The Genesis of the Islamic Society of North America

The Pioneers’ Vision and How it Has Endured

By Iqbal J. Unus

Sept/Oct 2023

It is often said that those who do not know where they came from will not know where they are going. This is a truism that applies even more aptly to communities and organizations, and by extension, their leaders, and members. It is important that those who take the reins of organizations today grasp the fact that their long journey began with small steps, and that their communities of thousands have grown from the dedicated service of a few.

Today ISNA is arguably the most influential of organizations and institutions that represent and serve the interests of the growing community of Muslims in the U.S. and Canada.

ISNA claims and promotes leadership and service as its guiding principles and draws from those themes for its most visible activities; an annual convention, its flagship bimonthly award-winning publication, two annual education forums, and its active engagement with governmental and religious institutions. In addition, a vibrant youth program, an inclusive orientation, and a stewardship outlook have earned ISNA a prominent place in the Muslim American community. ISNA’s annual conventions and Islamic Horizons magazine are recognized as significant contributions to the maturity of the Muslim American presence in North America.

ISNA’s comprehensive work in many areas of Muslim American life has enabled it to initiate and lead collaborative initiatives among Muslim organizations to advance common goals. By thoughtfully collaborating with faith-based organizations, civic-minded activist groups, and governmental entities at national levels, ISNA has secured a preeminent position as a representative voice of Muslim Americans.

How did it all begin?

In 1963 a small group of Muslim international students met on the campus of University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Enthusiastic about the opportunity to make a mark on the social discourse in a continent they had barely settled in yet and committed to Islam as their ethical and spiritual anchor, they began to chart an ambitious plan to strengthen bonds among Muslims and promote friendly relations with people of other faiths across the continent.

Their vision was to encourage and enable Muslims in the U.S. and Canada to live their lives in their new environment inspired by their Islamic ethos and to present Islam to their new compatriots. They knew they had the energy and the foresight to chart a course that would guide generations of Muslims to nurture an Islamic society in this continent.

They were still students. They decided to stake their presence where they had the space and privilege to plant the roots of their movement — on college campuses. They formed the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada, popularly known as MSA.

Their numbers on various college campuses increased rapidly in the 1960s leading to the expansion of MSA chapters across the country. While these chapters provided Muslim students on college campuses a cultural home, MSA at the continental level offered services and representation far beyond their reach. From sending advanced students and learned scholars to help Muslim communities celebrate religious festivals to offering advice and support in navigating new cultural norms, MSA was what the Muslim community needed. It offered seminars and conferences, handouts and publications, and an affirmation of their Muslim identity where it was scarcely recognized.

MSA’s second annual report in 1964 listed thirty-four community organizations that it had already established contacts with. In the following two decades MSA established a sure footing in the Muslim American community at large. A college campus could not confine the unbridled energy and ambition of these international students, the best and the brightest in days of “brain drain.”

The all-encompassing vision

The students’ ambition was reflected in the 1972 Constitution of MSA, which described MSA as “a nonprofit Islamic religious organization.” The organization’s stated purposes included “to help Muslims in the U.S. and Canada carry out Islamic activities in pursuance of Islam as a complete way of life,” and “to assist Muslim students, alumni and communities to form local chapters and carry out Islamic activities.” Its membership qualifications stated that “All Muslims are eligible to participate in the Islamic activities of the Association.”

The Constitution did give “A Muslim student” an upper hand as an “Active Member” as opposed to “Any other Muslim” who would be an “Associate Member.” Active members had full voting rights and could seek election to offices in the Executive Committee, whereas “All Muslims” could vote for the office of Secretary for Community Affairs.

The Constitution encouraged the formation of local chapters “at University Campuses and in the communities to facilitate achieving the purposes of the Association.” It reinforced this definition by including in its description of Affiliation “All Islamic Organizations in the United States and Canada … that conduct regular Islamic activities.” (Emphasis added)

Further reading of the MSA Constitution, presented to the General Assembly on September 2, 1972, defined an organization that was wedded to a vision, aspiration and commitment associated with the interest of all Muslims within its reach.

