For ISWA, a Sweet 40th

Community News

Above, CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad congratulates the ISWA community on their 40th year anniversary. From right, Imam Faizul Khan, founding member Dr. Fazil Alie, and current president Zamal Housein. Below, a chocolate cake rendition of ISWA made for the 40th anniversary banquet. Photos by Muslim Link

Sitting in a basement at monthly Quran readings in the early 70s, young students and immigrant families bonded over Caribbean food and their Islamic traditions and dreamt of a place of their own.

Islamic Society Washington Area’s (ISWA) story is of family. As students and immigrants from Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago would come to the DC Metro area, the community become their family and absorbed them into its womb. Strangers become friends, friends became uncles, uncles became father in laws.

Forty years later, young men whose grandfathers first set the foundation, in ties and starched pastel shirts escort guests from their cars to the front porch of ISWA, in Silver Springs, MD, shielding them from the pouring rain. A charming nine year old hands coffee mugs wrapped in ribbons commemorating ISWA’s 40 years of existence and thanks the guests for attending the festivities.

Over the course of the years, the flavor of ISWA has changed, now the new center completed in 2010 is populated with many races, ethnicities and nationalities. The center’s beliefs are that the Ummah in Islam is not founded on race, nationality, locality, occupation, kinship, or special interest, and this was evident by the range of volunteers at the event. “Our diversity is stunning, as the world grows more complex, our unity grows,” says Sheik Zamal Housein. ”We enjoy it every day and want everyone to utilize this space,” echoes Riyad Alie, who served as the Master of Ceremonies and sits on the board of directors.

They celebrated their 40th anniversary with speeches by Imam Faizal Khan, Nihad Awad of CAIR-National, the ambassador of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, Muhammad Sanousi from Islamic Socoiety North America, and the President of Montgomery County Council Nancy Navarro.

Among the 200 attendees of the evening dinner, many came from Northern Virginia because they love the community. West Indian sweets were handed out and commemorative balloons kept the young ones occupied.

“This,” pointing to the building, Dr. Fazil Alie President of ISWA from 1998-2011 professed, ”was done with a lot of love, by families who care about their heritage.” A integral part of ISWA since the inception in 1972,  Alie led the organization through the challenging times-when the community had to make use of a neighborhood church for congregational prayers, hold Ramadan tarawih at Montgomery College and local high schools during construction. But his greatest test was when Islam and the Muslim community faced its greatest challenge; from easy going American citizens to his community facing ‘badgering and Islamophobia’, much like the rest of the country's American Muslims.

There were police cars parked in front of his house for one entire year after 9/11 to find out what kind of person he was, he said. “We were in the middle of reconstruction, I thought this isn’t a good time to build a masjid [in the middle of a recession] but we forged ahead.” No one bank rolled this community; the people of this community made this masjid, he stressed.

They built the masjid with their own hands, subcontracting only the plumbing, roofing and electrical. The masjid was paid for in cash-- interest-free-- and their American dream came true.

Community recognition awards were announced by Imran Mohammed, secretary of the Board of ISWA to former presidents Dr. Shaikh Hassan, Dr. Fazil Alie and to the ‘backbone of the community’, Imam Faizal Khan. The current president Sheik Zamal Housein was also recognized.

Youth from the community presented recitation of the Quran with translation.

The board of directors aim to be very approachable. Their photos are on the masjid’s social media pages and they welcome comments from community members. President Zamal Housein paid tribute to the volunteers and the founding members present and those who have passed away.

One of the founders is Sarah Khan’s grandmother, Nora Kazim. She used to tell Imam Faizal Khan ‘I know just the right girl for your son Zaf, my granddaughter.’ Sarah and Zaf were the first community couple married in ISWA. In the 21 years that they have been married, they have seen the community bloom. “The challenge was that at first we didn’t have the facility to deal the vast amount of people and then with the different cultures and [instead of just people] from West Indies, but Imam Faizal (dad) has been a rock of unity. “We are trying to bring the [young professional] back into the masjid,”said Sarah. The youth are really involved, added Zaf Khan.

Falisha Alie, the chair of of the planning committee for the anniversary, was a little girl when she first met her husband Riyad; they grew up together in the ISWA community. “When we were young, we all used to go the farm during Eid ul Adha; we would run around and play together,” reminisces Riyad.

During college they worked together arranging Toys for Tots for the children in the ISWA community for Eid. Working for the community sealed the bond that had developed, and in between Falisha organizing events for the girls and Riyad writing lists for the boys they found they had compatibility, and got their parents involved.

“I was delighted,” says Riyad’s mother, as she stops by the table covered with luxe damask coverings laden with desserts and white roses, where Falisha and Riyad sat during the dinner they helped plan. One of the desserts served were slices from a show-stopping replica of the ISWA masjid made of chocolate cake with almond frosting by a community member, Nafisa Deen.

Imam Faizal performed their nikah. “Our parents help build this community.  Both of us were active in fundraising for the masjid and stayed involved”; while lot of people in their age group haven’t. Riyad says that the masjid is top heavy and bottom heavy, but people in their 20, 30s, 40s need to get involved.

Riyad wants to make the masjid a place where people want to hang out - a destination, not a pitstop. “We want to revamp the basement into a lounge,” says Riyad tells the Muslim Link, as old friends stop by to exchange salams.

While Falisha was putting the magazine (filled with heart-felt testimonials) together to commemorate the 40th anniversary, she found photos of her daughter with a young girl posing on every Eid. “I used to come in with [that little girl’s] mom; our girls are spending time just as her mom and I use to spend time together.” Riyad and Falisha and their two children drive nearly 30 minutes, on the intercounty connector from North Potomac, to come to ISWA and think it is ‘totally worth it.’

“[Our friends] are starting to have kids and we want to have them remember what it feels like to be a part of this community; we forget as we get busy in our daily lives. They are using Facebook and other social media, telling their friends “hey, we are having this event at the masjid, come and bring the kids.”

This generation looks forward to celebrating many more years at this diverse and welcoming hub of Muslim activity, and to many more weddings, babies and memories.