Saira Bhatti, USA
In the years since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have redefined what prioritising self-improvement and working on productivity means. Before the onslaught of the pandemic, productivity may have meant focusing time on work and the routine around it, like commuting to the office, having childcare, and working stressful hours while struggling to fit in time for family, health, and community activities.
But as people reintegrate into a post-pandemic world, work is no longer a major priority. Family, faith, and health are also major priorities that Americans are focusing on for their well-being. In fact, Americans are ‘most likely to say COVID-19 bolstered religious faith’ in comparison to most populations around the world who did not notice any difference.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the United States is one example of this fact. For three weeks, the Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness, Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), toured the country visiting three major locations; Zion (Illinois), Dallas (Texas), and Silver Spring (Maryland). This was the first foreign tour for His Holiness (aba) since the start of the pandemic which lasted from September 26, 2022, to October 17, 2022. But the desire and craving for spirituality was obvious among the people who came out. And with it, a motivation and desire to become better human beings.
Living in a fast-paced world with all kinds of distractions online and around us, it is easy to waste time, or get lost in the race to success. We may compare ourselves to others wanting a better job, a nicer home, or a fancier car. The United States is known for its extreme work culture and even before the pandemic, studies showed Americans having a disdain for work and some 70% hating their jobs. Burnout has become increasingly common, and according to the World Health Organization ‘Globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety at a cost of US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity.’
As a country that lost over one million people to COVID-19, healing from that loss and trauma was in order. But sometimes it takes a great power beyond our comprehension to help us heal and fully recover.
What His Holiness’ (aba) tour did was re-energise a community in need of inspiration to move ahead and continue fighting to make not only their communities and country better, but prioritise their own spirituality.
People from all backgrounds of life whether they were men, women, students, professionals, born Ahmadi Muslims, or converts, came together and shared how His Holiness’ (aba) tour impacted them and what goals they had for themselves after.
Fazeela Wadan, a first-year medical student explained how whenever His Holiness (aba) comes to visit, it’s a reminder of what really matters. ‘Now that he’s left, I feel this renewed ambition to not let myself forget how small my problems are and to not let myself fall into my regular routine of prioritising studying and friends over namaz. I’m guilty of pushing namaz until the last minute and justifying it by making excuses like “I’ll pray after I finish this lecture” but now I’ve remembered my true priorities, which was very much needed. [I’m] hoping to keep this renewed ambition going for much longer this time around, God-willing.’
Olivia Barber was planning on splitting her time between her studies and seeing His Holiness in Zion at the new Fath-e-Azeem Mosque and later in Maryland. A resident of Chicago, Barber is a PhD student at Northwestern University focusing on environmental engineering. However, she realised her heart was not content with what she had planned.
‘In the first few days of His Holiness (aba) being in Zion, I went to school and felt so strange. I thought, “What am I doing? I want to be where the Caliph is.” After that, I only came down very briefly and tried to spend the most time possible in Zion. I felt like Allah the Almighty would help me with any work I was missing, God-willing, because I was doing it to gain His pleasure and improve myself. I also decided to go to Dallas for the weekend because I was having such a beautiful time with the Caliph and other amazing members of the Community.’
Barber felt it was worth taking some time away from the work she was doing and re-evaluated her mindset on her lifelong goals. ‘It was overall such an amazing time and I feel like my energy has been refocused on to what is important long term for my life rather than in the moment or day to day life.’
The role of the Caliph’s visit also inspired parents to bring their children to see him regularly. Many would bring children to each of the five daily prayers, including Fajr, the morning prayer, arriving as early as 5:30am. Others would stand out in front of the mosque in chilly weather and even bear heavy rain at times just so their children could get a glimpse of their leader.