MSA’s annual conventions reflected this broader foresight, and a community-oriented vision, through their themes. For example: Contemporary Islamic Movements in 1970, Islam and Muslims in North America in 1972 and Future of Islam and Muslims in North America in 1974.

Notwithstanding its student roots on a college campus, MSA unquestionably dedicated itself to all Muslims and all things Islamic. It focused on the place and participation of Muslims in American society at large. It asserted its presence and practice in both the U.S. and Canada as the two prominent countries in North America.

Thus, the ISNA was born on Jan. 1, 1963, as the MSA, anticipated to fulfill the pioneers’ penetrating vision to lead and serve Muslim Americans and American society at large.

This is a vision that ISNA honors at its 60th annual convention in Chicago this year.

Pathway to ISNA

During these early MSA years, graduate students and newly appointed academics and professionals formed nascent professional organizations. These professional organizations — Islamic Medical Association (IMA), Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers (AMSE), and Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS) — teamed with MSA to form a Council of Presidents for coordination and collaboration purposes.

In the Spring of 1977, MSA’s leadership gathered about fifty local community leaders for consultation at the MSA headquarters in Plainfield, In. Following this consensus-seeking meeting, dubbed “Closing the Ranks,” the MSA executive committee set up a taskforce to respond to the growth of post-college and off-campus Muslim communities in the U.S. and Canada. The Council of Presidents endorsed the idea.

The deliberations of this taskforce, and its subcommittees, resulted in a set of significant recommendations. The recommendations created the Muslim Community Association of the United States and Canada (MCA) and redefined MSA exclusively as a student organization with a membership limited to college students. The recommendations also created an umbrella organization, the ISNA, to bring together the newly minted MCA and the three professional organizations with the redefined student organization, the MSA, as its constituents.

This process of MSA graduating to the predestined ISNA, with a redefined MSA as the new student-based constituent, took almost two years. A steering committee educated its members and other Muslims in the U.S. and Canada about the concept and implementation of the anticipated changes. Several teams of two MSA leaders each traveled to major cities and spoke to Muslims in mosques and other places of their gathering. They explained the rationale behind the proposed transformation and displayed the new organizational structure that will follow from those changes.

In May 1982, during a joint MSA-ISNA convention at Indiana University in Bloomington, In., eleven past MSA presidents spoke in a special session titled “From MSA to ISNA: Twenty Years of Islamic Work in North America.”

The Steering Committee reported on the referendum results on the new draft of the ISNA constitution, and attendees elected MCA’s Executive Committee. At the following joint MSA-ISNA convention in 1983, members of ISNA elected and appointed ISNA’s first Majlis ash Shura and ISNA officers. These actions, in effect, transferred MSA’s interests and assets, as well as members who were not students, and off-campus chapters, to ISNA. ISNA’s Majlis ash Shura met for the first time at ISNA’s headquarters in Plainfield in July 1983.

Having fully developed from its proto existence as MSA, and following a later merger with MCA, ISNA entered the eighties amidst a backdrop of global turbulence that created waves in the U.S. Each and all these events nudged ISNA to respond to the Americans’ curiosity, concern, and distress about Muslim Americans and their organizations. ISNA responded by opening itself more to mainstream America than it had done in its MSA years. It sought to openly speak for Muslims at large and found a slowly growing acceptance of its representative role in American society.

Over the years, ISNA has endeavored to live up to its matured vision: To be an exemplary and unifying Islamic organization in North America that contributes to the betterment of the Muslim community and society at large.

This year, ISNA celebrates its sixty years of service since its founding as MSA in 1963. Firmly anchored in its roots, reaching into its unbridled potential, and aiming high at what is ahead, ISNA is navigating its way forward with confidence in its ability, drawing strength from its members and well-wishers and its whole-hearted belief that no success comes except from God.

Iqbal J. Unus is former president of MSA (1975), former secretary general of ISNA, and current ISNA Board member.

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