Moving Forward: ISNA Convention 2013

The Muslim Observer

Moving Forward: ISNA Convention 2013

By Aliya Karim, Asmaou Diallo, Melissa Lemon, Zahra Cheema


From left : Islamic Relief USA’s Anwar khan, ICNA Relief USA’s Director of Hunger Prevention Abdul Rauf Khan, ISNA President Imam Mohammed Majid, Zakat Foundation of America’s Safaa Zarzour and other dignitaries at the event.

On the heels of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, tens of thousands of Muslim Americans gathered in Washington D.C. to celebrate the 50th annual ISNA convention over the Labor Day weekend.

Islamic scholars, activists, and community members carried the message of King’s vision of an America of inclusion and justice for all in their speeches and dialogue encompassing this year’s theme, “Envisioning a More Perfect Union: Building the Beloved Community.”

“Dr. King dreamt for an environment where all citizens will be respected,” said ISNA President Imam Mohamed Magid, encouraging the union of different communities to work together toward a more just America.

Attendees participated in sessions on strengthening personal spirituality, families, and communities. Session topics also included a focus on respecting and embracing the diversity among Muslim Americans and developing inclusive masjids that reflect this diversity.

Celebrating 50 Years

With MSA’s emergence in 1963 — that provided the base for the formation of ISNA in 1982 — came a new era for Muslims in America, one of community building, recognition and justice.

“ISNA was shaped out of this successful and prosperous experience with open doors and open minds to all those who had decided to make America a home,” said Dr. Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, the national director of ISNA’s Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances (IOICA).

For some attendees over the weekend, this was their first ISNA convention. For others, this was their tenth, twentieth or even thirtieth.
Beyond that event-filled weekend, ISNA has taken on numerous initiatives that keep American Muslims active year-long, not just in its Plainfield, Ind. headquarters, but all across North America. Such initiatives include the Shoulder-to-Shoulder interfaith campaign, parenting and teacher workshops, matrimonial services, the annual Diversity Forum, civic engagement programs and even a youth branch called the Muslim Youth of North America (MYNA).

Building Strong Families & Happy Marriages

As Muslims we are reminded to follow the Qur’an and the Sunnah and to use Prophet Muhammad (s) as a role model. In the lecture “All In The Family,” Dr. Sameera Ahmed, the director of the Family and Youth Institute, and a professor at Wayne State University, addressed the topic of family.

“Regardless of the type of makeup, we are looking for the same thing,” Ahmed said.

She stressed individuals struggle with connections.

“When we lack support, we become stuck and need to unstuck ourselves,” she said.

Ahmed expressed the need to purify ourselves and make intent to Allah. However, she believes intentions are not enough and stressed the importance of making time and investing in our relationships. She also adds that building mutual trust and respect in our relationships is important. She explains the importance of communication and one’s ability to verbalize needs. Ahmed reminds us that when addressing others, speak in the best of ways. Be respectful to children expressing love and affection.

Altaf Husain, an ISNA board member and chair of the ISNA Leadership Development, spoke of Prophet Muhammad’s (s) life and how he treated his wives with compassion and mercy. He said to be honest with one another.

“Truth is a mirror,” Husain said, and added that we should be appreciative of those who tell us the truth. He also reminds us conflict will happen. Husain states that during conflict to smile and say salaam. Both Ahmed and Husain agree rituals are important for families.

Yasir Birjas, imam of the Islamic Center in El Paso, Tex. explained there are three major issues in the United States. The trap of expectations, the “I Generation” and raised to think they are special. The “I Generation” as Birjas explains is extreme Individualism in which children use the word “I” a lot. The “I Generation” Birjas defines as a person who puts their interests above all others.

Birjas explained there is no harm in wanting the best options. He stressed there is no such thing as lowering one’s expectations.

One out of three marriages ends in divorce. Lack of premarital preparation may be a contributing factor. Aneesah Nadir, the founder and current president of Islamic Social Services Association in the United States (ISS-USA), explained that too many people prepare for the wedding ceremony and not the actual marriage. She emphasizes the need to get to know the person you wish to marry.

Dr. Cheryl Amin, an ISS-USA and SHARE Detroit board member, emphasized the need for premarital counseling, which she has been doing since 2009. She told of incidences where some people rented a wedding hall and sent out invitations without getting to know their soon-to-be spouse. Amin posed a question to the audience: “What things do you need to consider when getting married?”

Audience members responded: career, belief in God and looks. Amin has her clients take online surveys during her premarital counseling sessions. The purpose of the survey, she explains is to look at our levels of compatibility, which can be “discussed and modified.”

“Love can be expressed by giving gifts and one can be expressed by acts of service,” Amin said about the different expressions of love, neither better than the other.

