Convention and community; the Ahmadiyya
PART 1 – Convention
While a few thousand Ukrainians got down to business celebrating their culture in Vegreville over the weekend of July 6-8, nearly 20,000 Ahmadi Muslims were getting down, literally, to pray at the annual Jalsa (convention) just outside of Toronto at the same time in the name of Islam.
Recently, following a pair of stories published in the Vegreville Observer written by Rosanne Fortier upon presentations made at the Vegreville Centennial Library by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association (AMYA) and dialogue with Executive Director Rizwan Rabbani, the Observer was invited to Toronto to witness, from an outsider’s perspective, the convention.
A separate sect of Islam among the 73 known branches, the Ahmadi Muslims hold an annual convention in over 200 countries each year. In Canada this year, the spiritual leader for all Ahmadi Muslims, numbering an estimated 10 million, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the equivalent among Ahmadi Muslims to the Pope among Catholics, returned to speak at the Jalsa after a four-year period spent visiting other nations and attending other Jalsa’s.
The slogan if the Ahmadi, “Love for all, hatred for none,” hung on massive banners behind the front of the staging area where speakers delivered their messages. Two Muslim television stations taped and broadcasted the speeches to the world in real time.
Guest speakers at the Jalsa delivered speeches on interacting with non-Muslims, spoke of the need for religion in contemporary society, discussed Islam as a source of personal peace and also why the early years in a child’s life are most critical for mothers. “You are the child’s primary educator,” Mirza told women during his address on Friday afternoon. “Your lap is the first school they will know. It’s not enough to provide care, you must instill in them manners, early education and a love of the Holy Father to bring them closer to god.”
Awards of excellence are handed out as well. Mirza stood at the center stage and disbursed plaques recognizing excellence in academic fields, citizenship and service to the community. Boys from all ages strode across the platform to accept them, some stooping to kiss Mirza’s hand in a gesture of thanks and gratitude.
Many hands make light work
At the Jalsa, with its enormous attendance, an army of 6,000 volunteers (half men, half women) takes time off from work to coordinate the massive event. While many of the events that take place around Vegreville are the result of the hard work and sweat of a few dozen or even a hundred volunteers, the Jalsa takes the nearly the entire community of Ahmadi Muslims in the greater Toronto area to execute.
Meals are a major logistical victory. A staff of 300 volunteers begins cooking at 4 am some 50 km away near the Baitul Islam Mosque in the suburb of Vaughan. “No other event can serve over 20,000 people in 40 minutes,” said Aziz Ullah, a volunteer who oversaw operations at the cooking site. “The food is still hot when it arrives. We started at our first Jalsa years ago with 500 kilograms of meat. Now we are cooking 4,500 kilos at each one.”
Though the volunteers are not professional cooks, they come in weeks in advance to begin their training in the kitchen, learning how to prepare food safely and promptly. “We have served hundreds of thousands of meals since we started, and by the grace of Allah we have not had a single instance where someone was sick from eating the food,” Ullah said. Five temporary marquis tents are erected over paving stones which have makeshift cinder-block cooking stations with high-output gas burners set up. With 22 such open flame stoves, there are 110 fires burning at once, frying everything from fish to beef and chicken, boiling rice and potatoes and vegetables. The sweet smell of curry and cooking meat fills the air for days in the neighborhood during the convention.
Once prepared, the meals are loaded into trucks and shipped over to the convention site, where another army of 500 volunteers unpack the cooking pots, portion and dispense the food. Saturday’s lunch saw 12,000 meals for the men and another 12,000 for the women prepared.
Peaceful security from a violent past
During Jalsa, security is everywhere. Unlike many typical big city events however, the security at this function is comprised of volunteers from the local Ahmadiyya community. There are no guns, no handcuffs or batons, nor is the image of violence conveyed at any time. The volunteer security guards, rather than fight with weapons would prefer to lay down their life for their leader, and fellow Ahmadiyya. A series of multiple checkpoints at exits, a thorough checking of Jalsa issued passes between various exhibits is all that’s needed to ensure no individual meaning harm has infiltrated the convention. The roots of this action stem from the treatment of Ahmadi Muslims in nations such as Pakistan, where after being declared non-Muslims by the government itself, the Ahmadi were targeted by fundamentalists and extremists, being blown up or shot or murdered without any recourse from the very people they had supposedly elected to govern and protect them. In Pakistan in 2010 at the Lahore Mosque gunmen opened fire on Ahmadiyya during prayers. Over 80 were killed and 100 wounded as the radicalists, armed with assault rifles and hand grenades, sprayed automatic fire into the crowds, detonated grenades and killed without provocation or cause. One survivor of that incident, Zakria Nasrullah Khan, now resides with the Ahmadi community in Toronto. His house is decorated with Christmas lights that uphold the Ahmadiyya saying “Love for all, hatred for none.” The first bullet fired in that attack was directed at Khan, who was working security at the mosque. It missed him by an inch. He lost his father in the attack and nearly lost his six year old son, who was saved when a cousin shielded the boy from the attack with his own body.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness
Many perceive Muslims as dirty. This perception must stem from ignorance, barring those Ahmadi that live in absolute poverty in nations like Pakistan. Having spent a weekend among Muslims I now must admit them to be among the cleanest cultures I know. All the men entering the dining hall walk by massive hand-washing stations for a quick rinse and pat-dry. Inside the washrooms, volunteers line up those waiting to use the facilities and, surgical gloves over the hands are wiping each stall with Lysol before the next use, with Febreeze shots in the hallways to keep the odour down. Faran’s own brother in law, an engineer, is among those wiping walls and stalls in the washroom. “It doesn’t matter what you do for work, what your station is outside the community,” Faran explained. “In here we are all volunteers and we are all equal.” Signs inside the mosque I was later shown state “cleanliness is half of your faith.”
Fastidious hand, face, arm and neck washing and in some cases even feet washing is observed. It’s nearly compulsory in Islam. In stepping into the mosque, the carpeted floors are devoid of the trappings of a busy community facility. There are no bits of grass or pebbles, no litter to be seen. Shoes are removed before entering the area where prayers are offered. Prior to praying Muslims undergo a cleaning process known as Ablution which is to purify oneself before prayer and also in a simpler sense, to stay clean. Inside the Baitul Islam mosque where they Ahmadi offer prayers there is an Ablution room, strictly with sinks and hand towels. There are no toilets in this area. Inside the mosque, the walls are bare. “We do not have pictures on the walls as we have been instructed not to have anything visible that could distract us from offering our prayers,” Faran said. Again, the men pray on one level, the women have a separate area to offer prayers so that the sight of a women bending and kneeling in prayer does not invoke impure thoughts and desires in the men. In the women’s prayer area, there is a room enclosed in glass where women with small children can offer prayers without disturbing the rest. During prayers at the Jalsa, Mirza led prayers to the East, toward Mecca, and during this time, of the 12,000 men in the convention hall the only sound to be heard besides the spoken prayers was the rustle of clothing as the men knelt and prayed. It sounded like an enormous sigh flooding through the room, the massive group moving in unison.
“We do not pray to the east, towards Mecca because we are worshipping the mosque,” Faran explained. “We pray towards the mosque’s location yes, but if the mosque were to be blown up , it would hurt us , but it would not stop us from praying since we don’t pray to the mosque, we would rebuild it. We’re praying in the same direction to symbolize our unity of thought and purpose.”