Croydon goes to the London Peace Symposium, Baitul Futuh Mosque, 14th March 2015

By - Friday 3rd April, 2015

Rosie Edser accompanies Croydon’s Ahmadiyya Muslims to the 12th London Peace Symposium

Ahmadiyya Peace Symposium 2015.
Photo by Makhzan-E-Tasaweer, used with permission.

Asking whether Ahmadiyya Muslims are Sunni or Shia is like asking whether Jehovah’s Witnesses are Catholic or Protestant. They’re neither, they’re entirely different. There are approximately seventy-three different sects of Islam and the belief that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a messiah places the Ahmadiyya community in conflict with many mainstream Muslims. By way of contrast, the Ahmadi message of peace makes them very popular with British politicians in general and David Cameron in particular.

Croydon Ahmadiyya mosque.
Photo author’s own.

Driving up St. James’s Road from London Road, you may have noticed an orange brick building with boxes of flowers outside and banners on the fence carrying the message ‘Love for all, hatred for none’. This is the Croydon Ahmadiyya Mosque, which has four hundred young people associated with it who public spiritedly donate blood, pick up litter, support the poppy appeal, plant trees and visit the elderly. I had been invited by one of their number to attend the 12th Annual Peace Symposium at their headquarters in Morden – the largest mosque in Western Europe.

I was driven over by a gracious and stylish Ahmadi mother, Syeda Maimona Shah from east Croydon, clad in black with twisted and tucked head scarf that’s super-modest while also being super-practical when you come to put your forehead to the carpet in the prayers – but more of that later.

Heck, if as a Christian woman you can’t join in the prayers at a ‘love for all’ Peace Symposium, when can you?

Croydon resident Adeel Shah conducting a tour of the Baitul Futuh Mosque.
Photo author’s own.

The rows of police and security staff at the Baitul Futuh Mosque car park entrance underlined what a high-profile event this was; a thousand guests including ambassadors and dignitaries of all flavours and, of course, the World Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the fifth Khalifa, His Holiness Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, who currently resides in Putney.

Inside the mosque were groups of multi-faith delegates being given guided tours, and everywhere you could hear snippets of the guides’ claims: yes, there are Ahmadiyya in 206 countries… our Messiah Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was born in India in 1835… terrible persecution in Pakistan… our social action charity is called ‘Humanity First‘.

After my tour round the impressive building there was the chance to join in the prayers. Heck, if as a Christian woman you can’t join in the prayers at a ‘love for all’ peace symposium, when can you? So I borrowed a headscarf and headed to the women’s hall. I wished I could remember what the various prayer postures meant as we stood, knelt and touched our foreheads to the floor in unison while the praises to Allah crackled through the satellite link-up.

The Ahmadiyya will be regularly donating food, bottled water and volunteer staff to Croydon’s Nightwatch charity

Reunited with my boots once more, I prepared for the speakers’ pearls of wisdom and was ushered to my seat in the symposium room next to a leader from Croydon’s Nightwatch charity – think soup kitchen for the homeless in Queen’s Gardens, to whom the Ahmadiyya will be regularly donating food, bottled water as well as volunteer staff.

Each of the guest speakers paid tribute to the Ahmadis’ example as a voice of peace, humanity and mutual respect and understanding of all faiths. Lord Avebury (a Buddhist) included the observation that hatred is never healed by hatred. Dr Charles Tannock, MEP for London and a Commissioner for Human Rights (a Roman Catholic) said that the answer to religious extremism needs to come from moderate Islam if it is to be a credible and lasting solution and observed how impressed he was by the loyalty to Britain and integration of the Ahmadiyya.

All the black-clad Ahmadiyya women were in another room waiting to hear about the speeches later from their husbands

Next up was Justine Greening MP, the International Development Secretary, who paid tribute to the Ahmadi youth, shining a light in raising funds for good causes with their charity, Humanity First. When responding to crises in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan she had noticed that the first casualties of extremism are women. I looked around the room in approval at the abundance of guests who were clearly empowered women, many of whom were also clearly Muslim, but I was disconcerted to discover afterwards that these were all invited guests – MPs, charity leaders, ambassadors, campaigners, community leaders, police liaison officers, journalists. All the black-clad Ahmadiyya women were in another room waiting to hear about the speeches later from their husbands.

