Tens of thousands of Ahmadi Muslims come together every year in the small town of Qadian in Gurdaspur for the community’s annual convention or Jalsa.
Slogans of peace and humanity are met with cries of Allahu Akbar by the tens of thousands of Ahmadi Muslims gathered in the small town of Qadian, Gurdaspur, for the community’s annual convention or jalsa saalana.
Qadian is the spiritual home of the movement; it is here that the founder of Ahmadiyyat, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was born and laid to rest, where the early history of the community was written and where each December, the streets surge into life with Ahmadis of every combination of language, skin colour and form of dress.
Ahmadis have been coming to Qadian since 1891 when the first jalsa was held with a gathering of less than 100 people. In the words of Ahmad, the purpose of this convention was to “enable every sincere individual to personally experience religious benefits; they may enhance their knowledge and – due to their being blessed and enabled by Allah – The Exalted – their perception [of Allah] may progress. Among its secondary benefits is that this congregational meeting together will promote mutual introduction among all brothers, and it will strengthen the fraternal ties within this community”.
Today, Ahmadis hold similar jalsas throughout the world, but none bear the same spirit as Qadian. To come here is to not only attend the convention, but to reach out into communion with the buildings and alleyways in which the founder of the community prayed, walked and spread his teachings.
In India, the jalsa has another significance. The peaceful teachings of the community embodied by their motto “love for all, hatred for none” and their full integration in Indian life stand as a firm rebuke against the rising religious tensions that are cutting away at the overlapping religions, cultures and traditions which form the mosaic of the country. “Ahmadis, wherever they may be, are fiercely loyal to their country,” one community administrator says. “We don’t feel any divisions with our neighbours or other Indians and are on good terms with everyone. Yes, there are problems, but even today pluralism sits at the heart of Indian society and we fully embrace this diversity and always have.”
Every year, 5,000 Pakistani Ahmadis make the journey across the border to come to Qadian. They too stand at the intersections of religion in their homeland but in a very different way. Since 1974, and the passing of the second constitutional amendment which declared Ahmadis non-Muslims, and then the promulgation of anti-Ahmadi laws under General Zia ul Haq, Ahmadis in Pakistan have faced fierce persecution. One of the consequences of this has been that the community there has not been able to hold a jalsa since 1983. For those who come, the convention is both an occasion of joy and a sad reminder of everything they have lost.
Pain and loss are also no strangers to Hossam Naqeeb, a Syrian Ahmadi whose country has for years now been ravaged by terrorism and war. “Every time I come to Qadian, I immediately feel at peace,” he says. “It is my third visit now and whenever I am back in Damascus and feel unhappy, I remind myself of this town, its people and the special place it has in my heart. Syria is my home but so is Qadian.”
All photos by Usman Ahmad.
Usman Ahmad is a British freelance writer and photographer based in Pakistan. His work has featured in Foreign Policy Magazine, Vice and The Diplomat among others. He tweets at @usmanahmad_iam.