Pledging Your Life to Allah, the Ahmadi Way

As published in Religion Unplugged

Pledging Your Life to Allah, the Ahmadi Way

Neha Mehrotra | nm3148@columbia.edu

Waqf-e-nau, kids pledged by their parents to Allah, assembled for a biannual test of their religious instruction and devotion in an Ahmadi mosque, Bait-uz-Zafar in Queens, New York in February. Photo courtesy of Farah Ahmad.

NEW YORK— Suman Amara Ahmad has always known that her future was not hers to chart. But she doesn’t mind. She has made her peace with it. That, she says, is the fate of being a waqf-e-nau. You have no idea where you will land up. “I could be sent anywhere in the world,” she says. “It’s all up to the Khalifa.”

On a recent Saturday morning before the coronavirus lockdown, Amara was one among approximately 50 waqf-e-nau children who gathered at Bait-uz-Zafar, an Ahmadi mosque in Queens, New York. In Arabic, “waqf” means to pledge and “nau” means new.

The girls and boys sit separate from each other on the mosque’s floor. Photo courtesy of Farah Ahmad.

The waqf-e-nau journey begins in the womb, when pregnant mothers offer their unborn child to Allah. This is not a metaphorical pledge but an actual one. When parents decide on rearing their child as a waqf-e-nau, they write a letter to their Khalifa (supreme leader) surrendering their child to the supreme leader, to assign them a societal role as he sees fit. This waqf-e-nau ijtema (gathering) was a biannual test of all the children pledged by this ritual, to measure their progress and reward excellence.

At 22 years old, Amara is too old to take part in the test, which is meant for children ages 8 to 15. But having gone through the same process when she was younger, she is familiar with its ins and outs and is here to help. The children themselves look excessively washed and combed and a little nervous. They have reason to be. At today’s ijtema, they will be tested on six standards: 1) Religious knowledge and etiquette 2) Hadith, sayings of the Prophet Muhammad  3) Quran 4) Salaat, the liturgy of prayer to follow five times a day 5) Nazm, a genre of Urdu poetry and 6) Prayer that is voluntary and not part of salaat. The pledges are marked for their performance in each category and, after a grand totaling, the highest scorers will be awarded prizes.

A young boy addresses the families gathered for the waqf-e-nau ceremony. Photo courtesy of Farah Ahmad.

This practice is unique to a particular sect of Islam called the Ahmadiyyas. Though Sunnis and Shias are the two major sects of Islam, the religion has a number of offshoots, each with its own variations in belief and practice. Historically, Ahmadis have stood apart from mainstream Islam. While traditional Muslims believe that there is one God and Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet of God, Ahmadis believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), who founded the Ahmadi movement, was sent to renew the Prophet Muhammad’s message. Ahmadis do not propose a “return of the prophet” but rather consider Ghulam Ahmad to be the Messiah invoked in the Quran who is destined to come and renew the prophet’s message. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community teaches that God sent Ghulam Ahmad as a metaphorical second coming of Jesus Christ to end religious wars, condemn violence and restore morality, justice and peace.

The group photo taken at the waqf-e-nau gathering in February. Photo courtesy of Farah Ahmad.

Due to this difference of perspective, a large section of Muslims consider Ahmadis heretics and refuse to acknowledge them as Muslim. In response, the Ahmadis have largely cut themselves off from mainstream Islam. Though Ahmadis engage in missionary work in the communities they are a part of, their main focus is on consolidating strong cross-continental networks within their own community. The waqf-e-nau is an extension of this.

“We think waqf-e-nau children are special because they are going above and beyond to fulfill the responsibilities of an Ahmadi Muslim,” says Farah Ahmad, a mother who has pledged all three of her children to be waqf-e-nau, all of whom are participating in the day’s test: two sons, ages 13 and 8, and a daughter age 9.

Since the initial pledge is made before the actual birth, the child has no say in the matter, at least until the age of 15. From birth till their 15th birthday, waqf-e-nau children, like Amara, are given a special education. Every weekend, when most children are kicking back after a week of school, the waqf-e-nau attend Saturday training at the masjid, learning the finer points of their religion. Once they turn 15, the children are asked to renew the pledge made by their parents.

At this point, they could potentially demur and decide against continuing to be a waqf-e-nau. “But that’s rare. Once parents have committed, most children see it all the way through,” says Ahmad. None of her three children have reached the age of 15 yet, but Ahmad is confident that all her children will renew their pledge when the time comes. The first renewal is followed by a second renewal at 18, and a third one at 21. In this ultimate pledge, the Khalifa meets with the child, and based on the child’s chosen profession, assigns him to that part of the world where he will be most useful to society. The child in turn has to obey and go where the Khalifa instructs him.

The murabbi of the Bait-uz-Zafar mosque, Mahmood Kauser, whose job involves providing religious training and proselytization, explained the reason for this seemingly strange practice:

“Giving up one’s life to God is freedom. Let me elaborate. If I wave a ball at a dog, he will go fetch it. His eyes are glued to the ball. Is this dog free? No. Similarly, if one is bound by the wants and desires of this world, one is hardly free. Waqf-e-nau are pledged and brought up with one goal: to be free of all worldly desires. Their sole purpose is to be beneficial to mankind.”

