By Jennette Barnes
November 24, 2013
It’s prayer time on a Sunday at the Baitun Nasir Mosque in Sharon. In the last row of the women’s prayer room, two little girls who look like sisters are getting fidgety, and the more active one is turning around, eyeing an archway at the back. It leads to an anteroom where women are setting out foil-covered platters of food for the social hour to follow.
The scene may be familiar, yet this mosque is one of just 60 or so in the United States in the Ahmadi tradition, a branch of Islam controversial among Muslims and often completely unknown among non-Muslim Americans.
In Pakistan, where the largest number of Ahmadis lives, the constitution defines them as non-Muslims. They are targets of deadly violence and their graves vandalized.
The divergence stems chiefly from the belief by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, one of two Ahmadi subgroups, that a man born in 1835 in India, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet and messiah. This contradicts the fundamental view in the dominant branches of Islam that Muhammad was the last prophet of God.
“A lot of Muslims feel that we are beyond the pale of Islam,” said Amer Malik, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s Boston chapter, located in Sharon. But he said the basic tenets — including that there is one God, and that Muhammad was a prophet of God — are the same.
Ahmadis say the same prayers as other Muslims. They follow the Five Pillars of Islam: declaration of faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca.
“It’s like the old days, when Catholics felt that Protestants were not Christians. It’s a bit like that,” Malik said.
The group separates men and women for prayers and social gatherings. A Globe photographer who visited the mosque recently was not allowed to photograph women, except in a controlled scene in which they wore their headscarves and turned away from the camera, so their faces were not visible.
The branch claims 15,000 US members. Harris Zafar, a spokesman for the national organization, said American membership has jumped 50 percent in the last five years due to conversion, migration, and population growth. That’s a small fraction of the 2.6 million Muslims in the United States, the number estimated by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s international headquarters, and the residence of its spiritual leader, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, are in London.
Zafar said some 15,000 Ahmadi mosques have been established in more than 200 countries. He estimated worldwide membership in the tens of millions, up to perhaps 160 million, but said the numbers are sketchy because documentation is extremely difficult in nations where Ahmadis are oppressed.
Zafar said membership is greatest in Pakistan, followed by India. Sizable communities also live in North and West African nations, in Indonesia, and in Bangladesh, he said.
Ahmadis emphasize a peaceful concept of jihad, the internal and external struggle that includes the defense of Islam. Although many other Muslims do the same, the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement declared explicitly that his followers must stick to a peaceful path except under the rarest of circumstances.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s US national imam, Naseem Mahdi, said in a telephone interview from Maryland that discrimination in Pakistan grew worse because of jealousy and fear about the success of Ahmadis in education, the armed forces, and business. Clerics also accuse Ahmadis of not believing in jihad, he said.
“We are paying the price, a very high price, because we are promoting peace,” he said.
Asad Ahmed, an associate professor of anthropology at Harvard University who teaches about South Asia and has written about Ahmadiyya identity, said that although the violence is tragic, the discrimination in Pakistan is not just mindless antagonism. To place the discrimination in context, he said, it helps to understand that Ahmadiyya is a missionary movement modeled on the Christian missionary movement of the 19th century, and that sometimes, Ahmadis are perceived as falsely passing themselves off as Muslims, and therefore as misleading.
The Boston Ahmadiyya chapter was founded when a handful of families began meeting in the city in the 1960s, according to chapter literature. Years later, at the urging of their spiritual leader, they began looking for a suburban location about 20 miles from Boston, said Saliha Haneef, one of the original members, in an interview. After an extensive search, they found land in Sharon and built their two-story worship center, which looks essentially like a house, in 1997.
“I always say it was a gift from Allah,” she said.
Their goal was to build a mosque and a small parochial school. The wider Sharon community was “so supportive, we couldn’t believe it,” she said.
They hope to build a larger, more traditional-looking mosque, but construction is some years away, members said.
“I would like to see a real mosque, with a minaret and the whole thing,” Haneef said. But she said the community has reached the goal of providing a place of worship, education, and fellowship outside of the city.
Volunteers teach religious and moral education for children and adults. Nusrat Sharif, a principal scientist at Pfizer during the week, leads religious education programs at the mosque and said she seeks to motivate young people to excel at their secular education as well.
The chapter has 130 to 140 members, according to Masroor Ahmad Sajid, a member who does public relations for the mosque.
Other New England chapters are in Fitchburg and Hartford, and there are about 75 chapters across the country.
Theirs is not the only mosque in Sharon. The town is also home to the much larger Islamic Center of New England, which is not part of the branch.
Tahera Sajid, a Sharon Pluralism Network board member and member of the Islamic Center, said several Ahmadis have participated in discussions hosted by Sharon’s Adult Interfaith Dialogue Group, and she found them to be very thoughtful. But the mosques’ interaction is limited by the essential nature of differences.
“There isn’t an active tension or something of that sort,” she said, but the idea of a prophet after Muhammad is “very, very different.”
In 2010, in anticipation of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s national leadership started a public relations campaign called Muslims for Peace, promoting an anti-terrorism message on billboards and in leaflets delivered door-to-door.
And starting in 2011, for the anniversary, the group has held annual blood drives under the banner “Muslims for Life.” In its first year, the drive aimed for 10,000 pints of blood — enough to save 30,000 lives, according to Naseem Mahdi, the community’s US national imam — or about 10 times the number killed on 9/11. The group reports that more than 11,800 pints were collected the first year.
Locally, blood drives were held this year in Boston, Canton, and Sharon, and the group added victims of the Boston Marathon bombing to those it sought to honor. The Canton Police Department cosponsored the Canton blood drive, a partnership whose seeds were sown when Canton Police Chief Ken Berkowitz was invited to the Ahmadiyya community’s Ramadan dinner a few years ago.
“Hopefully, we’re making the world a little better,” Berkowitz said in an interview. “There’s so much hate, and so much baseless hate.”
Several people at the mosque said the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s international network made them feel welcome in a new city or when coming to the United States.
Achraf Issam, a 20-year-old from Morocco, is an international student at Providence College. A convert from Sunni Islam along with his parents, he said the mosque has provided immense social support while he is far from home. He became a leader in its youth organization, and he has volunteered for blood drives and distribution of fliers.
Reema Butt, a new member of the mosque, was born in Pakistan, lived in Canada as a child, and later moved to Michigan. In August, she moved to Natick. She has been active in the Ahmadi community, leading prayers at interfaith events in Michigan and teaching classes on morality at the mosque in Sharon. With each move, she said, “there is such a bond of sisterhood or brotherhood.”