A look into the life of Rafiq A. Tschannen, your Associate Chief Editor of The Muslim Times.
From time to time, when friends and family would hear about the places I have lived and the people I have met, they would say to me:
Friend: “Why don’t you write a book about your life experiences?”
Frankly speaking, life experiences are made up of private moments and public moments. Both make life interesting. I was worried that without the private moments, a book might not be so interesting and well, private moments need to remain private.
Now-a-days few people take time to read books, consequently I have decided to write just a few articles, in case the readers may be interested.
Schwanden, Canton Glarus, Switzerland
I was born in Schwanden, Canton Glarus, in Switzerland, on the 18th of December 1944, the youngest of 9 children of the Tschannen family. (Interesting for Ahmadi-Muslim readers: I am happy to have the same birthday as Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih the fourth). My father’s name was Hans Tschannen and my mother’s name was Sophie Sigrist. This was during the Second World War. Switzerland, of course, managed to remain neutral during this war, but I am told once in a while the air raid sirens did go off because sometimes some allied bomber planes got lost over Germany and found themselves in Switzerland. (Americans even now have some difficulty with geography, as we know). My brothers used to joke that I was born under the bed, because the air raid siren went off at the time. My mother however told me that I was born in the Hospital in the Canton’s capital, Glarus. In the hospital, my mother shared a room with another lady and once, the nurse brought me into the room and gave me to the other lady. Right away, her relatives started observing how – I had a nose just like the mother – and ears just like the father, when the senior nurse came in and exclaimed:
Nurse: “No, no, no … this is the Tschannen baby!”
And handed me over to my mother. Reflecting on this, I wonder whether this was an indication of the confusion and trouble I was about to create all my life?
The Tschannen family originates from Wohlen near Bern, Switzerland. In the Swiss passport our place of origin is mentioned and not our place of birth. Consequently all Swiss know their place of origin. According to the website of the Tschannen Restaurant in Wohlen near Bern (Gasthof Kreuz) the family crest and some other historical information may indicate that the Tschannen’s were in the service of the French before 1550.
A lady from Bern, whom I understand owned a large chunk of the real estate of the town, when introduced to someone new, would ask:
Lady: “Are you somebody, or do you receive a salary?”
Consequently if you were receiving a salary as the Chief Executive of the largest bank of Switzerland you would be nobody according to her, but if you owned your own bakery you were an independent entrepreneur, and consequently – somebody.
Anyway, my father was born in the Canton of Fribourg and initially trained as a baker, like his father before him. His father also had the one and only grocery shop in the village. Consequently he was not very rich, but he was – somebody.
Although my father trained as baker, he did not work as a baker after he married. Apparently, as the father not only owned the only bakery in the village, but also the general store, he had to sell alcohol. My father did not want to do that and therefore sold the bakery / shop. He later got a job as Head of the Dispatch Department of a Manufacturing Company in Schwanden, Canton Glarus, Switzerland. However, during the war his baking skills came in handy. Instead of being sent to guard the Swiss borders with the Swiss Army he was commissioned to bake bread for the soldiers. This was definitely safer than fiddling around with guns. (Although of course, luckily the Swiss Army did not need to fight in the World Wars).
My mother trained as a Sewing Teacher, which is useful when you have to mend the clothes of 9 children. Apparently my mother and father met in what we would call these days a workshop on modern education. Both were interested in that kind of thing and had some good and interesting friends from that circle. These friends came in handy, especially for me, as we will see later. My mother was already nearly 30 years old when she got married. Lucky for her, with a child a year, she would have reached 20 instead of 9 if she had married early. She was 45 when I was born as her last child.
My father was an active member of the Pentecostal Church, my mother was, I suppose, a Zwingly Protestant, but sort of went along with my father when he attended the Pentecostal Church. (Zwingly being the Protestant guy from Zurich, Calvin was in Geneva, Luther in Germany). Pentecostal Missionaries from Africa and other countries used to visit our house, as my father was an active financial contributor to their missionary work.
