ISNA Convention: America’s Largest Islamic Gathering
By Dr Ghulam M. Haniff
St. Cloud, Minnesota

Glimpses of the ISNA Convention in Chicago

Over the Labor Day weekend the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America, popularly known as ISNA, was once again convened in Chicago. The meeting was held in the suburb of Rosemont, just a couple of miles from the conveniently located O’Hare international airport. The proximity of the travel hub has contributed a lot in increasing the size of the yearly conclave.
The Islamic Society of North America dates it origin from an early association founded by Muslim students in the Midwest in 1963. Today, it is the largest Muslim body in the United States, or for that matter in all of the Western Hemisphere. In the beginning its annual gatherings were haphazard affairs, some of which numbered less than one hundred, though today its yearly events number into the thousands. For the past two or three years the attendance at the annual convention has been estimated to be in the range of thirty-five to forty thousand.
This Muslim body when initially incorporated was called the Muslim Student Association or MSA, with chapters on university and college campuses. Its goal was to keep the light of Islam alive for the students coming to America for higher education from the Islamic lands. For almost three decades after its formation the organization remained a student oriented body even as its founders turned forties and fifties and had become well-established professionals.
As communities of Muslim citizens and immigrants began to appear the organization was split into two, one to remain essentially for the students with universities as the base and, the other called the Islamic Society of North America to serve as a representative body of the Muslims settled in the United States and Canada. The reorganization took place in 1982 coinciding with increases in the number of Muslim immigrants to America.
Today, the conventions of the two bodies are held at the same location though most meetings are conducted separately. For both the organizations the annual conventions are the defining moments giving them their distinct identity, as well as nationwide visibility.
Until the last few years the conventions were largely an immigrant affair but in recent years the leadership of both, the MSA and the ISNA, has come increasingly from the ranks of American raised activists.
For the first time in its history the president of ISNA is a native North American, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, born and raised in Canada. Coincidentally, she is also the first woman to occupy that position. She brings high qualifications to the office as an academic and a scholar, with a PhD from a top university.
Most Muslims were elated that she was elected to head America’s largest and oldest Muslim body. It is said that Dr. Mattson is the only female at the moment to hold an elective position of that magnitude of a Muslim organization anywhere in the world. She was chosen by the membership through competitive election.
The other major change in ISNA is the appointment of Dr. Muneer Fareed, originally an immigrant from South Africa, to the position of the executive director of ISNA. He is the second person to occupy that position and is likely to bring his own style of leadership to the organization. His selection also brings generational change to the body and would likely attract younger people to play larger role in the affairs of Muslims in America.
That seems to have been apparent at the 44th annual convention where many more young people were involved in running the event. They were active in providing security, managing logistics, serving on the panels and directing the human traffic generally. It was pointed out that over 200 individuals had volunteered to see the convention through to its successful conclusion.
The convention frequently has been described as a three-day fun-filled fair that includes every thing from halal food, to snacks, to Islamic clothes, to Islam-oriented books rarely exhibited under one roof elsewhere. Educational software of all kinds was available to interested buyers. The huge, colorful, noisy bazaar that serves as the centerpiece of the convention has turned out to be a major attraction. The bazaar is visited by thousands of convention-goers. The sights and sounds are reminiscent of Islamic atmosphere generally found at similar gatherings in many Muslim countries. In the South Asian parlance it is a big “mela.”
However, the heart of the convention continues to be scholarly discussions conducted over the three-day weekend. These are organized in panels, several at the same time, to explore a particular topic. These range from finer points of Islamic theology to such mundane matters such as civil rights and political activism. This year one of the highlights in the panel discussion was the exchange of ideas with the authors of the books written by Muslims. Each session of these presentations was crowded with standing room only.
One of the initial purposes of ISNA was to create a forum where ideas could be exchanged in an Islamic atmosphere. That goal has been meticulously followed during the course of the last four decades. An interest in Islamic learning has blossomed on the American soil just as else where around the globe. Through the activities of this body, and others, the Islamic spirit is surely being rekindled in North America.
For decades ISNA has been and continues to be an umbrella organization representing the interest of all the Muslims in the United States. Its membership is open to every follower of Islam regardless of sectarian or other differences. For ISNA there is only one Islam, the one taught by the Prophet, with one global community. It wants to bring about an Islamic renaissance by reviving the spirit of learning that characterized the earlier period of Muslim history.
Through its conventions ISNA has sought to inspire Muslims, to bring them together, and to engage them in the reconstruction of the Islamic civilization anew.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.