RELIGION
07/19/2010 09:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ahmadi Sect Struggles For Recognition, Respect From Other Muslims

By Nancy Haught
Religion News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) Like many teenagers, Saira Ahmad questioned her religious faith--once she found out what it was.

Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Ahmad always believed she was Muslim. Her family attended mosques and celebrated the holy days of Islam like most of their neighbors.

But after a visit to relatives in Pakistan, Ahmad discovered that her family was Ahmadi, members of an Islamic sect that is ignored or scorned by some mainstream Muslims. Her parents, fearing reprisals, had kept the details of their faith a secret.

"Why does everyone hate us?" Ahmad, now 35, remembers asking her mother. "We follow Islam. We follow the Five Pillars. We accept a messiah that the rest of the world is waiting for. I was 16, and I just didn't understand."

The Ahmadi movement was founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a native of India who said he was the messiah foretold by the Prophet Muhammad. The movement's London headquarters claims more than 10 million followers across 190 countries.

Ahmadis are a minority of the estimated 1.57 billion Muslims in the world. About 87 percent of Muslims are Sunnis, and 10 percent are Shiites, according to a 2009 study released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Ahmadis differ from mainstream Muslims on the issue of prophethood. Most Muslims believe Muhammad was God's final prophet, but Ahmadis believe their founder was also a prophet. Otherwise, Ahmadis observe almost all Muslim practices, including reciting the Quran, praying five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan.

The Ahmadiyya movement has been present in the U.S. since the 1920s. The group's 65 American chapters include a small, close-knit community of 80 people who worship in Portland's Rizwan Mosque, including Ahmad, her husband and their 7-year-old daughter.

When two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, Pakistan, were attacked on May 28, 94 Muslims died and more than 100 were wounded. The attacks hit home at Portland's Rizwan Mosque, where congregants are painfully aware of more than 40 years of persecution in Pakistan.

In 1974, Pakistan amended its constitution to declare that Ahmadis are not Muslims; Ahmadis are not allowed to greet each other as Muslims or refer to their houses of worship as mosques. Extremist Muslims, who see Ahmadis as heretics, have carried out a campaign against them in Pakistan ever since.

Harris Zafar, a 31-year-old married father of two who was born into the faith, heard about the attacks in an early morning phone call.

"Mom called at 3:45 a.m.," he remembers. A cousin he met on a previous trip to Pakistan had died in the gunfire. "I felt a mixture of feelings--devastation, sadness. The loss of a life is tragic. And, in a minor way, there was anger as well, that these were not random attacks, that people are teaching such hatred and misleading others in the faith."

The Ahmadi motto is "Love for all. Hatred for none." It was a central teaching of their founder, who saw himself as a reformer, intent on uniting all faiths under one banner of peace, Zafar said.

"Ours is a moderate faith. We believe in separation between the mosque and the state. Jihad by the sword is dead. We are to defend our faith with our own rational discourse, the jihad of the pen," he says.

To that end, the Ahmadis' founder wrote 80 books and thousands of letters in an effort to rid Islam of what he considered fanatical beliefs.

"The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr," Zafar said, repeating a quotation that Ahmadis attribute to Muhammad but one that other Muslims say is fabricated.

Portland's Ahmadi community is diverse, with members of Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian descent. Some are lifelong Ahmadis. Others, like Richard Reno, 35, of Beaverton, are converts.

Born to a Baptist mother and an "anti-religious" father, Reno considered himself an atheist until he visited the Ahmadi mosque at age 17. He says he found, in their teachings, a belief that seemed "inclusive, rational and made sense of Jesus."

Ahmadis believe Jesus was a prophet, not divine but sent by God, who didn't die on the cross but continued his ministry in India and died there, Reno says.

Reno studied Arabic for a year before he could recite the Quran. Over time, he read books and articles by the Ahmadis' founder, marveling at his ability to explain the teachings of Islam and put them in a modern context. Trained and working as an information-technology engineer, he has been president of the mosque for six years. He leads Friday prayers and often bases his sermons on those of Hadhrat Masroor Ahmad, the current leader of the Ahmadi movement.

Ahmadis say they have little interaction with mainstream Muslims.

"We are not invited to their Eid celebrations," Reno says, "so we have our own at the mosque."

Shortly after Ahmad learned her family secret, she left Saudi Arabia for boarding school in England. She remembers her first visit to an Ahmadi mosque in London and sitting with her uncle, who patiently answered her religious questions. She read the book, "Invitation to Ahmadiyyat," and prayed.

Today she says she does not waver in her faith, and revels in a community that is not ashamed of its faith

"For my daughter," she says, "it's a place where she can know what--and who--she is."

(Nancy Haught writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)