Monday, October 17, 2011

IRC 2011

On the recent Columbus/Thanksgiving Day weekend I was blessed to attend the third International Revert Muslims Conference in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. This conference was hosted by the Masumeen Islamic Center and sponsored by the Islamic Humanitarian Service IHS, and was attended by born Muslims and reverts alike, hailing from regions all over the West, including the UK, Canada, US, the Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago. The speakers were a diverse group of scholars and reverts with origins in Iran, Pakistan, India, Canada, and the United States.

 The conference was organized and carried out by board members of the Revert Muslim Association RMA, founded by revert Sr. Jennah Heydari in 2005, as well as many volunteers from RMA, IHS and the Masumeen Center. Speakers included Sheikh Jaffer H. Jaffer, resident Alim of the Masumeen Islamic Center who was born in Los Angeles, California; Sheikh Muhammad Ali Shomali from Qum, Iran; Sheikh Muhammad Bahmanpour from the UK and Iran; Sheikh Saleem Bhimji from Canada; Sayyid Mohammad Rizvi from India and Canada; Sheikh Mohammad Razavi from Pakistan, Iran, east Africa and UK; Sheikh Hassnain Kassamali and Sister Tahera Kassamali from East Africa and Canada; Sister Arifa Hudda from East Africa and Canada; and Sheikh Shafiq Hudda from East Africa and Canada. The revert speakers were Sr Fatima Ali of Montreal, Br. Vinay Khetia of Toronto, and Sr. Masooma Beatty of Colorado, as well as emcee Br. Mohammed Langston from Detroit. British revert brother (and cast member of the movie 313) Abd al Rauf Shokoya spoke on behalf of Ahlulbayt TV and worked with staff to collect interviews with reverts for the program Revert's World.

 The intention behind organizing a revert conference was not to separate reverts from the general Shia Muslim population, but rather to bring together reverts and born Muslims alike from diverse backgrounds to address education, needs, and issues encountered by reverts and also born Muslims in the West. One of the beautiful things about the IRC has been the coming together of believers from many communities and, in the case of many reverts, no communities at all, to experience the benefits of brother and sisterhood. Many enjoyed the feelings of coming together and one lady even announced her intention to convert to Islam after being invited to the conference and traveling from the United States and feeling the love and and beauty of Islam at the event.

 The topics of lectures and workshops covered a wide range of needs. For example, Sheikh Mohammed Saeed Bahmanpour spoke on life and death in the hereafter. Sheikh Bahmanpour made a beautiful analogy between this world and the hereafter and a "caterpillar universe" and "butterfly universe". He taught that this existing universe will evolve in the universe of the hereafter and was apply to supply inspiring explanations and descriptions.

 Sheikh Mohammed Ali Shomali spoke on the collective nature of wilayah. Based on an article he has written in The Message of Thaqalayn, vol. 10, no. 3 (Fall 2009), in this lecture he explained that we often think of wilayah as an individual relationship of guardianship between ourselves and God and Ahlulbayt (as), but there is a social function of wilayah that stresses the unity of believers. Among many sources, he cited a saying of Imam Mahdi (as, ajtf): "Surely, if our Shi'ites - may Allah help them for their obedience to HIm - were united in their hearts securely on their promises with us, there would not be any delay in the blessing of meeting us." Thus, he stressed that the various communities should be working, meeting, and praying together in spite of whatever differences they have, and that every believer should be meeting with and knowing the well-being of other believers and interacting with them peacefully, and that this is a crucial duty in preparing ground for the Imam (as)'s return. We must unite and not divide no matter what.

 Sheikh Saleem Bhimji spoke on a western-muslim cultural identity in a very practical lecture highlighting 6 aspects of developing this identity, including using the common language, developing artistic expressions, finding contemporary manifestations of spirituality such as volunteerism, creating inclusive social events beyond just "religious" events, and networking and supporting the businesses of one another.

 Workshop topics included issues related to salat, light/noor, the Qur'an, prophets, hijab, spouse selection, interfaith, morals, facing difficulties, free will vs. predestination, and interacting with non-Muslim family, and there were also many other lecture topics such as mercy in the Qur'an, Irfan, social and domestic issues of reverts, and pluralism and perennialism. Question and answer sessions were held and many scholars and guests offered assistance to the cause of helping reverts as well as serving the needs of Western youth, etc. Vendors provided information or sold Islamic clothing, decorations, prayer items, and media, and halal food was provided throughout the conference. For many reverts, the vendors provided access to Islamic items and information that they did not know how to find previously.

 The Revert Muslim Association is already making plans for the next conference, and organizers are hoping that it will be held in London in 2012. Many of the lectures from this conference were recorded and pictures were taken. People interested in the conference lectures and images may visit the RMA website for more information. The videos may not yet be up but should be forthcoming. People can also join the forums there and/or the group on Facebook. Anyone interested in getting help to learn more about Islam, get help with revert or other issues, or to help reverts find Shia contacts wherever they may reside or provide other assistance can contact RMA.

 As a revert myself, I am grateful for the efforts of others that I have benefited from on my journey to provide opportunities such as this. Many of the efforts made by born Muslims for their own children being raised in the West are also of great benefit to reverts and are appreciated. Sometimes reverts have very bad experiences that can sour their understanding of Islam, and often they may feel the highly cultural/linguistic divisions of many Shia centers and organizations leads them to be always outsiders or guests and never really fit in anywhere. The multicultural nature of a conference like this and the use of the lingua franca both help greatly in forming relationships and providing a hopeful direction for the future.

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