Five Decades On, American Muslims Still In Search of the ‘Beloved Community’

Community News


TOP: Authors were on hand to sign books being sold in the bazaar. MIDDLE: Many art vendors tooks part in the ISNA bazaar including painters, sculpters, glass artists, and wood artists. BOTTOM: The entry way to the main convention hall.

A Look at ISNA’s 50th Year Anniversary Convention

Dynamic sessions, packed halls and up and coming speakers marked the 50th Annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and Muslim Student Association (MSA) Nationals during the long Labor Day weekend, held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC. The conference came on the shoulders of the 50th anniversary of the March to Washington and Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have Dream” speech.

The theme of the three day convention was based on the beloved community - Envisioning a More Perfect Union and featured over 100 speakers including Congressman Andre Carson, Dr. Altaf Husain, Imam Suhaib Webb, Ingrid Mattson, and Tariq Ramadan addressing political activism, community service, spirituality, and many more topics.

This year the Convention Program Committee led by Sohaib Sultan, Chaplain  at Princeton University, designed the main and parallel sessions on five major tracks, keeping in mind the theme of the convention and the critical needs of the American Muslim community. These sessions are identified with icons on the program schedule.

New sessions featured included ones on embracing differently-abled Muslims, making of a dynamic seniors program, women’ spaces in masajid and social media activism . Most of the sessions were staffed with sign language interpreters. Local speakers who moderated or presented at sessions included Imam Shaker El Sayed, Imam Zia Makhdoom, Imam Johari Abdul Malik, Rabia Chaudhry, Afeefa Syeed, Mona Ngem, Asma Hanif, Marci Moberg, Naeem Baig, and Corey Saylor amongst others.

Iqbal Unus, Secretary General of ISNA welcomed the audience. “Organizations do not grow to be 50 years without the hard work of a number of people,” said Unus. Imam Talib Shareef of Masjid Muhammad spoke on Friday’s  inaugural session, followed by the Mayor of Washington, DC, Vincent Gray. He urged the attendees to stand with the district in its quest for representation. The mayor issued a proclamation and announced August 30 as ISNA Day in Washington, DC.

Imam Mohamed Magid, President of ISNA, and Rizwan Jaka, Steering Committee Chair also presented at the inaugural session.

A group of scouts presented the I have Dream speech on Friday’s main session. Chaplain Tahera Ahmed made waves as the first woman to recite Quran at the ISNA convention, with vehement support and the sharp condemnation. President Obama sent a message which was appreciated by some and drowned out by anti-drone speeches made by leading scholars.

A celebration of milestones and achievements and an opportunity to reflect on the next 50 year for the largest Muslim organization in the United States.

In 1962, the MSA at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign was very active, presided by Mehdi Bahadori, now Professor (emeritus) of Mechanical Engineering, at Sharif University of Technology, in Iran. In a written message, he reminisced about the start of the mother organization in April 1963 with the support of Dr. Ahmed Sakr, who became the first Secretary of the MSA of USA and Canada and Bahadori the first President.  In 1965, Ahmed Totonji became the second President. They went from campus to campus organizing the MSA chapters under one umbrella. The pioneers decided early on not to take any money from overseas.

The first MSA headquarters was open in Gary, Indiana in 1969. When all the original founders had graduated and moved on from college into communities, they realized the need for a community-based organization and in 1982, ISNA was formed. MSA gave birth to ISNA and Plainfield, Indiana was chosen as it was a day’s drive from either coast.

Some of the early challenges that MSA/ISNA faced were Bilalians, an iteration of Nation of Islam. MSA led delegations to work with the Bilalian community.  We also had to deal with the movie called the Message. Many people wanted MSA to come out and condemn the movie, but we didn’t and it turned out to be a good decision,” said Yaqub. This movie is now a part of most Muslims’ personal collection.

The first MSA-ISNA conventions started from very humble beginnings and were attended by a few families. “Everyone slept in cabins and dorms,” shared the wife of the first President of ISNA, Ilyas Ba Yunus. The ISNA Matrimonial Service emerged out of his research on divorce in the Muslims in North America.  From 1997 to 2001, ISNA saw a big  transition as a larger number of people started coming to the convention (approx. 3,000. This year’s attendance was 40,000 Muslim and interfaith guests.

