Kafir means infidel, heathen, a disbeliever. Encouragements to kill on sight are what my family members face for our “infidelity.”
For the last two centuries, it’s used to discredit the existence of Ahmadi-Muslims in what is now the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Of late, the word has been popularized in online platforms and telecasting. It is used as a propaganda tool. By religious clerics, politicians, and everyday people to make sure that we, Ahmadis, know that we are indeed non-believers.
I do not let a word that carries enough weight to get to me. For we were taught by our mothers, our grandmothers, and their trauma, not to let such attacks belittle our existence and relationship with the sacred. However, once again, the word managed to make its way into the collective psyche of my family—courtesy of the rise of anti-Ahmadi narratives inPakistan’s judiciary system and media. Recently, some rather close relatives have been plagued with such rhetoric, saying, “Alhamdulillah, I am a believer in the statement that Ahmadis are Kafir.”
Perhaps it would be less blunt if they managed to use the word “non-Muslim,” but Kafir? It was this past Ramadan that I realized how damaging a single name could be for an entire community. It makes one think of the ways the Ummah chooses to spend their time during the blessed month of self-reflection and seeking salvation—admittedly, I was unaware that deciding who is and is not a Muslim is among those practices.
A Brief History
It was the year 1974, under the presidency of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the so-called socialist hero of Pakistan, that the Ahmadiyya community was officially declared non-Muslim. In ‘74, the Second Amendment to the Constitution that said as such, the same Constitution which was authored by none other, an Ahmadi himself, Muhammad Zafarullah Khan. I wonder how those who claim Ahmadis to be the traitors of Pakistan feel about him. A decade later, under the military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq, the Ordinance XX published. It prohibited us from self-identifying as Muslims. Meaning that Ahmadis cannot ‘pose’ ourselves as Muslims would. So, there is no saying, “Salam,” a greeting that means peace. Or, selling and buying Qur’ans. No having “Islamic” funerals, no reciting the azaan—the call to prayer, and no calling our mosques, mosques.
The violence against Ahmadis in Pakistan does not erect out of anywhere. This violence carries out in the name of religion and nationalism. It becomes more apparent when mullahs condole it. Hosts and politicians get talking time on your local news channels, encouraging Pakistanis to turn against the most marginalized members of their communities, shouting that Ahmadis are “Wajib–ul-qatl”—worthy of being murdered.
I never attended university in Pakistan. However, the idea of it becomes more unappealing when I hear about students and faculty accused of being traitors of the Islamic Republic. My solidarity extends to all those who have been affected by such accusations of blasphemy. People who continue to have their life threatened by the fanatics who call for the end of their lives. By the weak administration of their academic institutions, and their municipalities who continue to be lobbied by the extreme right-wing.
I did attend school in Lahore up until fifth grade. The closest encounter to degradation was when I took Ahmadiyya literature to share with my classmates. I faced remarks like, “you are not a real Muslim” and “why do you believe in non-Muslims?”
I quickly hid the books in my bag and never spoke about my identity again. I thought this was the most hostile encounter an Ahmadi child could face. But, back in February of this year, the tragic news of Tanzeel Ahmad Butt spread throughout our community. Tanzeel was an 11-year-old boy who was suffocated to death by his neighbors.
Multiple relatives have shared their experiences on college campuses, and the harassment they faced, both physical and verbal. They say their teachers decided to fail them simply because they were Ahmadi. My cousin, younger than the age of 15, was in a Kareem when the driver pointed to an Ahmadi mosque and said, “it is even justifiable to murder the people who worship here.”
The entirety of the car ride was silent.
Trauma From the Past
In May 2010, we were at O’Hare Airport, getting ready to visit Pakistan after moving to the United States for the first time. My mother got a call from a relative telling us that a mosque in Lahore faced violent attacks. Tehrik-i-Taliban took the lives of 94 worshipers and injured more than 120. Out of those 94 individuals who were martyred by the Taliban, Shameem Sheikh was one. He and my dad were colleagues and had worked together in Lahore for more than ten years. And, my uncle was one of the 120 hostages who managed to escape. I was not emotionally mature enough to process all of this news. But, I remember seeing the smiles on my mother’s and aunt’s faces replaced with sorrow in Terminal 5 of the airport, and the entire flight home.
My uncle, who has asthma, was locked in the smoke and debris-filled basement of the mosque he had just offered Jummah in. He was soon able to escape, barefoot, trembling across those who faced gunshots in the name of Allah. With broken glass gouged under his feet, he ran to a nearby bank, from where he moved to Sheikh Zayed Hospital.
