During its inauguration Friday night, the gleaming Bait-ul-Aafiyat mosque in North Philly lived up to its name: It's Arabic for "house of security," and there was plenty of that.
My Uber driver could get no closer than a block from the three-story, $8 million mosque at 1215 W. Glenwood Ave. because police had blocked off the street.
Everyone entering the mosque's gated, four-acre grounds had to pass through a security tent equipped with airport-style metal detectors. As I did, one guard questioned another about my two-inch-long nail clipper, but waved me in. I guess I wasn't much of a threat.
The security — including three snipers on the mosque's roof — was worthy of a head of state, or a pope. Attending the mosque's dedication ceremonies was Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the spiritual leader, or khalifa, of an estimated 30 million Ahmadi Muslims in more than 200 nations. About 20,000 live in the United States, 600 of them in Philadelphia.
Each time the Khalifa moved, several black-clad security people moved with him. During prayers, when everyone else bowed their heads, they did not, fastening their eyes on the crowd.
After clearing security, I was greeted by Ahmadiyya Muslim Community U.S.A. media coordinator Ramlah Malhi-Saifi, who declined to shake hands. For "modesty," she explained, Ahmadi women have physical contact only with males to whom they are related.
The Ahmadis are "the largest sect of Islam unified under a single leader," I was told by national spokesman Qasim Rashid, a Virginia lawyer of Pakistani descent and the author of The Wrong Kind of Muslim.
Ahmadis are notable for their tolerant and liberal beliefs, spelled out in a 28-minute address by the khalifa at an interfaith dinner in the white-walled basement assembly room of the 21,400-square-foot mosque.
His overarching theme was love, brotherhood, and service to humanity. From this mosque, he said, "only a message of love, affection, and brotherhood will come forth." He thanked guests for coming to see what Islam is "rather than accepting what the media says about Islam."
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, he said, rejects terrorism in any form, believes in loyalty to the nation, separation of mosque and state, freedom of religion, and equal rights for all people and genders.
Before he spoke to the several hundred dinner guests — Muslims, Christians, Jews, government and city leaders, neighbors — the khalifa had a private meet-and-greet in an upstairs office with Mayor Kenney and U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, in whose district the mosque stands. Then the media was admitted for a brief Q&A. We were requested to address him as Your Holiness or Khalifa, and were advised that although we could take pictures, "he doesn't do selfies."
The khalifa, 68, who makes his home in London, comes across as a serious man in a seriously white turban and a black tunic with a ballpoint pen clipped to the pocket. The handsome turban has no religious significance, it's just a style he likes.
Philadelphia was among five U.S. cities he visited on this tour, and the soft-spoken khalifa fielded a couple of questions about Ahmadi beliefs and challenges facing Islam. Knowing it was his first visit to Philadelphia, I was more curious about the culinary than the theological. I asked him if anyone had introduced him to any local Philadelphia cuisine.
He said he had not been informed about that and asked what I had in mind.
"The cheesesteak," I replied, to light laughter from some reporters.
Media coordinator Malhi-Saifi later informed me that the khalifa's chef found a recipe for cheesesteaks and whipped up a couple of them Saturday night for the khalifa and his wife, Amtul Sabooh Ahmad, and they "really liked them."