Sindhutai Sapkal winning Ahamadiyya Peace Prize.
Photo by Makhzan-E-Tasaweer, used with permission.

Next was the presentation of the Peace Prize to an amazing Indian lady called Sindhutai Sapkal (known as the Mother of Orphans) for her life of caring for over 1,400 street children, even while she herself was destitute. This was followed by the keynote speech by His Holiness the Fifth Caliph, who stated that policy-makers should somehow be trying to build bridges with local governments, establishing relationships of mutual trust and co-operation, on condition that governments not impinge on the rights of any of their citizens. He quoted verses from the Qu’ran calling for peace, corrected misconceptions about the notion of Jihad and observed that lasting peace can only be built upon the solid foundations of honesty, deity and justice.

At the receiving line afterwards he didn’t shake my hand as I had been advised that ‘His Holiness doesn’t touch women’. However his deep commitment to peace and clear desire to make the world a better place did touch me and I wish the Ahmadi community, in particular those active in the community of Croydon, every success as they attempt to woo radicals to a more tolerant, liberal interpretation of Islam.

Read articles like this – and many more – in our monthly print magazine

Politics, reviews, photography, #Croydon #TechCity, sports and plenty more besides: Our monthly print newsmagazine brings all the most relevant, features, news, opinion and analysis together into a single publication. Written entirely by citizens, it’s the perfect way to catch up on what really matters to Croydon over a drink or a coffee, or on the way to work.

You can find the magazine in venues all over the London Borough of Croydon.

Get your copy today. Write for the Citizen and you may well see your own article next time you pick it up.

Rosie Edser

Rosie Edser

Rosie is a member of the team at Croydon Refugee Daycentre. She's a teacher of both adult English learners and (in her day job) children. She relishes the fact that her own offspring have attended a school in Croydon with over forty first languages spoken. She lives in Waddon.

More Posts

  • samA

    A good piece by Rosie Edner. Very refreshing to read an article highlighting the good in a Muslim community. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is indeed a peace loving community and lives by its motto ‘love for all hatred for none’. It is a dynamic movement in Islam and its sole purpose is the revival of faith and it is the only sect within the fold of Islam that propagates the true teachings of Islam. This article acknowledges the endeavours of the community in promoting the message of peace and tolerance amongst all nations.

    Just a few points I will like to clarify about the article which Ms Edner was disconcerted about:

    ‘All the black-clad Ahmadiyya women were in another room waiting to hear about the
    speeches later from their husbands.’

    The Holy Quran like all other revealed scriptures directs women to be modest in their clothes and actions and are enjoined not to display their good looks and beauty lest they attract unhealthy glancing. These regulations in Islam are there for the betterment of the society as a whole. Hence the outer coverings and the separate seating area.

    I am surprised Ms Edner didn’t visit the ladies hall as part of her tour of the mosque. The keynote speech of his Holiness was broadcasted live for ladies and their guests who wished to stay with them, on a number of widescreen televisions. The so called ‘black clad women’ were able to take their outer coverings off as it was a ladies only seating area. Those on duty who missed the address were able to listen to the recording shown on the community’s twenty-four hour satellite television channel (MTA). I can assure Ms Edner that the ladies did not have to rely on their husbands to know what was said in the peace symposium.

    • Adeel

      Thanks for your comment.

      She knows of this & rather was expressing the sense of joy when the couples meet to discuss the event.

      • ShermeenB

        As every comment here has expressed, we are most grateful to
        Rosie Edser for writing such a positive piece on her experience of Peace Symposium 2015 and we hope to see her at future events of the community.

        Thank you for clarifying on behalf of Ms Edser. The comments made here by Ahmadi Muslim women are simply indicative of how a few lines in the piece read. However, you say the intention of the writer was quite different to how those lines may come across.

