Holding firm to their faith

Chicago, USA - In the fiery days of the civil rights movement, Hasan Hakeem met a Muslim preacher on a street corner who would change his life.

Ali Razaa was a charismatic man with a graying beard and a gift of gab who made Hakeem, then an unsteady 19-year-old who was raised a Baptist and had a different name, yearn to learn more about the Islamic faith.

Muhammad Ali had recently shed his given name to join the Nation of Islam. Hakeem soon followed suit, renaming himself after the grandson of Islam's Prophet Muhammad—but didn't join the Nation. Razaa preached about a sect called Ahmadiyya, a faith born in India, under assault in Pakistan and popular among many African-Americans newly embracing Islam.

"I was never attracted to the Black Muslims," Hakeem said, referring to the Nation of Islam. Instead, he and other new Ahmadi converts converged regularly on the Kenosha home of Razaa, eventually creating a fledgling community based in far-north suburban Zion that numbers roughly 250 today. "It was sort of like a small Mecca for people interested in Islam," he said.

This weekend, Hakeem and thousands of other Ahmadi Muslims will gather in Harrisburg, Pa., to celebrate a century of spiritual successors, or Khalifat, with the turbaned Indian Muslim they consider a prophet and the Messiah. The fifth Khalifa, who lives in exile in London, is in Pennsylvania for the three-day fest, which begins Friday.

Named for their 19th Century founder—Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who preached that he was a prophet of God—the Ahmadis believe the Quran is the revealed word of God and celebrate major Muslim holidays.

But their belief that Ahmad was the second Messiah—they believe Jesus Christ was the first—sets them apart from other Muslim sects. Other Muslims see their beliefs as heretical, and the Ahmadis have been frequently persecuted by mainstream Muslims, particularly in Pakistan.

Following anti-Ahmadi riots, the Pakistan general assembly in 1974 voted to excommunicate the sect and bar adherents from listing "Muslim" as their religion on government documents.

That same year, the fourth Khalifa escaped to London. Thousands of Ahmadis also fled, leaving a remnant in Pakistan that today might number 1 million. In exile, the religion continued to attract converts, particularly in Ghana and other West African nations.

Today the movement claims as many as 15 million Ahmadis worldwide and as many as 15,000 in America, including more than 1,000 in the Chicago area. About one-third of them are African-American and other converts; the rest are immigrants and descendants of immigrants, according to estimates by members.

In America, the group worships freely but is shunned by most Muslim organizations. Saudi Arabian authorities bar Ahmadis from the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are required to make once in their life if they are able, but many American Ahmadis make the sacred trek by keeping their beliefs to themselves.

More recently, Ahmadis have come under persecution in Indonesia, members said."We've always made for good punching bags," said Naser Shams, an Ahmadi born in Pakistan who now lives in north suburban Lake Forest and is an editor at The Muslim Sunrise, an Ahmadi magazine.

Adherents consider Ahmad human, not divine. But they believe that, like Jesus, he came to reform religious teachings, returning them to their true essence. Ahmad also appeared at a time when the faithful were fragmented and under foreign domination. And like Jesus, he was persecuted.

"It's a drastic change, our interpretation," said Abu Bakr, a program manager with YouthBuild Lake County who converted more than 30 years ago. "We believe he was the Messiah, just like Jesus Christ."

And while most Muslims believe Jesus will return at the end of days and many believe a hidden Mahdi, or guided one, will also appear, Ahmadis believe Ahmad's appearance embodied Jesus' return—similar to the Christian belief that Elijah returned in the person of John the Baptist. Thus, they believe Ahmad fulfilled the promised return of both the Messiah and the Mahdi.

Ahmadis consider proselytizing a basic tenet of the faith, members said, a belief that drove Razaa to the street corner all those years ago and that inspires many of his proteges to prison ministry today. Hakeem and Bakr are chaplains in jail ministries in Lake County and Kenosha.

Their community in Zion is called a mission house, not a mosque, though members hope to build a mosque soon. There is no minaret, no dome, no giant prayer rug covering the floor of a large prayer hall.

Instead, they gather in a small, nondescript home in a suburban neighborhood, where they worship and raise money for a $5,000 annual college scholarship. They are big on community activism, a holdover from the civil rights days.

"We're a missionary group," said Hakeem, the community's president. "Our mission is to provide a moral foundation and to build a sense of community."