Before His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, entered the gilded ballroom of the Montage Beverly Hills last Saturday afternoon, a spokesman took the microphone and explained the rules to the 500 or so acolytes, dignitaries and invited guests.
First, when His Holiness the khalifa, or spiritual leader, enters a room, it is customary to stand. Moreover, he said, His Holiness will not set foot inside until the audience is fully seated. Not just seated, he added, but quiet.
People sat. They kept still — no one even sipped their iced tea. The only person you could hear whispering was me.
I leaned to my tablemates, both followers of His Holiness, and said: “This is so not a Jewish audience.”
Estimates vary widely about the number of Ahmadiyya Muslims spread throughout the world. Some experts put the number at 13 million — about the same as the number of Jews in the world. The group itself claims 70 million followers. Either way it is a fraction of the 1.6 billion Muslims, though, by all accounts, growing.
The sect was founded in India in 1889, by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani, referred to as Promised Messiah, who preached nonviolence and claimed to be the second coming of the Messiah.
That belief set Ahmadis at odds with mainstream Muslims, who maintain that no messiah or prophet has succeeded Muhammad.
They are concentrated in Pakistan, Southeast Asia and Africa, with just 30,000 Ahmadis residing in the United States. In Southern California they have two mosques, one in Chino, the other in Hawthorne.
In Pakistan, Ahmadis are not considered Muslims, and they are barred from voting. Attacks on the community in 2010 in Pakistan left 99 dead. Since 1984 the khalifa, or successor to the Promised Messiah, has resided in London. Security at the Montage was Israel-heavy.
“This cannot stop us from doing our assigned task,” Ahmad, who is the fifth khalifa, said during a press conference before his appearance. “We are the true Islam.”
On the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks of 9/11, Ahmadis in the United States started a blood drive that collected 12,000 units. Humanity First, a nonsectarian charity created by the fourth khalifa and run by the community as a volunteer organization, performs disaster relief worldwide. In his speeches, the khalifa stresses that “true Islam” equals peace.
Yes, even when it comes to Israel.
On Saturday, the khalifa singled out Israeli President Shimon Peres for praise in his vision of a new Middle East. There is a longstanding Ahmadi community in Haifa, as well. I asked Ahmadi spokesman Nasim Rehmatullah whether the khalifa supports the boycott of Israel.
“No, we don’t have that policy,” he said. “We treat them as normal human beings.”
Elected officials, eager to join hands with Muslims to demonstrate that they are anti-terror, not anti-Islam, gravitate toward the Ahmadiyya.
The khalifa was honored with many speeches by many federal, state and local representatives. Both Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti turned up, proving the khalifa’s peacemaking power.
Still, it’s not clear whether the Ahmadiyya community’s existence is proof that “true Islam” is a religion of peace, or whether their brutal persecution at the hands of fellow Muslims might just prove the opposite.
When the khalifa rose to speak, we rose too, then sat. He wore an ornate white turban and a black Nehru-style jacket. He spoke softly, in heavily accented Pakistani English. His followers were enthralled.
"I believe in that One God who is the Lord of all nations, all races and all religions, and so it becomes impossible that I could ever develop any hatred in my heart for any nation, any race or any religion," he said.
No wonder Ahmadis are the West’s chosen Muslims.
In fact, it struck me that Ahmadiyya seems to have as much, or more, in common with late 19th century religious movements as it does with mainstream Islam.
Like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it has a strict hierarchy; a zealous, upbeat proselytizing effort with sophisticated media; and a healthy system of tithing.
Like the liberal Jewish movements, Ahmadis stress their save-the-world projects — tikkun olam. They also emphasize secular achievement across gender lines. At my table, I was the only non-Ph.D.
Like Chabad, the driving force is devotion to one leader. Ahmadis flew in from around the world to see the khalifa in California. They are granted a few minutes in his presence, during which he will answer questions, offer advice, give blessings.
“I am a scientist,” Dr. Abdus Malik, a nephrologist who traveled from Columbus, Ohio, told me. “But I can’t explain it. Around him you feel a spiritual air. When you meet him you feel you’re being touched by a holy spirit.”
I can’t say I felt that — but I’m not predisposed. As a tribe, we Jews seem to both revere and resist leaders. A Jewish khalifa, a Jewish pope, sounds oxymoronic. With some exceptions, we who proclaim God’s Oneness are leery of Him speaking through one voice. “If we all pulled in one direction,” the Yiddish proverb goes, “the world would keel over.”
But we pay for our lack of blind devotion with constant contentiousness.
I don’t know whose is the “true Islam,” but disputation is, I’m sure, the true Judaism.