I recently visited our local Ahmadiyya Mosque with the Chair and members of the Scottish Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue. We were responding to an invitation that had come in response to a letter we had sent to the community for Ramadan and Eid. It was a very happy visit. We were welcomed most warmly and received generous hospitality which included a copy of the Qur’an. It’s a privilege to be welcomed into another community’s place of worship as it is to be welcomed into someone’s home. Interfaith Glasgow’s Festival Exchange has shown how positive entering into another’s space can be and helps us to stand in another’s shoes in some little way though I find it’s quite hard to do it completely.
In all my experience of interfaith work I have felt very at home visiting places of worship, being present at religious rituals and festivals, meditating with people of other faiths but I’ve not been totally at home. It’s been a bit like visiting an auntie - there’s a connection, a recognition in some instances of similarities and an understanding of the faith that’s at the heart of the community’s religious life. But there’s also been a strangeness in it, it’s not quite home. Often it’s the culture in which the religion sits and I’ve been intrigued by people who are able to adopt not just the beliefs of another faith but its traditional language and culture. I’ve never felt any temptation to convert though I have experienced what Krister Stendahl called ‘holy envy’. That is I’ve found aspects of other faiths that I’ve admired and wished could be reflected in my own. And I’ve certainly learned a lot about faith including my own expression of it through interfaith relations.
The focus of the Ahmadiyya community on unity and harmony was impressive as was their joy and commitment to their faith. The Ahmadiyya see themselves as a movement within Islam. They were founded in India in 1889 by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who wanted to revive the true spirit of Islam. He emphasised duty to God and creation, the equality of mankind and care for the needy, respect for all religions and the importance of keeping the law of the land and being loyal to the government of the country. All of these are good things and, on the whole, it would be accepted by many of the Muslims I know and yet the Ahmadiyya are not accepted by Muslims and are seen as heretical in that their founder saw himself as a messiah, a prophet for this age. This is so heretical to the majority of the Muslim community both Sunni and Shia that they will not call the Ahmadiyya, Muslim.
The right to self- definition has caused some debate, consternation in interfaith circles. In Interfaith Scotland, as with other interfaith groups, any application from a group that comes under the umbrella of a major world faith needs the acceptance by other members of that faith before gaining membership. This meant that when the Ahmadiyya community recently applied for membership of Interfaith Scotland they didn’t get the approval of other Muslim groups but were offered associate membership which would allow them to engage in dialogue. They didn’t accept this and withdrew their membership. This isn’t the first time this has happened.
At the very beginning of Interfaith Scotland the first faith group to ask for membership was the Pagan Federation. Some faith groups objected for all sorts of reasons but it was suggested that changing their name would make them acceptable. This didn’t hold water with the Pagans who wanted to reclaim an ancient name that they said had been harmed by the prejudice of later faiths. They did accept associate membership. The same thing happened with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. While they declare themselves to be Christian they’re not recognised as such by other Christian denominations – mainly because they hold to a further revelation given to Joseph Smith which sets them apart from mainstream Christians. They see themselves as revivalist – reviving the true Christian Church – not that far from the Ahmadiyya understanding of themselves as the true Islam. Because today the emphasis in on religion and belief there tends to be no judgement about what constitutes a valid faith or even religion – sure for some people Jedi is a valid religion. Do groups have the right to self-define? Are the major faiths also simply self –defining and do they have the right to say who belongs and who not? Definitions and boundaries have their purposes and give a sense of belonging. Where the problem comes is when the newer groups think of themselves as the true faith so that part of their desire for inclusion means a rejection of their parent faith or at least some parts of it. In their own way they are also being exclusive.The important thing is not to exclude them from the dialogue but to keep the conversation going while understanding the complexities of identity and belonging.