TORONTO – The usual threats of hellfire poured onto my screen, when I mentioned on Insta I would be attending Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) 2018, Toronto, Canada.
The annual conference is one of the largest gatherings of Muslims in North America. Its name reflects the organizers’ aim to create a large-scale event attempting to revive Islamic traditions of education, tolerance, and introspection.
SubhanAllah. Even two of those words are catnip to some in our community, having the power to send some into a frenzy. ‘Tolerance’ and ‘Introspection’ are being interpreted as a code for internal self-reflection, at the expense of affirmative or political forward action. As if the internal work negates activity in society.
Isn’t the aim to improve our activities by inner reflection, I thought as I accepted the invitation to attend and speak.
Sectarians pop onto my timeline, their faux-friendly questions, and a fish hook with an uninviting bait:
‘Sister are you Shiite?’ or sometimes “Do you know the truth about Shaykh So and So.”
The Splitters Will Have Us Live and Worship Alone
If we listen to each clarion call on social media against scholars or initiatives, our end is total isolation. Many have done just that, withdrawn from their local community after being confused, harangued, disengaged, by the intolerant, the fervent, the just plain mean-minded. And the wolf, that is Shaytan, picks off these lone sheep, leaving many religiously without direction, in a sea of secularism.
Perhaps that’s what these groups want, whoever they are, to weaken our bonds of faith in Allah and love for one another. To remove us from the protection and understanding that takes place when we gather to learn about Islam and the Prophet Muhammed in groups.
Path of Thorns
Don’t think you are immune to the ideas which circulate.
Hearing constant news bulletins decrying our brothers and sisters in different communities, those short videos by youngsters slickly decrying people of ilm, affect us. The fitna spread by angry trolls means we read these ideas hour on hour, absorbing them by onscreen osmosis.
Like you, I am not yet immune to the sickness of preconceived prejudice. Part of me did indeed presume, the conference would be three days of Heart Purification, with advice on how to improve our daily azkar. Good, essential, training for the believer. But, I have the heart of an activist, it is my background, my need to seek social change.
Would any of the elements of spiritual exercise connect or affect the here and now of these troubling times?
Active or Purifying The Heart?
As the conference drew closer I found myself wondering: When the Quraysh were attacking our Habib Prophet, did he (SAWS) recommend sitting in solitary prayer and making zikr?
At a time when Muslims are being herded into refugee camps (Rohingya, Syria, Yemen) or concentration camps (Uyghur), when Trump’s backers, fund Islamophobia globally via a complex but well-documented, could a line-up branded ‘Sufi Spectrum’ give the kind of biting, social commentary demanded by this moment?
Old Names New Skills
On arrival to the Metro Convention Centre, I headed down escalators to the underground, halls and souk area, handed a glossy brochure by a young volunteer in a purple scarf.
RIS ‘Reimagined,’ is a one-stop spiritual shop featuring 24 renowned international speakers,15 artists and 3 days of activities. The line up of globally renowned Shakerie (new word, you may borrow) was breath-taking, Maulana Tariq Jameel from Pakistan was an honored speaker. From the USA, wonders of our ummah, Imam Zaid Shakir, Shaykh Yahya Rhodus were billed to deliver a host of talks. As I arrived, the young volunteer team were abuzz with news that Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson had just flown in.
As a convert to Islam I have had to fight for the freedom to admire who I wish. Those who wish to disparage any who aren’t ‘their’ style of Muslim, have tried to push and pull me this way and that. I continue to seek Allah’s guidance. These wise people spoke to my heart from my earliest moments when I found their lectures online and gradually was blessed by hearing them share knowledge in person.
Entering the Souk for the first time, something did feel out of place. I stood gazing (I do this quite a lot) towards the queue at the coffee stand. Somali family, South East Asian couple, family speaking French (Algerian?), teenagers of Palestinian heritage, Malaysian elderly parents. I experienced demographic vertigo. No single Muslim culture seemed to outnumber any other, something I don’t remember experiencing anywhere else in the world. The crowd everywhere I looked could be an advert tagged; ‘The United Colors of Islam’ a representation of the diversity our global ummah.
A well know Hadith states the Prophet Muhammad, Allah’s Blessings and Peace be upon him, said in his final sermon:
“There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black, nor is the black superior over the white – except by piety.”
That moment for me was the start of a glorious weekend, where I realized I ‘fit in’ somewhere in this dunya. My inner scratchy discomfort of alienation, ever present, like a flu I haven’t been able to shake for eight years, receded. I kept repeating my intention to share, help assist. My internal virus of suspicion linked to loneliness, was replaced by what scientists call the ‘warm glow’ of happiness, a glow related to good deeds, the kind which give us a hit of barakah (which scientists call serotonin).
I had found a space, a people for whom my being a European convert, my ‘whiteness,’ was neither praiseworthy, nor exceptional. Here I was another puzzle piece, amongst a whole portrait of Muslims in the West.
Part Two of Lauren’s Canada experience will follow.