A journey through annual conventions of the Islamic Society of North America


imamapaloozaMany years ago (okay, in 1991), when I was not an American, and had never thought I would be an American, I was working at the International Islamic University (IIU) and I heard from a student tell of an event called the Annual Convention of ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America). This dear friend of mine was a religious misfit like myself, and her mother had hoped she would find a nice, educated, liberal, upwardly mobile professional, and religious boy at ISNA. So her mother packed her off to Chicago where she attended talks by Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Jamal Badawi (she got the two of them mixed up, and told me how Jamal Badawi was amazing! Tall and Black and amazing! Okay, in the photo below, Badawi is on the LEFT.) But she met no nice badawisirajboy – probably because she wasn’t really focused on the job. A year or so later, in 1993, I met a couple of Canadian students at the IIU, young women who were on friendly terms with ISNA leaders and who had organized major events such as the protests against the Bosnian genocide. They told me more tales of ISNA. 

It crossed my mind – how completely amazing and insane would it be if I, the niqabi from Kinnaird College, could attend ISNA. Most of the people in my social class did not quite get my religiosity. As for those who did get religion, they criticized my lack of traditional gendered behavior and my love of English literature. I was so lonely as a religious woman. I felt being at ISNA would put me in a cerebral network of love and awareness. All I’d known so far was Jamaat-Islami (whence I was now an exile, because I was no longer an Islamist) where the boys tended to be conservative, macho, and more interested in power politics than religion. Then I’d known my Chishti Sabri silsila where most of the people were – well, women. Radiant, smart, and devoted women, but, mostly, upper class. In case this escaped you, dear reader, I’m not upper class. I’m barely hanging on to middle class. More on that later. 

A few years later, in 1996, as a newly arrived graduate student, I attended ISNA in Columbus. I had no money, and was kindly accommodated in the interns’ hotel room. I felt completely out of place among these very American undergraduate women who were so comfortable with each other and with their very informal cliquishness. When I spoke (in my strongMatrimonial-20141 angular British accent, completely pure of midwestern slang) about the ISNA experience, they stared at me quietly, and then turned back uncomfortably to talking about Stuff. I felt dreadfully Pakistani, so foreign, and so disappointed that I wasn’t in heaven even though I was at ISNA. And no boy had liked me yet. 

Several ISNA’s later, I am off to Detroit for ISNA 2014

It is now 21 years since I first heard of ISNA. I still have no money, but I have friends – friends I can crash with. I did eventually find a man, by the way. I didn’t meet him at ISNA, but I met him at the cousin of ISNA (AMSS, which is now NAAIMS).

isna-hallwayNow when I attend ISNA, I am overwhelmed by the crowds of uncles, aunties, sisters, brothers. I smile indulgently as I pass through the hotel lobby where young Muslims flirt and make eyes at each other. I roll my eyes at the fanfare around the arrival of celebrities – and then I try to shove my way in so I can catch a glimpse of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. I am excited to see friends I haven’t seen in years. On my way to and from lectures and events, I see friends from all over N. America. I am connected now, and I am home. As home as possible. 


Check out my Meet the Author event on SUNDAY AUG 31, SESSION 12M, 11:30 AM – 12:45 PM. Room 311AB. 

Grieving, yet not giving up

Like many of you, my heart is wrestling with Israeli atrocities in Gaza, the deaths of innocents including children there and elsewhere, the continuing and growing colonization of Palestinian land, the horrible unchecked suffering and deaths in Syria, the struggles of IDPs from Waziristan, the still unrecovered girls in Nigeria, now the completely insane shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines plane, and I could keep going.

