My first Islamic conference had a huge impact on my life.
It was the May long weekend, and I had come home from university just to attend this amazing, earth shattering, faith building, networking event held by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Thousands of people descended upon the Toronto Convention Centre to glean pearls of wisdom from such awe-inspiring community leaders as Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, Imam Siraj Wahaj, Dr. Jeffery Lang, Dr. Bilal Phillips, and Imam Mokhtar Maghraoui.
With my new convert, rose coloured, lemon gumdrop and rainbow world view, I was in heaven — literally floating on a wave of soaring faith. Finally, I was able to see all of the theoretical Islamic practices that I devoured from books and the Internet put into practice.
The air was electric with excitement and with the great potential that the Muslim ummah could achieve in Canada. People greeted each other with messages of “peace.” Neighbouring food outlets offered limited supplies of halal food. The entrance fee was expensive, but absolutely worth the investment. There was a bazaar selling mountains of hijabs and jilbabs and row after row of books providing “sound Islamic knowledge.” Men and women sat segregated during the speaking sessions, and men graciously made way for me as I passed. The adhaan rang through the entire convention hall. We prayed in a congregation of a thousand. People showed off a diverse array of Islamic-inspired clothing without fear of judgement. It was a mass of Muslims just being religious without a care.
Lecture topics ranged from “Online halal interactions between the sexes” and “Purification of the Heart” to “Making the most from your interest-free investments” and “Surviving the Secular: Raising Children according to the Sunnah in Canada.” I even got to have a few embarrassed fan-girl words with Dawud Wharnsby. Too shy to speak to him without support, I rushed the stage with a good friend in tow – aiming to use our combined muslimah presence to push past the male fan-boy throng.
After beating back the boys, I lowered my gaze and blushingly told him how his music was instrumental in my conversion. He muttered some kind of thanks, “masha’Allah” and “Alhamdulillah” and off I went, nearly passing out from experiencing Muslim stardom.
That was over a decade ago.
Yesterday, the Hubby, Eryn and I decided to go to the ISNA headquarters to visit the bookstore and pick up some fun children’s books for our home library. Unfortunately, the bookstore was closed, so we called the number on the door and spoke to a brother who directed us to the main prayer hall. Confused, we figured that there was some kind of mosque event and we were just coming in as they were closing up.
A sad, sagging poster announcing the 37th Annual ISNA Convention hung on the wall. My jaw dropped open as I read that the main speakers were the President and Secretary General of ISNA. I had to read it three times because I just couldn’t believe that it was the actual convention. The Hubby even suggested that perhaps it was only for board members. The set up was austere. It didn’t look like thousands of people had just spent two days engaging in lectures, food and community.
Sadly, the poster wasn’t lying. Tickets were only $10 and the main events were held in the high school gym. Not necessarily surprising given ISNA’s recent controversy, some of the topics included “Legal Issues and Charities,” “The Process of Shura,” and “The Future Leadership of Islamic Institutions.”
The speaker list was lacklustre when compared to the days of yore — and even though I saw Katherine Bullock as I wandered around, her name wasn’t in the program.
I just couldn’t believe that in ten years the ISNA convention went from a blockbuster premier Hollywood event, to a private showing in some guy’s basement. It was like growing up and realizing that the older members of your family are not invincible: that they have the capacity to lie, go off on tangents, and even though they helped raise you, may have a particular worldview that no longer matches yours.
Many, many warm memories were made during that first conference weekend and carried me through the rough and tumultuous early convertitis years. Now that I’m older and wiser, I can recognize cracks within the community and problems that my new Muslim eyes previously glossed over — but when I look back, I can’t deny that I had a good time and a positive experience.
I wonder if the decline of the convention is a sign of what’s happening with our Muslim leadership. Is it a time of adjustment between the old and the new orders? Are our Muslim leaders (at least ISNA) unable to meet the demands of the growing community? Is the same thing happening to the American ISNA conventions?
Did anyone make it to this year’s convention — and what did you make of it?