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‘This is Where it All Began’: An Interview with Imam Azhar Haneef

Imam Azhar Hanif has served as a missionary of the  Ahmadiyya Muslim Community for more than three decades, and has traveled across length and breadth of the US. The Review of Religions spoke with him for his insight on the significance of the His Holiness’ visit to America.

On Philadelphia as the Starting Point for the Community

I was raised in the inner city as a child but I have had different experiences in my life. I’ve had urban, suburban – in college years I was at the pinnacle, you can say, of some of the university experiences. But then later on in life I went overseas so I saw the full range of rural life and village life; I have seen it all.

One thing about Philadelphia is that this is where it all began for us and the first ship which the missionary came on arrived at Philadelphia and we all know that part of it. But you ask yourself the question – why Philadelphia? The immigrants are pouring into the east coast and they would go anywhere in the country from that point, and our missionary did that. This is kind of the idea that Islam starts in the east and spreads to the west, and thus we saw the same progression in America…We established ourselves in Detroit, Michigan, then we went on further into Chicago. From that point on we went on to the furthest point and to the coast of California. I have been to most of these cities in my life as a missionary. It has been quite a journey of life.

A long-serving Missionary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in USA, Imam Azhar Haneef gives a fascinating insight into the historical importance of the city of Philadelphia.

This whole tour that we have witnessed of His Holiness coming to America – a Caliph coming to America – this is the second time that people really got a glimpse of someone coming into the city. This is the first tour of the present Caliph to Philadelphia and seeing as he is the Caliph of the Promised Messiahas, who was to revive the religion of Islam, it kind of reminds you of when the Holy Prophetsa entered Madinah after the migration from Makkah. I will never forget those scenes ascribed as to how excited the people were that the Prophet of God has come to this city. The children were singing songs; people came out in droves and everyone was vying to get closeness to this man of God and wanted him to stop and reside in their home. You get almost the same feeling when you see His Holiness entering Philadelphia– there was excitement, people were rejoicing, they were singing and chanting.

If you heard, on that day there were sounds of chanting and the glory and praises of God as they welcomed the Caliph into the city. You could see the love and joy in the eyes of the children, and even the non-Muslims; this is what was striking about Madinah – even the non-Muslims wanted to come out and get a glimpse of this man because they had heard about him, but did not know who he was. They wanted to see his face for the first time and wanted to hear his voice for the first time and when they did, they were overwhelmed by the message that he delivered. The first time the Holy Prophetsa spoke, a Jewish man was standing nearby. He said he just wanted to see him and get a sense of who he was. When he saw and heard him, he knew two things – 1) this is not a lying man and 2) this is the truth and what we need. He became a Muslim just on the spot.

One thing about Philadelphia is that this is where it all began for us and the first ship which the missionary came on arrived at Philadelphia and we all know that part of it.

The effect that His Holiness had when he came to Philadelphia was exactly the same. People who were non-Muslims came for the first time, to hear his voice, to see his face and to be in his presence were overwhelmed with his message, his personality and his spiritual awe. They knew that this man’s message was the need of the time. They knew that this man’s prayers are going to lift us up and some of them were saying that we want to be a part of you, without having seen anything more than this event.

To me this was an answer to a prayer that I was supplicating throughout this tour that ‘O Lord, show me how You bring the dead to life’. This has been my prayer.

On What This Mosque Means for the City

As I said, I have been in Philadelphia for many years and I was always hoping that something would turn that city around and enable them to reach their full potential. There are already a lot of Muslims there and a lot of African- American corner mosques. But no one had ever built a purpose-built mosque, this was something they all wanted but couldn’t achieve and you always pray ‘O Lord, show me how You bring the dead to life’.

What I think this visit of a Caliph has done to the Philadelphians, in fact for our whole nation, is that it has shown us how we are going to take a blighted city, oppressed neighborhood and an impoverished group of people and then lift them up, give them hope first and foremost. That is one thing which has been shattered in most of the inner-city lives. They have no hope and they see nothing positive on the horizon. They just see a struggle and more despair because of economic conditions, lack of educational opportunities, a lack of a way to improve the condition of their neighborhoods with facilities, etc. For them His Holiness represented a great hope which they haven’t seen for a long time. That’s the beginning of changing a person’s life around. I think that was a real blessing to witness it.

Pioneers of the Past: Passed Away but Still Remembered

I would say in the end that I know a lot of our elders wanted to see this. You go back in the history of the Ahmadiyya Community in the USA – the very first person who was the Head of Khuddamul Ahmadiyya [the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association] came from Philadelphia and his name was Munir Hamid. Munir Hamid went on to be the president of that [Philadelphia] Community, the Vice President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of USA and his desire was to have a mosque built in Philadelphia. He lived a long life but never saw that day.

Brother Bilal Abdus Salam, an early convert, would continuously travel to the UK and ask the Caliph of the time to please come to Philadelphia, telling him, ‘We will finish the construction of our mosque and we want you to come and bless our city.’ His desire was to see the mosque finished and see the Caliph there and see that day that we witnessed when the Caliph came to town and raised the spirit. Brother Bilal passed away a few months ago and couldn’t witness it.

One of the first heads of Lajna Ima’illah [the women’s auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Community], Salma Ghani, lived in Philadelphia. Her heart and soul were also poured into that city for many years and people who know her are aware that she had great love for the people, whether they were Muslims or not. She wanted to see not just a mosque, but a place where you can come and get medical, social and financial assistance to improve a lot of people. She also passed away a few months ago and couldn’t see it herself. But trust me, I believe the prayers they made and the seeds they planted have brought us to this day where we witnessed what they wanted to witness – our blessed Caliph coming to Philadelphia, our Caliph having that impact on people and our Caliph giving us the hope, vision and plan on how we are going to lift up our neighborhood, lift up a city and lift up this nation, God willing.

‘Wiping Away the Tears of Those Who are Suffering’

All praise is due to Allah Almighty, I feel truly blessed to be part of the whole experience, part of the history and part of the service for some years. This is an era now in the African-American community where we are struggling because finding the person who we feel, heart and soul, has our bests interests at heart, who can lead us, who we are ready to follow – [while] there were the great leaders in the past like Martin Luther King, Malcom X, etc., but you don’t find them anymore in America. Most of the time people are not finding that compassion and people who are concerned about their causes and worries.

‘Black Lives Matter’ was a movement which came out recently in America but you don’t hear anything about it now. The movements are coming and going and people are feeling ‘who do we trust anymore? Who cares about us anymore?’ When a man like this comes, not African-American and who is not necessarily part of the history and culture of this nation, he comes from outside and that voice is almost like the voice of God. It tells you ‘I haven’t forgotten you’. God still sees your plight and your despair and He loves you. He is telling you through this man’s voice that He doesn’t want to see you abandoned forever in this miserable state. He has sent someone to soothe your soul and calm your fears, to give you some hope and let you know that someone cares about you, loves you, prays for you and has your best interests at heart. When the people here, whether they are part of the community or not, hear the voice of the Caliph, they just know this is a sincere man. That is a very needed but absent voice in this day and age when all you hear is a lot of hateful rhetoric, people pushing others away, putting up walls and denying access to groups to come and find security. So this is a beautiful message and I’m sure it touched the hearts of many people when they heard this message of wiping away the tears of those who are suffering.