BE­HIND THE SCENES AT THE JEWISH MU­SEUM

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - RINA WOLF­SON

IMAG­INE IF 40,000 Mus­lims gath­ered to­gether in the south of Eng­land to swear a pledge of al­le­giance to Isis. Ev­ery ma­jor news out­let in the world would de­scend on the gath­er­ing and re­port that story. Now imag­ine what would hap­pen if 40,000 Mus­lims gath­ered to pledge al­le­giance to a creed of peace to all and ha­tred to none, while they de­nounced vi­o­lence and raised the flag of the UK. How many jour­nal­ists would re­port that? I can tell you the an­swer, and it isn’t many. I know this, be­cause as I sat in the Press and Me­dia tent at just such a gath­er­ing, I was com­pletely on my own.

The as­sign­ment was rather un­usual. I was sent to in­ter­view a Jewish man about a Chris­tian relic at a Mus­lim con­ven­tion. What I ex­pe­ri­enced was noth­ing short of ex­tra­or­di­nary. The Jalsa Salana con­ven­tion, now in its 51st year, is a gath­er­ing of Ah­madi Mus­lims. The Ah­madiyya are the largest grow­ing Mus­lim de­nom­i­na­tion in the world. Founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghu­lam Ah­mad, who is revered as a Mes­siah by his fol­low­ers, the group has ex­panded to more than 200 coun­tries, and is led to­day by its Caliph, Mirza Masroor Ah­mad.

For more than 100 years, they have been lead­ing a peace­ful re­vival of Is­lam, what they call the “true Is­lam”, and in the UK are re­spon­si­ble for build­ing the first Lon­don mosque, in Put­ney in 1926, and the largest in western Europe, in Mor­den.

The Ah­madiyya are not with­out their crit­ics. Many Mus­lims do not con­sider their teach­ings, par­tic­u­larly those in re­la­tion to a se­cond Mes­siah, com­pat­i­ble with the Qu­ran. In Pak­istan, for ex­am­ple, it is il­le­gal for Ah­madiyya to call them­selves Mus­lim, and the Saudi au­thor­i­ties do not let Ah­madi Mus­lims per­form the Haj to Mecca. Many have ex­pe­ri­enced per­se­cu­tion.

But there was no sense of that at the Jal­sana con­ven­tion. A huge site in Al­ton, Hamp­shire, had been trans­formed for three days into a sprawl­ing mini vil­lage. Large white mar­quees were dot­ted around the site, which had sep­a­rate ar­eas for men and women. Th­ese tents were used for prayer or lec­tures; some were used to house a large bazaar sell­ing ev­ery­thing from fresh food to books to cloth­ing. There were also tents to show­case the work of Ah­madiyya hu­man­i­tar­ian char­i­ties, while oth­ers were used for sleep­ing and serv­ing meals.

Among the most charm­ing dis­plays was an ex­hi­bi­tion of rare Qu­rans from all over the world, in a va­ri­ety of scripts and de­signs. The col­lec­tion was ex­pertly ex­plained to me by the cu­ra­tor’s 12-year-old daugh­ter. Across the mar­quee from her, a huge replica of the Turin Shroud was dis­played, and I spoke to one of the ex­hibit’s or­gan­is­ers, Bar­rie Sch­wortz.

“I was very ner­vous the first time I was in­vited here,” he told me. “I’m a Jewish Amer­i­can. What was I do­ing at a Mus­lim con­ven­tion? But I’ve been back ev­ery year since.” Sch­wortz was one of the orig­i­nal pho­tog­ra­phers of the Turin Shroud

Hi­jabi women lis­tened to a bearded Jewish man talk about a Chris­tian icon

when it was first sci­en­tif­i­cally in­ves­ti­gated in 1978. Ini­tially a scep­tic, he has come to be­lieve “al­most 100 per cent” that the shroud was the one used to wrap Je­sus’s body af­ter the cru­ci­fix­ion. Ah­madi Mus­lims be­lieve that Je­sus was a prophet, that he was cru­ci­fied, but that he sur­vived for four hours on the cross af­ter which he was re­vived from a swoon in the tomb. They be­lieve that he later made his way to Kash­mir where he died seek­ing the Lost Tribes of Is­rael.

