Rejected Muslim Sect Keeps Faith

Ahsanullah Zafar discusses his community's decision not to pursue legal action after being denied a land purchase in Walkersville, Md.Video by Jacqueline L. Salmon/The Washington Post
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008

When Walkersville blocked a Muslim sect's plans to build a worship center in town, the rejection only added insult to injury for a community that has faced hostility and violence throughout the world.

The messianic faith is a pariah among mainstream Muslims. Some members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community who now live in the Washington area had been threatened, jailed and forced to flee their home countries. Even here in the United States, they say, other Muslims can be antagonistic.

That made the pain of the rejection by Walkersville, a small town in Frederick County, only keener.

"We did not expect that," said Ahsanullah Zafar, the ameer -- or president -- of the Ahmadiyya movement in the United States, which is based in Silver Spring.

But it is a faith that has survived for more than 100 years despite its controversial beliefs and the persecution it has endured. It claims 70 million members worldwide. In the United States, it has about 40 mosques. Its Silver Spring mosque has about 3,000 members.

The faith has drawn the enmity of mainstream Islam by calling itself the "true Islam," founded in India 119 years ago by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani, who declared himself the messiah of all faiths and a prophet of God.

"The mainstream community went after them and basically said, 'Look, as long as you don't think that Muhammad is the last prophet, you have violated the creed of Islam . . . and you are not Muslim," said Muqtedar Khan, director of Islamic studies at the University of Delaware, who has studied the sect.

Ahmadis are concentrated in Pakistan, India and parts of Africa. In Pakistan, they are forbidden from calling themselves Muslim, and Indonesia has tried to ban them. They have been massacred and their mosques destroyed.

But Ahmadis insist they are Muslim. They believe that their founder did not bring any new law but preached only that followers should obey the law of Islam.

"People continue to have the [belief] that he has broken the seal" of the prophet Muhammad, said Zafar. "But that is not the case."

Qadiani's beliefs touched on other faiths as well. He preached, for example, that he was the messiah of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and other religions. Jesus, he believed, did not die on the cross, but survived and escaped to India, where he died at the age of 120.

While leaders of other faiths have largely shrugged off the sect, not so for Muslims. Some Ahmadis were granted political asylum in the United States in the 1990s because of religious persecution.

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