        Indeed, having acknowledged Ms Edser’s kind piece, our comments merely explain that Ahmadi Muslim women do not fit the stereotypical
        image of subjugated Muslim women as the media is inclined to portray.

        • Rosie E

          Many thanks for the correction SamA and ShermeenB. I visited the ladies’ hall at the end of the evening when the video-link/ live screening had finished and I will correct in the print version of this article that the women had to wait until afterwards to hear what was said in the main speeches. Best wishes, Rosie Edser

  • zoya1

    Nice to see something positive written about Muslims and the work they are doing in this country.

    The Ahmadiyya Muslim Association has been in the UK for over 100 years and all our members are loyal to Britain and active in their local communities. The Peace Symposium is one way of reaching out to the world with the message of peace, a message which is central to Islam despite the horrors taking place today.

    Speaking as one of the Ahmadi women attending the Symposium that day, I just want to mention that neither I nor many of my fellow Ahmadi women were actually ‘black clad’ and neither did we have to rely on our husbands to hear about the speeches later!

    • Rosie E

      Hi there Zoya
      thank you I will correct the point about the women hearing about the speeches when they got home later (see reply above).
      My memory was that the women were mostly wearing black in the ladies hall when I visited at the end, but perhaps that was because many people had put on their outer layer to travel home?

  • ShermeenB

    Thank you, Rosie Edser for your piece on the Peace
    Symposium. As others have commented here, I would like to clarify that Ahmadi
    Muslim women most certainly did not (and do not at any other event) wait to
    hear reports of proceedings from their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons. They
    are also not all black-clad.

    Their seating is segregated yes, but they follow proceedings
    via video link. In pre-video days our women always had audio facilities to
    follow proceedings. Separate seating is in line with the Islamic concept of
    purdah/covering up/modesty. This brings me to the other point in your article I
    wish to comment on. It is in accordance with this teaching that shaking hand or
    physical contact between men and women is not observed, hence His Holiness’
    practice of not shaking women’s hands.

  • ASA

    A nice article highlighting the good works and positive activities of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. Indeed, a refreshing piece to read. I would however like to clarify one point in particular, regarding the article where it mentions the following: “All the black-clad Ahmadiyya women were in another room waiting to hear about the speeches later from their husbands.” This is an incorrect statement, in that arrangements were made for the ladies to listen live to all of the speeches including the key-note address via screens and televisions, so no one had any need to rely on their husbands. Furthermore because separate arrangements were made for the ladies in another section of the Mosque, they were not required to wear their outer clothing whilst at the Symposium and therefore were not all ‘black-clad’.

    • Rosie E

      Hi there ASA – please see the reply above. best wishes

  • L Bhatti

    Like others have said, it is lovely to hear positive work within the Muslim Community being spoken about in the media. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community regularly organises Peace symposiums and other interfaith events so as to share good works and encourage everyone, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, to be inspired and give back even more.

    But I also agree with the other commenters. Islam prescribes set rules for modesty- men and women. Segregation is just part of that and Ahmadi women choose to sit in segregation. However, it is to be pointed out that while it is part of Muslim guidelines, guests are given the choice and that rule is not imposed on them which I think is the more important aspect in this. Furthermore, due to the segregation, the women aren’t in ‘black-clad’ and amongst many other reasons, every Ahmadi woman I have met is not only fine but also happy to have a segregated area for that reason.

    I remember when the mosque where the symposium was held was built. One of the aspects that made me proud of the mosque was that, even though women attendance is less than the men attending (due to it being compulsory for men), the space for women is spot-on equal for men and women!

    However, even with the segregation, the women are given every means to listen and watch the proceedings live. In fact, this year, the symposium was streamed live online.

    And for the same reason, modesty, His Holiness does not shake hands with women since physical contact is not permitted between men and women in Islam.

