More than 30 years ago, when my parents enrolled me in St. Anthony’s, a Catholic school in Pakistan, our neighbors expressed a concern: Will my faith be at risk because of attending a Catholic school?
But I experienced no conflict. I noted how the nuns wore a black head cover with a long dress — just like my mother. I observed how the priests were kind — just like my father. I saw how Christianity emphasized love and compassion — just like my faith, Islam. But one afternoon, I came home with a question: Catholics have a pope. Muslims have a khalifa. But what is the difference between the two?
The question was so loaded that even today a Google search for phrases like, “differences between a pope and a khalifa” or “caliph” yield few, if any matches. My parents, back then, answered the questions by narrating a story from Islamic history. That answer was latersubstantiated by the words of the fourth Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad.
I know many Muslims and non-Muslims could use the two-part answer, so let me start with the story my parents told.
In 634 A.D., Umar became the second khalifa of Islam — a rapidly growing empire. Despite controlling a rapidly spreading empire, he would patrol the neighborhoods of Medina at night, in disguise, to learn about the challenges his people faced. One night, he saw a Bedouin sitting outside a tent. As Umar approached him, he heard a groaning sound coming from the tent. Upon inquiry, the man remarked that he was a desert-dweller and his wife was in labor. He had come to Medina to seek help from the Commander of the Faithful — a title for the khalifa.
Umar promptly came home and asked his wife, Umm Kulsoom, to accompany him. She gathered birth supplies while Umar packed food items. As they returned, Umm Kulsoom assisted the women in labor, while Umar made a fire and began cooking a meal for them. After some time, Umm Kulsoom cheerfully announced, “O Commander of the Faithful! Congratulate your guest on the birth of a son.” The Bedouin was flabbergasted. Turning to Umar he inquired, “I am overwhelmed with your benevolence. Why did you not reveal your identity?” Umar responded, “I thank God that I was able to serve you. Come to me in the morning and I will find ways to help you further.” “God be praised,” the Bedouin remarked, “I came to seek Umar and God send Umar to seek me.”
The story proved nothing; it just painted an image of a khalifa in my young mind. Years later, when I was in college, this audio recording described many of the five differences between a Catholic pope and a Muslim khalifa. So here I go:
1. Celibacy: A Khalifa is not celibate. Because Prophet Muhammad was not celibate. Because Quran rejects this notion while addressing Christians: “…monasticism which they invented for themselves — We did not prescribe it for them (57:28).”
2. Credibility: While many Christian denominations question the credibility of the Papal office by asking, “Where does Bible mention the pope?” Muslims yearn for spiritual leadership. It’s because the Quran (24:56) clearly promises the righteous the reward of “khilafah.”
3. Fallibility: Though a khalifa is divinely appointed — we believe — he is still a human. He can make a mistake. But even his mistake results in a favorable outcome if he is obeyed.
4. Salvation: Being human, a khalifa neither bestows salvation nor condemns anyone to hell. A khalifa believes himself to be a servant of his people, promoting love between God and mankind — not standing in the way of that love.
5. Resignation: None of the four rightly guided khalifas succeeding Prophet Muhammad retired. Similarly, none of the four khalifas of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community — the only century-old existing caliphate in the Muslim world today — retired. The rationale is simple. If a khalifa is divinely appointed, then God has the power to grant him strength even when the blood work or MRIs suggest otherwise.
Our neighbor’s fears were baseless. Since my khalifa, following the legacy of Prophet Muhammad, urged me to “consider wisdom as my lost property,” a Catholic school posed no risk to my faith. As it turned out, a Catholic school taught me the lost Muslim value of grappling with disagreements in a non-threatening way. And a Catholic school taught me the lost Muslim value of universal love and compassion by teaching the story of Umar.
I would like to ask my neighbors: Why are Muslim youth in Pakistan and other countries burning tires on the streets and threatening death to infidels? Is it because Muslim schools don’t teach them love and compassion? Is their faith at risk?