Imam Magid says: “Marriage makes us spiritually and emotionally vulnerable. “We must check our spiritual state, and being God-conscious is important. Marriage must be entered in voluntarily intend to live up to commitment and learn trust.”

Imam Magid states it is important to create boundaries for parents and other family members.

“Marriage is a merging together of two families,” he said. “Strike balance between rights, communication and mutual relationships. Extended family roles must be discussed. A marriage will struggle if parents do not understand their boundaries.”

It is also important to teach rules of communication and create a support system in the Muslim community. Nadir, Amin and Imam Magid agree we must promote counseling services to take the burden off of imams. They also agree support services do not burden the imam and that we need to work together as professionals.

Political & Community Activism

Throughout the long weekend, scholars and community organizers pushed for local, political and international activism. They pulled from the Islamic ideology of freedom and justice to urge Muslim Americans to play a role in fighting for the rights of their families, neighbors and brothers and sisters across the globe.

These speakers explained the role the civil rights movement played for a plethora of people, including the Muslim American community that exists today–filled with not only African Americans but also immigrant Muslims and converts from around the world of all races and ethnicities.

“The Muslim community in America fits within this struggle today,” said Raheema Abdulaleem, a senior trial attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. “We embody so much diversity within our community that I think that we are a perfect example to take the civil rights movement into a new dimension.”

As a diverse community, speakers pointed out that it is essential for Muslim Americans to work to advance and aid the larger diverse community within which they live.

“A perfect union is to respect each other and to get to know each other,” Imam Taleeb Shareef said. “America is a nation of nations… It is through cooperation that the greatest successes will be achieved.”

Unfortunately, as many scholars pointed out, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done for this movement, and the first steps to take are within local communities and mosques.

Imam Suhaib Webb, who is imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, went on to explain that when his mosque in the Boston area was first being developed, the Muslim community went around the neighborhood to ask locals if they needed any particular healthcare help. Over time, the local community came to appreciate their Muslim neighbors because of their constant engagement and dialogue, and during the Boston Marathon bombings in April, these neighbors supported the Muslim community and “had their backs.”

Engaging with other Americans and fighting for everyone’s civil and social justices is a Muslim’s duty; it is a part of the Prophet’s Sunnah, as Prof. Sherman Jackson of the University of Michigan reminded ISNA attendees. It is a long, hard road.

“When Martin Luther King [Jr.] was alive, for most of America he was not a hero,” Sheikh Yasir Qadhi explained. “He was a scoundrel, he was a rabble rouser, he was an agitator.”

Although much of Dr. King’s work went unappreciated during his lifetime, it created a foundation for the civil rights most Muslim Americans benefit from today. Though it may be difficult to fight for such justices in the present era, it is important to remember the impact this work can have for future generations. Whether one is bringing up issues for the local school board, using social media to raise awareness about international crises or lobbying Congress to pass a bill for justice–you are making a difference.


At any Islamic conference, attendees are bound to learn more about perfecting their spirituality, and Labor Day weekend included some of the brightest imams, sheikhs and scholars around. Each speaker encouraged audience members to look within and perfect themselves before going on to serve the community.

“Life here on earth is a test. Follow the core of Islam, have religious conviction, live a peaceful coexistence in cooperation with all in goodness, in brotherhood and mercy, with good manners and good behavior,” renowned author and scholar Jamal Badawi said. “It has to begin from the heart. Taqwa begins from the heart.”

By educating ourselves on the context and meanings behind our Islamic teachings, we create a better understanding of what is really important in Islam.

“Don’t worship knowledge. Use knowledge to worship better,” said Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University.

By transforming ourselves and the ways in which we perceive our surroundings and loved ones, we create the behaviors and attitudes that can further benefit the larger community.

“You can’t give what you don’t have,” Ramadan said. “If you have to spread extra salaam and spread peace, you have to get this inner peace.

Are We There Yet? Building a More Inclusive Ummah

Amidst talks celebrating how far the Muslim American community has come in the past 50 years, there were also serious discussions on what needs improvement over the next 50. Drawing on the convention’s theme of envisioning a more perfect union, several sessions took a critical and honest look at the divides that exist within the Muslim American community. Scholars and social activists led conversations on how to establish more inclusive mosques and communities that accurately reflect the rich diversity of their congregants, and how to respect differing views within these communities. 

Women, Mosques, and Activism

Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, presented findings of a national study of over 500 American mosques on women’s participation that looked at women’s physical access to prayer space, along with the existence of women’s programs and their involvement in decision-making bodies. The study found that overall; mosques have a long way to go to be more women-friendly.

“Without women in the masjid, we’re going to lose,” Bagby says.