Nowadays, I check social media in the morning, and then I shut it off for the entire day. Everyday, I hope that there will be better news, that the deaths will stop, there will be ceasefires, there will be some integrity, the US government will take ethical stands, and everyday, I find worse news. I know I have the luxury to compartmentalize and that this is probably irresponsible of me. I’m slipping into depression, grief, frustration, and even anger. So when my friend R.R. (she prefers anonymity) posted this status, it spoke to my heart. I want to share it with those of you who are also struggling with the sadness that is running through these days. I was raised in a pretty conservative Sunni Muslim family. I don’t know as much as I should about Shia Muslim practice but I have a deep respect and attraction to it and I find in it a spiritual wisdom that many of us can be enriched by.

R.R. says:

“I think perhaps it is time for me to share with you something I shared with the women at the Muslim-Jewish retreat this past June. It is about what I appreciate most about my religious tradition, about being Shia: having different spaces for feeling and processing grief, and understanding your place in the world as a result.
The first kind of grief is the lamentation. This is the kind of grief where you feel abandoned, in a confused whirl, in great pain; you need to know that there is something out there beyond all this, that there is some kind of hope to be found. I’ve always found these feelings beautifully encapsulated in the turning point of Dua Kumayl, one of the most important duas in my tradition. It begins with affirming the greatness of God but soon segues into a search for understanding, trying to figure out what went wrong, and then into a lamentation, asking, is it possible to be made to suffer, to call upon God’s mercy and not receive it? Is it possible to be abandoned by God? Is that actually possible?
And the answer, the turning point, is a long and beautiful HAYHĀT – “Far be it!” The rest of the dua affirms this – this is not what we know of God, this is not how we know God, other than as Mercy. Thus, we cry out:
“O Light of those who are lonely in the darkness!”
يَا نُورَ الْمُسْتَوْحِشِينَ فِي الظُّلَمِ
This is the grief with space for hope when there appears to be no reason for hope. This is personal grief, and personal hope.
The second kind of grief is the grief of unimaginable injustice, of things that should never happen but do. This is the heavy grief of Ashura.
This tragedy is of such enormity that it goes beyond understanding: people who called themselves Muslims tortured and killed the Prophet’s own grandson and members of his family. What is there to say? How could this ever happen? There is no sense to be made of it, no boundaries to be drawn around it, no containment. It is done. All you can do is cry, and wail, and beat your chest, and sit with your grief.
And yet: kul yawm Āshūrāʾ wa kul arḍ Karbalāʾ; every day is Ashura, and every land is Kerbala. This story, this unimaginable injustice, is not over; it repeats itself in every time, in every land. You are not grieving only for the Prophet’s grandson and his family; you are grieving for the world. The injustice in our world needs to be acknowledged, and we must grieve for it. It must be made known through our tears, our witness, our memory. This grief is communal, and it must be communal.
There is more to the story of Ashura, beyond the death and destruction. There is the story of Husayn’s sister Zaynab, the survivor to whom we owe knowledge of what happened at Kerbala, and who continued his heroic acts of speaking truth to power. She is just as much a part of the story of Ashura as is Husayn, but her role would not exist without her grief, which is now our grief, and the grief of the world.
And so, when we feel overwhelmed with injustice, when we cannot even process its enormity, when there is nothing else we can do…we grieve. Our tears say, we know this happened to you and we will not forget or let others forget. Your lives are worth remembering. There will come a time for a different role but that will come later. For now, we sit with our grief.”

So, I sit with my grief for now, and wait. I know I share my grief with many of you, and that helps. But I wait, wait, and I do what I can to overcome the hate, pain, and suffering before which I so often feel so extremely helpless.

The Ramadan moon confusion

This year too there was much confusion over the first day of Ramadan.
PicMonkey-Collage-EidOn Friday, my family went to Turkey Run State Park in Indiana, and on our return, tired, sweaty, and hot, stumbled into the internet where Muslims and Muslim orgs were announcing the beginning of Ramadan on Saturday and Sunday. The moonsighters insisted that there would be no visibility Friday night, so Ramadan fasting would begin on Sunday. The astronomical calculations folks, including Fiqh Council of North America (and ISNA) say that the new moon was THERE, whether you could see it or not, and also, it’s Ramadan in Makkah, so it’s Ramadan NOW.

