Source: The Jewish Chronicle
By Rina Wofson
Rina Wolfson didn’t know what to expect when she joined 40,000 Muslims at the annual Jalsa Salana meeting. She was impressed – but why were no other journalists there?
Imagine if 40,000 Muslims gathered together in the south of England to swear a pledge of allegiance to Isis. Every major news outlet in the world would descend on the gathering and report that story. Now imagine what would happen if 40,000 Muslims gathered to pledge allegiance to a creed of peace to all and hatred to none, while they denounced violence and raised the flag of the UK. How many journalists would report that? I can tell you the answer, and it isn’t many. I know this, because as I sat in the Press and Media tent at just such a gathering, I was completely on my own.
The assignment was rather unusual. I was sent to interview a Jewish man about a Christian relic at a Muslim convention. What I experienced was nothing short of extraordinary. The Jalsa Salana convention, now in its 51st year, is a gathering of Ahmadi Muslims. The Ahmadiyya are the largest growing Muslim denomination in the world. Founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who is revered as a Messiah by his followers, the group has expanded to more than 200 countries, and is led today by its Caliph, Mirza Masroor Ahmad.
For more than 100 years, they have been leading a peaceful revival of Islam, what they call the “true Islam”, and in the UK are responsible for building the first London mosque, in Putney in 1926, and the largest in western Europe, in Morden.
The Ahmadiyya are not without their critics. Many Muslims do not consider their teachings, particularly those in relation to a second Messiah, compatible with the Quran. In Pakistan, for example, it is illegal for Ahmadiyya to call themselves Muslim, and the Saudi authorities do not let Ahmadi Muslims perform the Haj to Mecca. Many have experienced persecution.
But there was no sense of that at the convention. A huge site in Alton, Hampshire, had been transformed for three days into a sprawling mini village. Large white marquees were dotted around the site, which had separate areas for men and women. These tents were used for prayer or lectures; some were used to house a large bazaar selling everything from fresh food to books to clothing. There were also tents to showcase the work of Ahmadiyya humanitarian charities, while others were used for sleeping and serving meals.
Among the most charming displays was an exhibition of rare Qurans from all over the world, in a variety of scripts and designs. The collection was expertly explained to me by the curator’s 12-year-old daughter. Across the marquee from her, a huge replica of the Turin Shroud was displayed, and I spoke to one of the exhibit’s organisers, Barrie Schwortz.
“I was very nervous the first time I was invited here,” he told me. “I’m a Jewish American. What was I doing at a Muslim convention? But I’ve been back every year since.” Schwortz was one of the original photographers of the Turin Shroud when it was first scientifically investigated in 1978. Initially a sceptic, he has come to believe “almost 100 per cent” that the shroud was the one used to wrap Jesus’s body after the crucifixion. Ahmadi Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, that he was crucified, but that he survived for four hours on the cross after which he was revived from a swoon in the tomb. They believe that he later made his way to Kashmir where he died seeking the Lost Tribes of Israel.
I sat with a group of over 200 Muslim women while Schwortz explained the history of the shroud to them. It was a somewhat surreal experience to watch as Hijabi women listened attentively to this bearded Jewish man as he described his 40-year fascination with a Christian icon.