Rabia Iqbal, a mother of four, originally from London, explained how the Caliph’s visit made her prioritise her spirituality. She took her kids out of school for the week of his visit at the Bait-ur-Rahman Mosque in Silver Spring, Maryland. ‘Taking the kids out of school for the week made them realise the importance of His Holiness’ (aba) visit, to see him as much as possible and not to take the opportunity for granted. I often tell them how fortunate I was as a kid to have that opportunity for so many years. Seeing him in person also had a huge impact on the kids as they immediately noticed the “noor” [light] emanating from His Holiness (aba), and they described him as “glowing” all the time and they realized that he is not an ordinary person but a man of God.’ As for the impact the trip left on her personally, Rabia set a new goal ‘to read the Holy Qur’an in more depth in order to understand it better.’
Another young mother, Nur Iqbal, an engineer working at the United States Patent and Trademark Office knew right away that she needed to prioritise the Caliph’s visit for her family despite balancing her career and her children’s schooling. ‘The moment our family heard that our beloved Caliph (aba) is planning to visit the United States, we knew instantly that we would try to spend as much time as possible in his presence. As a working mother of three young kids who are all in school, I knew we would all be taking time off from school and work to attend this auspicious occasion.’
The closest and most feasible location for her to bring her kids regularly was in Maryland, and her family decided to stay in a hotel nearby for most of the week to attend the mosque for prayers behind the Caliph. ‘It’s important to teach our kids the importance of Khilafat [Caliphate]. We felt it was necessary to take our kids out of school and to take time off from work to increase our presence in front of His Holiness (aba) and to offer prayers behind him. As we stood outside waiting for His Holiness (aba) to lead the prayers, we would talk about Khilafat and why it is so important to remain attached to it.’ After experiencing such a spiritual routine around the mosque, she wants to continue the habit for her sons in their own daily routines and to learn to balance both faith and worldly responsibilities. ‘I hope to continue to instil the spirit of prioritizing faith over worldly matters by taking my boys out of school to bring them to Friday prayer prayers more often.’
Some Ahmadi Muslims drove for hours from other countries like Canada to take advantage of seeing the Caliph. Atiyatul Aziz Nusrat Shams took a 10-hour journey by car all the way from Ottawa with her husband and three daughters.
‘We wanted our children to see and offer prayers behind His Holiness (aba). We wanted to nurture the love of Khilafat [Caliphate] in their hearts. As being near or in the company of the righteous makes one want to be and follow the right path. We felt so blessed to see a glimpse and offer prayers.’
Despite some obstacles in getting to Bait-ur-Rahman Mosque, there was no way she was missing the opportunity to bring her family across the border to see their leader. ‘Before leaving Canada our van was making all sorts of noises and we thought the 10-hour journey might be too much for it.’ However, they managed to arrive safely with no issues. The next roadblock the family had to overcome was finding accommodations. ‘The hotel room was hard to book so we gave up but tried to call a customer service representative. He said there was only one room left which was only enough for three people.’ Not wanting to lose out on staying close by, they seized the opportunity and booked the room, not worrying that five people may be uncomfortable in a small space. ‘The day we were driving to the hotel we got upgraded with two queens and one sofa bed,’ she said.
Whilst feeling a sense of good fortune on their trip, there was also a sense of reunion and community for Shams and her family as the environment brought everyone together. ‘We had so many family and friends we met where otherwise we wouldn’t have. And we united and bonded because of the love of Khilafat. My girls all waited eagerly to see His Holiness (aba) before [prayers]. [My daughter] Dania also helped a mother with a baby and held her up so she could see [His Holiness] better.’
Many new converts also rushed at the opportunity to meet with their community and see the Caliph for the first time in person. Despite being new to the community, they came out fully ready to embrace a new phase in their spiritual journey without any hesitation.
Sumaya Rubio came to the United States to see the Caliph for the very first time. A Colombian based in Puerto Rico, Sumaya had recently converted to Ahmadiyyat in May 2022. She learned that she would be able to meet the Caliph with her husband as representatives of the community in Puerto Rico. The impact was immense as she explained ‘I remember the day our missionary told my husband and I the news that we would travel to Maryland as representatives of our community in Puerto Rico to have an audience with His Holiness (aba). This was a very happy day and I cried out of happiness.’
