“ISNA – Twenty Years: Anticipation for the Future Is Not a Mid-Life Crisis” By Mehrunisa Qayyum


Twenty Years: Anticipation for the Future Is Not a Mid-Life Crisis

Mehrunisa Qayyum

North American culture might view the age of 48 as an impending mid-life crisis.  However, from July 1st-4th the Islamic Society of North America has completed its 48th year as an umbrella organization with its 30,000 plus membership of individuals, community service organizations, community centers, mosques, charity groups, Islamic banking partnerships, and myriads of successful sponsors in Chicago, Illinois.  ISNA’s theme of “Loving God, Loving Neighbor, Living in Harmony” invited the familiar MSA, MYNA, and general programming, expanded its film and art festivals, and introduced the boys basketball tournament.  Convention Program Director, Basharat Saleem, initiated a documentary project to capture the familiar and new faces while asking, “Where do we see ourselves 20 years from now?”  As Imam Mohamed Majid, who hails from the Virginia area, assumes ISNA’s presidential role, panels continue to define our civic and spiritual challenges while looking beyond the Atlantic—for example, the Arab Spring.  North American Muslims excitedly anticipate the convention’s return to the traditional Labor Day weekend—which will insha’allah kick off in Washington, DC in 2012—two months before a presidential election.  As the list of media organizations that cover ISNA grows longer, the forecast into 20 years in the future prompts more questions about what and why global news outlets hope to catch at ISNA.

Inter-faith Is the Focus of Engagement

Where ISNA might be twenty years into ISNA’s future prompted optimism rather than skepticism when veteran speaker Dr. John Esposito stated that, “ISNA will continue to draw more Muslim and non-Muslim participants who want to engage in dialogue.”  Esposito serves as the Director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim Christian Understanding and observes how inter-faith efforts operate as the primary mission of ISNA engagement and will continue to expand across other communities.  Esposito alludes to the growing trend of non-Muslim faith partners in initiatives, like “Shoulder to Shoulder” as well as non-Muslim members experiencing the bazaar and purchasing their literature.

Towers of books, like “What’s Right With Islam” by Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, illustrate the growing audience of non-Muslim Americans interested in Muslim scholarship. (Imam Rauf  leads the New York based Cordoba Initiative.)  In fact, John J., a first time Catholic attendee from the Southwest suburbs of Chicago held up a bag full of books that he had just purchased.

The “Meet the Authors Program” facilitated reflections on identity values that did not always centralize the Muslim characteristics.  For example, Manal Omar discussed her book “Barefoot in Baghdad”;  another panel explored how 40 women spoke for themselves—not as a monolithic voice for Muslim-American women in “I Speak for Myself”.  Coincidentally in a separate, unrelated panel, Tariq Ramadan remarked that contemporary Muslim challenges encompass this unhelpful urge to broadly universalize the Muslim experience and to push for a uniform interpretation.  ISNA might consider Ramadan’s observation as newer scholars broaden the organization.

ISNA’s Traditions of Community Service

In the usual ISNA traditions, the Community Service Recognition Luncheon awarded its 12th Honoree, Dr. Hisham Altalib, for conducting leadership training in the US and abroad.  Dr. Altalib, as an Iraqi-American represents a role model to both his contemporaries and the diverse youth of MSA National.

Another ISNA tradition focuses on global trailblazers, like Tariq Ramadan and James Zogby, to deliver the keynote address.  This year ISNA leadership invited Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.  His work bridges many cultures by focusing on universal values as marked by “THE99” ranking among Forbes magazine top 20 trends for this year.  Al-Mutawa described how he translated his professional expertise in clinical psychology into superhero comic strip “THE99”—which combines the stealth, action oriented flavor of Batman with the positive messages of self-growth.  In 20 years, his readership will have memories of both Marvel Action heroes and “The99”—film deal or not.

Speaking of film, Muslim American film-makers showcased more than six films.  Noted Muslim North American film makers, like Zerqa Nawaz, Michael Wolfe, Alex Kronemer, and Musa Syed reconvened to engage one on one.  Films included “All I Wanna Do”, “Moozlum”, “The Blessed Tree”, “The Blasphemy” and “Abraham’s Vision”.

Muslim Diaspora Communities Expand on Both Sides of the Atlantic

From familiar to new speakers, ISNA continues to broaden its guest list to represent the global dynamics of other Muslim Diaspora communities.  For example, the Third Annual Turkish Symposium noted how Turkey’s success in political and economic areas facilitates further opportunities to lead in the region.  Moreover, Muslim Diaspora communities can lead in high government position.  Mahinur Ozdemir is the first Belgian Member of Parliament who wears hijab.  Ozdemir is of Turkish descent and excitedly expressed her hope to attend ISNA again before twenty years pass.

