Since shortly before my attendance at the Ahmadiyyah Jalsa (convention) recently, I’ve been reading the book The Wrong Kind of Muslim: An Untold Story of Persecution and Perseverance. I recommend reading the book, written by Tayyib Rashid’s brother, Qasim, in which he tells the story of his own spiritual journey and the story of the persecution of Ahmadiyyahs in Pakistan.
One thing that struck me forcefully at the Jalsa was the participants’ emphatic appreciation – even veneration – of the guarantee of religious freedom that we have, and often take for granted, here in the US. Many of the people had fled Pakistan, where they were persecuted, sometimes tortured, for their Ahmadiyyah Muslim faith.
Some time ago, following a massacre of his people in Mong, Pakistan, Qasim felt challenged. He had taken his beliefs for granted but now began to wonder if he would hold to them with a gun to his head, as those slaughtered in Mong had done.
He recalled a time at fifteen years old when he was challenged by a Christian co-worker to convert to Christianity – using words of the Koran, no less! Qasim went to his father, a learned Ahmadiyyah missionary, to help him prove his “adversary” wrong and himself right. His father refused to help him, telling him to “figure out if he’s right or not. This is not my problem, it’s yours . . . I am helping you, Son. I’m telling you to stop being a child and go find out if he’s right or not.” He continued, “I know what I believe and why I believe it. You don’t know what you believe, and that’s why this is bothering you.” (15)
Qasim replied, saying to his father “Just tell me what to believe and make Tom stop bothering me.” To which his father responded “It doesn’t work that way, Qasim. No one can tell you what to believe. And I certainly won’t. You’re a smart kid. Go figure it out.” Qasim persisted, threatening to convert. His father said, “If that’s where you find peace, go knock yourself out.”
When Qasim replied that it was lousy advice, his father finally expressed these thoughts:
Son, I may know, or I may not. God gave me my own mind and my own conscience. And when I die, I’ll be accountable for that. If you believe in God, then understand that He gave you your own mind and your own conscience too. I’ll tell you how to behave and force you to behave with morals and integrity if I have to, because how you behave means how you treat other people – and I’ll see to it that it’s with respect . . .
You’re not a small child who needs to be told what to believe. I won’t force you to believe in any religion just because I believe it. You’re not a robot to be programmed. You’re a person with a mind of your own. You’ll be judged on your own. So when it comes to religion, it’s between you and God. If you want to find truth, go find it . . .
But if you want to spend your life just proving other teachings wrong, then what you believe isn’t a belief, it’s being a blind follower. And you don’t need me for that. In fact, you don’t need anyone for that. You just need the desire to remain ignorant. Because those who believe blindly believe ignorantly. And that’s a dangerous way to live.”
Go use that thing called a brain to study with common sense. Then, wherever you end up, it’ll be because of what you experienced, not what you were told to believe. (15-16)
This, of course, is a conversation between father and son – remarkable enough, as it is. It reminds us that there is no integrity, no authenticity in simply keeping your parents’ beliefs. There equally is none in simply rejecting them.
It also reminds us that the freedom of religion that we are guaranteed in this country is worth little if we don’t use that freedom to explore, to the deepest ends, our faith. If we truly value that freedom – a freedom known in too few places around the world – then we ought to take the fullest advantage of it. While dangers might exist in the form of white nationalist anti-Semites and other people who believe – incorrectly – that this is a Christian nation – the greater challenge, I believe, is our own lack of knowledge of our own traditions and their teachings about God and faith.
Even as we vociferously advocate the importance of protecting the religious faith of others in this country, let’s remember also to take advantage of that guarantee to pursue a deep understanding of our own.