Bagby and Aisha al-Adawiya, executive director of the New York City based Women In Islam, Inc., a Muslim women-led organization, focused on human rights and social justice, explained that if women do not feel welcome in masjids, it is likely that they will not bring their children to attend either, which in turn will relegate masjids to empty buildings. 

“This is not a women’s issue, this is a community issue,” says al-Adawiya as she urged men, along with women, to take a proactive role in making sure the masjids in their communities are open to women’s full participation.

“You have daughters; if you don’t make them feel at home in their spiritual dwelling, they will leave,” she says.

Women in Islam, Inc. board member Sarah Sayeed pointed to the Prophetic tradition to show that women were not barred from entering this sacred space and challenges Muslim Americans to live up to this example.

The conversation about women’s inclusion continued in a series of MSA sessions focusing on the issues faced by Muslim American women. During one such session on women’s community activism, scholar Omar Suleiman referenced the early Muslim community. 

“Unfortunately when we talk about whether or not women should be in leadership positions, or whether or not women should be public speakers, or whether or not women should pursue activism, Islamic activism, outside of their homes, that question never existed in Islam,” he says. “The question was always ‘how’. The question was never if it’s okay or not, if it’s permissible or not.”

Supporting the Differently Abled

In a session on the differently able, panelists talked about their own experiences of being differently abled from others, or caring for someone who is differently abled, such as a child. Ingrid Mattson, whose daughter she says has been bedridden for nine years, spoke from experience about the need for developing supportive communities and institutions that are accommodating and inclusive to all.
“We have to map out the diversity of our community and then think how will our institutions and programming reflect the diversity of our community and accommodate the needs of everyone, male, female, young, old, hearing, deaf, seeing, blind, those who are mobile on their own two feet, those who need wheelchairs or some other technical mobility devices,” Mattson says.
Mohammed Yousuf, founder of the Washington, D.C. based EquallyAble Foundation, talked about the significant moments in his life when caring community members looked beyond his physical disability and made space for him where others may not have, spaces to play in his childhood neighborhoods, in higher education classrooms where he obtained his engineering degree, and at the workplace where he worked alongside his peers. He says this community involvement is very important.

Embracing Converts

The importance of community support was echoed by Khalid Latif, executive director of the Islamic Center at New York University, in which converts to Islam candidly shared their stories of embracing the faith and the challenges they faced afterwards. Many panelists spoke about how they struggled to find a sense of belonging among fellow believers of their new faith community.

When Marci Moberg of the U.S. Agency for International Development first converted to Islam and felt isolated from her family and the life she had before Islam, she was hoping to find acceptance among her Muslim community in the mosque.

“The one place that I was hoping for a home, for safety, there was none,” she says. “I was always being told I was doing things wrong.”

Moberg says that had it not been for her personal strength, independent study of the Qur’an and Sunnah, along with her understanding of the influence of culture on Islam, which she gained from living in the Middle East, she would have been very confused.

This feeling of isolation and alienation resonated with the other panelists.

Latif says that he hopes that the Muslim American community can learn and grow from the experiences of struggle faced by converts to Islam so that all Muslims are made to feel included and welcome.

“We weren’t present in the way that we were supposed to be present,” he says, and asked the audience what they will take back to their communities and do differently to ensure that converts to Islam, are made to feel at home in their new faith communities. 

“It’s something that I think we really need to think about as a community,” says Moberg. “[W]hat really attracted me to Rasulullah sallallahu alayhi wasallam was his radical demonstration of love, and his radical demonstration of acceptance.”

Respecting Intra-Faith Diversity

Scholars and activists also touched on the issue of respecting the intra-faith diversity that exists among Muslims as they follow different schools of thoughts and interpretations.

There was a focus on Sunni and Shia relations as scholars from both groups encouraged attendees to build on the commonalities and create a united front. During the convention, Sunni and Shia members formed a committee in which both groups have agreed to stand up again sectarian violence.

“We are the same Ummah, [the] Ummah of Prophet Muhammad,” said Muzammil Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America.

In keeping with its tradition of honoring community service, the annual Mahboob Khan Community Service awards were bestowed upon Iman Abusaud Elkadi and Ilham Altalib.

The convention ended successfully with thousands of attendees, both veterans and newcomers. With 50 years behind this immense and influential organization, ISNA continues to look forward. Working through initiatives, working with Muslim Americans and working with the larger American community, ISNA hopes to carry the ideals of freedom and justice in an upward trajectory.

Aliya Karim is studying toward a master’s degree in media and public affairs at The George Washington University.

Zahra Cheema is a Maryland-based freelance writer residing.

Asmaou Diallo is Amina magazine’s permanent correspondent to the United States.

Melissa Najeedah Lemon is involved in assisting adolescents with social and emotional development in the public school system.

Excerpted with permission from Islamic Horizons magazine Nov./Dec. 2013. © Islamic Society of North America.

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