During the war, the Swiss were told by the Government to grow their own food. In order to accomplish this, the Government put at the disposal of everyone who was willing, additional garden space. As we were 9 children my father actually kept two gardens outside of our own to grow more vegetables and potatoes. I recall how we used to go there to give water to the plants and to harvest. Later on, when my brothers and sisters moved out, he gave up the outside gardens and concentrated on our own. As he grew older and more of my brothers and sisters moved out, the grass patch grew larger and the vegetable patch grew smaller. We grew just about everything needed: potatoes which could be stored until the next season, beans, cauliflower, cabbage, beetroots, and you name it. During the summer we ate it fresh and then my mother would boil the rest and seal it in glass containers which provided vegetables the whole year round. I think we only had fresh salad during the season. And we had – apples! The apples did not grow in our garden, but my aunt had a farm in the Canton of Fribourg. Whatever apples she could not sell there she sent to my father by train cargo. He tried to sell some to our local shops and send the money to his sister. What he could not sell ended up in our storage. We had a machine to electrically produce dried apples. And the rest we took to a guy in the village, who had a press. That produced bottled apple juice for us that lasted us the whole year round. The juice was boiled and then put into bottles and sealed to keep fresh. Corks were put into the bottles and additionally hot wax to seal it perfectly.
Watering the plants was a daily task. We were supposed to take turns, but I think I ended up watering them more than the others. Well, not really a daily task, of course, because in Switzerland it rained regularly. It was of course only a daily task when the sun happened to shine for a longer period.
We also had chicken, so that we had our own fresh eggs and chicken. We kept the chicken until one of my sisters in a school project proved to my father that in fact it was cheaper to purchase the eggs and chicken in the shop then to grow them ourselves. The chicken feed was not cheap, I suppose. But it was nice while it lasted.
Consequently I think, we had to buy little in the shops. We had to buy wheat flour for our bread, which my father baked himself, also Milk for all of us and some meat, which however we did not eat all that much, as we had our own chickens. And these chickens were definitely tasting better than the factory chicken we can get from the shops these days. We must have bought some rice for a change and Spaghetti and other noodles.
Baking! On Saturday my father used to bake a Zopf which is a white flour bread for Sunday, and whole-wheat bread for the rest of the week. When he had time and was in the mood, he would make other things such as cheese pie, onion pie, apple pie and apricot pie. Although my father did not work in his original profession his knowledge of baking definitely came in handy! In fact I am just now thinking that I should learn to bake our own bread, because around the world the quality of bread is not always up to the standard that I remember from my father! (Better late than never?) In those days in the bakery you would find Zopf, the special white bread, normal white bread, semi-white bread and dark bread and full wheat bread, like my father used to bake. That was all! Now-a- days, the bakeries think they should mix all kinds of flour bringing out fancy stuff which does not taste good, or let’s say is not up to my liking. Only recently in Amman I found a German bakery, which makes toast bread similar to what my father used to make and an Austrian bakery which bakes the Zopf tasting rather like what my father used to bake. On second thoughts: No, not half as good!
I also recall from these early days that my father used to take us to collect mushrooms in the forest, when it was the season. How I miss those wild mushrooms even now! The mushrooms you find these days in the shops are nothing compared to those wild mushrooms. In every village in Switzerland a – mushroom expert – was nominated. We would pass his house and show him our collection and he would take out what might have killed us by poisoning. We never had a problem.
Another thing I recall is that we used to go into the forests to collect pine cones. These we would send to a friend of my parents in Zurich, Sister Anna Pflueger. She was Head Teacher in the Zurich Nursing School. She used it to heat her living room. And it was fun for us to go into the forest and collect. In those days we would give each other useful presents. She in return used to give us a smoked beef tongue for Christmas, which would last us quite a while.
And then we went hiking into the mountains. Not climbing like my brother Hansjoerg, (who got killed in a mountain accident aged 17) just hiking and pick-nicking during the summer. In winter we would go skiing, usually with the school. In our village that meant we carried the skis up the slopes for one hour and skied down in five minutes. Anyway, that was healthy. We also went sledging. In the winter we could sledge on the roads just near our house. We would walk up to the next village and sledge down.
