In an Imams Online Exclusive, we reflect on our attendance at the 51st Annual ISNA Convention held in Detroit, Michigan between August 29th and 1st September 2014.
The 51st ISNA Convention, held in Detroit, gave us a fantastic opportunity to engage with and learn from the American Muslim Community which has, over 50 years, established itself as a key contributor to wider American society. Almost immediately, we learned that ISNA and its participants are very proud of the fact that they have been able to understand their role as American citizens whilst holding true to their faith. It is this understanding that set the tone for the Convention and was reflected in the tagline ‘Elevating Muslim American Culture’.
ISNA can rejoice in the fact that it is not an organisation that holds back. The set-up, preparation and execution of the Convention were a clear reflection of the strong links that all generations of American Muslims have with the organisation. There is a very real sense of ISNA being ‘our’ organisation amongst American Muslims and it is this belief that drives the enthusiasm for events of this scale and ensures its success. It is a lesson that British Muslims can learn from – the importance of having a sense of shared identity and shared goals in order for our society to flourish.
Within the Convention, there were activities for individuals of all ages to enjoy. It provided ample space for prayer, it provided entertainment for young children, it promoted local Muslim businesses in the ‘Bazaar’ and it housed a large, exclusively Halal Food Court. Alongside the main Convention, it accommodated subsidiary organisations like the MSA and MYNA that provided seminars geared towards the Youth and Muslims on Campus. It organised sports tournaments and charity walks as well housing a free Health Fair and Blood Drive. The result of all this, is the large attendance of individuals and families who were able to enjoy an engaging, productive, safe event that leaves a positive lasting memory.
Amidst all the attractions and engagements on the outside, the ISNA Convention’s ultimate success lies in its ability to invite some of the most respected and learned scholars from around the country and world to deliver intellectually stimulating, thought provoking lectures and seminars on topics that range from the fundamentals of Islam to concepts of Artificial Intelligence and everything in between. Imams Online was fortunate enough to attend lectures and seminars delivered by the likes of Imam Zaid Shakir, Imam Suhaib Webb, Dr Yasir Qadhi, Dr Ingrid Mattson and Sister Dalia Mogahed to name but a few.
It is through the rhetoric and deliverance of these lectures and seminars that Imams Online was able to truly appreciate the psyche and the evolution of the American Muslim Community. Firstly, it is very important to appreciate this key fact – the majority of the scholars in attendance were of indigenous American origin either through their embrace of Islam at a later stage of their life or through being born 3rd/4th Generation Muslims. It is fundamental that we appreciate this reality because it goes a long way in defining the content of events and the engagement of the attendees. It is far more beneficial to us when we are able to share a commonality of beliefs and culture with our teachers and leaders because it connects with us on many different levels. The advantage of having scholars and leaders who share a culture and identity with their audience is in their credibility to educate and in ensuring the Muslim Community remains active and at the forefront of socio-political issues.
There is also a lot to be said for the importance of connecting with our heritage in order to appreciate where we have come from and how best to honour the sacrifices made by those before us. This is a notion that ISNA and the American Muslim Community have understood very well and was reflected in both the geography of the event and the underlying theme of many lectures. Throughout the Convention, key speeches made reference to the history of Detroit and its pivotal importance to the Civil Rights Movement, a social movement that the American Muslim Community is able to deeply connect with. Imams Online noted that the US Muslim Community truly appreciates that it owes a tremendous amount to this paradigm shifting, grassroots social movement, not only because it was instigated in part by historical Muslim figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, but because it opened up the social space for Muslims to settle and integrate into mainstream American society. It is this understanding and through this appreciation of sacrifice that drives each generation of American Muslims to become as active and as important to the fabric of American Society as they can.
Imams Online was also immensely impressed with and encouraged by the advancement of Female Scholarship in North America. The ISNA Convention showcased the importance of educated female Muslims as paramount to the success of the Muslim community as a whole. It speaks volumes about a community when it is able to pack out a lecture hall with both men and women on discussions centred specifically on Female Scholarship and chaired exclusively by Female Scholars. It shows a community that has done away with nonsensical notions about women and gives women their rightful space to address issues of concern and importance. Again, it shows a community with a mentality for and a desire to progress.
Through this reflection of our time at the ISNA Convention, permit us to end with addressing the British Muslim Community on what we can learn from our Brothers and Sisters in America. The American Muslim Community exists within similar social parameters as us here in the UK and within the same, increasingly challenging political framework. However, what we see from the American Muslim Community is the ability to see past these rather than become bogged down by them. It is paramount that the UK Muslim Community understands the importance of Social Activism here at home and understands that as a Muslim, we have responsibilities to ensure that those around us are benefitting from our involvement. Wherever there is an issue, the Muslim presence should be prominent in efforts to help.
It is very important that we appreciate that there is a Muslim Heritage of the UK on which we can reflect, in the form of pioneering British Muslims and Institutions, who laid the foundations for coming generations of Muslim to have a base from where we could progress. We should look upon this in the same way American Muslims look to the Civil Rights Movements and allow it drive our desire to progress.
We are living in difficult times and there is a lot of suspicion around Islam and Muslims, but if we can put aside our differences and become united behind ideals of activism and altruism, we can show the rest of society that we are here to be a positive, active part of your community. We must continue to emphasise that we do not adhere to a warped, twisted understandings of Islam but rather promote traditional notions of humanity, education, unity and most importantly Peace.
Imams Online would like to thank ISNA, the American Muslim Community and the people of Detroit for their hospitality and warm welcome. It was a pleasure to attend and Insha’Allah we will have the opportunity to do so again.