Interview with a Caliph: increasing numbers joining persecuted minority Muslim sect, as its leader reveals his secret talents

Gabriella Swerling
Mirza Masroor Ahmad is the fifth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community   - Copyright ©Heathcliff O'Malley , All Rights Reserved, not to be published in any format without p

Increasing numbers of Muslims are joining a persecuted minority sect of Islam, its leader has revealed - among other disclosures - in an exclusive interview with The Telegraph.

Sitting behind his desk surrounded by sunflowers, books, and photos of his smiling grandchildren, Mirza Masroor Ahmad exudes an air of graceful, serene wisdom.

In his role as worldwide leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, he regales officals, diplomats and world leaders with his views on Quranic principles, Islamic teachings and offers guidance on how to achieve world peace.

Among his many talents, His Holiness also revealed a slightly more bizarre trick: he can transform a spoon into a weapon.

In the first interview with the British media about his personal life, the current and fifth Caliph opened up to The Telegraph about the persecution of his fellow Ahmadi Muslims in the UK and across the world, his passion for gardening, eating breakfast, the letters he receives from children asking him if he has any pets, as well as highlighting the increasing numbers of Muslims joining the minority sect.

The grandfather-of-five also revealed that while being imprisoned in Pakistan because of his religious beliefs in the 1990s - and before his impending exile - he shared a cell with dozens of murderers who taught him how to turn a spoon into a knife.

“Within two hours, they had taught me how to kill another person,” he said, laughing at the ludicrous, jarring contrast between him and his cellmates.

“They told me that when you’re fighting with somebody and you don’t have anything sharp in the prison you use the spoon as a knife by sharpening the edges on the floor and after five days, you get a good knife! There were quite a number of murderers who had committed quite heinous crimes… I was put behind bars for the sake of my religion, but since I had dedicated my life for my religion, this is normal. I will endure all these things.”

He was imprisoned for 11 days and was living in a cell that had capacity for 80 people - according to Pakistani officials’ calculation - but there were already 240 people inside.

“So we could only find some small place just to sit.” he recalled. Once the prison guards realised that the Caliph was somewhat out of place, he was swiftly transferred to another cell. “With Allah’s grace, I only spent some few hours with them,” the 68-year-old said.

Children’s drawings sent to the caliph

Despite “trying to create peace, love and harmony in society at every level”, the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam has been subject to religious persecution and discrimination since its inception in 1889. Ahmadis are not considered Muslims by mainstream Muslims, as they consider the movement’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, to be their Messiah.

As such, they are seen as heretics and are not recognised by the Muslim Council of Britain. In some countries, they even face systematic state-sanctioned oppression.

The UK is not immune from such hatred. In 2016 Tanveer Ahmed, a Sunni Muslim, was jailed for a minimum of 27 years after driving from Bradford to Glasgow and stabbing 40-year-old shopkeeper, Asad Shah, to death before stamping on his head. He said he murdered him because Shah was “disrespecting” Islam. He was an Ahmadi.

However the Caliph told The Telegraph that despite such relentless persecution, increasing numbers of Muslims are joining the minority sect. “You see hundreds of thousands of people are joining us every year and most of them are from among Muslims,” he said.

Asked how it feels to be elected as Caliph, he replied: “How do I feel? Great responsibility. It’s not an easy job to teach the people and show your examples so whatever you’re saying, you have to do yourself.” Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley /Heathcliff O'Malley 

“So they realise that this is the right path and this community is on the right way in day-to-day of practicing the true Islam, they come to join us.” He said that he was seeing a mixture of old and young new members of the community and there were “quite a number of Muslims from among different sects are joining us every year”.

More than 647,000 people joined the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community during the past year from around the world and it is now established in 212 countries. Last year communities were established in East Timor and Georgia for the first time.

Nestled beside the Fazl Mosque - which was the first built in London in 1926 - the Caliph’s office in Southfields, southwest London, is rarely devoid of bustle and work.

Another Letter sent from a child to The Ahmadiyya Al Fazl Mosque in Southfields

When he is not travelling for work, he leads five prayer services every day and contributes to the Ahmadiyya’s slick media operation via its 24-hour radio and tv channels. As a result, he rarely has a moment to himself.

However in a brief moment of downtime, he revealed his shock at earning his democratically-elected role, how he steals time to play with his grandchildren and his joy at growing plants and vegetables in the mosque’s private allotment.

Asked if he ever thought that he would end up as the Caliph, he said, through bursts of incredulous laughter: “I thought I couldn’t achieve that!”

“My first plan was to become a medical doctor,” he added, “but I could not succeed. Then I tried to join the Army, but I could not succeed, Then I completed my education in agriculture, and there I can say that I could achieve to some extent. Then [I’m] in this position which i could never have dreamt even the most insane person can never think of it - now I’m sitting here!”

The Fazl Mosque - which was the first built in London in 1926 - is next to the Caliph’s office in Southfields, southwest London Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley /Heathcliff O'Malley 

After earning his Master of Science degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan, he served the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Ghana for more than eight years. He then worked in schools before being appointed manager of an agricultural farm where he successfully planted and nurtured wheat for the first time in Ghana.

While in Africa he grew what, rice, citrus fruits, mangoes and vegetables. “When crops are growing well, it’s as if my children are growing well,” he said.

Asked how it feels to be elected as Caliph, he replied: “How do I feel? Great responsibility. It’s not an easy job to teach the people and show your examples so whatever you’re saying, you have to do yourself.”

He added that while busy, he makes time to sit with his five grandchildren during meal times and play games and colouring in with them.

Much of his time, however, is spent corresponding with other children - those around the world who send hundreds of thousands of letters to him. In contrast to world leaders and his legions of followers, they are not so bothered about his views on global affairs or peace.

“They ask me ‘what type of colour do you like?’ ‘What animals do you like?’ ‘Do you keep any pets?’” he said grinning.

“I read the letters and I reply to them, sometimes they will send just coloured paintings and lines… sometimes letters from children who have just started using pen and pencils and [they] make some lines and say: ‘this is my letter!’ and the letters are only lines which you cannot understand, it is not a classical art! Then they get muy reply and they’re happy and this is how they have close relations with me.”

A typical day sees him wake up around three hours before sunrise to pray, nap, enjoy a “quite heavy” breakfast of cereal, eggs, bread and tea before returning to his office to answer letters, lead prayers, have official meetings and continue work until around midnight.

Mirza Masroor Ahmad is the fifth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community   Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley /Heathcliff O'Malley 

If he happens to be travelling abroad for work, he said he “tries to relax and sleep”, read a book or even try some sightseeing.

Despite the persecution of the Ahmadi Muslims, their prominence on the global stage is becoming increasingly apparent thanks to the fifth Caliph’s media savviness and keen interest in peaceful international relations.

His Holiness has met with Prime Minister Theresa May, Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, been welcomed to Capitol Hill in 2012 by US House Leader, Nancy Pelosi, various African presidents and former European president, Martin Schulz.

However, while there is still room for increasing recognition, the Caliph said that governments have “Started realising that Ahmadis should also be given representation in interfaith programmes and meetings”. “We’re trying to let the people understand and know what we are within our limited resources,” he added.

“Now [governments] start realising it and if there were any interfatih programme regarding Muslims, they do call us. It’s not as frequent as they should, I cannot say that we are being given full representation but at least we are being recognised to some extent now. If there are events being held by private organisations or muslim organisations, they will not invite us, but if it’s organised  by the government, they do.”

Asked if he is ever lonely in his role as the Caliph, he laughed saying: “No, God is with me. I’m not lonely.”