I was also a member in the Boy Scouts, like my brothers before me. I suppose it fit into my parent’s modern education curriculum. I learned how to make knots and how to fry an egg on a hot piece of stone. I guess I had some good times. I also attended some camps. In one Boy Scout camp our leader once took us beer drinking, for educational purposes he said. I took a sip and did not like it. So I poured it into my neighbours glass, once on my right and once on my left. At the end of the evening, they were both drunk. On the way to the camp, the troop leader said:
Troop leader: “drunks on the right, sober ones on the left!”
So each of us who were sober had to hold on to a drunken one of our peers. (I never drank beer after that).
At home we did not have any alcohol, except for a bottle of Kirsch, which my mother kept for medical purposes. It is actually good when you have a bad cold. The bottle came from our neighbour. He was a Purchasing Manager in the same company my father worked in and he always got such presents from the suppliers around Christmas. One Christmas he came with another bottle of Kirsch, but my mother told him that we have not finished the one he gave us the year before.
I was a good student in Primary School. My marks were so good that my parents decided that I should go directly to High School and not the Secondary School. The Secondary School ended at grade 9 and the graduates usually went on to do an apprenticeship. The High School went up to the University Entrance level. The first Second language in the Secondary School was French (only German was taught in the Primary School in my days) while the first Second language in the High School was Latin. But, I had a small problem. Some headaches kept coming up in my 6th grade. The doctor did not know what to do and sent me ‘to the mountains’. I spent 3 months in Braunwald in a children’s home. Braunwald is a skiing resort at the end of the Canton Glarus valley. I felt fine up there, but the headaches returned during the high school days. I ended up in the children’s hospital in Zurich for observation and whenthey did not find anything they sent me to my sister Margrit, who was in the meantime a teacher in Grindelwald, a beautiful skiing resort in the Bernese Alps. Again I was fine up there. In Grindelwald I could ski with the school classes of my sister the whole winter long. As resident and member of the school class the ticket cost one Swiss Franc, which we managed. A stupid guy came to the station fresh from the professional apprenticeship school and said that as I was not a proper resident, just a temporary guest, I could not benefit from this rate. Luckily this was at the time the snow was melting. What a disaster if the guy would have come at the beginning of winter! When I came down from the mountain and wanted to enter the Secondary School, I failed to enter the second grade, (grade 8) because I knew Latin instead of French. I had to repeat grade seven. As I knew already everything (except French), I was a nuisance to the teachers as I did not pay attention. After the obligatory eighth grade I left the school. I was somehow itchy and could not think of spending the next 3 years in Schwanden, which I would have had to do, if I entered an apprenticeship. My parents, not knowing what to do with me, decided to send me for a year to England, so that at least I could learn another language until we decided further steps.
What else is there to say about my childhood in Schwanden? I suppose I can say that I had a good home. We had a nice garden and plenty of brothers and sisters to play with. My mother used to like to supervise us and she encouraged us to invite other children to play with us in our garden rather than us going out. Our neighbours were surprised about how my parents managed to educate all my brothers and sisters. Ah! My mother had a secret: She used to write down all the money she spent on any of us after the Secondary School. When my brothers and sisters completed their education, she told them to pay back the amount spent, so that it could be used for the younger children. The book was interesting. It showed how each child cost more than the previous one as the cost of living increased but also the way of life changed.
Well, so I lived my first 15 years in that village. At which point an important milestone in my life occurred. As mentioned previously, my family regularly attended the Sunday Meetings at the Pentecostal Church. A couple of times I heard them speak in tongues which no one understood and no one could explain. I still cannot tell you more about that. (If you Google it, you can learn more about this mysterious language they use). I do not really recall much of these regular Sunday attendances. They probably were a bit boring for a child growing up. Pentecostal Missionaries used to be invited into our house. My father used to pay 1/10th of his salary to his church, although of course, with 9 children the family budget was stretched already. When the Missionaries showed us slides of their Missions, my mother noticed that they had a much higher standard of living than we did, with good cars and houses in Africa, drivers and maids and children in boarding schools in England. Once, when my mother did not want to pay cash, my father gave the missionary his gold watch that he received from his Employer on his 25th service anniversary instead. One Missionary from Palestine, Israel used to brag about his Arab community that he had converted from Islam. When pressed after asking again and again how he converted Muslim Arabs, he admitted that he converted, in fact, no-one but collected orphan children and that was his new community of Arab ex-Muslims.