Another newcomer to the ISNA convention signifies the break from isolated communities as the Arab Spring reignites newer voices and participation.  Libyan Ambassador Ali Suleiman Aujali voiced his break from Gaddafi’s illegitimacy as ethical and humanitarian. In April, Ambassador Aujali resigned to stand with the people of Libya to protest Gaddafi’s leadership.  Similarly, Yemeni activist blogger, Atiaf Al-Wazir.

The Art Exhibit continues to operate as a silent participant in the larger convention.  Hopefully, twenty years into the future, ISNA will provide a platform for the different artist, outside of film, to interface in a more formal setting.  For example, the ISNA documentary project gained a better understanding of one particular artist’s inspiration to quilt the Quranic verses together.  Essentially, Mrs. Ibrahim’s Muslim-American quilt signifies the hybrid of regional Midwestern culture with the redefined broader Islamic art.  She has literally stitched diverse pieces of fabric for expressing her love for literacy, calligraphy, and quilting.

Organizations have expanded their networks from the west to the east coasts as well as filling up the public space with new questions. The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the Institute for Social Policy & Understanding (ISPU), and the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals (CAMP), among others, continue to provide a platform to learn about creative initiatives.  For instance, CAMP patroned a positive Muslim-American message by inviting the artist and directors behind “30 Days, 30 Mosques”—which will continue to the other 20 American states this coming Ramadan.

The next twenty years might evolve more rapidly in some areas rather than others depending on what the attendance and leadership ask of itself.  However film, scholarship, art, and community service evolve, hopefully the future will witness the complex growth of formalized networking and institution building.

Mehrunisa Qayyum


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15 thoughts on ““ISNA – Twenty Years: Anticipation for the Future Is Not a Mid-Life Crisis” By Mehrunisa Qayyum

  1. I find it rather laughable and pathetic that you choose to ‘cheerlead’ for such a patriarchal and conservative organization. What is most noticeable at the ISNA convention is which voices are NOT represented. A stamp of approval from ISNA is like the conservative Uncles giving you a slap on the back and a firm handshake, you have passed the conservative gauntlet of approval.

    What is the future for an organization such as this? Let’s look at the May/June 2009 issue of “Islamic Horizons”, ISNA’s monthly publication. A catchy title of “Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abuse”, four articles supporting the theme. The issue was, no doubt, inspired by the disturbing decapitation murder of Aasiyah Hassan (the woman who started “Bridges” TV to put a ‘positive image’ of Muslims was herself the victim of horrendous spousal abuse). Although the issue is devoted to Zero Tolerance for Abuse, in NOT ONE of the articles is mentioned ayah 4:34, the infamous ‘beat your wives lightly”. This ayah is routinely employed by uber conservatives to justify their abusive behaviors and is followed up with “my husband rights are eternal, so says the Quran!!” How do you fight this authoritarian interpretation? No direct arguments are presented in the entire magazine, it’s as if that ayah doesn’t exist. And this is typical for the whole ISNA psychology, “Ignore it, and it will go away.”

    Suffice to say, Laleh Bakhtiar was inspired by the mis-translation of 4:34 to translate the ENTIRE Quran. She translated 4:34 as

    “Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they spent of their wealth. So the ones in ac cord with morality are the ones who are morally obligated and the ones who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. And those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping places and go away from them. Then if they obey you, then look not for any way against them.” P 94 The Sublime Quran, 6th edition 2009

    And what was the ISNA Powers that Be response, a truly Zero Tolerance of domestic abuse translation? They refused to allow the book to be sold at the convention “I will consider banning it”-Mohammad Ashraf, ISNA’s secretary general of Canada. It was only the strong armed insistence of Ingrid Mattson in the name of scholarship that Bakhtiar’s translation was not banned (pp 267-268 A Quiet Revolution, 2011 by Leila Ahmed). Now that Mattson is gone and, once again, a male is in charge, I doubt we will see any more challenges to the patriarchal status quo of conservative Islam.

    So what you won’t see at ISNA: Gay Muslims, Dead beat Dad Muslims that don’t support their children, Single Female Muslimah heads of families and how to help them, Muslim distrust and vilification of Western values, Muslim Anti-Semitism, Muslim Homophobia, Muslimahs who refuse to wear hijab, translations or interpretations of the Quran that challenge the male dominance readings. No, those people and their issues don’t exist in the happy father-knows-best “Islamic-Disneyland” community that is known as ISNA.

    You won’t hear of Nurcholish Madjid, Amina Wadud, Mohammad Arkoun, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Mohamad Mojtahed Shabsetari, Mohamed Talbi, Huseyin Atay, Mohamad Sharour, or Sadiq Nayhun. Those people and their thoughts and ideas don’t exist at ISNA.
    Why don’t you call ISNA for what is: “Rooted originally in the gender-conservative Islamist movement and deeply influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaati, ISNA and MSA naturally and by definition represent the conservative end of the spec trum.” p 292 “A Quiet Revolution’ by Leila Ahmed

    The mantra of ISNA is “if you just ignore it, it will magically go away.”
    My prediction for the next 50 years of ISNA? A big bowl of denial with dollops of wishful thinking.

