Inside the tiny Muslim community in Cambridge you may never have heard of


Here Ahmadiyya Muslims are free to practice their faith safely

ByDebbie LuxonCommunity Reporter
25 SEP 2019

Zawar Ahmad, one of the newest and Habib Khokar, one of the oldest members of Cambridge’s community (Image: Debbie Luxon)

The Ahmadiyya Muslims of Cambridge have only 127 members in their tightknit community.

They started to arrive in various parts of the world in the ‘70s, from Sri Lanka to the streets of Chesterton, in part because of the introduction of laws in their home country of Pakistan that contributed to the societal repression they were already living under.

The group in Cambridge consists of families now three generations deep, students who arrive to study here as well as new arrivals like Cambridge’s latest local Imam (leader of worship), Zawar Ahmad.

Zawar Ahmad is 25-year-old from Gujranwala in Pakistan. He studied for 7 years for his post, and now leads worship in the Ahmadiyya Mission House on Mowbray Road in Cherry Hinton.

Settling in Cambridge was made easier by his neighbours, who made Cambridge proud by welcoming him with open arms.

“We’ve been loved by our neighbours – they’re very welcoming. I use the Next Door app which helps you get to know them. They listen to each other’s issues or if someone needs help. I always see messages on there, people always receive replies to their problems.”

Habib Khokar says the community is about respect. “Women and men stand shoulder to shoulder, as it should be.”

Habib Khokar’s family were some of the first Ahmadiyya immigrants to come to Cambridge. He arrived in Cambridge in 1973 with his wife and children from Uganda, after the government there revoked citizenship from Asian families. Nine years and a few families later and they set up the Cambridge Ahmadiyya Community on Fenland Road in ’82.
“I was president for a long time. In the community you can’t nominate yourself for roles. The Community chooses you as a whole,” he said.

Ali Khalid is a 25-year-old Cambridge medical student from western Pakistan, currently on placement with the NHS in Harlow. He moved to the UK with his family in 2012 after his father was murdered due to religious persecution.
Why were the Ahmadiyya Muslim’s forced out of their homes?

The group suffer persecution from law, police and neighbours in their home country. In 1974 the Pakistani Prime Minister declared them non-muslims. Later in the ’80s they were banned from professing their beliefs at all, causing arrests for the possession of Ahmadiyya religious items, entering mosques, or saying common Muslim greetings. The legal repression grows with new laws being added only in 2018.

The violence has also continued, causing huge numbers of the community to move away, including the leader of the community who now lives in London. Riots and public aggression still occur in Pakistan. Cambridgeshire Live has been told of murders, businesses and homes reportedly being set alight and being faced with false imprisonment through planted evidence. Only in May 2019 a 100-year-old Ahmadi mosque was attacked by a mob in eastern Pakistan.

Fitting in here in the UK, Ali said it was easier than he thought it would be because he knew English. “There were a few silly things I had to adapt to. In Pakistan, I never used public transport. In England, I didn’t understand why the bus wouldn’t stop when I was at the bus stop but would stop at the others. I had to learn how to hail a bus. The same confusion happened with pressing the button to get off”.

However the benefit of studying at Cambridge, such an international institution, is that he has found himself among other like-minded people.

“I’ve loved living in Cambridge. It’s an international community here,” he said. “We set up a society at the university for our community and set up interfaith events.”

The Mission House was donated to the community by Habib Khokar’s son-in-law in 1997 (Image: Debbie Luxon)

The community being so small however is no hindrance on social life according to him. “One of the benefits of a small community is that you get to know everyone very well. Now I’m friends with lots of non-students and students from other unis but whose families live here. Some of the community and I are playing squash tonight. We have little sports groups for basketball, squash, badminton.”

The sports are a hit feature within the community who have women and men’s teams and compete with the Ahmadi Muslim groups in Peterborough or team up to play regionally with Luton and Stevenage.

The women’s groups feature tennis and cricket too. The women are the invisible force behind the community as they prefer not to be photographed.

Mahin Kahn’s family has watched the community grow here since his Dad arrived in the ’70s (Image: Waleed Omer)
“The sports groups have a real cross-section of ages, sometimes 7-40 years old, from different walks of life,” explained Mahin Kahn.

He is a 21-year-old student who grew up near Cambourne. Both his parents lived in Rabwah in Pakistan which has a high density of Ahmadi Muslims, and a history of Ahmadi Muslim persecution.

His Dad arrived in Cambridge in the ‘70s. “The community has expanded a lot. Being here since the ‘70s means there’s always been a stable group but we’ve been able to watch the community develop and grow as Cambridge develops, which has been amazing to see.”

“There’s always company,” Mahin said, “We regularly meet up and hang out, and go every day to the mission house”.
The brotherhood of the community is hugely important to them

It’s important not just because of the repression they face in their own country, it allows them to develop connections easily missed through a scattered community. The sports teams add to the monthly dinners, the Friday prayers at the Mission House which are always well attended, on top of the five daily prayers.

