Big ISNA '09 Part I

Subhanallah, what a weekend!

Where do I begin…

We arrived Friday afternoon to the DC Convention Center, and I went inside to pick up my name tag and ISNA bag. I checked out the schedule, and decided to try to catch the end of Literary Gems of the Quran Part I. I attended one of Br. Nouman Ali Khan’s sessions here in Orlando and it was incredible. I didn’t know the speakers that were listed, but as I neared the room I was pleasantly surprised to hear the voice of Shaykh Yaser Birjas instead! I had only ever watched his videos on YouTube or Practimate so it was wonderful to finally hear him in person.

I admit I couldn’t enjoy the whole session, partly because I was late and also the adrenaline rush of getting there and the somewhat confusing layout of the convention center, and walking down to the Renaissance hotel for the MSA program, but I did take some notes:

Every tense has it’s own pronoun, be it for a group, man, woman, human beings, etc.

صرف (sarf) = morphology.
A letter can be powerful in and of itself. When letters are put together, they make powerful words.

In the Arabic language, one letter can be one word. For example, the word “see” is رأى , or ر . (raa)

مكتوب (maktub) = the thing that is written.

The shorter the sentence, the more powerful it is. Using more words than you need is a weakness.

When you talk, speak less; but more profoundly.

Makki surahs are shorter, more profound, more terse. Madani surahs are more relaxed, more detailed.

After the session we prayed Maghrib, and then I went to the main Friday night MSA session, Defeating Depression with the Light of God. (I ran into the GDM students on the way there, and we walked together! I felt much more comfortable signing than last time I saw them. My ASL is improving because of the students I have at school!) The speakers were Altaf Husain, Ingrid Mattson, and Omar Mahmood. This was a really great session. Omar Mahmood joked about taking a self-diagnostic test for depression and being surprised that the results showed he was clinically depressed. Some of the questions were, “Do you think about death often?” (Yes.) and “Do you often wonder what is the point of life?” (Yes.) After we finished laughing he said many of the things that we as Muslims are encouraged to reflect upon are often indicators of depression in Western medicine.

He went on to talk about how we as human beings are attracted to tragedy, because essentially we are tragic beings. He spoke about when Allah (SWT) informed the angels that He was creating mankind, and the angels asked Allah (SWT) why would He create beings that would wreak havoc and bloodshed upon the earth? Allah told them that He knew what they did not.

When he mentioned that, it reminded me of an exchange between Thomasina and Jack from an episode of Kings:

Jack: If I become king, my first order of business is to reinstate the guillotine, just for you Thomasina.

Thomasina: I give my life to protect this family. I expect to lose it doing the same.

Jack: Why? We’re all a bunch of conniving cowards hoarding over a carcass.

Thomasina: At your worst, yes. But at your best, you bring heaven closer to Earth.

Br. Omar Mahmood went on to talk about how we as humans are essentially broken, and we’re sorta limping along, trying to do the best we can. He talked about how often Rasulullah (SAW) would seek forgiveness from Allah, over 70 times a day. When Aisha (RA) asked him why he sought forgiveness so many times, he responded, “Should I not be a grateful servant?”

If the most perfect example of humankind seeks forgiveness over 70 times a day, who are we not to? And that was it for me, right there. We’re all imperfect beings. We all make mistakes and missteps and commit sins. The important thing is that we seek sincere forgiveness and return to Allah, never despairing of His mercy. ‘Cause even when your hope is gone, move along, move along, just to make it through…

I really enjoyed this session, it really opened my eyes that we don’t have to be perfect, in fact, it is IMPOSSIBLE to be perfect. There is always going to be something we’re unsatisfied with, there will always be mistakes we will commit. The one thing to remember is to never despair that Allah (SWT) will forgive us, never despair and think that Allah (SWT) is punishing us, in fact He is testing us. Never despair of His mercy.

The next session I went to was Living the Single Life: Benefiting from Your Time Before You get Married. The most memorable speaker for me was Br. Khalid Latif. Masha Allah he has this amazing lyrical way of speaking that hits you right where you live. He spoke about how to utilize our time now, to “be something for somebody,” and THAT, that RIGHT there, really stuck with me. It was something he said over and over throughout the sessions I attended at the conference and it needed to be said. Help someone else out with the time that we have. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, perfect our knowledge of a skill, do SOMETHING with your life. If you’re waiting for your life to begin when you get married, you got another thing coming. Before we can complete the second half of our deen we first must complete the half we have now.