    • I was about to reply with a similar comment, agree on just about everything, I couldn’t believe ISNA was being supported on here. I haven’t been to the convention in years even though it’s been in Chicago for a while and I live there, I just don’t see a point if my ideas/pov cannot even be heard.
      Really, it seems like there’s no room for dialogue and what little dialogue that ISNA thinks it’s allowing is pathetic.
      The ISNA people are the same people who I argue with about Anthony Weiner’s wife being Muslim. I cannot even believe I had that debate, but yes, I was fighting to prove that Mrs. Weiner is still a Muslim even though she married a non-muslim.

      Going along with your DV comment, it’s exactly the same when you take the context out into the community. Sure, now everyone says and can agree that DV is a problem in the Muslim communities, yet when organizations and services are made by Muslims to provide aide for Muslims DV victims, they are completely ignored by the religious muslim communities (masjids, etc)-who are the same people going to ISNA.

      Although, you are wrong in that you will not see muslimahs who refuse to wear hijab. I think it depends on the specific subculture, but there are plenty. Ironically enough, ISNA is the place for ‘hook-ups’ between ISNA youth, which I find hilarious.

    • comments like this really bother me, because you’re employing the exact same tactics you accuse ISNA of doing; trying to force your ideological leanings onto others. ISNA is a private organization, run by donations and volunteerism; if the founders, donators, and volunteers lean conservatively, that’s their perogative, they have a right to express their religious views in any way, shape, or form in their magazines and conventions. To try and force them to espouse views they don’t hold is the intellectual equivalent of a conservative group pressuring liberal muslims to promote conservative values. If you’re so adamant in your liberal leanings, and want to promote these liberal writers and activists, then maybe you should start your own national organization and promote your own form of Islamic ideology rather than go around and just complain about it?

      • My problem with ISNA is how they market themselves. They claim to be the “biggest” Islamic convention in North America, as though “biggest” and “representative” are the same thing. This is like the Southern Baptists claiming they are representative of all North American Christians. They are not. ISNA is biggest because all the conservatives (and curious and clueless) turn out for it. People should understand that when they plonk down their registration fee, they are supporting a conservative Islamic agenda.

        I have heard tell of a liberal alternative conference to ISNA, but this is exclusive and you have to know somebody.

        I’m not sure it is a good thing that liberals organize. Look at what happened with Lenin. I think it is better that liberals go about their loosey goosey way, changing hearts and minds one comedy show, song, poem, novel, or play at a time.

  2. And talk about a mistranslation of the below passage? All she did was take out the verse in the Quran that mentions “Adthrubuhuna,” that’s not a re-interpretation of text, she’s just omitting a passage she doesn’t like. As far as I’m concerned, that’s intelletual dishonesty, which is why it was initially rejected.

    “Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they spent of their wealth. So the ones in ac cord with morality are the ones who are morally obligated and the ones who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. And those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping places and go away from them. Then if they obey you, then look not for any way against them.” P 94 The Sublime Quran, 6th edition 2009

    • Since you opened this can of worms, let’s dump the whole tin out.
      1) Do you believe that the Quran you hold in your hand today is the exact same, verbatim, version that the Prophet (pbuh) received from Jibreel? This is a myth that the conservatives would like to use as a litmus test for your belief.
      2) Do you think perhaps that there are parts of the Quran that need to be put into historical context? Perhaps beating your wife is as outdated as say, slavery?

      Despite their yearning for the limelight, the Ms. Nomanis and Ms. Manjivs are not the true threat to conservatives. It is the liberal academics who have knowledge of the texts and traditions and who use Western methods of textual analysis which are the true threat to conservative orthodoxy.

      • 1.) Yes, I believe the Quran IS the same; the Caliph Othman only re-arranged the ORDER of the Quran, he didn’t edit the text itself; he had multiple scholars work on it to ensure its preservation. The only thing he did was burn the local copies made by tribes who translated the Quran into their local dialects, which was problematic since that had the huge potential of mistranslating the verses, hence the burning.
        2.) I’ve heard that argument before, about “putting the Quran in historical context.” This argument assumes that the Quran was written with the presumption of local cultural norms, and if that’s the case, than that invalidates Islam as the “true” religion, because why would God send a religious text meant to instruct humankind for all time, if it could only be followed in the current cultural climate? Considering the Quran–in multiple passages–instructs men to be kind to their wives, the whole argument that the Quran allows for domestic abuse is contrary to other passages of the holy text. I prefer to translate “adhrubuhuna” to mean “separate” which is another–equally valid–translation of the root “daraba.”
        3.) I went to graduate school, so I’m an academic myself. Western methodologies are not full-proof methods of discerning meaning, especially considering the number of analytic theories that abound in academia. Just because something is labeled “Western” doesn’t give it automatic supremacy over other methodologies. While I’m also critical of conservative orthodoxy, I’m equally critical of arguments that automatically dismiss any other methods of interpretation besides Western-based ones.