In school, we also had lessons in religion given by the Protestant Priest. You could call me well educated in Christian theology. Well, I take that back now. Compared to my colleagues in The Muslim Times, I am not that thoroughly educated in Christian theology, but for a child or adolescent I suppose I was. There is a reason for my not being all that thoroughly educated in Christian theology and it is because I did not see the need to question every detail of Christianity versus Islam. But you will see later what I mean with this. Please permit me to add a small somewhat amusing episode about our Religion lessons in school. One day, the priest distributed papers to all of us and said that we could write whatever question we wanted – anonymously – and he would try to answer it.
I wrote: “Is the Koran from God?”
His answer was short and to the point:
Priest: “Don’t waste your time with such things and just concentrate on what I am teaching you.” (He was actually just interested in sex education at that point).
He answered in more detail the question: “how are children made?” It seems that in the teacher’s room they had discussed who would be the most appropriate to give us youngsters some sex education. The choice fell on the Priest. Therefore that was actually the question he was waiting for and wanted to answer in more detail. This episode also shows that I was a bit more mature than other students, at least as far as religious knowledge was concerned.
OK, so I got lessons about Christianity:
Protestant priest: “In the beginning there was God. And He was the Lord. And then 2000 years ago he got a son and now the son is the Lord.”
I questioned the Sunday school teacher:
Narrator: “What happened to the father? Is he now retired?”
Of course the answer was just that I should not ask stupid questions.
Protestant priest: “In the beginning there were Adam and Eve. They committed a sin and God gave us the inherited sin. The human race from then on was born in sin until God sacrificed his one and only son to save us from this sin that he had given us in the first place.”
My question to the priest why God, either did not give us the inherited sin from the beginning or just simply forgave us, was answered by the priest as follows:
Protestant priest: “Well, you know, during my studies in the seminary I had many sleepless nights about this very same question.”
At another time, during a boy scouts outing, we met a Catholic Boy Scout group that was headed by a Catholic priest. He said:
Catholic priest: “Let us take the occasion of meeting between Catholics and Protestants for me to explain to you Protestants some differences between our religions. When you finish your education you will need to find a job. You will want to ask the Managing Director of a large company to let you get a job there. It may however not be easy for you to even get a chance to speak to the big boss. However, you may have an uncle who is already working there. You will therefore approach your uncle to ask the big boss to let you enter the company as well. And that is why we pray to our Saints, who we know are already in heaven, to intervene on our behalf with God, the Father, to let us enter heaven as well.”
My thoughts, when I heard that: God has created the whole universe, all the stars and suns, all the animals and plants. He makes the day and the night, but he has no time for us individually now, because he may be too busy like the Managing Director of a large company, which, compared to the Universe, is of course just a small dot. In other words, when I started thinking independently at the age of about 15 I realized that I could not agree with the teachings of Christianity. In retrospect one can say, that I never was a Christian. So I started to look around at what other religions were teaching. I checked the library for Hindu and Buddhist literature. I could not really make any sense out of what I read there either. It was at this point that I got my hands on a German translation of the Holy Qur’an. When you get a Qur’an in your hands you will automatically first read the first Sura:
Quran: “In the name of Allah , the Beneficient, the Merciful. [All] praise is [due] to Allah , Lord of the worlds, The Beneficient, the Merciful, Lord of the Day of Judgement. It is You we worship and You we ask for help. Guide us to the straight path – The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favour, not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who have gone astray.
When reading this first Sura (chapter) of the Qur’an, it resonated with me. God is Merciful. He can forgive and does not need to sacrifice a son to forgive us. Blood sacrifices reminded me of the native Americans in South America. And we pray to Him and ask Him directly what we think we need. There is no need for Saints to help out as messengers.
You can say that I already felt a sense of satisfaction when reading this first Sura. As the second Sura (chapter) is a bit long, but the last chapters are short, I think most readers will first glance at the last few Suras. So I came across this one:
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
“Say, He is Allah , [who is] One. Allah , the Eternal Refuge. He neither begets nor is born, nor is there to Him any equivalent.”
Ah, exactly! This is what I thought! “No one is equal to Him!” We cannot compare him to a father nor can we compare Him to a Managing Director. Consequently, we can say that I converted to Islam after reading the first Sura and after reading the 112th Sura. Or that is why Muslims say reverted, as in a way I was always a Muslim and just realized it when I was able to read this Qur’an.