“When will you have vision? What is your vision as Muslims in America?” thundered Imam Siraj Wahaj to the hall packed for the MSA National session titled- Why Are You Just Standing There. Shaykh Yasir Qadhi spoke passionately about principled dissent.
Muslim Youth of North America led a parallel sessions focus on youth issues.

Many community activists were recognized fir their services. This year, Iman Abu Saud Elkadi was a co-recipient for the Mahboob Khan Community Service Recognition Award. During the Community Service Recognition Luncheon, (CSRL) Ilham Talib, wife of Hisham Talib, received the 2013 CSRL award for her life long contributions.

The owner of Halalco in Falls Church, VA, Mohammad Abdul Mateen Chida, a pioneer of MSA since 1964 received an award. He is a pioneer of ITALICS halal trade in this area and operated MSA’s first press in  Maryland called International Graphics. As he was infirm, his wife Maimoona Chida received the award on his behalf.

Some highlights included the 50th Anniversary History Exhibit included a children’s program, Qiraat Competition, an eclectic Photography Exhibit, the Islamic Film Festival featuring 15 movies, the first ever ISNA-MAFIQ debates and a Basketball Tournament. Youth assisted the Stop Hunger Now Service Project to package 40,000 meals to feed individuals in over 24 countries.

10,000 folks jammed into Hall C for the entertainment program with performances by  Maher Zain, Native Deen, Mo Sabri, Alman Nusrat and Mona Haydar. Concurrently a poetry recitation session took place for those who wanted a more mellow evening.

This year’s Meet the Author featured Umm Zakiyyah (Ruby Moore), A Friendship Promise, Omar Khawaja, Ilyas and Duck Search for Allah and Alexis York Lumbard, The Conference of the Birds. Margaret King, Unveiling the Messiah in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Mucahit Bilici, Finding Mecca in America, and Radwan Kouatli, Patience: The Road to Success were also featured.

Anti-war, anti-coup, pro-Syria protests took place in the capital, capitalizing on the attendees. Imam Siraj Wahaj headlighted a rally for political prisoners on Saturday, August 31, 2013 in front of the White House.

Always a favorite of attendees, the bazaar had 550+ vendors.  Aside from jewelry, toys, perfumes, and attires, raffles and giveaways led people to booths of services, lines formed to meet celebrity scholars at the stalls set up by educational institutes, and bookstores.  There were several local and national Islamic organizations soliciting for donations.

“The first bazaar was a table set up by the wives of the officers selling food and hijabs,” said Rukhsana Ahmed, of Atlanta, Georgia who has been coming to ISNA since it was MSA as she waited in line with her husband.

Live art demonstrations and mural painting by Nuqta Arts was a hit with the kids. Haji Noor Deen’s stall was lined with people waiting to get their names calligraphed by the world renowned Chinese calligrapher. RizDesigns took free portraits for a design project and Nadoona Fitness led exercise sessions for the ladies. Orthodox Jews against Zionism handed out flyers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees sold olive oil from Palestine and Amnesty International booth explained what Gitmo was to several folks who had never heard of Guantanamo Bay.

Rizwana and her family were here from Richmond, Virginia and enjoyed the $12 plate of Hyderabadi biryani, sold by a vendor who has been selling at every convention for the past several years. Halal hot dogs and gyros were also a pricey hit at $9-11 a plate.

Fazia was took the train down from Philadelphia with her mother and aunts. It was her first time and she really loved it. “I loved praying with such a big jammah, the Friday Khutbah, the bazaar, the Qiraat competition and Yasmin Mogahed’s lectures.”

Most vendors were happy with the management but volunteers at bazaar services said that some vendors were upset as they are used to the huge crowds in Chicago. ”There are more vendors this year than last year but the bazaar is little slow. The sessions are packed because attendees in DC are more politically and socially involved, whereas the crowd in Chicago comes primarily for the bazaar.”

Reservations are done years in advance and after spending two years in the capital, the ISNA-MSA National  Convention will be held in Detroit, MI next year.


From top, Chinese calligrapher Haji Noorudden shows off his unique style at his booth at the ISNA bazaar; orthodox jews against zionism speak with ISNA attendees; Mayor Vincent Gray proclaims ISNA Day in DC; Imam Talib Shareef of Masjid Muhammad addresses the convention as a sign interpreter translates for the deaf (photo by Talib Karim); Muslim boy scouts and girl scouts read Martin Luther King's  the "I Have a Dream Speech" .