    • Amne1
      I’ve read about this. It is a different translation. I’m not an Arabic scholar, but from what I remember of the argument, the word for ‘beat’ used in Arabic, can also mean ‘separate’. So she translated it as ‘Go away from them’, i.e. divorce.

      Considering that the Prophet Muhammad never ‘beat’ any of his wives, I think the translation should at least be considered as a possibility.

      • Thank you Michael, that’s the translation I prefer. I’m quite liberal myself and I’m currently studying Arabic. The translation for “Daraba” has over 100 meanings, so “separate” is equally valid with “beat.” I choose to interpret the Quran as employing the former. And I feel like the translator I criticized–if she knew Arabic as well as she claimed–would have just gone with that interpretation rather than just omitting the entire verse. That’s fodder for critics of Islam to point to people like her and say she’s a “Islamic apologist, and so is every liberal muslim who ‘hide’ the true meaning of the Koran.”

      • @amne1,

        With all due respect, you “prefer”? That implies an alternative interpretation. You contradict yourself when you earlier claim that the Quran is as it was 100 years ago and then break off with every known and acceptable Quran translations and tafsir, when you claim the the word in vers 34 of Sura 4 means “seperate”. Why havent existing scholars taken this onboard? Are you suggesting they are ignorant or simply missed out on this option? Is it even an option? Hardly.

        There was a reason that when translators such as Laleh Bakhtiar or others have sought to translate that verse differently it has been rejected. So if you prefer then clear you do not think the Quran is as it was when it was revealed. You should study the topic indepth before leaning on your personal preference. As it seems to suggest that you are dismissing or denying the importance of hadith to interpret the Quran.

        Michael Klaus Schmidt,

        Respectfully, the reason such an alternative translation can not be considered by existing or past scholarship (ulema) is simply that you can not pick what suits you. Well you can but then you also have to allow for various interpretations. Second reason why you are wrong, there is an authentic hadith in which the prophet Muhamad is said to have hit his wife, Ayesha, so hard that it hurt her. She is also the narrator of that hadith. Further there are some other hadiths which also support such measures when the wife indulges in disobedience or rebellion and the husband feels he has no further options left.

        There is also an authentic hadith which deals with the revelation of verse 34.

        There are also several scholars both in North america as well as in Europe who support this traditionally held belief and interpretation of that verse. And further some have even authored manuals as how to go about it while staying within the framework of Islam. You are clearly not meant to beat the wife senseless or just because you can.

        You should both study the topic beyond what you think and prefer. And you need to ask yourself why scholars and mainstream and most respected and used translators such Yusuf Ali have missed out on this alternative translation.

  3. Looks like the last line was ignored, “The next 20 yrs might evolve more rapidly in some areas rather than others depending on what the attendance and leadership ask of itself.”

  4. You think ISNA is conservative? Wow, with all due respect, you need to get out more. ISNA has been constantly blasted over the year for being too conservative. Silly example: Just this year, a vendor at the bazaar was selling humorous clothing (e.g., a shirt for infants that said “Sabr Required”), and he was asked by ISNA to take down the underwear he had up for display at his booth (the underwear said “halal” in the front and “haraam” in the back…hilarious).

    I disagree with some of your claims (I saw plenty of women who refuse to wear the hijab, including my sister, and panelists, who attend ISNA regularly, and I think its a stretch to accuse an organization with a recent female president of being patriarchal). Nevertheless, I understand your frustration that the voices of gays, single moms, and feminists are not given sufficient room. But thats something most other religious conventions have to do a better job of, not just ISNA.

  5. THIS is an intellectual playground? Amne1 with Masters, you are about as much fun as hanging out with Nellie Olson. What about that skinny kid, the one everyone is ignoring? He’s not Arab, he’s not French, he’s one of those half-savage Berbers from the hills. He must know what it’s like to be an outsider. Let’s hear what he has to say:

    “According to Arkoun, the following taboos, rejected, suppressed and forgotten topics should be located in the storage tank of the unthought and unthinkable: the history of the text of the Qur’an and the hadith, the historical and cultural conditions of the formulation of the shari’a, the phenomenon of revelation, the question of the creation of the Qur’an, the transformation of religious symbolism into state power, the legal codex, the status of the person, the legal status of women, tradition, orthodoxy.….Furthermore, one might add ‘all the cultures and systems of thought related to pagan, polytheistic, jahili, or modern secularized societies.’ ” P 149 “Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an”.

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