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Ahmadi Muslims in U.S. eager to spread message of nonviolence

By nancy haught
Saturday, July 24, 2010; B02

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

Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Ahmad always thought that she was Muslim. The Portland woman's family attended mosques and celebrated the holy days of Islam like most of the 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 small 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.

Ahmadi Muslims have been preaching peace since the movement was founded. Now, they say they are trying to get the rest of the world to listen.

"Many, many Americans do not trust Muslims," Naseem Mahdi, the national president of the community, told thousands of listeners during the Ahmadi movement's 62nd annual convention in Chantilly last weekend.

"Love of your homeland, your place of residence, is part of your faith," Mahdi said, standing just steps away from a display that held the flags of the United States, Virginia and the Ahmadi movement.

The community's message of nonviolence seemed particularly poignant after attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, Pakistan, on May 28 left at least 94 Ahmadis dead and more than 100 wounded.

It's a message that leaders say got lost when the community was new to the United States, because it was young and full of immigrants trying to assimilate.

''We cannot be silent anymore," said Nasim Rehmatullah, the community's national vice president.

Rehmatullah and other leaders are pushing the Muslims for Peace movement, a public awareness campaign started by the Ahmadi community. The campaign advertises Islam as a peaceful religion, condemns terrorism and advocates for the separation of religion and state and human rights.

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

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, 31, who was born into the faith, heard about the Lahore attacks in an early morning phone call. "I felt a mixture of feelings -- devastation, sadness," he said. "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." To that end, the movement's 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.

--Religion News Service

Nancy Haught writes for the Oregonian in Portland. Religion News Service reporter Maggie Hyde contributed to this report.

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