On my trip to Pakistan this past winter, I went to the cemetery where Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate, Abdus Salam, lays. The word “Muslim” was forcefully removed from his grave by officials of Pakistan’s government. The story says they attended Salam’s funeral and left with making an engravement on his tombstone. In the same graveyard, are buried those who faced massacres in the Ahmadiyya mosque attacks. Today marks the anniversary of this horrifying day.
The Aftermath of Near-Death & Towards Liberation
My maternal grandmother talks about her memories in cities throughout Pakistan. From Quetta to Rawalpindi, and from Rabwah to Lahore. “We used to fill our pipes with spices when living in Rabwah because the threat of extremist mobs from nearby cities was unpredictable.”
My grandfather worked out of Quetta; it was my grandmother’s sole responsibility to adhere to her matriarchal duties and be a shield for her seven children. I asked my grandmother how she felt when she discovered her son was held hostage by the Taliban. Frankly, it was hard for me to ask her to recall that day, for I did not want to open any unhealed wounds. One does not ask a mother what state her mind was when her only son almost confronted martyrdom.
My grandmother tells me she had assumed that her son continued his day as he would any other Friday, by going back to his office after Jummah prayers. It was only until her nephew had called her and told her to check the news. She was unable to speak at that moment and went into sadma—shock.
“I was so shaken after hearing about the condition of my son; I didn’t even have the stamina in me to recite prayers for his safety,” she said.
We are fortunate that her son, my moms’ brother, my uncle—is with us today because we know too many precious lives who became victims of a vile hate crime that day.
I read these words by Iftikhar Arif. They illustrate the current state of Ahmadis in Pakistan perfectly.
“Rehmat-e-Syed-e-Lolak (S.W.) pe kamil Imaan Ummat-e-Syed-e-Lolak (S.W.) sey khauf ata ha.”
Meaning, “we put total faith into the Prophet, yet, we look at his followers with immense disgust.”
Ahmadi-Muslims, under the gaze of the nation, are those who continue to face disgust from others. My dad always tells me, like apartheid in South Africa, no one is going to remember those who inflict violence upon the marginalized. No one is going to remember the lawmakers and politicians who create amendments that strip people of their human rights. And surely, no one is going to remember those who stay silent as violence against a people unfolds right in front of their eyes.
For BGM Literary, editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with writer Sri Nimmagadda. In this short story, we follow a man in a gray suit who makes a stop at a church to bide his time before a job interview. Sri Nimmagadda is the Chief Program Officer at MannMukti, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the stigma around mental health in the South Asian community through storytelling and advocacy. He lives in Los Angeles with his dog, Rani, and is passionate about authentically growing inclusion and diversity through storytelling in the entertainment industry. Editor Nimarta was extremely grateful to have Sri join the legacy of wonderful and moving authors for the literary vertical in honor of Mental Health and Awareness month.
A man in a gray suit stands in front of a church and looks up and through the entryway with the resignation of a desiccated man taking a bitter medicine he’s absorbed for years but simply accepts as a fact of his life, however unpleasant. So, the man in the gray suit — a get-up slim but not so lean as to emit a cockish, metrosexual air, scraggly lint escaping the seams across the surface in a manner that supposes either venerability or somewhat tired desperation — thinks about what it means to take a bitter medicine, the trade-off between the instantaneous sour, bitter, wretched, and cloying and the promise of perhaps a better tomorrow, or a better tonight, or a better five-minutes-from-now. After some consideration, this man in a gray suit — an outfit that some would’ve supposed he’d purchased from Goodwill, the night before, for a painfully wrought $95.67 with tax after getting into an argument with his wife about who was going to take the kids to school in the morning and fucking Brenda skipping out on babysitting again — steps inside the church.
This man in a gray suit — armed with a briefcase, and the last and latest copy of his résumé that he’d worked on until 1:30 a.m. the night before after Max and Annabelle had long gone to sleep and his angry, exhausted wife laid restless, in their shared bed, thinking about whether she’d consult the number of the divorce lawyer she’d been recommended by one of her girlfriends in the morning before deciding she’d give her husband another shot just as she had the night before and the night before that and the night before that — paces towards the front of pews almost cautiously, as if someone were watching him, afraid to be caught in the act of being vulnerable and giving himself up to some higher power. Maybe if you go to church and the pastor or some other demure, God-fearing soul sees you, they’ll call you out — who are you? why are you here? — and you’ll realize that for as much ado as people make about the unconditionality of God’s love, they make claims to His love the way they’d claim a parking spot or a position in a queue at a grocery store. Faith, it appears to the man in the gray suit, is really about paying your dues.
So the man in a gray suit approaches the front-most pew — the communion table before him standing guard ahead of a cross. He lays his briefcase down. He sits at the pew. He closes his eyes. Please, he begs Him in his own mind. I need this.