    I hope that clears up some of the misconceptions. :)

    • Rosie E

      Hi there L Bhatti and AM
      Re the hand-shaking with His holiness issue I just quoted the phrase that had been whispered to me in the receiving line as the explanation not to offer my hand. Obviously that’s not the context for a more detailed explanation so I appreciate the clarification.

      Re the seating segregation I see now the distinction between guests and the Ahmadi women, thank you.

      • L Bhatti

        Hi Rosie

        I can totally understand- it is such a big event with so many things going on that often many aspects may not be fully experienced or explained!

        You are more than welcome to question everyone there about anything you experience! Promise you, we are mostly nice :)

        I also appreciate your receptiveness to the overwhelming amount of comments and indeed, also responding to most. It’s wonderful to see a journalist being receptive to her readers. :)

  • AM

    Brilliant article by Ms. Rosie Edser, and nice to hear so
    many positive vibes representing a Muslim community.

    I’d like to clarify a few things that Ms. Edser might have misunderstood
    about the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. As an Ahmadi Muslim who was privileged to attend the event myself, I do not agree with Ms. Rosie’s point quoted below that,

    ‘All the black clad Ahmadiyya women were in another room
    waiting to hear about the speeches from their husbands’

    I, along with many of my friends were present and I can assure
    you that we were not all the ‘black clad Ahmadiyya women’ present! For those
    who even were, they were given the option to take off their outer covering so
    they could enjoy the evening without feeling uncomfortable.

    Yes, although for purdah reasons women had a separate seating
    plan, that did not mean the fun ended there for us! Making full use of technology; sound system and large screens were setup for ladies to also
    hear the speeches and the keynote address by Khalifa of Islam live,
    as they were being delivered.

    Secondly, I believe Ms. Rosie seemed to have misunderstood
    the idea of the opposite sex not shaking hands with the Khalifa as she quotes,

    ‘His Holiness does not touch women’

    This -as I agree with the comment below- can easily be very
    misleading. The simplest reasoning for this is that it’s in accordance to the Islamic
    teachings of Pardah, not only that but it also it creates a respectable boundary
    between men and women.

    Hope this clears the misconceptions!

  • mzhou

    Islam considers family to be the building block for society.
    As the event highlighted, promotion of societal peace is the purpose of the
    advent of Islam and therefore, peace within the family unit is fundamental. If
    women really were treated in the manner described, it is difficult to see how a
    Muslim family unit could ever be functional let alone at peace and this would
    be at odds with the aims of the Ahmadiyya community. Islamically there is no
    colour prescription for dress and therefore, black is a personal choice – akin to
    preferring a LBD over any other.

    • Rosie E

      Indeed! I think I was wearing black myself that evening.

  • SR

    It is great to see that a Muslim community is so open to
    integration and charity work in our midst. After recent events it is high time
    that Muslims can portray the true face of Islam to the world. Thank you for bringing
    this article to us.

    May I just add one point; I am a Muslim as are many other
    women I know of. Being black clad is a choice, some prefer to wear black, and
    others wear any range of colour in the vast spectrum of the rainbow. I know
    that generally the conception about Muslim women is to wear black, but there is
    no reason why they should, and no reason to stop them if they wish to do so.
    Also, I am sure that it was only for segregation purposes that women sat in
    another room, as some attendees in the comment section pointed out, they were
    able to hear the speeches made. If that was not your intention in writing this
    sentence I apologise and just thank you on sharing your experience with us.

