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Highlights of Ilm Fest 2008 NYC

Posted by the man of few words under Events, Reflections


Bismillah arRahman arRaheem


In an event consisting of an all star cast of speakers it was ironic that the most poignant, defining moment of the entire two days was when no one was speaking at all. Before a rapt audience of 1000 American Muslims stood the very icon of American Islam, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, teary-eyed and too overtaken by emotion to speak. In an event whose theme was American Muslim identity it was fitting that Imam Siraj was the one to give the final speech about his journey as an American Muslim. What drove him to tears, you ask? Read on.

The first annual Ilm Fest was a good omen. It demonstrated the pro-activity of our leaders in tackling difficult philosophical and social issues that American Muslims struggle with as a minority and sets a good precedent for future events. Shaykh Yasir Qadhi is the one who explicitly addressed the issue of Muslim identity, first by exploring the history of Islam in America from the beginning to the present day, discussing everything from theories about early Muslim exploration of the New World, to the Muslim Slave experience, the Nation of Islam, right through to the advent of both early and recent Muslim immigration. Along the way we learned the amusing story about Hajji Ali, also know as Hi-jolly, the Greek convert from Constantinople who was hired to come to America and raise camels of all things. Shaykh Yasir then honestly acknowledged that identity is such a complex issue and our situation in the modern era so unique that he could only present many questions and give few answers. The most salient point Shaykh Yasir drove home was debunking the widespread myth that Muslims cannot live in non-Muslim lands and further emphasizing that Muslims just by practicing Islam in daily life engaged in a form of da’wa.

Shaykh Abdulbary Yahya and Shaykh Yaser Birjas added another dimension to the issue of identity by contextualizing the phenomenon of Muslims in minority countries with a historical perspective. Shaykh Abdulbary presented the experiences of the first generation of Muslims in Abyssinia and Mecca while Shaykh Yaser dealt with the Islamic Golden Age in Spain and the later persecution of Muslims who remained after the conquest of the last Muslim stronghold of Granada. These lectures helped to put our own experiences in focus. Though many stories were heartbreaking, especially of the persecution of Muslims in Christian Spain, they demonstrated the resilience of Muslims in preserving their religion. As we all know the early generations not only preserved the religion but built the foundations that would help it spread across the world. Successive generations of Moorish Muslims, on the other hand, would eventually lose their religion, but not without a fight. As extremist Catholics instituted forced conversion Muslims began to adapt as best they could, by taking their religion underground, even creating a unique language to transmit Islamic knowledge secretly. Women, the traditional custodians of the household, championed preservation of Islam in ways like hiding Islamic paraphernalia such as books and prayer rugs in the walls of their homes and even in their own clothing during searches by the Inquisition. The tenacity of Muslims in such extreme circumstances really puts things in perspective for those of us who are living in much milder circumstances.

Important issues pertaining to Muslim social life were not neglected. Shaykh Waleed Basyouni gave a very inspirational talk about studying Islamic knowledge in the West. The entire message boiled down to one maxim, don’t wait for anything. He described how many people prop up barriers for themselves like lack of Arabic knowledge or not having memorized the Quran or not being able to go overseas. With modern technology, innovations like al-Maghrib institute and sheer willpower there are no real excuses for not pursuing Islamic education. Furthermore, he exhorted Muslims who were serious to develop a passion for learning and feed off of it to attain what they wanted, if they were indeed sincere. Shaykh Waleed did not shy away from controversy when he also brought up violence in the name of God. He explicitly focused on Sunni extremist groups and went into detail about the various causes of extremism. After being asked bluntly about the permissibility of suicide bombing as a tactic he unequivocally condemned them as forbidden under all circumstances and referenced the fatwa of the great Saudi shaykh bin Baz . He also went so far as to say that statistics that describe 90% of Muslims as moderate were not good enough as even such a small minority can cause a lot of damage. A large part of avoiding extremism, according to him was to understand the roots it has in the experience of oppression, war and injustice in the Muslims world. Extremism is thus usually the product of a thirst for vengeance cloaked in religion.

Shaykh Muhammad Faqih counseled Muslims to abandon extremes when thinking about interfaith dialog. He established principles by which Muslims should engage in interfaith activities and they ranged from giving da’wah to participating in projects for the general well being of the society. For these reasons Muslims are allowed to enter the places of worship of other religions and to invite people of other faiths into the masjid . The evidence for this was no less than the practice of the Prophet himself, peace be upon him. An example he gave of the value of this sort of interaction was a local interfaith panel discussion on abortion and stem cell research which the shaykh himself was unable to attend. In his stead he sent a Muslim doctor whom he taught a few rudimentary principles of usul al fiqh . In the Q and A session 14 out of 16 questions were directed to the Muslim on the panel, such was the impact that the basics had on the audience. Having discovered the important contributions Muslims can give provide to such a controversial subject they were then invited to a national dialog. Such is the value of engaging with other communities as opposed to Muslims isolating themselves.