The pinnacle of this is the annual Jalsa Salana, a volunteer-led international gathering in which 38,000 Ahmadi Muslims flock from all over the world to Hampshire to pray with their faith leader, Caliph Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad. Here they invite peace leaders, politicians and interfaith leaders to discuss developing a more peaceful world.

People from all backgrounds are welcome to engage in the huge variety of events at Jalsa Salana 2019 (Image: Ahmadiyya Muslim Community)

“Every year I walk out of a session and you bump into someone I haven’t seen in ages,” he said. For some like Zawar and Ali, this conference is the only opportunity to see brothers and sisters they’ve had to leave behind in Pakistan.
Ahmadi Muslims are renowned for their focus on peace and non-violence, their missionary-like zeal and their respect for other religions. This is especially remarkable in the face of the near 100 years of violence the community has received.

“In Pakistan we are still a minority. The very act of saying we are Muslim is illegal. We can’t worship in public” explained Ali.

In Pakistan this ostracization causes unemployment, the inability to engage in government elections, and it means their worship is done in silence, with no call to prayer, no symbols on the doors and no conversation.


So what do they believe?
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community are one of 73 sects of Islam. They differ from other Muslims who believe Prophet Jesus will return to earth and be the Messiah and saviour for mankind.

In Islam Jesus was the penultimate Prophet to Mohammed and not the Son of God, but has similarities to the Christian Jesus in performing miracles and being foretold to return as saviour.

The Ahmadi Muslims however believe their original Caliph Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian was the Messiah who returned to bring people back to the worship of one God, foretold by the Prophet Muhammad.

People from all backgrounds are welcome to engage in the huge variety of events at Jalsa Salana 2019 (Image: Ahmadiyya Muslim Community)

Pakistan is a majority Sunni Muslim country. Some sects of Islam take offence to this interpretation of their religion and the first legal persecution against the group started in the ‘70s, though violence against them reigned before that. In 2017 a Reuters article reports 2500 anti-Ahmadi news items appearing in Pakistani newspapers and further legal changes to repress the group.

“Here we have legal protection,” said Ali. “There is freedom of speech. People are more tolerant, whether that be Muslims or other faiths, or irreligious people. I feel a huge difference – I can profess my faith and practise without fear”.
The prejudice hasn’t always stayed away from the community, despite their mass migration

Zawar explained “A lot of people think Islam is a violent religion, but the holy book says ‘there is no compulsion in religion’. ISIS and other groups portray Islam in a completely different way.”

He said the Jalsa Salana conference “serves as a great opportunity to show the peaceful message of Islam and demotivate radical groups”.


A Cambridge Evenings News clipping recording the community’s book donation from Oct 31, 1991 (Image: Debbie Luxon)

The research group Hope Not Hate found that tolerance has actually improved in the UK in recent years, but has been hindered by Brexit.

However in a startling 2017 survey, the same group found a quarter of English people still believe that Islam is “a dangerous religion that incites violence”. 52% of the surveyed population agreed that Islam poses a serious threat to Western civilisation, an opinion which they state is a cornerstone of anti-Muslim ideology.

The intolerance experienced from the Muslim community in Pakistan towards Ahmadi Muslims also sometimes leaks over to the community in Cambridge. “In England we have religious freedom,” says Zawar. “However we still do see this hatred. It’s not everyone, but there are extremes”.

Mahin added: “The Ahmadiyya community and other Muslim sects don’t really mix. I know some who have tried to attend other mosques and have felt that they didn’t really want them there.”

Mahin referred to a 2016 murder in which a Sunni Muslim murdered a shopkeeper in Glasgow because he was an Ahmadi Muslim. “That was shocking for me because you don’t see that behaviour in the UK, but we’re not going to change our religion. We don’t retaliate and I’m proud of that”.


The motto of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is ‘love for all hatred for none’ (Image: tan khokhar)

“Every time someone is persecuted it’s very sad. Being murdered, shot, houses burnt down,” Mahin went on. “At the time you do feel anger but you learn to forgive. We keep our trust in God.”

Mahin explained that in Cambridge “in terms of other Muslims, especially younger ones, they couldn’t care less that I’m Ahmadi. They don’t know about us. Some people in charge of communities teach down these ideas that we aren’t welcome and it becomes a belief in others, but I have a lot of Muslim friends from other sects.”

Ali agrees. “I am friends with other Muslims here and in Pakistan. The main issue in Pakistan is regarding the law, but people are more tolerant now. There are misconceptions about us created for others’ benefit that drives tensions there, but when people actually learn about you, that you’re not different, it solves problems”.

Though for Mahin, he’s only been able to see the country of his heritage once. “I went for a wedding in 2004. My parents don’t want me to go for safety concerns. I was too young to remember any negativity or risks. I’d love to go back and see where my parents and my community came from”.

The pain endured by their loved ones in Pakistan may continue and stop them from going back, but the community have constructed an incredible community in their small Mission House on Mowbray Road.

Cambridgeshire Live is marking its first ever Diversity Week.

This is the first of a series of profiles and interviews of inspirational people from our diverse communities.

Our writers are always looking for new stories and new perspectives to ensure we’re serving all of our audiences.


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