, and have the certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records to prove it. Rizwan has indicated the AMYA would like to speak with Vegreville’s Mayor and Council to “adopt” Vegreville as a place where they can continue to do more humanitarian work such as road cleanups, blood drives and food bank drives through a local chapter. Khalid anticipates he will likely be among the volunteers who head out to coordinate the event.

 

Segregation of the sexes

 

Within the Ahmadiyya community of Peace Village in Vaughan, thousands of members continually pooled their own money to build themselves the Baitul Islam Mosque. The mosque was the reception site for what Rizwan called the “after party” of the convention. Thousands of locals and guests walked across the grounds between the mosque and a recently built community center, which was also paid for by the community members through volunteer work and donations at a price tag of $16 million. Inside the center, Tahir Hall, named after the fourth Khalifatul (successor) will house the missionary school which Faran Rabbani, a recently graduated Islamic missionary and brother to Rizwan. In addition to this, the facility has an NBA sized basketball court, washrooms, change rooms, conference and banquet rooms and office space for the staff of the college. Windows of the gym have been frosted over to an opaque state so that women can conduct their activities without being disturbed by the men.

In accordance with Islamic belief, the men and women each simultaneously attended their own Jalsa with presentations from leaders in the Muslim community geared towards each different audience. The segregation, which continues beyond the convention into the mosque and post-secondary studies, is to avoid the social vices that come with mingling genders on the everyday level, according to Faran. This does not mean however, that women are to be oppressed or seen as being of any less value in the eyes of the Ahmadi, Faran said. “Women and men are equal before God like the teeth of a comb. My wife has a master’s degree, she is a teacher. Women and men can both excel in spirituality or any field they choose.” While this opinion is not necessarily shared by other Islamic sects, the belief of the Ahmadi is that no one should be forced, coerced or ordered to follow the rules of a religion. It should be willingly offered, and not come as the product of subjugation. Naturally, this becomes a point of conflict with other, more rigid sects who interpret the Qur’an in a more militant sense, using Islam as a shield against desegregation and social equality as well as a tool for personal gain and control. The Ahmadi also call for a separation of church and state, which is not the case in Pakistan, or the era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996-2001. Under Taliban rule, Sharia law was used as the justification for oppression of women and led to horrendous standards of living for Afghani citizens. “Religion is not supposed to be enforced as a culture,” Noman Khalid said of conditions in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Once you start to force religious views on people as the culture of the land, you have major problems.”

The Ahmadi code also promotes the idea that citizenship is a crucial part of faith. “Whichever country you live in, be loyal to that country,” Faran said. “I used to live in Pakistan. Now Canada is my home, so I am loyal to Canada.” Faran and Rizwan both left Pakistan in 2001 as pressures mounted against the Ahmadi. The bulk of the sect still lives there, an estimated 3-4 million Muslims who must practice their religion knowing at any moment it could land them in prison or see them face death at the hands of other, more hostile Muslims who invariably will not see repercussions by the law for their actions.

 

Converting the masses

 

Conversion is responsible for the growing numbers of Islamic members more than the growing population of Muslim-born Islamists. I spoke with two converts, one a former Sunni Muslim who flew in from Lloydminster to attend the event. Having left Pakistan in 1999 and converted to Ahmadi in 2006, he said he found the Ahmadiyya approach to Islam more peaceful than what he was raised to believe. “There are subtle changes in how they interpreted the Qur’an,” he said. “The Ahmadi prefer to get their teachings directly from the Qur’an rather than through stories. One example I can think of is the misinterpretation of the meaning behind the world Jihad.

“The meaning of Jihad was never supposed to be about fighting the world to change it. It’s about changing yourself. It is much harder, believe it or not, to change yourself and accept the world as it is rather than spend your days trying to change the world to accept you.” He finds it sad that Jihad has come to mean a war on everyone else rather than the struggle within oneself to be a better person. “It’s about making yourself and the world around you a better place against outside pressure,” he said. “Picking up a piece of litter, that’s Jihad. Helping out a brother, that’s Jihad. Not what you see on television.”

The second convert I spoke with was a former Jehovah’s Witness turned atheist, who after doing research on Islam eventually embraced Islam. Adam Alexander was born into a deeply religious Jehovah’s Witness community who experienced a form of alienation from his religious community because of a division within his family. Turning to atheism led Alexander to study different religions as fodder for arguments with his peers on the topic. Finally, curiosity overcame him and he entered his first mosque during prayer time. Fumbling with the motions, he lasted through prayer and found once it was over the people gathered suddenly and began asking him questions and offering him advice if he wished to move forward in Islam. Three days later Ramadhan began and Alexander began to fast and read the Qur’an which they provided him. It took 30 days. By the time he was done reading it, he was convinced it was the religion of choice for him. He bounced between sects until he found the Ahmadi community and settled there, finding their interpretations of the words within the Qur’an to be most comfortable for him.

 

Final thoughts

 

As the convention wound down, I was interviewed to offer my insights as a guest at the convention along with my other media counterpart, Troy Patterson from the Kincardine News in northern Ontario. Patterson was an invited guest along with myself. In speaking to Rawal TV, I had to put myself to task and analyze the experience. Had I felt uncomfortable?

Not one bit.

Had I felt pressure to accept all of the values of Islam during my stay?

No.

Did I come back wearing a Karakul (traditional hat worn by the men in Pakistan and Afghanistan)?

No.

Had my hosts been gracious and polite?

Absolutely.

Did I have a broader understanding of Islam and the myths surrounding it?

Yes.

Did the experience help to break down a barrier that I willfully upheld by following popular beliefs about Muslims?

Yes.

Does this mean all Muslims are like the Ahmadi?

Sadly not, but some Sunni and Shiite practitioners are sensible, adaptable members of cultures in other countries. The actions of the few all too easily paint the rest with a broad brush, aided by a mass-media predisposition to report the more violent acts across the globe. If one needs to ascertain whether or not any Muslim is a fair-minded individual by Christian standards the best way to tell is to go up and strike up a conversation first before issuing judgement. Not all brands of Christianity are a slice of pie either. Take the Klu Klux Klan for example, or the Branch Davidians who put Waco Texas on the map.

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