Convention Regulars Reminisce

By Rabiyah Syed

Sept/Oct 2023

Since 1963, ISNA’s annual convention has been part of many Muslim calendars. With the first convention held in Urbana, Ill., ISNA has come a long way. From university lecture halls to gigantic convention centers, and from attendees staying in dorm rooms to nice hotels, the convention has really evolved.  

What has remained consistent is a great speaker lineup and an opportunity to meet friends from near and far.

Hamid Khan was the vice president of MSA Canada from 1972 until the late 1980s. He was also their science and technology advisor. One of his jobs was to invite speakers to the conventions.

“We used to invite speakers from India, Pakistan, Britain, and even South Africa. The speeches were not only for students, but for families as well,” Khan said.

Iman Elkadi, a former chair of MSA’s women’s committee, moved from Austria to the U.S. in 1967. Her husband learned about the convention from the founders, whom they knew from Europe. When Elkadi and her family arrived in the U.S, they attended their first convention in Ohio. She figured that would be a good way to learn about being a Muslim in the U.S. and to connect with fellow Muslims in the country. She was excited to go to her first convention because there were not many Muslims in Louisiana.

“We would travel a lot so that we could meet other families who had children because for many years, we were the only Muslim family in our town. The ISNA convention was the highlight of the year for me. We lived for it because it was what we needed, what we wanted, and what we enjoyed.”

Since she attended that first convention, Elkadi has attended numerous times over the years. The convention was very small at the start, so everyone got to know each other well. She got to make meaningful connections with other Muslim families, and her kids were able to play with other Muslim children. The families she had met were from all around the country, yet they kept in contact through phone and mail.

The sentiment was mirrored by Khan.

“Students and families came together and got to know each other. Muslims from around the U.S. and Canada would meet each other and make great connections,” he said.

MSA Canada worked closely with MSA in the U.S. in terms of planning conventions, starting programs for Muslim students and families, and building a large Muslim community. 

Women at ISNA Conventions

With the MSA women’s committee, Elkadi organized a girl’s camp for MSA. She remembers how she worked with the women she met to bring about change. At the conventions, the women used to have separate sessions which Elkadi and some of the other women would lead. They would discuss the role of women in society and how they could contribute in different ways. Many of the women, including Elkadi herself, were first generation immigrants. Some other immigrant women felt they could not contribute as they were “just” homemakers.

“We tried to get them to see that they could contribute whatever skills they had, whatever knowledge they had, even if it wasn’t formal education,” Elkadi explained. “We would have sessions about parenting and how to be a more productive member of society, from an Islamic perspective. That was our primary concern: how to get women to become more active in the community. 

She would write articles for Al-Imtihan Magazine about the different issues that women were facing. She also helped organize an effort to make different items to sell to the Muslim community.

“I remember, one year, it was very hard to find long sleeved dresses to wear for Salah, so we bought cloth and made dresses. We then sold them at the convention.”

They also created Islamic coloring books for kids and helped compile a book about Islamic parenting as well. Looking at the bazaar today with such a wide range of products, it is interesting to learn about its humble beginnings. The idea for the bazaar and selling Islamic items began with Elkadi and the women’s committee several decades ago.

On a personal note, Elkadi reminisces about her experiences attending the conventions, not only as part of the women’s committee, but as a Muslim woman and mother. She remembers listening to speakers, like Jamal Badawi. Her favorite talks were centered around spirituality rather than politics. She fondly looks back on how she was able to quickly make friends with everyone at the conventions, and how close they became. She still remembers how happy she felt being able to see her friends each year at the conventions.

“What I miss now is that when I go to a convention, I don’t know anyone,” she says.

The Muslim population has grown over the years making the conventions a lot bigger than they used to be. At the start, it was a small group. Everyone was able to talk to and meet just about everyone, but with bigger conventions, it is a little harder. Elkadi admits she does miss the way the old conventions felt, as she prefers smaller, familiar groups. She knows that having a big venue is necessary, as the Muslim community has grown.

“I have never enjoyed large crowds, but that’s just a personal thing,” Elkadi said.

“When the conventions used to be smaller, there used to be only one big Islamic speech at a time. In the evening, after the main speeches, there would be group discussions on different topics. Some people would teach things about Hadiths, Fiqh, and even topics students were majoring in, like accounting. I would talk about science and technology to engineering students,” Khan explained.

The group discussions worked well because of the smaller size. Now that the conventions are bigger, there are different sessions happening all at once throughout the day, with one big session that everyone attends at night.

“Multiple parallel sessions are nice as they can cover a variety of topics. However, that’s a little frustrating for me, because if there are two or three in the same time slot that I would like to attend, I can’t pick one,” Elkadi said.

Even though she misses the smaller, more familiar gatherings, she knows the heart of the convention is the same. It is just on a bigger scale to accommodate the growing needs. 

The ISNA convention has not only been a means to spread Islamic knowledge but also build a sense of community and belonging. And that is exactly what it did for Elkadi and her family. 

Rabiyah Syed, a Junior at Naperville Central, loves photography and is interested in pursuing a career in the medical field.

Tell us what you thought by joining our Facebook community. You can also send comments and story pitches to Islamic Horizons does not publish unsolicited material.