But then this man in a gray suit considers his pathetic whimper to God, how he can’t even acknowledge God by his name, how he begs Please rather than Please God like a weak, unfaithful man who cannot bring himself to say his wife’s name when begging her for forgiveness after his own infidelity. What a mess, he thought of himself. So, he tries again.
Please, God. I need this.
The man in a gray suit considers this again and admonishes himself for his cowardice — when you pray in your head, words and phrases, and sentences and prayers, and pleas twine and intertwine and mix until the signal becomes the noise and you can’t really figure out whatever you’re trying to say. So, for a half-second, you think the only way to get it out of your head is to blow it up so that it all spills out and maybe then God will understand how you really feel — and so he tries again, and puts his prayers to air. The man in a gray suit is not used to coming to church. This is his first time coming in a couple of years. He’s going to need a couple of tries to get this thing down.
“I’m sorry,” the man in a gray suit exhales, “I’m just not used to praying.” But that’s okay. Prayer is a process, the man in a gray suit would find, and what begins feeling ridiculous, or like grasping for spiritual straws, ends up feeling akin to a dam giving way to water; unrestrained, unexploited. So the man in a gray suit — the man who’s come an hour and a half early to an interview because the early bird gets the worm, only to find himself with an hour and a half to kill and nowhere but a church to grace with his presence — prays, and he prays faithfully, and he prays well. He picks up the Bible on the shelf of the pew in front of him, flips it open to whatever page presented itself and begins to read. He closes his eyes, and at that moment he feels safe, like God’s hands envelop him, and that tomorrow will be a better day, and everything will be okay.
Somewhere along the line, this stupid fucker in a gray suit fell asleep in the middle of Galatians and missed his interview.
Eid-ul-Fitr is a special holiday that marks the end of Ramadan — the month of fasting — for Muslims worldwide. Ramadan is a time of gratitude, spiritual focus, forgiveness, celebrating community and helping the needy. Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations mark the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan.
Rubab Bukhari is a busy mom of five based in Calgary, Canada. She shared that Eid, for her family, is a day of gathering with loved ones and sharing a delicious meal together as a symbol for breaking fast. “Eid is celebrated as the most joyous occasion where we put up Eid decorations and exchange gifts with everyone in the house. New clothes are made for everyone; the girls get excited about getting henna on their hands and the boys get more excited about receiving their Eidi (gifts/money).”
A published author, spoken word artist and dance fitness instructor, Nazhah Khawaja shares how she’s built new traditions with her two children and husband in Illinois, Chicago despite not being exposed to the “Eid flavor” herself while growing up.
“My sister suggested decorating the house for Eid with the goal of getting the kids in the holiday mood,” she said. Regardless of the exhaustion that followed due to decorating while fasting, Khawaja realized that her sister “was onto something.” She added that “kids are very visual learners and interpreters — the visual display of decorations helps them to feel the festivity more. Forever grateful to my sister for encouraging this tradition that our family has embraced.”
Another new tradition that she has embraced is celebrating Eid festivities with her husband’s family who are non-Muslim. Furthermore, she insists on taking photographs during Eid-ul-Fitr to keep memories alive because one never really knows if the people in the photos will be there next time around. She also includes that the “Eid nap is a must — which means adults are dozing off while the kids are running wild; ample heavenly chaos and beautiful noise.”
Passing down familial customs from her mother, Khawaja remembers a story she had told her of how as soon as the dawn of Eid arrived, the villagers in Pakistan walked down unpaved streets welcoming Eid with a tune: “Mubarak Eid Mubarak/ Mubarak Khair Mubarak/ Saheliyon Eid Mubarak!” Khawaja’s mother used to sing it every time. “Growing up, my siblings and I would sing this tune in our not-so-refined Urdu, giggle at one another, create our own, often goofy lyrics, and even dance silly moves,” she shared.
Meanwhile, Bengali shemai, Kashmiri kheer and ma’amoul are the favorite Eid desserts in Janan’s household! She is the founder and CEO of the publishing company, Global Bookshelves Intl., a pharmacist by profession and a mother of three young girls, based in Louisville, Kentucky. They look forward to dressing up their best for Eid prayers the most.
Likewise, Ursula Sarah Khan who is a mom influencer and an accountant by trade, said that they fill their Eid-themed gift bags with all sorts of goodies like candy, bubbles and pencils. On Eid-ul-Fitr, her eight-year-old son, Ibrahim, distributes these bags amongst the boys after Eid prayers, while her five-year-old daughter, Eliyah, hands them to the girls.
