Austrian converts to Islam: A century-long story across central Europe

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Uzair Ahmed, Czech Republic

Sometimes we grow weary not seeing the immediate fruits of our labour. Quieting our natural impatience, we can reflect that our job is to sow seeds as far and wide as possible, and it’s God’s domain to germinate them, growing the trees of truth how, when and for whom He wants. 

A small, but interesting historical story of this stretches across Central Europe over the last century. I believe it is illustrative of ideas related to tabligh.

It starts with Baron Umar Rolf von Ehrenfels (1901-1980), an Austrian anthropologist who was a prominent European convert to Islam. 

Baron Umar Rolf von Ehrenfels at the headquarters of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement in 1933

Although he was Austrian, he was born in Prague as his father, Christian von Ehrenfels (1859-1932) was then a professor of philosophy at the German branch of Charles University in Prague. Christian von Ehrenfels is considered one of the forefathers of Gestalt psychology, a branch that many readers who have taken introductory psychology courses are likely familiar with. 

A tangential fact that demands mention here is that at this same time, another professor who was also at the German part of Charles University was Albert Einstein, teaching theoretical physics therefrom 1911-1912, allowing the two to become acquainted. A spot in the heart of Prague, that is to this day legendised as a marker of the city’s intellectual heritage is a home that belonged to the literary figure Berta Fanta. Here, members of Prague’s intelligentsia frequently gathered to discuss philosophy and listen to music. These included Einstein, Max Brod, Franz Kafka, as well as Christian von Ehrenfels. It is reported that Islam was a prominent topic of discussion here amongst the various philosophical subjects these great minds would explore together. (Fanta, Berta, YIVO Encyclopedia, https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Fanta_Berta)

Thus, inheriting his father’s philosophical leanings, Baron Umar Rolf von Ehrenfels was interested in exploring religious thought and he became particularly interested in Islam. At the age of 26, in 1927, he accepted Islam through contact with the Lahore Ahmadiyya mosque in Berlin. He was affiliated with the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement, penning articles for their publications as well as visiting their headquarters in Lahore in 1933. 

I mention these points in part to underscore that there was some, limited spiritual appetite even amongst the European aristocracy for the general message of Islam. Einstein himself is also reported to have visited the Lahore Ahmadiyya mosque in Berlin in the 1920s, where philosophical discussions would be held. (http://berlin.ahmadiyya.org/history/prom-visitors.htm

Nonetheless, in the case of Baron Umar Rolf von Ehrenfels, although he had some appreciation for the works of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, he fell short of understanding Hazrat Ahmad’sas true prophetic station as the Promised Messiah and Imam Mahdi. The first Austrian to truly accept the essence of Hazrat Ahmad’sas message had not yet come along. 

The first Austrian native to become a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is Muhammad Yunus Mairhofer Sahib who accepted Ahmadiyyat in 2007, at the age of 26. Yunus Sahib has shared his story on the YouTube channel of Ahmadi Answers. (How an Austrian Christian Accepted the True Islam, Ahmadiyyat,www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YTSndRDXrU&t=5s)

He mentions that he was moved by an intrinsically driven search for something that would last, as well as heal. He delved into different faiths, philosophies and healing practices, such as Chinese traditional medicine, and even temporarily entered medical school at the University of Vienna, all to realise that he was looking for a much more fundamental form of healing. 

He narrates that a Christian friend happened to give him a copy of the Holy Quran and he found his heart drawn to it, thereafter accepting Islam. Then he received a vulgar anti-Ahmadi pamphlet from a Sunni Muslim, which ironically intrigued him immediately. 

He began an urgent search for literature by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, to read his words directly rather than seeing what others were saying about him. After some time, he located a book at the library of the University of Vienna where he was now studying social and cultural anthropology. This book was titled The Teachings of Islam,published by the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement. This is analogous to the English translation published in the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam. 

Yunus Sahib says this copy was given to the university library in the mid-1930s, and had likely been hardly touched by any reader since. This happens to coincide with the exact time that Baron Umar Rolf von Ehrenfels studied anthropology at the University of Vienna (1932-1937); thus, in all likelihood, that book was donated there by him. 

Yunus Sahib shares that this book made him lose his heart to the Promised Messiahas, totally converting him and making him desirous of becoming a sincere follower. He looked online, and learning about Khilafat revitalised his soul further. He says information on the Lahore Movement also came up, but it was a matter of a few hours that he decided that real life and truth lay with the community led by the Khalifa. Not long after, he found the Austrian Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat and did bai‘at.  

Given a copy of the Quran by a Christian, a propaganda pamphlet by a Sunni Muslim and finding an untouched book left by a Lahori Ahmadi 70 years prior, one cannot calculate the infinite permutations through which God can guide whom He desires. 

Our job is to simply spread the gems of the Promised Messiahas as widely as possible, for now and posterity. They may be disregarded entirely by many unfortunate ones. Others may transiently glance at them before setting them aside. Some may hold them in partial appreciation, having momentarily respected them before covering them with the dust of their imperfect faith. It may take years, or in this case, generations, before they reach those hearts whose natural affinity can uncover their lustre. It is God’s domain to see how and when that happens. 

A point to note, in my opinion, is that the beauty of truth is it often finds easy and quiet acceptance in the hearts of humble ones, rather than those of worldly renown. 

I once asked Yunus Sahib if he ultimately found what he was seeking; something that lasts and heals. He responded thoughtfully in Urdu, “Ahmadiyyat aur cheez kya hai?” (“What else is Ahmadiyyat?”), which is as apt of an answer as any. 

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