The good, the great and the can-be-better
By Kiran Ansar
A Zoom session may be a good alternative for a work meeting, but it cannot replace the energy of being surrounded by 15,000 fellow Muslims at the annual ISNA Convention. So how did people feel about attending in person after a Covid-hiatus of two years? Here’s a brief recap from some #ISNA59 attendees.
Oakbrook, Ill., resident Munazza Shahzad, who has been attending ISNA conventions for around two decades, grew up attending sessions and is now glad her adult children enjoy it too. “The Friday session, ‘Sustaining Islamic Values within the Family,’ was my favorite,” she said. “Shaykh Yaser Birjas (head, Islamic Law and Theory Department, AlMaghrib Institute) and Dr. Rania Awaad (clinical associate professor of psychiatry, the Stanford University School of Medicine) were to the point and kept us all interested.”
On Saturday, she loved Imam Siraj Wahaj’s (imam, Al-Taqwa Mosque, Brooklyn; leader, The Muslim Alliance in North America) talk about resilience, but wished that she didn’t have to wait so long to hear the main speakers. She applauded the MYNA sessions, such as Mufti Kamani (faculty member, Qalam Seminary) and Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans’ (scholar-in-residence, American Learning Institute for Muslims) “Quest for Sacred Knowledge.” She was glad her kids wanted to listen too. “ISNA has always been a family event, and I’m so glad it was back in Chicago and I could attend with both my parents and my kids.”
Lubna Saadeh of Riverwoods, Ill., agrees. She mostly attended MYNA sessions with her teenaged children and was glad they could discuss the topics later as a family. “My kids loved Ustadh Ubaydullah because of his energy and clear, practical message,” said Saadeh. “My daughter had recently attended the MYNA camp, and it was wonderful to see the youth so excited. I just felt the entertainment was too much like a concert — but not in a good way.”
Out-of-state attendees also enjoyed the sessions. Philadelphians Mohammad Abdul Samad and his wife considered attending the convention in person and spending time with their daughter a dream come true. They were very pleased with the reasonable hotel rates, airport shuttle service and ideal location.
They missed Imam Omar Suleiman (founder and president, Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research), who was on umra, but nevertheless considered the lineup very impressive. While renowned Islamic scholars like Shaykh AbdulNasir Jangda (founder, director and instructor, Qalam Seminary) always mesmerize the audience, two other speakers made a big impact on the couple. “Mr. Ajit Sahi (advocacy director, Indian American Muslim Council; receipient of Pluralist Award 2022) addressed how Muslims are being violated in India and downtrodden in Kashmir. He won my heart when he said that he was not a Muslim, but on the side of justice,” said Abdul Samad.
The other notable speaker was Khizr Khan (founder, the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Project; member, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) who encouraged the youth not to shy away from applying to Ivy League schools. He said that deans of these colleges ask why they don’t see as many applications from Muslim youth. His advice: Don’t be afraid to share how your faith has shaped you and to focus your life (and college application) on how you add value to your community.
Those present also enjoyed listening to Indiana state Sen. Fady Qaddoura (D) and how he inspired the audience to become more civically engaged.
“We were a little nervous this year,” said hospitality chair Asma Nizamuddin. “We didn’t know how many people would actually show up post-pandemic, but al-hamdu lillah it was a memorable experience for everyone.”
While it wasn’t her first-time volunteering with ISNA, she was honored that the convention chair asked her to be in charge of hospitality. Her team made sure that the speakers were always comfortable. From arranging for early check-ins for international guests to providing them with a quiet space to relax before the next session, the volunteers worked around the clock. One thing Nizamuddin would like to see changed is the distance between the assigned hotel rooms, for “it was tough for the volunteers to provide water to the speakers when the rooms were so far apart.”
Kiran Malik and her family from Bartlett, Ill., had two booths at this year’s convention bazaar. This was their first time at ISNA, and they were excited to showcase Masjidal, their cloud-based touchscreen adhan clock. Overall, she was very pleased with the sales and connections they made with customers and other vendors. “We sell online. But the feeling you get when you hear a teary-eyed mom sharing how the clock has helped her special needs son is just another level,” said Malik. “We were able to explain how Masjidal is not your parents’ generation clunky adhan clock. Its content changes every day, and its modern design fits seamlessly with today’s aesthetic.”
The one thing Malik hopes that Muslims will learn is to stop asking for discounts. While she doesn’t want to broad-brush any segment, those who nickel-and-dime small businesses and pay full price at big box retailers should know better. “I asked them if they haggle at the Apple Store,” she joked.
Even though the bazaar layout changed unexpectedly and pre-convention communication could have been better, she stated that the atmosphere was collaborative among vendors. Malik believes ISNA is an experience in which every Muslim-owned business should participate at least once every couple of years. “The highlight for me was when one mom stopped by to share how her children have memorized the morning and evening azkaar (supplications) just by listening to Masjidal.”
Hana Rasul, 17, from Elgin, Ill., attended the bazaar for the first time as someone who could make her own shopping decisions. “Before this, I just remember tagging along with my mom and picking up some Islamic books.”
She loved the Nominal jewelry booth the most — primarily because of its setup. Everything was $20, and they had a “buy 3, get the 4th free” promo too. Tons of people were working the big booth, and traffic flowed around it without any bottlenecks. There was no waiting to be helped, and transactions were quick and easy. “It was such a no-frill setup, but it was the best customer experience,” Rasul remarked. She also liked the complimentary coffee tasting at the MUHSEN booth, which was being packaged by their adult special needs program participants.
Room for Improvement
If there was one area that people were not too happy about, it was the food. From limited choices to inflated prices, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Attendees understand that event prices must be higher than regular retail because of the costs involved. But then the quality and quantity should reflect the prices. “I didn’t eat anything at the food court,” Rasul said. “I couldn’t justify a $5 water bottle and $20 plate of biryani with one small piece of meat. And since the beef tacos had run out, the chicken wasn’t even zabiha. I didn’t expect that at an Islamic convention.”
Attendees also felt that the young kids’ programs could have been better. “Having the kids at an entirely different location is extremely difficult for parents, as they sometimes have to leave the session for pickup,” noted Saadeh.
Shahzad agreed. Her young nieces and nephews didn’t let their parents enjoy the sessions, because there wasn’t much for children of their age to do. “Logistically, having the prayer upstairs was a little awkward for some. Hopefully, next time they can have the main speakers in bigger halls like they used to,” she added.
Kiran Ansari, a writer and editor, resident in a Chicago suburb, enjoys a low-key life with her children, aged 20, 17 and 8.
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