Some 37,000 people gathered at a farm for the worldwide convention of the Ahmadiyya sect.
EACH summer in a collection of remote fields in rural Hampshire, sheep and cattle make way for a vast tented camp. But this is not another of Britain’s many music festivals; it is the largest gathering of Muslims in western Europe. At the end of July, Oaklands farm near Alton hosted Jalsa Salana, the worldwide convention of the Ahmadiyya sect.
The event attracted about 37,000 people from over 100 countries. One team of Ahmadis cycled from Germany; the Canadians chartered their own plane. Around 30,000 Ahmadis live in Britain, where Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the fifth khalifa (or leader) of the sect, is based, and there are over 10m worldwide, representing about 1% of Muslims. The Jalsa Salana itself has been held for 51 years, but the sect bought Oaklands farm to host the ever-rising numbers that flock to it. There may be mud (plenty this year), but it is thoroughly well organised. British Ahmadis are more likely to be hedge-fund managers and civil servants than impecunious DJs, and it shows. The tents are solid, the boardwalks broad and the timing Swiss.
Security was tight, with bags searched and guards in body armour common. The convention took place against a backdrop of not only the terrorist attacks on Manchester and London, but also assaults on the Admadiyya, by other Muslims. For all the warm welcome to outsiders, everyone was on edge.
The Ahmadis differ from mainstream Islam in that they believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the 19th-century Indian who founded their tradition in 1889, was a latter-day prophet. In many Muslims’ eyes, this makes their practice un-Islamic and blasphemous. Ahmad was also convinced that Jesus survived his ordeal on the cross—to die as an old man, in Kashmir. This challenges orthodox Islam, too, which holds that Jesus was raised to heaven while still alive. As a result, members of the sect have been persecuted in several countries, particularly Pakistan and Indonesia. Some fear that this sectarianism could spread to Britain. In March 2016 a Glaswegian Ahmadi was killed by a Sunni Muslim from Bradford.
Perhaps partly because of their own plight the Ahmadi creed is “Love for all, hatred for none”. This has put them at the forefront of campaigns to counter extremism and radicalisation, attracting plenty of political support. At the recent gathering taped messages of support were played from Theresa May, the prime minister, and Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader. A government minister spoke, as did politicians from Croatia, Holland, Guatemala, Benin and elsewhere.
Buddhist monks and leaders of other faiths also attended, but few from other strands of British Islam. This was the one note of division at an otherwise festive and all-embracing event.