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Friday, May 13, 2005

Culture of Conferences

This is becoming an embarrassment. Izzy Mo asked me a series of questions several weeks ago, and I haven't yet answered them all. Here's the answer to question #2. There's just one more question left. It should be posted within the next few days.

Are you traveling to the States anytime soon? ISNA is having their 42nd convention in September.

I’ve stopped going to conferences...or lectures for that matter. I’ll be honest and admit I rarely hear anything new; it’s just the same old thing rehashed continuously. Most of the speeches are motivational by nature: Islam is great; Islam is peace; Islam will solve all the problems in the world. Just articulating those statements with a bit of emotion can get the audience revved up, and I’ve seen speakers whip the crowd into a mindless frenzy. At times I feel as if our leaders are deluding themselves (or their audience). People get excited because of the vibes in the room, not realizing that when they go home, they have nothing substantial to hold on to - the speeches are more fluff than content. So if you ask most Muslims why they wear hijab or whether honour killings are part of Islam, a surprising number do not know. There needs to be more than just emotion. I want deep analysis. I want recognition that there are problems in the Muslim community. I want sound, rational arguments and real engagement with the sources. I come away frustrated instead.

The Muslim community needs to acknowledge that conferences are just the beginning. We cannot continue to have conference after conference. We cannot have endless lectures. We need to analyze what purpose they serve – and how we may achieve these purposes in different and better ways. Many conferences are intended to change the lives of those who attend – to revive the Islamic spirit, so to speak. They are a call to action. Are these conferences serving their purpose? Are we seeing real improvement in the community? Or do we go back to our own lives of mediocrity and apathy after our two-day Islamic immersion?

This Culture of Conferences is also disturbing to me because it serves as an entertainment extravaganza – most people are not attending with the goal of learning about their religion. Why not organize a series of workshops or break-out groups so that ordinary Muslims can learn from the scholars in more meaningful ways? The bazaar atmosphere, the socializing, the autograph-signing, the celebrity singers – I have nothing against them, but they’ve become larger than the conference itself.

I worry about the attendees. The indiscriminate clapping confounds me. The speaker makes the stupidest or most innocuous statement - and the mob cheers and whistles wildly. I wonder whether they’re even listening. And the screams of “allahu akbar” - they sound like battle cries to me. I remember when a Muslim celebrity made an appearance at a conference in Toronto. The amount of security the organizers arranged was just overwhelming and still the audience went berserk. People sobbing as if the Day of Judgement was upon them. Others rising and cheering endlessly, ignoring the speaker’s protestations. Fans trying desperately to touch him. Even women, grasping at his sleeves, perhaps hoping to collect some of his “noor” while unknowingly losing some of their dignity. It was simply dehumanizing and it disgusted me. I was unfortunate enough to be sitting near the front, and when the speaker left the stage, the crowds surged up from their seats. I remember being jostled, pushed rudely aside, my fingers stepped on by vacuous women in spiky heels hoping to touch, to photograph, to catch a glimpse of their beloved hero. Those in the back pushed forward, standing on chairs and shoving past security lines. It felt as if a hot new group had come to town and I was at the wrong venue. I sat there in my seat repeating “oh my God” and trying hard not to cry. If this is the state of our ummah, then we have much to work on.

I must caution that I am not against conferences and lectures. I just want collective learning initiatives rethought so that they make a difference in the lives of the Muslims who participate. And I am not condemning the speakers. Some of them are superb. All of them deserve respect for their time and efforts. Some may have reasons for speaking in the way that they do. They may feel they are providing what the audience wants: A simple message for a simple people. And the people...I’m not trashing them either. Perhaps they’re just a reflection of the society we live in. Maybe I’m being too hard on my community. Maybe I’m expecting too much. And maybe, just maybe, I’m too opinionated on this matter.

Having said all that, I must ruin this little rant by confessing that I may attend the ISNA conference after all. And there is one conference I never miss: the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference in Toronto. It’s the best I’ve ever seen, and for that I must be satisfied.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Read the answer to:
Question #1 here.
Question #4 here.
Question #5 here.
Only 1 question left!


  • At 5/13/2005 06:21:00 p.m., Anonymous Yusuf Smith said…

    As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

    :And the screams of “allahu akbar” - they sound like battle cries to me.:

    I often find them irritating - people start takbeers in the middle of someone's speech, and in some communities you actually get young boys wanting to "have a go" at calling takbeer. So you'll have a speaker interrupted by a young boy shouting "Nara'i Takbeer".

    As I commented a couple of weeks ago, the same men who loudly shout takbeers in the middle of someome's speech won't give a fraction of their energy to salawaat on the Prophet (sall' Allahu 'alaihi wa sallam) when it is called for.

  • At 5/14/2005 01:56:00 a.m., Anonymous A brother said…

    If you ever get the chance, I invite you to attend any conference with Sheikh Wajdi Al-Ghazzawi of Saudi. If it's deep analysis, rationale, and stimulating q&a's that define your "good" conference, then I believe you won't be disappointed with his. He's not a huge, super-famous bigshot, but Ma Sha Allah, I found him to be everything you seem to miss at the generic conference.

    Oh, and congratulations on your direct admission to the doctoral program. May Allah grant you taufeeq to apply your gifts to the betterment of Islam.

  • At 5/14/2005 11:20:00 a.m., Blogger Hasan the Not-So-Great said…

    Yea ISNA conferences kida really suck. If you ever come to Houston Texas in around Christmas time, come visit the Texas Dawah conference. Texas Dawah has such a wide variety of speeches that really help. Like Yassir Fazaqa's speeches about Self-Image. Also there was one speech by this one shaikh for the young people called "Getting Married Young". The room was packed with youth for that one. Texas Dawahs' wide variety of topics made me want to volunteer there and now I am in charge of the Audio Team. Allah (SWT) rewards those who enjoy spending time for his sake. Inshallah try to coem to Texas Dawah.
    (Man I do bad advertising)

  • At 5/15/2005 03:42:00 a.m., Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said…


    I'm very surprised at your description of these conferences. Do the authorities do anything to try and stem this hero-worship, or do they cultivate it?

    I've also been privileged to hear the allahu akbar and yes, it does sound like a battle cry. A pretty scary one!


  • At 5/17/2005 02:30:00 p.m., Anonymous Fatima said…

    Masha'Allah, you articulated these sentiments very well. I too have come to realise that these conferences are of little benefit in the long term, since the majority of people attend them in order to socialize, "check out" the Muslim singles' market, or buy new "Islamic Gear".

    What I do find of great benefit, however, are the small camps and intensives offered by some groups, such as Camp Nur, which allow you to sit with scholars in a very intimate setting and take not only from their vast stores of knowledge, but from their excellent adhab (manners/behaviour) which I find, more than anything else, inspires in me a desire to change myself for the better...not just now, or two days after the gathering, but for ever afterwards.

    Blog on Safiyyah!

  • At 5/17/2005 05:41:00 p.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    Fatima! I'm surprised you agree with me;-)
    It is so good to hear from you, girl! What happened to the lunch date you were supposed to arrange?


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