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September 30, 2022
ZION, Illinois (RNS) — It was a challenge of biblical proportions.
Two men, both claiming to be divine figures, would pray to God to show the truth of their claims. One was John Alexander Dowie, a Christian evangelist and faith healer who founded the city of Zion in northeastern Illinois. His challenger: Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
The first to die, lost.
“A genuine Elijah would jump at such a proposal,” read an article that appeared in The New York Times in 1903, not long after Ghulam Ahmad issued the challenge in response to Dowie’s incendiary remarks about Islam and other religions.
Earlier, Dowie had declared himself “Elijah the Restorer.”
The article — one of many published at the time in newspapers across the country about the so-called “prayer duel” — recalled how the biblical prophet Elijah had challenged the prophets of Baal to call down fire from heaven to burn their respective sacrifices. Elijah was outnumbered. He had doused his sacrifice in water. And yet it was his prayer, in the biblical account, that was answered.
Ghulam Ahmad was in poor health and older than Dowie, who — by all accounts — never directly accepted the prayer duel. Yet it was Dowie who died a year before Ghulam Ahmad, abandoned by his family and all but a few of his most devoted followers, the city he founded in dire financial straits.
The story has been repeated for generations among the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a small revival movement within Islam who believe Ghulam Ahmad to be a promised messiah and mahdi, or reformer.
Now the community has a home in the city at the center of it all.
This weekend, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community will inaugurate its first mosque — named “Fath-e-Azeem,” or “great victory” — in Zion.
“It is not the victory of any religion,” said Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the khalifa, or caliph, of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
“We should respect all the religions,” Mirza Masroor Ahmad told Religion News Service.
The spiritual leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which claims more than 20 million members worldwide, traveled from the movement’s headquarters in the United Kingdom to inaugurate the mosque alongside leaders from the city and other faiths.
Mirza Masroor Ahmad said he often travels to inaugurate new mosques around the world, but the history of Zion makes Fath-e-Azeem “special.”
The Zion chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community started with about 50 people in 1984.
Nadia Shams, propagation secretary for the chapter’s women’s auxiliary, remembers a time before the chapter even had its current mission house. Her father was its first president, and members would meet at their little house in nearby Waukegan, Illinois.