The imam smiled. He'd been waiting for this question, it seemed. It was a soft Saturday afternoon, and this imam, Azhar Haneef, the national vice president of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, had just finished an hour-long tour of videos displaying the prophet Muhammad's pacifism at the Baitus Samee Mosque in north Houston.
The imam smiled, because a man -- one of the mosque's neighbors, a non-Muslim asking a question with neither malice nor intent -- had wanted to know something about Muhammad. This neighbor had just heard an hour's worth of praise poured upon the prophet's piousness, on his pacific character. He'd just heard an hour's worth of material set to counter a bubbling narrative that has painted the prophet as a hedonistic opportunist -- one whose followers are apparently as ravenous as they are dedicated, as piggish as they are bloodthirsty.
"Now, I know some of the hadiths, the stories of the prophet," this man began, the 75 members of the audience focused on what was coming next. "And I know that he said that apostates must be put to the sword, and that his wars came against infidels. So my question is: How can you say that this man was this peaceful? How can you account for these verses and stories?"
The imam looked out at those gathered on the men's side of the mosque, with a few non-Muslim women dotting the seats. We'd been invited, Muslims and Christians and agnostics, for a dialogue. We'd been invited to hear the truth of the prophet Muhammad, to counter an image and an ideal painted through last fall's bilious Innocence of Muslims. And now, after the presentation -- on Muhammad's integration of women, on his emancipation of slaves -- the dialogue had begun.
"You need to understand: People have used stories to fit Middle Age ideas," the imam began. This wasn't Islam. This wasn't the prophet's path. Christians and Jews had settled Arabic lands, lying placidly alongside Muhammad's nascent religion. As Muhammad's life passed, as his cave-bound messages with Allah continued, Muhammad forewent slaughter for prayer. He purveyed an Abrahamic understanding. Spates of his current followers have mangled an original message.
"This is the original idea," the imam said. "Peace." Love for all, he noted. Hatred for none.
And that was the point of this conference: to share notions of peace that remain at the heart of Ahmadi, of Muslim, followers. To begin this dialogue that's been so corrupted by a handful of bestial YouTube clips and demagogic messaging from Michele Bachmann and Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich. To point to an underlying unity that ties faithful and transcendent alike.
"We want to publicize the fact that Muhammad was a peace-loving individual -- that he wasn't a womanizer, that he didn't love war," said Dr. Amir Malik, president of the local Ahmadiyya community.
Malik noted that that the dialogue in his mosque -- in which representatives from other faiths, other neighborhoods, other non-Ahmadi Islamic paths were invited -- was the opening foray in a national Muslim movement to share these messages of peace and unity.
Of the 73 Ahmadi chapters tied to the faith's national organization, Houston's schedule allowed it to be the first in the country to spread this message. And it will host a further conference on March 21, coming at the University of Houston, seeking to move the ideas of peace that much further.
"This Innocence of Muslims film brought so much negativity," said Dr. Ata Ahmad, one of the members of the mosque. "We want to bring the message that we Muslims are against terrorism, that we believe jihad is an internal struggle, a spiritual struggle to be a better human being."
And so, the imam led his presentation. The videos cataloged testimonials from Muhammad's wife and early followers. They detailed the piousness of his initial coterie, dragged and prosecuted just as the Pharaonic Jews and the early Christians had been. The imam interspersed the narratives with snippets of comparison. Anders Breivik, for instance, the man who went on a mass killing spree in Norway, was never stamped as a Christian zealot, and yet certain individuals in certain Pakistani compounds remain, apparently, indexes of the entire Islamic faith.
"Nobody would say that Breivik's actions are a sign that terrorism is linked to Christ," the imam intoned. "The shooter in Arizona -- the one who nearly killed a U.S. Congresswoman -- no one thought he should be linked to any [religious] group. This is someone doing it. This isn't their faith."
Knowledge, the imam said, is all that allows us to fill the picture currently shaded by assumption and xenophobia. Education is the only thing that can help us. It's the only thing that can help Islam in America.
"Get out of your seats," he instructed the Muslims in the audience, "and show your neighbors and your community that your faith is one of peace!"
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Based on the conviviality of the afternoon -- based on the smiles, and the repeated soliloquies on harmony and gratitude -- it's easy to see that the imam and the members of the Ahmadiyya Mosque were attempting to pair rhetoric with words, and trying to pare some of the Islamophobia that has settled around their community in recent years. Guests were thanked, time and again. Their presence indicated that something was working, and that this communication may have a point.
Because all this dissension, all this hatred still directed at American Muslims -- it's ignorance, he said. That's all it is. Not in a pejorative sense -- "but as an innocence." People simply don't know. People don't realize that we are a spiritual family, linked for centuries. "Muslims don't hate Jews," the imam observed. "In fact, we don't hate anybody."
And he smiled, again. Because that was his message. And that was his faith.