EAST WORLDHAM, England -- Last Sunday, on a 210-acre farm in this lush hamlet some 65 miles southwest of London, more than 35,000 Muslims from 96 countries gathered to pledge their allegiance to a 107-year-old worldwide caliphate. Millions from around the globe joined the ceremony live via satellite television. Their vow? To uphold the oneness of God, bear witness in the Prophet Muhammad, and obey their caliph “in everything good.”
The caliph in question was Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a Muslim group that exists in more than 200 countries and claims to represent Islam's true peaceful teachings. The pledge ceremony was part of the community’s international Jalsa Salana, or annual convention, Britain’s largest Muslim conference. At a time when the radicalization of Muslims is a flashpoint issue in Britain, the convention and its message of peace stands in sharp contrast to fiery British Muslim clerics like Anjem Choudary, who has been charged with "inviting support" for extremist groups such as the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, whose motto is "Love for all, hatred for none," stems from the Sunni branch of Islam but diverges from it in several major areas. It was founded in 1889 by Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, India. Ahmad claimed to be a subservient prophet of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, sent by God to revive the religion and serve as the messiah of the modern age.
"Our message is more than 125 years old; nothing has changed," said Basharat Nazir, a spokesman for the community in Britain. "We want to remove misconceptions that have crept up about Islam -- most notably the interpretation of jihad."
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community staunchly rejects the notion of violent jihad. Instead, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad has said that "the greater jihad is the jihad of reforming one's self and that is never ending and forever. ... True jihad is the reformation of the evils, which are born in the times of relative peace and comfort. Serving mankind is a real jihad." He has pointed to the community's humanitarian efforts around the world as its engagement in that jihad.
Since the community’s founding in a dusty Indian village in the 19th century, it has expanded its reach all over the world. The community estimates its numbers in the tens of millions -- with some figures placing worldwide membership at 150 million. It established a caliphate after the founder of the community died in 1908. Since his demise, there have been five caliphs. Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad is serving at the fifth caliph and worldwide leader of the community.
But some Muslims around the world consider Ahmadi Muslims to be heretical because of their belief in the advent of a subservient prophet after Muhammad. As a result, the Ahmadiyya community sometimes faces violent persecution in Muslim countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In Pakistan, Ahmadis are legally declared to be non-Muslims and can be imprisoned for practicing their faith.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community holds three-day annual conventions in most countries where it is established, but the one in England, held this past weekend, is considered to be the international convention that draws Ahmadi Muslims from around the world. That’s because the Ahmadiyya caliphate has been headquartered in London since 1984, when the fourth caliph of the community left Pakistan after the government instituted Ordinance XX, which restricted the religious freedom of the Ahmadiyya community there. This year’s convention attracted more than 35,000 attendees, including non-Muslim guests and heads of various governments.
In addition to speeches and the international initiation ceremony, the convention also featured several exhibitions, including a photographic display of the history of the community and an exhibition displaying a replica of the Shroud of Turin, a linen cloth that some believe was the burial shroud of Jesus Christ. Barrie Schwortz, a researcher and expert on the shroud, gave several lectures on the shroud at the convention. The Ahmadiyya community, which emphasizes interfaith relations, invited Schwortz to speak through the Review of Religions, the community’s 113-year-old journal on comparative religion.
“I was thrilled to be a Jewish guy presenting about a Christian relic at an Islamic event,” said Schwortz, who is based in Colorado. “Not many people in the U.S. know about the Ahmadiyya community and we should.”
For many delegates, the thrill of seeing the caliph in person and saying prayers led by him was the highlight of the convention. "There is nothing like this. We’re under the umbrella of khilafat [caliphate]," Hassiem Abdullah Babatu, an attendee from Milwaukee, said. "Nobody else has this institution. I always tell people we are part of the most dynamic and unique Muslim community here on Earth."
At the convention, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad had strong words for certain Muslim clerics who sow the seeds of terrorism around the world: “Today we are clearly seeing the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in which he said a time would come when the Muslim clerics would not spread anything but ignorance, injustice and disorder and their words would be at complete odds with their deeds.”
He addressed the convention in five separate speeches, which were all broadcast around the world through the community’s international satellite television channel, Muslim Television Ahmadiyya. In his final address, he defended religion against those who claim that it is a cause of injustice and disorder in the world.
“This is due to a misunderstanding of religion itself,” he said. “The disorder and injustice we see around the world is not as a result of religion; rather, it is being perpetuated by self-interest and greed. It is a result of people misusing the name of God to fulfill their vested interest, and it is also a result of the denial of the very existence of God.”