The Valley Fair Mall feels sealed-off and safe. A silvery expanse of gloss spreads out in all directions: grand, flat surfaces, diced up at semi-even intervals by stores, kiosks, benches, signs, and fountains. The colors, commanding. The sound, an unbroken throb of bodies in motion, commerce in action, a Saturday going about its lazy way.
And in the middle of it all is a table.
The men who sit there: a father and a son. Tahir A. Khalifa (78) is on the right, and Fakhar Khalifa (45) on the left. Tahir is a retired businessman; Fakhar, 1 of Tahir’s 5 children, works as an engineer.
Spread out before them: an assortment of books and pamphlets. But these men are not salesmen.
They have come, instead, to spread their faith.
They’ve done this most every Saturday for 6 months now. Some days, during their 3-hour shift, only 1 or 2 people stop by the table. Other days, it gets more busy, with 9 or 10 visitors curious to pick up what they’re putting down.
They belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a well-populated though long-chastised sect of the Islamic religion. Their sect controls a mosque in Milpitas, among other mosques and centers about the region, and the world.
Ahmadis have taken Mirzā Ghulām Ahmad as their messiah. In 1889, Ahmad began a jamaat (community), which thereafter spread about the globe. The man’s central proclamation was that his presence on Earth as the messiah had been foretold. According to his claim, varying prophecies across world religions had predicted the return of their founders in a second coming — and his birth marked just such a return.
Ahmad’s claims got him branded a heretic in mainstream Islamic quarters, but also embraced by many other believers (20 million by today’s count, in the current global population) who were heartened by his forceful advocacy for peace and love. Nowadays, most Ahmadis can be found in Pakistan, India, and Africa, but significant numbers exist in Europe, and their current caliph and leader, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, actually dwells in London.
In fact, in Pakistan, Tahir and Fakhar’s native country, Ahmadis find themselves persecuted on account of the distinctions between them and traditional Muslims. Very recently, Professor Atif Mian, a leading world economist, was removed from a key government post on account of him being Ahmadi.
Fakhar attributes the relentlessness of the persecution to Pakistani clerics: “They are against us. And they say that ‘You have done blasphemy.’”
The clerics have had the force of Pakistani law behind their position since 1974. The Pakistani constitution, first drafted in ‘73, was revised a year later to officially declare Ahmadis as not Muslim.
Those who called themselves Muslim risked being sent to jail.
Things grew tenser in 1984. Then-President of Pakistan Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq pushed through a new set of legal restrictions, loading up the penal code with yet more power to persecute Ahmadis. As of then, even acting like a Muslim could subject an Ahmadi to criminal penalty.
Pakistani prisons, as such, are currently loaded up with souls who either spoke out as or simply behaved like Muslims without the legal permission to do so.
Says Fakhar, “There’s a constant persecution going on against us…Now you see a lot more hatred there.” He then adds, drawing a parallel between anti-Ahmadiyya sentiment and anti-Semitism, “They say that [we] are agents of Jews. They try to bring that hatred, you know? It’s like a religious intolerance they have.”
Tahir attributes the ongoing hatred to a need on the part of Pakistani clerics to maintain their power: “It is the clerics who think that their shop will be closed.”
These clerics, for example, frame jihad as much of the Western world has come to understand it: as an act of physical self-defense. But Ahmadis believe in self-defense without bloodshed, framed by their messiah as a “jihad of the pen.”
Fakhar takes it deeper, explaining that jihad “means ‘to struggle.’ First you have to struggle with yourself, right? You have to be good, right? You have to struggle within yourself — all the evils you have.”
Islam, he articulates, gets routinely ensnared in wars not of religion, but politics. These political wars, packaged to the public as religious ones, obscure the truest nature of Islam, which is defined by peace and love.
Islam, according to the men at the table, must be protected through the act of teaching.
A decade ago, before leaving Pakistan, the Khalifas felt the walls closing in on them. Three people known well to them, all Ahmadis, were murdered in a short span of time by militants. One of them was a classmate of Fakhar’s; he was kidnapped and held for ransom before being killed. The ransom was but a part of his assailants’ motive; their religious intolerance was thinly veiled.
So the men moved to Lahore, Pakistan’s 2nd-largest city, snug up against the Indian border. Even there, amid relatively contemporary surroundings, the hatred could not be shaken off. Says Tahir, “[In] many shops in Lahore, there is a sticker that Ahmanis cannot come in this shop. They cannot shop here.”
It was a matter of time before they moved to the U.S. In 2010, not long after they moved, Fakhar’s brother was in 1 of Lahore’s 2 Ahmadi mosques when the location was attacked by militants.
Whereas many others fell, the brother survived.
As do the father and the son.
The Khalifas’ local Ahmadi allies also set up a weekly stall at Milpitas’ Great Mall, and the group routinely hosts seminars (their next one, coming up in October, honors the link between religion and science) while staying active on social media. Ahmadis even have their own exclusive satellite TV station, Muslim Television Ahmadiyya International (MTA), through which they distribute content and information.
“Our purpose,” Fakhar states, “is actually to spread the message of the real Islam. Which is a message of tolerance, which is a message of peace. Koran says, there is no compunction in religion. I cannot force you to do anything with the religion thing…It’s a personal thing. You can teach, you can share your knowledge, you can have a debate, but that should not lead to any violence…This is what we are. You have to work more on your spiritual [side], rather than making it sort of a political issue. So we separate the religion and the politics.”
As for any action whatsoever taken in the name of Islam that involves violence and/or warfare?
“Totally reject,” Fakhar says automatically.
His father makes plain: “We renounce it. We are against it. And we say it is wrong. And what is happening in the name [of] Islam is utterly wrong. We are against it.”
These men’s message, alas, is not of interest to everyone. More people than not, at the mall, pass them by. Tahir notes, absent judgment, “They are busy with their lives.”
Still, the display table is a source of pride. Fakhar points to the table and says, “We can’t even imagine this thing in Pakistan…We have seen a lot more hatred there.”
And so here, far from hatred, they disseminate love. It’s hard work, and oftentimes fairly lonely, but consistently invigorating and fulfilling. Teaching is, after all, a key part of the Ahmadi faith. It’s an aspect of the religion itself, a way of practicing, tantamount to worship or to prayer.
Tahir wears a soft smile, built beneath a gray-white beard, despite all the violence that he’s known. He is happy to show up, and honored to teach.
And so their table stands ready, its wisdom in reach.
“This is what,” the older man says, smile shining, “we are doing here.”