Excursion 3

The Ahmadi Mosque

An informal trip to a marginalized religious community center generates more questions, and challenges, than answers.
"We're constitutional heretics," Arsalan, one of my classmates at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) summer school, told me a month ago. We were on our way up to the cabin trip hosted by our peace research class and it was one of our first conversations.

He belongs to a tradition of Islam called Ahmadiyya, which diverges from more mainstream expressions of the religion by believing that there was another major prophet, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who fulfilled the role of the Mahdi (a great and final Imam) and the second coming of Christ (though considered metaphorical/spiritual moreso than literal). He lived in India near the turn of the twentieth century, and with his followers migrating to Pakistan after the partition in 1947. After facing persecution in the new state, he left for London.

A number of Islamic traditions, despite their own dividedness, came together to brand Ahmadiyya spirituality heresy – to them, it was simply too far detached from conventional Islam to be counted under the same umbrella. Think of how Mormons aren't recognized by more mainstream denominations as being proper Christians. The Ahmadis (their name taken from Muhammad's alternative name, Ahmad), however, would say themselves that their Imam succeeded in bringing Islam back to the basics, which was seen as necessary after over a thousand years of human culture influencing and changing Islam.

Pakistan has been the only country that's actually taken official steps to declare Ahmadiyya a heresy – its followers can't hold high office, and the gov't has often turned a blind eye to the discrimination and extra-legal persecution of Ahmadis in the country. Arsalan, on finding out there's an Ahmadi mosque at the edge of Oslo, arranged for some of our group to come and learn more about their tradition. It wasn't an official excursion, like our cabin trip and the time spent with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but a number of us wanted to come all the same.
We hear a bit about the community's history from the local imam, and there's another man invited who knows a lot about the movement and how they've integrated into the Norwegian community. He asks us if we have any questions, and our group fires off with a few complicated ones. It reminds me of how there are a number of different groups with approaches to peace, culture and good governance, and it can be hard to find common ground when we get into the details of what we believe.

A lot of the questions, our group being mostly made up of liberal humanists, about gender and queer issues. How are women treated? Do they get to assume positions of leadership? Are there instances of homophobia in the community, and how do people treat some of the more 'outdated' (according to some contemporary points of view) verses in the Koran?

The man answering questions smiles in a way that implies effort and that this isn't the first time issues like this comes up. He's a proponent of complementarianism (which say that men and women are equal but different and can occupy different roles), and he doesn't get into the theology of marriage outright but says that tolerance and non-violence are important tenents of the community.

We mostly left it at that, and it provides an interesting dilemma.

There are those who say we need to look at our similarities more than our differences, and they might encourage us to stop and embrace the parts of the Ahmadiyya tradition that jive well with the agenda at PRIO.

Then there are others who say that we need to get down into the nitty-gritty of what makes us different and why. From there, some people go into defense-mode and start defending their values in the face of values that might be mutually exclusive with theres. Or they can admit the differences and, in the name of a pragmatic pluralism, say that there's room enough for all of us in this country/community/whatever.

I think about certain modern movements, ones associated with the mid-to-far left, that push right now for an intersectional ideal on justice to prevail and might be impatient with perspectives not compatible with its own. Its opponents call it 'cancel culture' (and that's a debate for another day), and its supporters say it's about defending marginialized populations who are under threat.

And it's this idea of threat that might be key - if you feel like there's more danger out there, you might be less willing to tolerate things that might go unnoticed in less threatening times. We are all for peace until we feel like things are too dangerous not to go on the offensive. That's when you start talking about things like the security dilemma, just war or the like.

Many of us have really different ideas of where that line is, and we can feel a bit of that tension in the air today in the mosque. For some, complementarianism is seen as a danger to women and needs to be fought as part of the patriarchy. For others, a marginalized Muslim denomination should be protected (from more hardline Muslims as well as Islamophobic movements elsewhere) and so common ground should be found where it can.

But there's no answer, and it's complicated, and so we back down from those issues because we don't have the time, space or maybe even the energy for that kind of conversation. Maybe a smaller group would have been better, or a one-on-one conversation.

In any case, we say we're grateful to have had an window into their lives and philosophy. We happily eat their samosas. We pose for a photo op in front of the Mosque and quickly get back to campus.
Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and peacebuilding practitioner.
He studied at PRIO in 2018.
Banner photo taken by Chell Hill | wikicommons
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