One mother claimed that she was asked to pledge her child in a dream. “When I was in college, I dreamt that I was in the OR and my mom and sister were standing around me,” she said. “As I was lying there, my baby was brought to me wrapped in red cloth. On the cloth, it said in clear letters ‘waqf-e-nau.’”

Another mother said that everything she has belongs to Allah and her own child is no exception. “A child is a gift from Allah and so absolutely belongs to Allah first.”

Families gathered for the waqf-e-nau ceremony testing the children. Photo courtesy of Farah Ahmad.

Amara’s mother followed a similar reasoning when she first pledged Amara as a waf-e-nau. It’s been 22 years since then. Amara is currently in her second year of studying medicine, with no inkling of what her future will look like.

“As of now, medical students are being sent to Guatemala because they are most needed there,” she says. “But when I met the Khalifa last year, he told me that he won’t send me there. He is going to send me somewhere else. Let’s see.”

She glances around the room at the 8-12-year-olds demonstrating their knowledge of everything from the rules of Islamic dining to poems espousing the spirituality of Islam. Her eyes are warm and aglow. Perhaps she sees herself in these children, all of them bound to Allah, their futures lingering in the air, suspended, uncertain.


Of Prophets and Messengers

Of Prophets and Messengers

Neha Mehrotra | nm3148@columbia.edu

Photo by Neha Mehrotra

At times, the class at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York felt like elementary school. The imam would start off in a sing-song manner only to pause right before the end; at this point, he would linger expectantly, waiting for the congregants to finish his sentence. 

“The relation between Abraham and Ismail is….” he would begin.

“Son,” the congregants would resound. 

“From Ismail came the Muslims and from Jesus …?”

“Christians.”

The entire exchange is a tennis match, the ball being thrown to and fro, with participation from both sides. And though this equality ensures inclusivity, it also strikes one as infantilizing, transforming the imam into a paternal figure and the participants into children. Perhaps that is part of the appeal. 

It is Saturday evening at the cultural center, located on Manhattan’s East Side, at 96th Street and Third Avenue. Between the Maghrib and Isha prayers, Imam Saad Jalloh leads the weekly teaching, known as Dars. Saturday’s Dars focuses on Fiqh, i.e., Islamic jurisprudence. Fiqh classes explore sharia, or divine law, as revealed in the Quran and Sunnah (teachings of Prophet Muhammad). Today, the emphasis is on Allah’s prophets and messengers: the difference between them, their rank and hierarchy relative to each other, the source of their knowledge, and finally, the teaching that they imparted. 

A religious and cultural institution “serving the neighbouring Muslim community of Manhattan in particular and entire Muslim community of America in general,” the Islamic Cultural Center was established in the 1960s by Muslim ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Malaysia among others. Jalloh, himself, comes from Sierra Leone. In today’s sermon, he starts off simple, highlighting the basic characteristics that comprise prophets and messengers. “Allah placed 120,000 prophets and messengers here on Earth. He made sure that they had the best message, best family lineage, made them very good looking, with the best characteristics and best behavior. They were the best among all human beings.”

During the sermon, the imam speaks in Arabic and then repeats his words in broken English. This seems catered to accommodate the diversity of Muslims who frequent the mosque: from lifetime New Yorkers, to migrants from the Middle East, to South Asian Muslims, all of whom pray side by side in this giant prayer hall. Not everyone, however, is afforded unbridled access to the entire space. In keeping with the rules in mosques all around the world, men and women sit, and pray, separately. During this sermon too, the imam and approximately 50 male congregants sit in the main prayer hall out front. Two women and I sit at the back, separated from the main hall by a thick curtain. We cannot see the imam, and we definitely cannot respond to the periodic questions he throws out to his audience. 

The imam goes on to make a somewhat confusing comparison between messengers and prophets. “Messengers will come and spread God’s message. Prophets will revive this message. So every messenger is a prophet but every prophet is not a messenger,” he says. He doesn’t stop there. He explains that even within the ranks of the messengers and prophets, there are degrees of superiority. “Some are higher ranking than others. We prefer some messengers over others. We consider some better than others.”

However, as if catching himself in time, the imam continues: “But that doesn’t mean they are unequal. Regardless of rank, all prophets and messengers are commissioned by the same God with the same message. They worship the one God, Allah. All is One. The prophets may have different levels of expertise, different geographical spheres of influence, different miracles. But these are just different approaches that all converge into the same goal. All is One.”

Jalloh seems caught in a precarious balance: between the qualitative differences in the messengers of God, and the underlying unity of their message. He is effectively walking the tightrope between inequity and equality, trying to highlight one without letting go of the other. 

He ends the sermon with something like a warning: “Prophethood is a blessing that Allah grants to whoever he wishes. It’s not something you can work hard at until you get it. No one can achieve prophethood by working hard. No one can reach prophethood by garnering knowledge. It’s all up to Allah. Prophethood is a direct appointment from Allah. He decides and he has the final say.”

Jalloh’s last words are decisive; not like his lingering half-sentences of earlier, where he waited for congregants to finish his thought. In this case, Imam Jalloh, like Allah, has the final say.