The year 1889 holds a dear place in the heart of every Ahmadi Muslim; it’s the same year that Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) of Qadian (whom we believe to be the Promised Messiah and Imam Mahdi) founded our community the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at and it’s the same year that marks the fulfilment of a prophecy through the birth of his son Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad (ra) the Second Caliph of Islam Ahmadiyyat and the Promised Reformer.
But what else happened in the year 1889? What events were taking place in the wider world when the light that would someday come to illuminate every corner of it was just a small flame? What were people doing in a year whose full significance would only be common knowledge long after they had all departed from the land of the living?
Plenty of nations have instantly recognisable landmarks. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few, like how the UK has Big Ben and India has the Taj Mahal, Egypt has pyramids plus the Sphinx, America has the Statue of Liberty and those four rock heads (Mount Rushmore), China has the Great Wall of . . . China.
Landmarks such as these define their respective nations to the point where it’s practically a cliché. It’s very difficult to imagine any of these countries without their landmarks, all of which are beautiful.
But there’s two things that make the Eiffel Tower stand out. Number one, it’s younger than any of the buildings I’ve mentioned; whereas the Big Ben was built in 1859 and the Statue of Liberty in 1886, the Eiffel Tower was only built in 1889* by the architect Gustave Eiffel (hence the name). Number two, a lot of French people initially hated it! Sure, plenty of us dislike change and are averse to new things but what’s so special about the Eiffel Tower is that none of the other famous landmarks I’ve listed were as controversial before they were even built.
There was literally a whole petition called “Artists against the Eiffel Tower” signed by renowned people like the French short story writer Guy de Maupassant. They complained that it was going to be an ugly, hideous building that would ruin the landscape of Paris and be a permanent eyesore and was totally against refined French taste and [insert complaint] . . .
Yet despite the feeble condemnation of narrow-minded artists and intellectuals, the Eiffel Tower eventually became a massive hit with the people of Paris. Once construction was completed, it was clear to almost everyone that it was actually a pretty cool building. Many of the Eiffel Tower’s enemies eventually admitted that they’d been wrong. Today, this building more than any other defines Paris and not only Paris but the whole of France. It’s widely considered an aesthetic masterpiece admired by people all over the world.
And the (small but vocal) narrow-minded segment of France’s population was left scratching their heads and have long since moved onto other targets, such as the hijab worn by Muslim women.
Or, more recently, the abaya worn by Muslim schoolgirls. This abaya ban took place only a few months after Nahel Merzouk, a Muslim teenager, was shot dead by a police officer.
It’s no wonder that many French Muslims feel as if they’re under siege from all sides. It can be hard to feel that you truly belong in a society where you’re treated this way, where some people view your whole existence as a burden and wish you would just go away.
But the Muslims of France can take encouragement from the Eiffel Tower itself; people once said that it would never belong in Paris and fought against its very existence. And now, what could possibly be more French?
France as a nation is over a thousand years old; for most of its history, the Eiffel Tower simply wasn’t there. The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, on the other hand, was founded in 1163 (when the cornerstone was first laid) and has been a part of French history since nearly the beginning. While the Cathedral is loved and admired by the French people, it is the Eiffel Tower that is the universally recognised symbol of French culture and civilisation, even though it only arrived in France many, many centuries later.
Beyond the shadow of a doubt, this demonstrates that it doesn’t matter when in the history of a nation you arrive; it doesn’t stop you from belonging, it doesn’t even stop you from becoming what belongs the most.
(*Fun fact: the Eiffel Tower was completed in March 1889, the same month that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community was founded. It was the tallest building in the whole world at the time and is still the tallest building in all of France.)
About the Author: Mansoor Dahri is an online editor for The Review of Religions. He graduated from UCL in BA Ancient Languages.