ISNA’s 60th convention called upon Muslim Americans to reinforce their taqwa as a way to move forward
By Rasheed Rabbi & Convention ReportersTeam
During the late evening of Sept. 2, Chicago’s Donald E. Stephen Convention Center buzzed with the eagerness of thousands of Muslims awaiting a unique religious experience as distinguished scholar Yasir Qadhi stepped onto the stage. But instead of dazzling the audience with a complex theological discourse, he led them on a journey through his own humble beginnings. With warmth and authenticity, he shared memories of Jamal Badawi (former member, ISNA Board) and this year’s recipient of the prestigious presidency award.
Sharing the same podium, Hisham Altalib, a living legend in ISNA’s history (an earliest leader of MSA and among founders of ISNA), requested for an extra minute, as his time came to close, only to complete the names and pay homage to those who had paved the path for Muslim Americans.
On Saturday afternoon, hundreds honored Ihsan Bagby, at this year’s sold-out Community Service Recognition Luncheon (CSRL) award. In his celebratory speech, he acknowledged the influence of Iqbal Unus (president, 1970-72). His gratitude flowed for wife, Waheedah Amatullah Muhammad, the guiding force behind his achievements.
On the evening of Sept. 3, a remarkable tableau unfolded. Twelve living ISNA presidents gathered on stage to receive well-deserved awards. All of them expressed their gratitude to those who had supported their leadership. If one missed a name, another swiftly rectified the oversight, thereby creating an awe-inspiring display of unity.
Honoring from the Heart
These moments are mere glimpses of ISNA’s 60th convention, an event at which people from every corner of the globe converged to honor others. But this was far from an orchestrated performance; rather, it was a heartfelt repayment of a debt owed and a realignment with the past leaders’ shared path to success. In this age of Western modernism, where predecessors are often dismissed as outdated, the convention shone as a rare gem, illuminating a culture of respect that is increasingly precious. Such reverence is well-deserved because they directed the audience toward the perpetually radiant source of prophetic inspiration.
Within this enclosure, the echoes of history and the spirit of gratitude guided attendees to transcend the boundaries of time and space, forging a profound connection with the prophetic tradition. Each speaker implored the audience to embrace the prophetic model so they can thrive amidst modern society’s temptations and distractions while remaining mindful of the Divine’s immersive authority.
The convention commenced with the jummah prayer, underscoring the significance of prophetic inspiration. President Safaa Zarour invoked the intense ambiance of the Day of Judgment, when even a nursing mother will be consumed by the weight of her worldly deeds. Asking how many of our deeds will be accepted on that day, he shared the myriad initiatives offered by ISNA and invited all attendees to help alleviate the burdens of accountability.
ISNA’s endeavors have expanded exponentially over the span of its six-decade existence, ushering in the formidable task of encapsulating it all within a three-day convention. To fulfill this goal, it crafted a systematic blueprint that unfolded during scores of sessions, featuring 150 speakers to reach 20,000 longing hearts. This often spiraled into daily commitments and the complexities of contemporary crises, as attendees felt too imperfect in their quest to connect with a perfect God.
Providing the minutia of those moving sessions is constrained by space, but I feel compelled to offer a high-level overview of how these pivotal sessions are intricately interlaced to heighten our awareness of God and enhance our level of engagement.
The convention commenced by delving into family dynamics. Shaykh Badawi shed light on the macro view of family, tracing it back to Adam (alaihi salaam) and how God ennobled the Children of Adam (Quran 17:70). He also spoke on the micro aspects of maintaining nobility within marital relationships. Abdullah Idris Ali (president, (1993-97), emphasized the concept of marriage and the ideal mindset required for it. Muhammad Nur Abdullah (president, (2002-06) highlighted the unique Islamic approach to embracing differences in race, culture, and color by emphasizing compassion in marriage.
Muslema Purmul (chaplain, University of Southern California; co-founder, Majlis) structured these ideas into three tenets: the spiritual foundation to bring spirituality into everyday life, the intellectual foundation to understand eschatology and the embodiment or application of spirituality and knowledge in daily life.
Faith flourishes through interconnectedness and mutual support among families and broader communities. The next session delved into community cohesion. Imam Mohammed Faqih of Memphis stressed active listening and drawing inspiration from the first four caliphs, who valued open communication even during times of conflict. Mustafa Umar (religious director, Islamic Center of Irvine) elaborated on the Quranic applications as a theoretical constitution. Muhammad Ninowy (scholar, author, and physician) addressed using usul and fiqh to explain how clashes of the mind can result in clashes of the heart, leading to a loss of faith.
Friday’s final session concentrated on adab, defined as engaging in the prophetic model to become resilient. Abdul Nasir Jangda (founder and director, Qalam Institute) explained that religious devotion is a vehicle toward one’s goal. Muhammad Akram Nadwi (dean, Cambridge Islamic College) stated that the Quran teaches us how to improve engagement by incorporating faith in our lives. He drew examples from the Prophet’s (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) life.
Ingrid Mattson (president, 2006-10), focused on keeping engagements positive during times of grief. Zaid Shakir (co-founder, Zaytuna College) stated that he held the attendees accountable for acting upon the Quran’s words to cultivate resilience in a world filled with multidimensional crises.
Saturday morning sought to address this accountability by making Islamic education in this country more engaging. Habeeb Qadri (educator, author, and youth activist) shared his research on students’ engagement levels and how technology can help increase them. Susan Labadi (member, ISNA’s Education Forum Committee) focused on including AI tools, specifically the KhanAmigo and Muraqaba mobile apps, to navigate the “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) world facing unprecedented challenges” (https://muraqaba.app/).