  • Ak00

    Thank you to Rosie for writing this piece on the peace symposium, an event held in hundreds of mosques around the country in an effort to build bridges and open doors to the communities we live within as part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim’s endeavours to create mutual respect and love amongst all. I found interesting to read Rosie’s point of view of her visit and hope Rosie attends future events. I would politely suggest Rosie attends an event run and organised by the girls and women of the Ahmadiyya Community to help clear any misconceptions Rosie may hold about Ahmadi Muslim females. Sadly, I feel the ‘observations’ from Rosie as noted below by others, regarding “black-clad Ahmadiyya women” is somewhat offensive and misleading.
    “Black-clad” implies a very negative image as does the stereotype that they are all married, hence “waiting to here about speeches later from their husbands.” ?! Further implying there is a ‘custom’ of some kind to be black-clad when married.
    Please accept my apologies if I am taking this the wrong way but sadly, the points that have been picked up on by other readers who are also Ahmadi Muslim are indeed inaccurate on Rosie’s part and I hope Rosie has the chance to speak more about this to understand what Islam prescribes and encourages in order to award freedom and protection and also to understand what does not exist in the teachings such as having to wear black!. Black is often worn in Saudi Arabia by some women as it is opaque so it doesn’t matter what is worn underneath but the choice of colour remains a choice…there is no instruction in what colour you must wear!
    Secondly, as someone who worked as a volunteer for nearly 10 years for the 24 hr TV channel hosted by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (MTA – sky channel 787) based in London, it the the Ladies and girls of the Ahmadi community that have been given charge and control of one of the most important departments so I do hope Rosie does get a further chance to explore that she will never come across such a diverse and versatile community such as the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in which the women are often central to many events and efforts for peace!

    • Rosie E

      thank you Ak00 it is good to hear about the ladies and girls of the Ahmadi community being given so much control and responsibility with the media channel. I have been looking at some of the MTA broadcasts on Youtube.

      I have tried to address the black-clad comment in some of the replies above. It was certainly not my intention to be offensive or misleading and you’re right I made an assumption/generalisation about everyone being married, whoops sorry, point taken!

  • AR

    A really nice and concise summary of the Peace Symposium. Many of the event’s main features have been displayed and highlighted which have created quite an atmospheric image of the evening.

    I was in attendance at the event and am also an Ahmadi Muslim woman myself. I would just like to point that I cannot in any way relate to this statement,
    “All the black-clad Ahmadiyya women were in another room waiting to hear about the speeches later from their husbands.”
    Firstly, it is quite a big generalization made that all the Ahmadi women were dressed in black; this is not true. Although, if it was true, there would be nothing wrong with it as people should be free to wear whatever they wish without having to be judged and singled out by anyone.
    Secondly, Islam teaches modesty between men and women and so sitting in a segregated manner is way to practice this teaching. This doesn’t mean that women are sat waiting to hear about the event from their husbands; the women at the event were watching the proceedings live through a TV monitor and were thoroughly enjoying the event, I can assure you. I humbly request you to please be careful in the future when making these statements as it can present a very untruthful image of what really happens within come Muslim communities.

    Thank you.

    • Rosie E

      Hi there AR
      thank you I will correct the point about the women’s live link-up (see replies above).
      I agree that people can dress in any colour they choose and there wasn’t intended to be any particular negative judgement in my observation about the black-clad thing, I was just trying to give a bit of description. I’ve checked back through my photos to see how accurate my memory was, but sadly don’t have any pictures of that part. I do recall during the prayers there were some very colourful and stylish hand-bags! The women I met in the ladies’ hall were lively, friendly and media-savvy.

      I completely take your point about not wanting to misrepresent what really happens within Muslim communities, I was just givnig my impression as a visitor that I thought it was a pity everyone couldn’t be in the main hall together and it seemed to me that the visiting women were being given more honour than the Ahmadiyya women, but perhaps I misinterpreted that – the women were perhaps choosing to be in the role of hosts and workers? (plus I appreciate it wouldn’t have been possible to seat everyone in the hall for practical reasons.)

  • AT

    It’s nice to a see a positive article about Islam. A lot of hard work goes into holding the annual peace symposium, and it’s lovely to see that people appreciate it. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community works very hard in trying to promote peace, and spread the true teachings of Islam, which Ms Edser has recognised in this article.

    I would just like to clarify, as I believe others have, that whilst events held by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community are segregated, both men and women always have a live link up at events, and so do not miss out on anything. (At some events Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad speaks in the ladies side, and so men have a live link-up.)

  • ShermeenB

    Thank you, Rosie Edser for your very thoughtful replies to our comments here. We really appreciate this and hope to see you at our future events.