Recalling her experience seeing the Caliph for the very first time, Rubio felt a strong sense of duty and responsibility. ‘I had the opportunity to meet our dear Caliph with my husband on October 16 of this year . This experience is indescribable seeing His Holiness (aba) in person brings so much happiness, seeing his radiant face, seeing that light that Allah put in him left us perplexed. We are blessed to be able to meet him and this makes us, as Muslims, have the inspiration to continue strengthening our belief, knowing that we have an obligation to contribute to spreading the message of the Promised Messiah (as) so that we can push ourselves in our spiritual growth, be committed in our responsibility as Muslims like doing our salat [five daily prayers] on time and with the mindset to submit ourselves in front of our Creator.’
After this meeting, Rubio has renewed her sense of faith and commitment to self-improvement. ‘The encounter with His Holiness (aba) truly motivates me to set goals in my life like learning to recite the Holy Qur’an and doing things to please Allah. May Allah bless our Caliph, our Community, and strengthen us in Islam Ahmadiyya.’
Her husband, Malak Ibrahim Rodriguez similarly felt a strong sense of love and connection to other members of the community and explained how that helped him on this visit. ‘God has blessed me because in the Community, I have met brothers that love Islam and have given me their friendship and through the knowledge found in the Qur’an from Islam’s theology that I have gained. Meeting the Caliph personally is something amazing because he seems like an angel.’
Rodriguez also expressed his desire to work more actively in Puerto Rico and prioritize his faith by working on sharing his religion and beliefs with others explaining that ‘the visit of the Caliph motivates me to do Tabligh [propagate the message of Islam], because showing the true message of Islam is one of the best acts that I can do for the well-being of my beloved country.’
Another young woman, Alejandra Sepúlveda, had recently converted to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community only a few days before the Caliph arrived in Maryland. Originally from Mexico, Sepúlveda works as a product manager and is the mother of two young children. But coming to see His Holiness (aba) left an impact on her new journey. ‘As a recent convert to Islam Ahmadiyya, His Holiness’ (aba) recent visit to Maryland was the first time in my life that I could put my spirituality as my number one priority. My work, my young children, the care of my home, the groceries, rest, all of it had to wait and I would get back to it. My heart was filled with patience waiting in those lines, with admiration at seeing so many volunteers keeping everything graciously in order. Everyone’s kindness and courtesy made me feel part of the community, and above all praying near His Holiness (aba) with thousands of other Ahmadis increased the intensity in my prayers and my faith. At the end of the week, everything went back to normal, but with the difference that I feel closer to Allah with this increase in my spirituality.’
We can see how despite the busy schedules, new journeys of faith, and multiple responsibilities, American Ahmadis came out in full force to regain a new sense of power, strength, and inspiration from the Caliph’s visit. Not only that, but they were able to build upon that through community, friendship, and share that love and bond with goals for self-improvement. While a pandemic wore out an already overworked nation, a new sense of energy, rejuvenation, and health brought everyone back to life.
Faith and spirituality very much matter in today’s world. But what these people’s stories prove is that while life goes on with our responsibilities to our work, studies, and family, balancing our spiritual well-being is key for success. It not only drives us to be better but helps us to navigate our lives. As we continue to reassess our priorities about what matters most to us in a post-pandemic world, it does not mean that work, education, or material well-being are not important. However, for the American members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, their collective journey continues with a renewed pledge to put faith over worldly matters.
About the Author: Saira Khawas Bhatti is a member of the Review of Religions (Spanish) team. She graduated in International affairs from George Mason University. She has a master’s degree in Latin American and Spanish Studies. She has written articles on various topics, such as: human rights, immigration, feminism, racial justice and the role of religion in society.