Renewing a Pledge of Unity and Peace

Qasim Ali, 2, of Bealeton roams the aisles as men and boys pray during the national convention for Ahmadiyya Muslims at the Dulles Expo Center.
Qasim Ali, 2, of Bealeton roams the aisles as men and boys pray during the national convention for Ahmadiyya Muslims at the Dulles Expo Center. (By Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)
By Lila de Tantillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 5, 2005

The motto of the Ahmadiyya Muslim movement, "Love for all, hatred for none," was displayed on banners and repeated often during its national convention this past weekend at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly.

"Jihad by sword is forbidden in this age," Ahsan Zafar, the movement's president, said in an interview, citing the power of the pen rather than weapons as an appropriate means of persuasion. "Jihad is a struggle using reason, discussion and argument."

About 3,000 Ahmadis from two dozen states attended the 57th Jalsa Salana event. Other attendees drove from Canada or flew from Pakistan for Jalsa Salana, which means "annual convention" in Urdu. The gathering, held in the Washington region for more than a decade, is an opportunity for adherents to strengthen spiritual bonds and pass them on to their children.

"We renew old ties, we build new ties, we support our moral values and we pray together," Shahnaz Butt, national president for Ahmadiyya women, said of the three days of prayer, speeches and social events. When bowing in prayer, worshipers become like trees bent over by the heaviness of their ripe fruit, she said. "You take these gifts with you, so it's not over in the parking lot."

Abdul Karim of Chicago has attended Ahmadiyya conventions in England, Canada and India. Karim, 64, said that though the cuisine at each convention has varied a bit, the uplifting message of each gathering was identical.

"We are one community," said Karim, who grew up as a Southern Baptist in Mississippi and converted in his twenties. His wife, a native of Pakistan, was raised Ahmadiyya, and they were staying with her relatives in Fairfax.

Masoud A. Malik, a Silver Spring veterinarian who was general secretary of the convention, said staying with family is one of Jalsa Salana's traditions.

"It may be a little inconvenient, but it's much more rewarding," said Malik, whose family is hosting three people -- down from a dozen in past years. "The more we see each other, the more friendship we have."

Throughout the conference, the men were gathered at the expo center's south side, where they sat in chairs or cross-legged on the floor. Treats included a traditional ice cream served with noodles and strawberry-flavored syrup. Some speeches from the men's meeting were broadcast to another part of the center, where the women met, but the women also produced their own programs and lectures. Their conference space included children's play areas, as well as areas where clothes and crafts were sold.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim movement was founded in 1889 in India, and its more than 10 million followers are in more than 150 countries. Like other Muslims, Ahmadis observe the teachings of the Koran and believe in Muhammad as a prophet. They also recognize their 19th-century founder, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as the Messiah; most Muslims consider Muhammad the final prophet.

The Ahmadis face persecution in such Muslim countries as Pakistan, where they face restrictions. Some at the convention said they had encountered discrimination by other Muslims in the United States.

"One of the few things the Sunnis and Shiites could agree on is that the Ahmadis were wrong," said John O. Voll, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He said that though Ahmadis represent a small fraction of Muslims, their missionary efforts, particularly in West Africa, have raised their visibility and impact.

"We have a great responsibility to preach the true face of Islam," said Yahya Luqman, 27, an Ahmadiyya missionary who was born in Pakistan and raised in Portland, Ore.

A sign at the front of the gathering displayed another traditional saying: "Evil is he who is not willing to make peace with his brothers."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company