Last summer I worked as a research coder at Pew Research Center. My job was essentially to keep track of instances of religious discrimination around the world. As a result, I constantly read about how various religious communities were persecuted: Muslims in the Central African Republic, Hindus in Bangladesh, Christians in Iraq, Jews in France, Sikhs in the United States, Baha’is in Iran, etc. One such persecuted group that I read about was the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, persecuted almost everywhere that they are present. Curious as to why nobody seemed to like this small religious community, I researched their beliefs and tenets. They are a Muslim sect that believes that the messiah has already come, whereas other Muslim sects are still waiting for the messiah. After looking at the Ahmadiyya community through this professional research lens, I hadn’t realized that my view was clouded. I saw the Ahmadiyya community as small and distant, one to which my heart went out because it suffered at the hands of bigotry and ignorance, but not one that I would ever have the chance to get to know.
Then a few weeks ago, at a different interfaith iftar, I met a woman I loved speaking with. She invited me to join her at a women’s-only iftar at her mosque. To my surprise, I opened the online registration link and was faced with a purple invitation from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Washington, D.C. I thought about how I had never even known there was a significant Ahmadiyya community here in my own city, and I excitedly RSVP’d yes.
When I arrived at the address on the invitation, I was surprised to see that it was a townhouse. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Washington, D.C. is located in a beautiful 100-year-old townhouse off of Embassy Row. We were greeted at the door and invited to sit down inside a living room area that doubled as a prayer space. Three women of different generations spoke to us about Ramadan, the Ahmadiyya community, and the significance of interfaith dialogue in their lives.
I was most touched by the faith’s view of religious pluralism. According to Ahmadiyya beliefs, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, the founder of the Ahmadi movement, “recognized the noble teachings of the great religious founders and saints, including Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Guru Nanak, and explained how such teachings converged into the one true Islam.” It is not often that I find theological overlap between Hinduism and Abrahamic faiths, but as a Hindu, this view of religious pluralism speaks exactly to my own faith’s traditions.
In the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s most sacred texts, Lord Krishna tells us that no matter how we worship God or what name we call God, as long as we worship with a pure heart, we are worshiping the one true God. Lord Krishna assures us that it is natural for humans to be “robbed of knowledge by stray desires” and to “take refuge in other deities; observing varied rites, [we] are limited by [our] own nature.” The Gita tells us that it is due to our own human nature that we cannot know God, who is complex and all-encompassing. Because we cannot know God, we worship various deities and believe that we have found the truth. And when we find what we believe to be the truth, Lord Krishna says, “I [Lord Krishna] grant unwavering faith to any devoted man who wants to worship any form with faith. Disciplined by that faith, he seeks the deity's favor; this secured, he gains desires that I myself [Lord Krishna] grant” (Gita: Chapter 7, verses 20-22). Lord Krishna is saying that as long as we worship with unwavering faith and remain devoted, our faith reaches God—the exact sentiment that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian preached in the nineteenth century.
Sitting among 40 other women from various backgrounds, it was beautiful to feel a connection with a different community that had a similar doctrinal tenet as my own faith. I listened to women speak earnestly about their beliefs, spoke with women who wanted to talk to me about what I believed, and met women who do really important work in government, their communities, the public health sector, and other areas. I heard funny stories about Ramadan experiences, sweet Ramadan customs that various families had, and wistful nostalgia from college students about Ramadan seasons spent with families.
Most of all, what I heard from these women was that we all have common threads tying us together. We all have hopes and dreams, challenges and obstacles, faith and devotion. We all have our own traditions and customs to which we adhere, and we all want to learn about the traditions and customs of others. Suddenly, the Ahmadi women who hosted the iftar were no longer distant from me. They are part of a community that is present in D.C., and they are everyday Americans with whom I interact as I live in D.C. In getting so caught up with my professional research of the Ahmadiyya community last summer, I had never paused to think about how I might come in contact with and learn from the community itself. At the end of the day, I learned two lessons. The first was to open my mind to how I process news and make sure that I try my best to humanize my intake of the media. And the second was that there are more similarities between faiths than I even realized, similarities which we should celebrate more often with dialogue and partnership.