The German translation of the Holy Qur’an, which I had found in the Swiss Central Library, was published by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Mission. There was a stamp in it with their address in Zurich. I had to of course return the Qur’an to the library and therefore I wrote to the address in Zurich, asking them whether they could send me a copy. As I was 15 years old I told them that I had no money and would pay them one day when I had money. Sheikh Nasir Ahmad, the Missionary at the time, was of course pleased to send me a copy.
The reaction of my parents was interesting. My father, being very religious in his Christian Pentecostal way, read the whole Qur’an. I asked him what he found wrong with it and his answer was:
Father: “There is nothing wrong with it. And this is exactly the trick of the devil, because in the bible it says that: “no one comes to the father but through me – Jesus.” Consequently, although there is nothing wrong with the teachings of the Qur’an, as the Muslims do not believe in the sacrifice of the life of Jesus on the cross, they will all go to hell. Then he wanted to go ahead and burn the Qur’an. Later on, one of his Pentecostal priests told my father that Muslims, if they live a good life, could enter the lowest stage of heaven, which made my father relax a bit. In a way actually, my father and I had more in common then my father had with my other brothers. For example, my father did not drink any alcohol and neither did I, while my brothers did. My sisters Ruth and Elisabeth were the only ones who carried on the tradition of being active members of the Pentecostal Church. Elisabeth was more active than Ruth. My other brothers and sisters were normal Swiss Protestant Christians, meaning that they went to Church as kids for their Christening and eventually also took their children there for the same reason. However, the next time they went to church was for their marriage and the last time was for their funeral. When my father wanted to burn the copy of the Holy Qur’an, my mother showed how ladies in fact are more pragmatic and think more logically. She told my father that it would be useless because I would just buy another one and consequently, it would be a waste of money. (Although at the time I did not even pay for it yet).
In conclusion, at this point I had neither studied Islam in great detail nor, from an adult point of view, had I really studied Christianity. Yet, I felt that in order to convert to Islam, I did not need to study either religion in all its particulars. The general idea was sufficient. To me, the message of Islam was clear and was sensible and logical. The message of Christianity seemed confusing and illogical. The simple thoughts were as follows: “In the beginning there was God, whom the Muslims call Allah. He created the whole Universe and all of us. From time to time he would send His Prophets as Messengers to mankind, to keep guiding them on the right path. The Jews say that God sent Prophets to us from the beginning of time until about 3000 years ago. Then He stopped. The Christians say that God sent Prophets to us from the beginning of time until about 2000 years ago. Then He stopped. The Muslims say that God sent Prophets to us from the beginning of the time and then, 1400+ years ago, came the Prophet Mohammad to bring us the final message, the Qur’an. The difference between the Qur’an and all other religious books is that the Qur’an is still now available. The latest discovery of an old Qur’an manuscript at Birmingham University confirms the words of Allah in the Qur’an where He says that He himself will safeguard the text of His book. The old texts found are identical with the Qur’ans in large circulation today. The Jews say that their Prophets were only for the Jewish people and Muslims also believe that all Prophets of the past were for particular people. Mohammad (peace be upon him) was the only Prophet sent to the whole of mankind. Why the difference? It was now technically possible to have a final message, because now the final message could be copied and distributed world-wide (up to the Swiss Central Library and beyond).
Later on the question arose whether I should join the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community or just be a Muslim. Well, which Muslim was I to be? Even in Switzerland there were in later days Muslims who followed the Imam provided by the Turkish Embassy. There were other Turks who had another Imam, because they did not want to follow the one provided by the Embassy. Then the Arabs had an Imam provided by some Gulf State and another one provided by Saudi Arabia, etc. It therefore was not so simple to be – just a Muslim. One had to decide where to go.
