A holy miracle happened in Zion 115 years ago. Or so millions of Ahmadi Muslims around the world believe.
The Ahmadis view this small-sized city, 40 miles north of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan, as a place of special religious significance for their global messianic faith. Their reverence for the community began more than a century ago — with fighting words, a prayer duel and a prophecy.
Zion was founded in 1900 as a Christian theocracy by John Alexander Dowie, an evangelical and early Pentecostal preacher who drew thousands to the city with his faith healing ministry. The Ahmadis believe their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, defended the faith from Dowie’s verbal attacks against Islam, and defeated him in a sensational face-off armed only with prayers.
Most current residents may not have an inkling of that high-stakes holy fight of a bygone era. But, for the Ahmadis, it is one that has created an eternal bond with the city of Zion.
This weekend, thousands of Ahmadi Muslims from around the world have congregated in the city to celebrate that century-old miracle and a significant milestone in the life of Zion and of their faith: The building of the city’s first mosque.
Dowie was born in Scotland in 1847. His family immigrated in 1860 to Australia, where he was ordained and became pastor of a Congregational church.
Dowie left Australia in 1888 for the United States where he grew in popularity with his healing ministry. Stories of Dowie’s miracles abound, including one about Sadie Cody, a niece of Buffalo Bill Cody, a celebrity known for his Wild West Show, who said her spinal tumor was healed by Dowie’s prayers.
With money accumulated from the faithful, Dowie bought 6,000 acres of land in Lake County, Illinois, hoping to establish a Christian utopia. Dowie’s laws forbade gambling, theaters, circuses, alcohol and tobacco. He also banned swearing, spitting, dancing, pork, oysters and tan-colored shoes. Whistling on Sunday was punishable by jail time.
The massive 8,000-seat Shiloh Tabernacle, built in 1900, became Zion’s religious center. It was there that Dowie appeared with his flowing white beard, robed in the brightly embroidered garments of an Old Testament high priest, and declared himself “Elijah the Restorer.”
While he welcomed Black people and immigrants into Zion, Dowie had harsh words for politicians, medical doctors and Muslims, which he expressed in his journal.
In 1902, Dowie wrote: “This is my job to gather people from the East and West, North and South and inhabit Christians in this Zion City as well as other cities until the day comes when the Mohammedan religion is totally wiped out of this world. Oh God show us the day.”
In his palms on a recent September day, Tahir Ahmed Soofi cradled a crumbling, yellow newspaper from the 1900s bearing Dowie’s image.
“Dowie is a part of our history, too,” said Soofi, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s Zion chapter, as he arranged these relics in glass displays that will become part of the new mosque’s museum. The community has named this mosque Fath-e-Azeem, which means “a great victory” in Arabic.
The $4 million building, with a large prayer hall and plush carpeting, will replace their older center less than two miles away, which has been the community’s home since 1983.
As he got the new space ready for Satruday’s inauguration, Soofi recounted the tale passed down to generations of Ahmadis. When Ahmad, the religion’s founder who lived in Qadian, India, heard about Dowie’s angry proclamations against Muslims, he urged him to stop, Soofi said.
Ahmadis believe that their founder, who was born in 1835, was the promised reformer the Prophet Muhammed predicted and the metaphorical second coming of Jesus Christ.
Soofi said when Dowie ignored Ahmad’s pleas, in 1902, he challenged Zion’s founder to a “prayer duel.”
In The New York Times and other U.S. publications at the time, this challenge was built up as a battle between two messiahs – to ascertain who was the true prophet and which was the true religion. Ahmad asserted in writing that, “whoever is the liar may perish first.”
Dowie refused to acknowledge Ahmad’s challenge and scoffed at his statements that Jesus was human, survived the crucifixion and lived out the rest of his life in Kashmir. He shot back writing: “Do you think that I should answer such gnats and flies?”
In the following years, Dowie’s fortunes began to fade. In 1905, one of his top lieutenants, Wilbur Voliva, took over leadership of the church after Dowie was accused of extravagance and misusing investments. Dowie’s health suffered thereafter. He died in 1907 after a paralytic stroke, at age 60.
While Ahmad died a year after Dowie passed, at age 73, his followers saw Dowie’s downfall and death as a great victory for their founder and faith.
In Zion, Shiloh House, the 25-room mansion Dowie built in the 1900s still stands in his memory, cared for by the Zion Historical Society. Residents whose ancestors followed Dowie to this city — what they believed to be a place of healing — would like to see the founder and his grand vision memorialized.
For Ahmadis worldwide, the result of this prayer duel reaffirmed the truth of their messiah’s claims, said Amjad Mahmood Khan, U.S. spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. It’s a story Ahmadi children grow up hearing at home and in their mosques worldwide.
“Whether you talk to an Ahmadi in Miami, Maine, South Dakota or Seattle, they will know this story and what a great victory it was,” Khan said, adding that it doesn’t mean they exult in Dowie’s demise. “It’s the triumph of what Islam stands for in the face of false allegations, and it’s about the victory of prayer over prejudice.”
The Ahmadis have struggled to gain acceptance even among mainstream Muslims, adding to the significance of establishing the mosque in Zion, said Khan. Pakistan’s parliament declared Ahmadis non-Muslims in 1974.
Khan said the global Ahmadiyya community’s current leader and caliph, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, is in Zion to inaugurate the new mosque this weekend — a momentous occasion for U.S. Ahmadis. Ahmad was forced into exile from Pakistan after his election in 2003 and resides in London.
Zion Mayor Billy McKinney will present Ahmad, the fifth successor to the sect’s founder who challenged Dowie, with a key to the city as a symbol of friendship.
The Ahmadis are moving forward with the construction of their minaret, to be completed next year. The minaret is a global symbol of Islam. It would be a stark contrast from Dowie’s vision of a Christian utopia.
“The founding fathers of Zion are probably rolling in their graves,” said David Padfield, minister of Church of Christ, a non-denominational congregation near the mosque. “They didn’t even want our church here.”
Padfield, who supports the Ahmadiyya community, says it was the founders’ intolerance and exclusion of other faiths that “made it difficult for them to function.”
Soon, towering 70 feet above the ground, the mosque’s minaret will be the tallest structure in the city that Dowie built.
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