Ahmadi Muslims from around the United States and Canada welcomed the spiritual leader of their faith to their Baltimore County mosque Saturday — an occasion as inspirational to them as a papal visit to Catholics.
Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the fifth Khalifa of Islam, came to Rosedale to inaugurate the Bait-us-Samad mosque as part of a U.S. tour that earlier brought him to the Islamic denomination’s national headquarters in Silver Spring.
Like the pope, the khalifa (caliph) is known to his tens of millions of followers in more than 200 countries as His Holiness. And to many of roughly 1,000 Ahmadi Muslims who waited for hours in the mosque’s parking lot to await the 68-year-old cleric’s visit, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“When the spiritual father is here, it’s like heaven on earth,” said Nasim Rehmatullah, national vice president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
“He’s like a father to all of us,” said Abdullah Dibba, imam of the mosque. “If you write to him, he responds.”
Dibba said Ahmadi Muslims feel especially devoted to the fifth khalifa because he uses technology to remain a weekly presence in their lives. He said the khalifa’s sermons are televised through the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s worldwide television channel every Friday.
Ahmadiyya is one of the smaller branches of Islam, one that many mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims regard as not Islamic at all.
It was founded in India in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Ahmadiyya Muslims differ from other worshipers of Allah in that they believe the messiah has already come to earth in the person of their founder, whom they regard as a reformer calling Muslims back to the original teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Many American Ahmadis sport pins with the slogan “Love for All, Hatred for None,” an expression of the sect’s devotion to nonviolence except for military service to one’s country.
“We are absolutely against all forms of violence, terrorism, extremism,” Dibba said. “We don’t label anyone as our enemy.”
Ahmadiyya may not label anyone as enemies, but there are many Muslims who don’t like them. Pakistan has adopted a law forbidding its Ahmadi minority from identifying themselves as Muslims. Ahmadis have been murdered in riots there and in Indonesia. Saudi Arabia won’t allow them in that country. The sect moved its work headquarters to London, to escape persecution in Pakistan.
Yet Ahmadis believe in emphasizing the positive — especially about life in the United States.
“You can ask any of our neighbors. We do not feel oppressed in America,” Dibba said.
The Ahmadis, who have had a Baltimore chapter since 1960, opened their Rosedale mosque two years ago in a former church, Dibba said. It has been open for prayer and community activities, but Saturday was opportunity for the khalifa to officially inaugurate it. Rehmatullah said the Ahmadis have 74 chapters in the United States but that Baltimore’s is one of 10-15 with its own mosque.
The khalifa is elected in a process not unlike the selection of a Catholic pope, and Ahmadis believe the scholars who choose him are merely doing God’s will. Ahmad has held that position since the death of the fourth khalifa in 2003.
The white-bearded cleric arrived Saturday as part of a motorcade from Philadelphia about 2:30 p.m. wearing a white and gold turban. He walked briskly along a red carpet to the front of the building as children called out the words of poems they had been practicing for months.
Once there, with a prayer but no public speech, he removed the drapes covering the plaque inaugurating the mosque “in the name of Allah, the gracious, the merciful.”
He then went inside to inspect the mosque and lead afternoon prayers in a room filled with more than 200 men of the Ahmadiyya community. He knelt and bowed and intoned “Allahu akbar” (God is great) in the mihrab, the niche facing Mecca found in every mosque.
After prayer with the men, the khalifa went upstairs to visit the women in their separate praying area.
Nusrat Qadir Chaudhry, a neonatal intensive care nurse who had come from northern New Jersey for the khalifa’s visit, said that “people were literally in tears” when he visited the women. She said that when one little girl approached him, he put his hand on her head while she hugged him.
“All the women were really pleased,” Chaudhry said.
Chaudhry that with some male Muslims from other denominations, “you sense the patriarchy.” But she said the khalifa is “very encouraging of women’s advancement.”
Before departing for a reception downtown with a high-powered group of political, business and religious leaders, Ahmad paused to plant a red maple tree in a corner of the mosque’s grounds.