They also bake Eid cookies together in addition to swapping their Ramadan decor with Eid decor, while still in their Eid pajamas in their Northern Virginia home!
Blending older traditions with some newer ones, Sarah carries on her mother’s age-old tradition of making sheer khorma — a Pakistani dessert made with vermicelli, milk, dates and nuts — in the morning.
She also explains to her children the importance of Zakat or charity, which is what her mother taught her: “I now take this same approach with my children to ensure they have a deep understanding of the generosity Islam teaches.”
Speaking of home and family, Haffsa Rizwani — a Canadian, currently residing in Stockholm, Sweden, as a PhD candidate — said: “Living away from home, Canada, where my immediate family resides, we have a tradition of traveling from Stockholm to my aunt’s house in Oslo, Norway, every Eid. Especially to mark the celebration as a family event for my children.” Together with her aunt, Haffsa’s daughter gets her henna done and goes shopping for bangles! She goes on to explain how Eid-ul-Fitr is an opportunity to not only dress up, but also regain that morning ritual of chai and evenings with games like carrom board; “a game played till my uncle wins.”
As Rizwani so eloquently puts it, “While my children are still quite small, my daughter is now of age to appreciate and understand the meaning of gratitude, blessings, and giving back. She now has the empathy to comprehend the inequalities and injustices in the world. Ramadan is therefore a month of being thankful and making extra duas. Eid is a day of celebration with gratitude and blessings.”
This story was published as a collaboration between Brown Girl Magazine and Reckon, a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.
This is a special year for Ramadan. For the first time in three years my mosque will fill to capacity, giving my community a chance to rebuild lost connections and overcome heartache. It reminds me of a simple truth: healing comes not when you expect it but when you need it.
For Muslims, Ramadan symbolizes the time of the year in which Islam’s prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Quran. Since Islam follows a calendar based on the monthly cycles of the moon, the start of the holy month of Ramadan is determined when a crescent moon is sighted in Saudi Arabia.
The Quran is said to have been received throughout the life of the prophet Muhammad, and Ramadan marks the days it took for him to receive its first verses. When Muhammad received this revelation, it is said that he isolated himself in a cave to reflect and devoted himself to endless worship. In the same way that Muhammad secluded himself to focus on gratitude and prayer, Muslims around the world use the time to distance themselves from daily distractions and focus on spiritual growth through a month of fasting.
Siyam in community
The Arabic word for fasting is siyam which translates to ‘be at rest.’ Abstaining from eating and drinking allows us to take the rest our body and soul so deeply crave and ground ourselves and one another in a physical, mental and spiritual reset.
When I was a child, Ramadan symbolized the one time it was normal to spend your entire weekend in the Mosque. It was my first experience of a sleepover, with pajamas hidden under my abaya and Pakistani kurtas. Beyond the gender divide of the prayer halls, children would take naps on parents laps as the community prayed throughout the night. The Mosque was a beautiful gathering space open to anyone who needed a meal, whether or not they were fasting.
During the pandemic, Ramadan was different. Endless nights in the Mosque filled with prayer and community were scaled down to Zoom hangouts. Programs that were once filled with intimate in-person conversations on the floor of the Mosque, were now faceless squares on a screen, their names barely visible.
The Jummah or Friday prayers that were once so packed with people that the crowd spilled out onto the surrounding grass and sidewalks were conducted in parked cars. The mosque decorated the parking lot for drive-through visitors for the Eid Namaz, and community members waved from a distance to others with the same time slot.
I still remember when a friend’s mother died of COVID-19. What would have been a Janaza or funeral that surrounded the grieving family with community and prayer, turned into a Zoom call. Watching the tears of my friend’s family during the burial services, unable to visit her home and read the Quran together was heartbreaking.
Even before the pandemic, the world was not always a safe place for me and my community. From my family and I being yelled at to “go back to our country” when we were on vacation, to the looks my mother received when she wore her hijab in public, I understood even as a young child the ways in which Muslims were perceived as outsiders in our own country.
In many ways the pandemic compounded the islamophobia that my community began experiencing at heightened levels after 9/11. During Trump’s time in office, the Muslim community—which in the US mostly consists of people who identify as Asian and Black—faced heightened racism and incidents of violence, in part due to misinformation about the coronavirus. In the racial justice uprisings of 2020, Black Muslims—which make up more than 20% of all Muslims in the US—were not only targeted for their race but their religious background. Mosques across the country were vandalized, and continue to experience increased threats to this day.
Ramadan as a space to heal
These last few years made me realize how badly I craved the sanctuary of my Mosque, and to physically return to a space where I felt safe. I feel relieved and at peace to return back to nights where I am surrounded by familiar faces praying together side by side and breaking our fast without any fear of judgment.