My blog in The Times today.
Ahmadi Muslims challenge mainstream Islam
There is a palpably tranquil atmosphere in the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, London. Hundreds of guests, including: MPs, Secretary of States and Senior Members of the Armed Forces, are slowly making their way into Western Europe’s largest Mosque – which can accommodate 10,000 worshippers – an impressive white building, donning a 16m dome and two lofty minarets.
Men in big grey, traditional hats, with amiable faces and warm smiles greet each attendee as they enter the Mosque for the 2013 Peace Symposium, now in its 10thyear. The Mosque, built in 2003, belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a branch of Islam seen as “heretical” by mainstream Islam.
British governments of the past and present have been rather fond of the Ahmadis, whom they believe to be a more acceptable face of Islam in Britain, as opposed to, say, Salafism. “I commend the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK’s commitment to tolerance, respect and support for charitable causes,” Prime Minister David Cameron said before the event.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community – not to be confused with the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement – believe that a 19th century Indian man, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the Promised One awaited by the world religions. He was, according to Ahmadi doctrine, the Messiah, a Prophet and the Mahdi (the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will rid the world of evil) all rolled into one. For orthodox Muslims, this is not only farfetched, but also blasphemous – it is the reason why mainstream Islamic scholars deem Ahmadi Muslims non-believers.
But excommunication has never deterred the Ahmadi community from fulfilling what they believe to be their purpose: to spread peace across the world and unite the world religions.
It is therefore not surprising that the Ahmadi community enjoy such high-profile support: espousing peace and rejecting all forms of extremism is one of the best ways for Muslim groups to win the government’s heart, or so it seems. It is perhaps why organisations like the Quilliam Foundation and the Sufi Muslim Council have enjoyed government backing in recent years.
Ed Davey MP, Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change, one of the speakers at 2013 Peace Symposium, says to the packed hall of 1,000 people: “…Both here in the UK and around the world, [Ahmadis] bring people together of all faiths to champion peace.”
Siobhain McDonagh, MP and Chair of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, says: “In the past several years I have learned a great deal about Islam from your Community – I have learned that Islam is built on the rights of life, equality, tolerance and justice.”
The key speaker at the event, which is entitled, Pathway to Peace, is Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the spiritual leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. His official title is Khalifatul Masih V, the fifth successor of the Messiah. He is commonly called His Holiness, and has been leading the tens of millions of Ahmadis since 2003.
His Holiness, who resides in London, is not one to deal in platitudes. His keynote speech, rather bleakly, forewarns of a potentially imminent world war. That is, of course, if the world does not act swiftly and cohesively. “There are multiple reasons to think the world stands on the brink of disaster,” he says.
His speech, drawing on major world events such as: the current Syrian Civil War, the economic crisis, conflicts in the Far East between North and South Korea, is interspersed with constant references to “peace”, “justice” and “integrity”.
His solutions are based on spiritual teachings rooted in the Quran and not, as some might have hoped, practical political ones. He says: “If we want true peace and if we want to save the world from destruction then we must act with justice, integrity and be ever faithful to the truth.” He adds that the Western World is not immune from such conflicts and the United States is directly involved with South Korea’s struggle with North Korea and Japan’s against China.
Indeed, the Ahmadis, along with various mystical strands in Islam, such as Sufism, provide a well-needed counterbalance to the extremist elements within Islam. While modern day, mainstream Islam may shun Ahmadi beliefs, it has a lot to learn from their patience, tolerance and peacefulness. Ahmadis are currently persecuted in Pakistan, Indonesia and are unwelcome in Mecca.
Yet, the Ahmadiyya sect has many progressive beliefs. Their fourth spiritual leader, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, postulated in his magnum opus, Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth that Socrates, Buddha, Krisha and other well-known religious founders were all prophets. He also constantly affirmed that the Quran supports the idea of evolution, providing God controls it.
After His Holiness’ keynote speech, he meets some members of the press in a more intimate setting in the Mosque. His Holiness is wearing a white turban, which complements his white and grey beard, a long black coat and a fashionable Armani watch.
Despite holding many progressive beliefs, and reassuring everyone that he, and all Ahmadis must have “love for all and hatred for none”, his views on same-sex marriage don’t quite fit with secular, liberal British values. Upon being asked about the issue he laughs, pauses and then says: “The Quran says it is illegal. Homosexuality is against the nature of a person. If everybody has same-sex marriage, humankind will vanish from the face of the earth.” No matter how progressive many Muslims claim to be, most refuse to budge on the issue of homosexuality.
In spite of this, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community say they are rapidly growing. Speaking to some of the Ahamdis, they often appear to engage in hermeneutical gymnastics in many of their scriptural interpretations, yet their heterodox views are surprisingly coherent. Today, it represents one of the fastest growing movements in Islam and there is little wonder why. Their message of peace is refreshing amidst a barrage of Islamic fanaticism. The sense of calmness and gentleness which radiates from many Ahmadis is, as opposed to proselytising, a greater way to gain adherents.
“People will find it hard to find any other group who are as against extremism as the Ahmadiyyas,” says His Holiness. He adds: “We are spreading the true message of Islam.”