I sat with a group of over 200 Mus­lim women while Sch­wortz ex­plained the his­tory of the shroud to them. It was a some­what sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence to watch as Hi­jabi women lis­tened at­ten­tively to this bearded Jewish man as he de­scribed his 40-year fas­ci­na­tion with a Chris­tian icon.

There were peo­ple at­tend­ing the con­ven­tion from over 100 coun­tries. As I walked around the site with my guide, a trainee Imam from Cal­gary, I was in­tro­duced to guests from Pak­istan, Ghana, Canada and Brazil. Many were wear­ing tra­di­tional cloth­ing; bright African fab­rics, in­tri­cate In­dian head­dresses and stun­ning Asian silks. At the cen­tre of the site, a dis­play of over 100 na­tional flags flut­tered in the strong breeze. In the cen­tre, on a raised plat­form, the flag of the Ah­madiyya flew along­side the Union Jack, both guarded by four men. “The plat­form is guarded,” said my guide, “to show that we are pre­pared to de­fend our be­liefs and our coun­try, wher­ever we live. The two go to­gether.”

The hospi­tal­ity of my hosts was ex­tra­or­di­nary. Heavy rain had pro­duced Glas­ton­buryesque ar­eas of mud which my flimsy shoes were not pre­pared for. No mat­ter. Within min­utes of my ar­rival a pair of boots had been found in ex­actly my size. I was con­stantly asked if I was hun­gry, thirsty, or needed to sit. Be­fore I knew I needed any­thing, it was pro­vided. This, said my host, was all part of the Ah­madi com­mit­ment to hospi­tal­ity to the stranger.

The con­ven­tion lasts for three days and is en­tirely vol­un­teer led. Ev­ery­body pitches in, from the young men man­ning the carparks, to the teenagers peel­ing pota­toes for nine hours straight, and the young chil­dren on lit­ter duty. I spoke to Sameera who has been com­ing to the Jal­sana all her life. She told me that the only year she didn’t vol­un­teer was when her baby was six months old. She didn’t en­joy do­ing noth­ing and has vol­un­teered ev­ery year since.

I ar­rived on the fi­nal day, in time to wit­ness a re­mark­able mo­ment. As peo­ple gath­ered in the huge cen­tral mar­quee, with thou­sands more out­side watch­ing events on screens, the Caliph ar­rived. He kneeled on the ground and put out his hands. The men around him held on to his fingers, and those be­hind them held on to their shoul­ders. Each man held on to the man in front, to form un­bro­ken lines of hu­man con­tact, stretch­ing from the Caliph out into the crowd.

The Caliph read out the pledge of al­le­giance, line by line, in a va­ri­ety of lan­guages, and the gath­ered crowd re­peated af­ter him. My guide pointed out that the men clos­est to the Caliph in­cluded those who had most re­cently con­verted. He added that he had at­tended the con­ven­tion for 23 years and had never man­aged to get this close to His Ho­li­ness. His words re­minded me of the mix­ture of awe and love that Cha­sidic fol­low­ers of­ten feel for their Rebbe.

Af­ter the pledge, which in­cluded a com­mit­ment to spread­ing peace to all and ha­tred to none, the men bowed in prayer. Slowly, some be­gan to cry. Then sob. The sound of grown men cry­ing re­ver­ber­ated around the huge mar­que. It was as­tound­ing. And rather hum­bling.

Then, just as quickly as he had ar­rived, the Caliph left, and the crowds be­gan to dis­perse to other ar­eas of the huge site. Be­fore I left, I was in­tro­duced to the leader of the Ah­madi Youth Or­gan­i­sa­tion in the UK. As he de­scribed the struc­ture and ac­tiv­i­ties of his or­gan­i­sa­tion, I was struck by how sim­i­lar it was to Tribe, RSY or any other Jewish youth or­gan­i­sa­tion. And how many core sim­i­lar­i­ties our com­mu­ni­ties share. It was a re­mark­able, and hum­bling, ex­pe­ri­ence.

As I re­turned my press pass to the still-de­serted me­dia tent, I once again felt how skewed our me­dia can be in re­gard to faith com­mu­nity re­la­tions. And proud to have played a small part in re­dress­ing the im­bal­ance.

THE UK’S NO. 1 JEWISH NEWS­PA­PER

The world­wide Caliph of the Ah­madiyya Mus­lim com­mu­nity lead­ing the prayers af­ter the flag hoist­ing cer­e­mony

PHO­TOS: AMA UK PRESS

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