Untold Stories

Untold Stories: In the Deep End – An Imam in Argentina

Marwan Sarwar Gill, Buenos Aires, Argentina

It is reported that the Holy Prophet (sa) used to eagerly look forward to the days of Hajj [pilgrimage] when different caravans from all over the peninsula would come to Makkah. In this period, the Holy Prophet (sa) would make a special effort to visit their places of accommodation and to personally convey the message of Islam to them.

It is a beautiful lesson for us that we shouldn’t leave any stone unturned to convey the message of Islam. Furthermore, we should always be attentive to explore new avenues of outreach and propagation.

I remember back in January 2018, it had only been a few months since my arrival as the first imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Argentina. One day whilst passing through the city, I saw a sign for the upcoming International Book Fair – the most significant cultural event in Buenos Aires and amongst the five largest book fairs worldwide. Immediately I realised the importance of this event, but I felt reluctant in my decision. I had recently graduated from Jamia Ahmadiyya UK (the training seminary for missionaries of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community) – without almost any practical experience – and didn’t have any team or further members around me. Adding to this, my Spanish was still very basic that I would have difficulties in even simple everyday conversations. Despite these few valid question marks in my mind, there was something very present in my mind, which finally convinced me to participate in the book fair.

Just prior to my departure to Argentina, I was privileged to have a personal audience with His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) in which I expressed that I was extremely worried about how to convey, as a pioneer, the message of Islam Ahmadiyya to Argentinians. Upon this, His Holiness (aba) replied: ‘When you want to teach someone to swim, you just throw him into the cold water. So, I have done the same to you, but Allah will teach you how to swim.’     

I was convinced that the upcoming book fair was the first examination of my faith in the blessed words of His appointed Caliph (aba) Hence, I decided to jump into the cold water with the firm conviction that God would teach me how to swim.

From the very beginning of the book fair I could sense that there was an extraordinary interest to know more about our teachings, but somehow many were hesitant to enter our stand.

My missionary colleague, who had come from Uruguay to support me, suggested that maybe we could offer to write down their names in Arabic calligraphy for free as an attempt to attract them to our exhibition. I must confess that I agreed to him out of courtesy, but deep down I was very sceptical. I couldn’t see the bridge between calligraphy and the dialogue about the teachings of Islam. To my surprise, very soon I realised that I was totally mistaken! People started queueing up for their names in Arabic and it turned out that they felt much more comfortable to speak about Islam whilst waiting for their turn. One very common inquiry was if we would offer any classes about the Arabic language and Islam. Initially – keeping in mind that we did not yet have any mission centre in Argentina – the answer was simply: ‘Sorry, not at the moment.’ The frequent repetition of the same question made me change my answer, and once more I decided to jump into cold water. Shortly afterwards, another sign was added to our stand with the words: ‘Register here for free Arabic and Islam classes.’

By the end of the book fair, we had more than 100 people registered. Consequently, the next challenge now was to find a suitable place for these classes. Temporarily, we started the classes in a coffee shop and split up the participants in various smaller groups. The process of initiating the classes was a very demanding and burdening phase as my only helper was my pregnant wife.

Many years later, we have had some fond memories and funny anecdotes about these initial classes. Entering the coffee shop with my Islamic hat and my wife with her veil, whilst carrying a white board in one hand, some books and flyers in the other…it made many heads turn in our direction! By the time I had set up the white board, almost everyone in the coffee shop ended up staring at us out of curiosity. It was quite awkward how some people would stop their conversations and observe me just to see what I was going to teach. Somehow, once the students had arrived and I had started the class with the words ‘Assalamu Alaikum’ all the awkwardness just disappeared. I used to feel comfortable explaining the grammatical rules of Arabic in Spanish, and even more relaxed and comfortable when talking about Islam. In the corner of my eye, I would see some of the waiters, chefs and clients also trying to catch up with my talk about Islam which was very encouraging to see. I can never forget the times when the chef would come out of the kitchen in his white apron and hat and stand in the doorway just to listen to the class.

Eventually, after a few months, we had finally inaugurated our first mission house in Argentina and shifted our classes there. Most of our current members found their way to Islam Ahmadiyya through these classes. Nonetheless, soon afterwards the next hurdle appeared with the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic. In the beginning we had to suspend all the classes, but as the whole world turned into a virtual global village, we also shifted our classes from the mission house to the digital screen of Zoom. This turned out to be a very blessed change as it allowed us to spread our message all over the country, even to the most remote places.

As Ahmadi Muslims we believe that God has categorically established freedom of belief and our duty is only to convey the divine message of Islam. Similarly, the purpose of our classes is not to impose our religion, but to share our doctrines and to create interfaith friendships. Remarkably, the students of our classes play a key role in this task. Some of them have exceeded to the extent that they not only joined our community, but now they themselves teach the same course. Then there are students who benefited so much from the course that they consider it their responsibility to convey the true knowledge about Islam to their professors and fellow students. Recently a student who had completed our course arranged an interview with a well-known media outlet from his city and invited me to meet his local church leaders. And then there are students who are not yet fully convinced about accepting Islam, but they join us in prayers and collaborate wholeheartedly as volunteers in our various humanitarian and general activities. Hence, our students function many times as the bridge to connect us with the authorities, the journalists and the various religious leaders in their areas.  

In conclusion, these classes are a huge inspiration for me as I have witnessed myself that if one, with utmost sincerity, strives to serve God, then He himself removes all obstacles. I have experienced over the last years that whenever I jumped into cold water, He Himself taught me how to swim.

I would like to clarify that what I have experienced is not due to my personal qualities nor do I consider myself a holy person, but it is according to the divine promise given to the founder of our community:

‘I shall cause thy message to reach the corners of the earth.’

About the Author: Marwan Gill is a graduate from the Ahmadiyya Institute of Theology and Modern Languages UK, and currently serves as an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Argentina. He also serves as the South American Coordinator for The Review of Religions en Español.