My knowledge of what Ahmadiyya Muslims believe is limited. But off the bat, let’s clarify some misconceptions you might have about them. Yes, they pray five times a day, believe in Prophet Muhammad, fast during Ramadan and follow many other fundamentals of Islam. No, they don’t eat babies for breakfast.
I’ve never been to an Ahmadi mosque and know very few of them in general. But when talking about the history of Muslims in this country, their contributions to society are often swept under the rug. For that reason, we went to St. Louis to visit the Ahmadis, a Muslim community that has been in the area since the 1920s.
The basic difference between Ahmadis and mainstream Sunni Muslims deals with the death of Jesus. Muslims believe Jesus is currently in heaven and his return as The Messiah to signal the Day of Judgment. Ahmadis believe a man named in India named Mirza Gullam Ahmed in the 1800s was actually The Messiah.
We’re welcomed to the mosque by Basiyr Rodney. His brain is just as sharp as his fashion sense and he speaks with a subtle Jamaican accent. His glasses rest a few centimeters down on his nose to complete the distinguished professor look he may or may not have been going for.
We begin our conversation by talking about Muslim American history. Many people might not know this, but the Ahmadis are credited with being one of the first groups of people that spread Islam throughout the United States on a large scale in the 1920s.
“In the early days when people wanted to connect to Islam, there really weren’t any books out there so people turned to the Ahmadis,” Basiyr said. “It’s in our culture to do this because we believe it is our duty as a Muslim to convey the message of Islam.”
Ahmadis focus heavily on a spiritual leadership system called the khilafat. The khilafa oversees the global Ahmadi community and there are national, regional and local presidents that run the day-to-day operations. Basiyr said it helps make the community run smoothly and curbs bickering and arguing that other Muslim organizations might deal with.
“We have a very organized system that brings in a sense of accountability,” Basiyr said. “When the khilafat says build a mosque, you build a mosque. If there is some arguing happening, the khilafat will send a representative and say ‘They need a mosque, but their emotions are tied up in it,’ and it gets done.”
The $1.5 million mosque here was built in 2008. Basiyr said it took roughly 3-4 years to build from planning to finish. Many Muslim communities I’ve visited spend 3-4 years just to figure out what to name a place.
In midst of his thought, the mosque’s imam walks into the room. He’s an elderly South Asian man that speaks with an adorably thick Urdu accent. He too is a snazzy dresser sporting an outfit that would make Hamid Karzai jealous.
Many Muslims often label Ahmadiyyas as a deviant group (some might even call them non-Muslims) because they believe Prophet Muhammad wasn’t the last prophet. I asked the imam what it feels like to get labeled as such.
“There is no prophet that ever came that a majority of people did not reject,” he said. “Christianity is one of the biggest religions in the world right now. At the time when Jesus died, how many people believed in him? Eleven.”
“It comes with the territory of being an Ahmadi,” Basiyr chimed in. “It’s the recognition that you’re not always going to be accepted by the general group of Muslims because even though our beliefs are not fundamentally different, it really is jarring to some people. We recognize that and it’s a part of our identifier.”
Our conversation is cut short by the call to prayer, signifying it is time to break the fast for the day. For dinner, the community prepared a mouth watering array of soul food including fried chicken, catfish, collard greens and pie. But my favorite dish of the evening was the cornbread. It had a fluffy texture with a subtle buttery sweetness that so delectable, it made me want to slap someone.
After dinner and prayer, I had a brief conversation with the women in the mosque, curious to find out what their roles in the community were like. Basiyr’s wife Tamara told me Ahmadiyas actually have a group in each community called the women’s auxiliary that is responsible for overseeing all things regarding female activities.
“As long as you have at least three women in a community, you start this organization,” Tamara said. “There have also been several women presidents over the years. Women have had roles of leadership in the Ahmadi community for decades.”
Which is interesting, because in many other Muslim communities, a women leading an Islamic organization would have created a massive uproar until a few years ago.
I was surprised to find out there are only around 150-200 Ahmadi Muslims in St. Louis. How on earth then did they build a $1.5 million mosque? Tamara said Ahmadis donate 1/16 of their income every year to the Ahmadi community (not obligatory to do this). A lot of the funding for the St. Louis mosque came from the 10-15,000 people that make up the Ahmadi community across the United States.
“We recognize in order for any message, particularly Islam, to grow, it requires the financial sacrifice of people in the community,” she said.
I asked the same question to Tamara that I raised for her husband, how she feels about being labeled as a deviant group or something outside Islam. She said when non-Muslims look at mainstream Muslims and Ahmadis, they don’t see the rigid differences.
“If someone sees me in the street, they don’t say “Oh, is that an Ahmadi Muslim?” she said. “No, they might just say ‘Asalam Alaikum’ because all they see is a Muslim woman.”
It’s time to for me to go and I have the most important question for them of the night. WHO MADE THAT AWESOME CORNBREAD???? One of the women chuckles and says her mother made them. I tell her I will go home tonight and pray that Allah reward her for putting together such a scrumptious concoction.
Regardless of how you feel about Ahmadis, you have to give credit where it is due. They helped introduce the United States to Islam. They also seem to run their communities much more efficiently than many other Muslims run theirs. So instead of marginalizing Ahmadis, there’s a lot we can learn from them. Especially if you consider the fact that only .8 percent of the United States population is Muslim, we don’t have the luxury of dividing ourselves.
With a Ziploc bag of leftovers in hand, I walked out of the mosque thanking the Ahmadis in St. Louis for a wonderful evening of conversation and cornbread.