We decided, for about an hour, that we would be going with the moonsighters. Tradition! What is more rational than going with the moon? Also, why follow the Makkah Ramadan?! Crescentwatch, Chicago Hilal, and the Toronto Hilal folks all agreed with us. ISNA, FCNA, and our local Islamic Center, however, said, no, Ramadan was now, because the moonphases thingummy showed a new moon right now.

Reluctantly, though, I raised the question to Svend: are we going with the moonsighters because we believe they are right, or because we’re being lazy? Islamic law gurus say that it is okay to go with any valid opinion among the diverse opinions, but opportunistic hopping around is not cool. Since Svend and I normally go with the local community, and believe strongly in doing so, it would be opportunistic on our part to switch loyalties just in order to possibly skip one of the fasting days, or to delay the beginning of fasting, as tempting as it seemed.

I prayed two cycles of istikhara prayer, and asked for guidance. I also realized, as I was praying the istikhara, that I wanted God to tell me Sunday, not Saturday. So I asked protection from such weakness, and requested the strength to do the right thing, whatever it was.

I recalled, also, the words of Tehzeeb Auntie, who is my Sufi guide in many matters, and who says, “I make my decision and I ask God to bless it.”

Personally, I am extremely disinclined to take responsibility for my religious actions. (My shaikh even chuckled about this, and told me to just do a single istikhara prayer about ALL my twenty questions). I would really like someone to just tell me what to do at every step. A bright light could shine over the correct outfit to buy; the right baby name could appear in a dream — and so on. This is my preference, because I am chronically indecisive.

But this, as you know, doesn’t happen. At least not for me. My shaikh told me: “We guide people upwards with their eyes closed.” In other words, the tasty treats of visions, dreams, reassuring miracles, blinding signs, etc. are not handed out. We must abstain from the gluttony of such spiritual treats and move on upward simply because.

So, after the istikhara prayer, I was still feverishly checking my friends’ Facebook posts and a variety of organizational websites, and wishing someone would tell me what to do. I still kept coming up against the confusing barrage of a diversity of viewpoints. Why, why, why, I asked, why is our community so disorganized and so chaotic?

Ultimately, Svend and I made the (ethical?) decision to stick with our usual practice and to avoid what seemed to us to be sneaky opportunism, in our circumstances. It’s not what I’d tell anyone else to do, but it made sense to us.

As I was going to bed, setting my alarm (for freaking 3:12am), I realized that this several-times-a-year chaos of Muslims running around asking “What do we do? What will YOU do? What shall I do?” is actually a positive thing.

Despite my reluctance to do so, and despite the diversity of community opinions on this Issue, I eventually made my own private decision, in prayer and reflection, in consultation with God.

We don’t laugh at the same jokes anymore

On my first day in Lahore, I was excited to share this video “S*it Punjabi Mothers Say” with my family. Svend and I have watched this video, along with many others by Lily Singh, an extremely talented Canadian-Indian comedienne, with our 8-year old. We have watched it many, many times, and we never tire of it. Our 8-year old daughter has adopted some of the phrases in it (“sick people hondey!”)

But when I showed it to my family, I was amazed that no one cracked a smile. What’s funny about a strict Punjabi mother? That’s just the way all mothers are. My tastes and my sense of humor are profoundly diasporic. The Punjabi mother stereotype is hilarious in the contrast it represents to the low-key White suburban mom who addresses her children with courtesy and “discusses” s*it with them. The Punjabi mother calls her daughter “gaindi jaiee” (fat rhino) and cusses her out with abandon. These “s*it ___ mothers/fathers say” are funny precisely because of their place within the spectrum of mother/father types of various racial/ethnic/cultural groups. As many anthropologists say, human nature is not really the same everywhere, nor does “funny” mean the same everywhere.

I’ll bet this has profound implications for cultural understanding and conflict.