Quality education is essential to dealing with discrimination, racism, Islamophobia, and other aspects of global diversity. Margari Hill (co-founder, MuslimArch) and Ameena Jandali (founding member, Islamic Networks Group) sought to raise awareness of these aspects for better engagements. Hill explained DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access) training and the 4F (Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn) response to help people cope with uncomfortable situations.
While these are internal aspects needed to change psychological mindsets, Jandali urged their application in external environments, such as hospitals and law enforcement teams, to facilitate a welcoming environment to engage unbiasedly with all. Ubaydullah Evans (executive director, American Learning Institute for Muslims) concluded the session by applying these techniques to address the community’s enduring racism and inequality.
On Saturday evening, the audience was ready to embark on the personal journeys of leading Muslim luminaries who overcame challenges and harnessed hope during difficult times. Dalia Mogahed (director of research, ISPU) shared a unique reflection on Quran 82:8: “when the girl [who was] buried alive is asked.” She noted that on the Day of Judgment, silent and inanimate objects will be given a voice, and then challenged the audience to reflect upon their accountability for the millions who silently suffer from discrimination, oppression, and injustice.
Imam Shiraj Wahaj made a poignant reference to George Floyd’s death at the hands of Officer Derek Chauvin. He was convicted, and his fellow officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng were held accountable for their complicity. Wahaj cautioned against such complicity.
During the well-attended Saturday closing session, Shaykh Yasir Qadhi led us toward fulfilling that accountability simultaneously in this world and the hereafter. He urged the audience to sincerely acknowledge this country’s moral bankruptcy and family crises, even if “cancel culture” abandons us, because God is with us. He remarked that Muslims transcend the left-right and Democratic-Republican divides, because they are Muslims first, the Quran is their guide, and the Prophet is their role model.
Hamza Yusuf (co-founder, Zaytuna College) explained that Quranic and prophetic engagement is a means to harness the light of righteousness, which will make Muslims recognizable on the Day of Judgment. He urged everyone to assess their actions and engagements to determine whether they are a source of light or of fire in the hereafter. Ieasha Prime (director of women’s programming, Dar-al-Hijra Islamic Center) assured the audience that everything Islam prescribes is for humanity as a whole, not just for Muslims.
Muslim Americans’ rationality and individual strength were the topics of discussion for Sunday morning’s session. Marium Husain (President, IMANA) explained how Islam makes complete sense when viewed through the lens of medical science. Imam Shamsi spoke on harnessing physical, intellectual, spiritual, mental and familial strength with faith to yield peace and tranquility in families. Uzma Syed (Chair, National Muslim COVID-19 task force) elaborated upon nurturing a relationship with oneself, and Rania Awaad (clinical associate professor, Stanford Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science) explained the Sunna’s teachings to utilize available resources to accept and manage overwhelming emotions.
The subsequent session brought together political leaders and figures to share the progress of American Muslims with the audience. Mizan Basrwy, the White House’s liaison to Muslim Americans, confirmed that President Biden had prioritized addressing Muslim American concerns and presented a letter from him. Representative Summer Lee (D-PA-12) voiced her concerns against the forces that work against minority communities like Muslims and African Americans.
The concluding Sunday main session was dedicated to youth empowerment. Hadia Mubarak, former MSA president, stressed the need to withhold judgment in order to radiate the unconditional love necessary to fostering a welcoming environment in our ever-diverse society. Yasmin Mogahed (author and international speaker) highlighted the current identity crises as a resulting complexity of extensive diversity without godly references. She pointed out that we used to question our national or ethnic identity, but now face basic questions about our gender or species. To counter the challenges posed by immoral societal norms, she pointed out the necessity of embodying a lifestyle rooted in constant engagement with godly guidance.
Yahya Rodis (founding director, Al-Maqasid) referred to Surah al-Kahf to illustrate how God strengthened the hearts of those youth who demonstrated their faith both in words and action. Finally, Abdul Wahab Waheed (co-founder, Mifta Institute) ended the session by mentioning the impactful actions prescribed by the Prophet, highlighting that true influence means impacting more people rather than accumulating individual success and wealth.
The final session brought all 12 living ISNA presidents on stage, thereby exemplifying how to become impactful individuals. This convention stood as a powerful testament to unity, respect, and dedication, all central to ISNA’s mission. Additionally, the Q&A session with the Fiqh Council of North America’s scholars addressed a full-room audience to explain the Sharia rulings on such issues as mortgage, niqab, and divorce.
ISNA’s History Panel covered the fascinating tale of ISNA’s emergence. The “Intentionally Parenting the Next Generation” session called for investing time in our children’s spiritual growth, and two AMSET sessions delved deeper into global warming and cognitive health. Each session echoed the call for Muslim engagement in mainstream society.
This year’s convention served as a vibrant celebration of shared values, a living embodiment of prophetic inspiration, and a resounding call to engage in pursuits aligned with our passions. What set it apart was the continuous appropriation of each session’s engagement with the eschatological purpose of life, nurturing our “religious conscience” throughout. For the three days of the Labor Day weekend, these enriching sessions let us dwell in God’s presence, which is not a faraway heaven but resides within our awareness and engagement in every fleeting moment. We were offered a taqwa-infused framework to cultivate a reciprocal closeness to God as the most rational, comforting, and guiding force in our American lives.
Rasheed Rabbi is an IT professional who earned an MA in religious studies from Hartford Seminary and is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry from Boston University. He is also the founder of e-Dawah (www.edawah.net) and secretary of the Association of Muslim Scientists, Engineers & Technology Professionals. He serves as a khateeb and Friday prayer leader at the ADAMS Center and a certified Muslim chaplain at iNova Fairfax, iNova Loudoun and Virginia’s Alexandria and Loudoun Adult Detention Center.
Other contributors to the report are Kiran Ansari, Sundus Abrar, Rabiyah Syed, and Tasnova Khan