Islam must embrace different sects

In the last weekend of July, a group of British Muslims flocked in their thousands to attend a convention in Alton, Hampshire. Most were of Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian origin. According to tradition, men and women sat separately and listened to religious scholars giving sermons on the Koran. To most observers, this group might have seemed quite indistinguishable from all others of the faith, but they are different. Indeed, they are so different that some Muslims do not even regard them as such.

The Ahmadis, as they are known, are seen by the Sunnis and the Shias as heretics. For more than 50 years, they have been relentlessly persecuted for their beliefs. Pakistan, where Ahmadi mosques are routinely burned, classifies them as a non-Muslim minority. Saudi Arabia has banned them from visiting Mecca. In January, the Bangladeshi government banned all books of the Ahmadiyya community. Vigilantes, urged on by fanatical imams, have attacked Ahmadis, driving many from their homes, schools and villages. So what is it about the Ahmadis - who are, on the whole, pretty conformist, believing that the Koran is divine and that Muhammad was a prophet, and who fast, pray, give generously in charity and do all the other things that Muslims are supposed to do - that sends the zealots into such a frenzy?

The difference is of two orders. The minor source of disagreement concerns jihad. The Ahmadis denounce violence in all forms, including what most Muslims regard as an important component of Islam: defensive jihad to save a beleaguered community. Generally, this would not have been a cause for concern for the orthodox, except that the Ahmadiyya movement first emerged in 1889, barely 20 years after the "Indian Mutiny". At that time, jihad against the Raj was the norm, so many Indian Muslims saw the sudden arrival of the Ahmadiyya sect, loudly denouncing jihad, as a British imperialist conspiracy. The conspiracy theories have stuck.

The major difference comes in the shape of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), the Punjabi founder of the sect. Orthodox Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last Prophet, and there will be no prophets after him. Now, Ahmad did not call himself a prophet, but "claimed to be the expected reformer of the latter days, the Awaited One of the world community of religions" - in other words, the Mahdi and the Messiah rolled into one. For some, this is uncomfortably close to the Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, the Ahmadis believe that the teachings of Ahmad and his successors are divinely inspired.

The global Muslim community is full of all kinds of diversity. The Ahmadis are simply the new kids on the block, just another sect of Islam with a particular belief about the nature of prophecy. No one has the right to say that they are not Muslims.

Britain has fewer than 20,000 Ahmadis, yet this minority within a minority has clocked up some notable achievements. Britain's first purpose-built mosque, which opened in 1889, and the largest mosque in western Europe (the Baitul Futuh in Morden, Surrey, opened in 2003), are both Ahmadi. The first Muslim learned journal, the Islamic Review, was published by the Ahmadis. Theirs is, without doubt, the most educated, organised and disciplined of all Muslim communities in Britain. They work, worship and act as a unit - which is why almost all of them attended their annual convention last month.

Rather than demonise them, self-righteous orthodox Muslims should show some respect. We, who are so keen to have our difference accepted by the majority in Britain, need to respect differences among ourselves - particularly when they appear to be unpalatable.