An Evening with the Ahmadiya Muslims
June 13, 2008...3:45 pm
They’ve been going door to door in the local area for a couple of weeks now, and had called on my home while I was away. Their message was ‘Love to All, Hatred to None’ and I at first presumed they might be trying extra hard to to counter the reputation that Islam has gained of late.
I wasn’t too sure whether or not I had been specifically targeted as a Vaishnava, or whether their public meeting - just 200 yards from Bhaktivedanta Manor in the little village hall of Letchmore Heath - was arranged to reach the Hindu community, but since they were quite determined - and a missionary group - I went along thinking that I might learn something.
It turns out that this is a special year, 2008 is the centenary of the death of their founder. Their movement, which now has 190 branches, started in the Punjab region of India back in 1889. The first leader of the community, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, declared himself the messiah, or successor to the prophet Muhammed. One thing that’s sure when you declare yourself to be the messiah is that some people are going to love you, and many more will hate you.
Because of this significant departure from conventional Islam, the community was eventually persecuted, a situation that persists today in Pakistan, where preaching on behalf of Ahmadiya will get you a stiff prison sentence.
The Ahmadiya Muslims describe themselves as a renaissance within Islam, a fact that might come as good news to those who wish to see a reformation within the religion. Of course, renaissance doesn’t exactly mean reformation. The former can indicate a revival of a religion back to its early days of glory, the latter a revival of popularity due to useful changes in philosophical understanding or practical application, or adjustments in organisational structure. Their distinctive characteristic, which they take great pains to articulate, is that both Muhammad and his essential messages are peaceful; a position that many these days would contest.
Back in 1979-80 when, as a young man on the streets of Nairobi and Kisumu, trying to interest the locals in the message of Krishna (try being a white man selling religion in Africa and you’ll get to hear some heartfelt opinions) I had seen the Ahmadiyas with their Saturday book tables attracting big crowds. More recently I’d heard of their huge, tented gatherings on their 200 acres down in Surrey. That’s a very English county to host a temporary Islamabad of 25,000 people, but now its an established annual convention - the jalsa salana.
As a relatively early member of the Hare Krishna movement, I admire and sympathise with any religious group thats established itself through hard graft and honest outreach. I know what they’ve been through and all the effort it takes.
My evening with them was pleasant enough, and I found them gentle and well mannered. I also liked the fact that they’d invited us and had requested another devotee to speak to the public at the event. The assembled masses in the Letchmore Heath Memorial Hall amounted to a few Krishnas and the local Church of England vicar and some of his parishioners. Not a great turnout for all the effort they’d put in, but thats life in a world of HD plasma screen TV. Religion is not much competition.
The vicar and I were both presented with a Holy Qur’an and another, smaller summary of Islamic teachings. I will definitely have a go at the smaller book. Whatever else we do in life, we can always spend a few minutes trying to understand other people and their beliefs. Besides, you never know when you might need to know something about Islam these days. Always better to be prepared.
where is it from??
When it began it was the Punjab of India, now modern-day Pakistan
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