As the first translation of the Holy Qur’an in German that I got my hands on was from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community it was natural that I would also look at their teachings. And how did I understand the teachings of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community? First of all, just to point it out, the teachings of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, are the teachings of Islam. It is that simple. Ok, I admit that the members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community have some small additional – different details in their beliefs. One was that their founder, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, may Allah be pleased with him, was the awaited Imam Mahdi and also the awaited Messiah – the return of Jesus. He combined these two functions or we could say – job descriptions – in one person. All Muslims do believe that Jesus did not die on the cross. Most Muslims believe that Jesus did not die and was taken up to heaven alive and will return in the later days. Some Muslims, like Ahmadis, do believe that Jesus must have died, as all humans do, including the Prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him). The majority of Muslims believe that Jesus will return one day and the Imam Mahdi also, but that these will be two different persons. Another difference in the teachings of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is that Jesus was crucified but did not die on the cross. He was taken down alive. The story of the Turin Shroud actually would be exactly in accordance with the teachings of the Ahmadi-Muslims, that Jesus was alive when taken down from the cross, as shown by the blood still flowing out of his body. The Ahmadi-Muslims then teach that Jesus went to Kashmir to preach to – the lost sheep of the tribes of Israel. Walking all the way from Palestine to Kashmir? Does that sound far-fetched? Yes, sure, but well what is the alternative: Going alive behind the moon or to heaven is a lot further than Kashmir. Consequently the teaching of Jesus having escaped to Kashmir is still more logical to me. It was logical that he had to leave Palestine as otherwise, he would have been caught again by the Romans and the Jews.
The Ahmadi-Muslims teach that their founder came – in the spirit of Jesus -, sort of with the same job-description and that the functions of Messiah and Mahdi were represented in one person, the founder of the Ahmadiyya Jama’at (Community). Again this made sense to me. How could a Christian (Jesus) and a Muslim, the Imam Mahdi work together without clashing? Thus the claim of Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (may Allah be pleased with him) made sense. He stated clearly again and again that he was just a simple servant of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be on him), that he did not bring a new book or law but simply taught us all the purity of Islam and the purity of the message of its Prophet (as). This was in line with Prophet-hood itself, namely that Allah sent His messengers from the beginning of time until the present time, because being Merciful He wanted to keep giving us the chance to be rightly guided. And Allah’s care for His creation continues through the institution of Khilafat. Allah’s favour on His creation continues.
My thoughts: If God is there and kept in touch in the past he will be keeping in touch with us at present. That is all logical thinking, according to my views. I felt that if God existed then, yes, Islam would be His living religion and Ahmadiyyat his favoured community. Further happenings in the world just re-enforce this belief. See what is happening in the world: The Khalifa of Ahmadiyyat continues to work for peace while others are trying to be Khalifa with terror and murder, which definitely has nothing to do with Islam (or any other religion for that matter).
I stayed in Schwanden, Canton Glarus, until the age of 15,where I completed 6 years of Primary School and 2 years of Secondary Schoo
Just a short anecdote about Switzerland:
Regarding the small Swiss farms: Once upon a time, an American farmer visited Switzerland. When he saw these small farms, he said to a Swiss farmer:
American farmer: “Back home in the United States, I have a farm that is so big that when I start with my car in the morning from one end, I do not reach the other end of my farm by the evening.”
The Swiss farmer was not impressed. He replied:
Swiss farmer: “Yes, I used to have a car like that…”
Well, so I lived my first 15 years in that village. At which point an important milestone in my life occurred. As mentioned previously, my family regularly attended the Sunday Meetings at the Pentecostal Church. A couple of times I heard them speak in tongues which no one understood and no one could explain. I still cannot tell you more about that. (If you Google it, you can learn more about this mysterious language they use). I do not really recall much of these regular Sunday attendances. They probably were a bit boring for a child growing up. Pentecostal Missionaries used to be invited into our house. My father used to pay 1/10th of his salary to his church, although of course, with 9 children the family budget was stretched already. When the Missionaries showed us slides of their Missions, my mother noticed that they had a much higher standard of living than we did, with good cars and houses in Africa, drivers and maids and children in boarding schools in England. Once, when my mother did not want to pay cash, my father gave the missionary his gold watch that he received from his Employer on his 25th service anniversary instead. One Missionary from Palestine, Israel used to brag about his Arab community that he had converted from Islam. When pressed after asking again and again how he converted Muslim Arabs, he admitted that he converted, in fact, no-one but collected orphan children and that was his new community of Arab ex-Muslims