Shaykh Yaser Birjas took up the familiar mantle of marriage in his provocative talk on the problems American Muslims face in the US. Much like Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, he had no easy answers for many of the problems that Muslims face but at the very least enumerating the potential pitfalls of these marriages can help us understand endemic divorce rates and try and reverse the trend. He spoke about the complicated gender roles that Muslims must struggle with as the changing nature of the family has placed non-traditional demands upon both husband and wife while their thinking still remains traditional. An example that Shaykh Yaser gave was the two income family where the wife is an equal partner in household finances but the husband still required her take care of cleaning and cooking. This situation can lead to marital friction and stress if not dealt with explicitly prior to the marriage. Another issue that featured prominently was the finances and education. Men delay marriage until they are financially stable which means accruing various degrees and certificates while women who are waiting pursue higher education until they eventually become “overqualified” and thus intimidate those men who also happen to be afraid of rejection. This convoluted situation leads men to pursue marriage to overseas women while American Muslim women have no choice but to compromise their standards as they continue to age and have fewer and fewer prospects for marriage. It all sounds gloomy but Shaykh Yaser, remained optimistic and stressed the need for communities to develop local support structures and networks that can provide marital advice, counseling and matrimonial services to create a more stable community.

But the highlight of the evening was Imam Siraj, however, before he could speak a surprise was planned. Shaykh Muhammad al Shareef, in a pre-recorded message gave the audience advice about leaving behind a good legacy so that they may continue to accumulate good deeds after they have passed away. He then began to relate how sometimes as a speaker who travels and gives many lectures all over the country once in a while doubt sets in as to whether or not he is making a difference. Then he addressed Imam Siraj and said that while he was a young he remembered listening to his lectures and they had a deep impact which stayed with him his whole life and contributed to the formation of al-Maghrib institute thus the institute, it’s students and any baraka that has come from it is all part of Imam Siraj’s legacy as well. It was a powerful message and inshallah it was one that gave the indefatigable Imam Siraj even more strength. But that was not all, Shaykh Yasir and Shaykh Muhammad both passionately related the influence that the Imam, a da’ee of over 30 years, has had over them in their youth. Shaykh Muhammad related that while he came to the US at 16 and his English was weak at the time he felt Imam Siraj’s passion through his presence while speaking and the impact he had on those around him including his older siblings. Shaykh Yasir declared that Imam Siraj’s tireless da’wa in America would leave such a legacy that we would be telling our grandchildren that we had the honor of listening to him speak. After all this it was time for Imam Siraj to speak. There was no doubt that the deep love and gratitude that was expressed just moments before had a deep impact on him and it took him a few teary-eyed minutes to be able to speak.

When Imam Siraj finally began to speak he about his experiences as an American Muslim he shared a great deal with us. He brought his soon to be married daughter out on stage and introduced us. After the marriage she will be going to India with her husband to do humanitarian aid work. But the way the Imam Siraj talked to us, it was like we were all his children, including the shuyookh who introduced us. Sincerely and with great passion he advised us to talk with one another rather than about one another, to give excuses for one another when we see our fellow Muslims seemingly engaging in the forbidden.

It was difficult not to be inspired by Imam Siraj that night, especially when he talked about his conversion, not to Islam but to the Nation of Islam (NOI). His dedication to what he believed at the time to be the truth led him, a college graduate, a math major, to quit his job and sell the 25 cent NOI newspaper Muhammad Speaks. He did this because he believed in the cause so deeply and profoundly he was willing to sacrifice everything for it. He related an incident when he was in one of the housing projects and he saw two men standing in the hall and he knew they were going to rob him. He had to make a choice, turn back and run or go forward. But his as a Muslim he would say he feared none but ALLAH, so he had to man up and make those words mean something. He walked up to both of those men, one of them with a creepy, stone face, jammed a copy of Muhammad Speaks under both their arms and demanded a quarter! Siraj saw the stone faced man pull out a gun and then say “you can’t rob a Muslim” then put the gun away and dug out a quarter from his pocket and handed it over. Subhanallah. Dedication like this for any cause is admirable, but alhamdulillah Siraj was guided Islam and he has perfected that dedication towards ALLAH, a dedication that puts us all to shame and challenges our commitment to Islam.

Imam Siraj talked about the history of the NOI and the eventual conversion of the majority of them to orthodox Islam at the hands of the son of Elijah Muhammad who, after the death of his father, stood courageously before the ministers and leader of the NOI to declare La ilaha illallah Muhammad arRasoolallah. It was a modern day mass conversion the likes of which has probably never been seen before or since in America. He also talked about the remnants of the NOI under Farrakhan and the invitation he received to lead their jum’a salat. For the sake of da’wa he went and the response was warm. Many inshallah are ripe for Islam and Imam Siraj has great optimism that the future of the NOI.

Yet one of the most powerful things I heard from Imam Siraj was something he said about Malcolm X. While he was in Egypt a shaykh taught him one hadith, just one, “none of you truly believe unless you wish for your brother what you wish for yourself.” He returned to America armed with the shahada and one hadith. Subhanallah, we who may have lived with Islam for years or all our lives and know much more than one hadith, will our legacy approach that of Malcolm X?

At Ilm Fest, it would have been easy to be distracted by the hot stuffy auditorium, the giant pillars blocking the view and the cramped seating but the eman, the love for our fellow Muslims, the blessings of the jama’a and of course the Ilm lit up the hearts and stirred the soul. May ALLAH bless all the speakers and all those who attended and may he give Imam Siraj even more strength, wisdom, guidance and a long life with which to do much good and may his end be paradise inshallah in the company of the Prophets, Siddiqs and Mujahids. AMEN! 

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