The entertainment session was after, but I completely skipped that. (The marriage session ended at 1 AM.) I’m glad I did, because that meant I actually was able to get some sleep!

As I was trying to fall asleep, I kept praying to God to please, please, please, make three hours of sleep feel like eight….please make three hours of sleep feel like eight peaceful, uninterrupted hours of sleep! I guess it worked because I was able to wake up the next day, Saturday, July 4th at 4 AM for Fajr (It’s an hour early in DC compared to FL) and head to the convention center to pray. I was literally the first one there. I guess people were intimidated because from the outside, the massive convention center looks locked and unattended. I literally had to go and knock on the door (the big, huge, massive glass door) for the third shift security guard to let me in. She opened the door and I went in, expecting to see, well, people in the prayer hall. There was NO ONE. I prayed by myself because I didn’t want to delay, and after a while about 5 other people trickled in, but that was it. One of the other girls and myself decided to head over to the Renaissance for the after-Fajr talk. THEN we found where all the people were. They were walking up to the hotel rooms as we were walking in. We were able to catch the talk, Tafseer of Surah Al-Hijr (The Rocky Tract). I honestly can’t remember what the guy was talking about. I remember he kept saying “paradigm shift” a lot. I think it was way to early in the morning to be speaking of paradigm shifts, but what do I know?

One of the girls invited me back to her hotel for the continental breakfast, but that wasn’t until 7 AM. It was around 6 AM at this time. She said she’d give me a call around 7 AM when they were serving breakfast. I decided to go for a walk before breakfast. “A walk” turned into an almost two-hour trek. The air was so fresh, so full of potential, and so peaceful. I saw a few early morning runners and walkers, plenty of sleeping homeless people, and tons of cops getting the city ready for the night’s festivities. I walked down New York Ave, past the butt-end of the White House, past the Executive Building, and then looped around to the Monument, and the front of the White House. There was a Desi family taking photos, so I took their family group photo. We both agreed that we had picked the perfect time to come to the White House.

I wanted to go up to the Monument, but they were blocking it off. There was a gap in the barrier, and from a distance I could see someone walking around it, and when I asked the security officer if I could go to the base of the Monument he said, “No, we’re blocking it off…hmm…I guess I should close that gate now…” Argh! Why did I ask him. I should have just gone through! Better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission. 😛

On my way back a homeless guy asked me for some money. I gave him some bills and he said, “Thank you! Wow, you’re so beautiful…If I asked you to marry me would you marry me?” I laughed and told him, “If not in this life, then the next.”

I met another homeless guy from Somalia named Abdur-Rahman. He didn’t understand English too well, because when I told him I was here for a conference at the Convention Center, he started giving me directions to the Convention Center. I listened patiently and nodded my head at appropriate times, even though I knew where I was going. He ended with, “And off you go!” and continued on his way. As I was walking back, I noticed I was walking alongside a big ole’ church that seemed to span the whole block. I noticed there was a plaque that read, “This church, one of the Nation’s most historic, traces its beginnings to a small group of Scottish stonemasons meeting in a carpenter’s shop on the grounds of the White House during its construction in 1793.”

I thought that was so inspiring. I took pictures of the inscription.

When I finally got back to the Convention Center it was 8:30 AM. I was starving. I remembered seeing a cafe above the bazaar hall from Friday, and I tried to go into the bazaar hall, but security was admitting exhibitors only before 9 AM. I asked the security guard for a recommendation on where to grab some tea or coffee and a bite to eat, and he directed me to the First Cup Cafe on 9th and M Street, right on the corner below the bazaar hall.

From the outside, I thought it looked kinda shady. I considered looking for a Starbucks or something that I was familiar with, but I thought, Let me at least give it a chance and check it out. I’m extremely glad I did, because the moment I walked in I saw that the crew from New Muslim Cool was sitting there, sipping coffee! Including Br. Hamza!

The cafe is so cozy inside, there are chairs and big comfy couches to sit and read, and well-thumbed books on shelves covering a myriad of topics. It was so refreshing to find a nice little place that wasn’t owned by a rubber-stamp conglomerate.

When I realized who they were, we went through the whole requisite routine (“Are you…from New Muslim Cool? Br. Hamza?”) I got a chance to sit down and talk with him and his friend Br. Ibrahim for a while. I ordered a chai tea latte. Br. Hamza apologized on my behalf for my lack of coffee-drinking inclination when I told him I didn’t drink coffee.

I showed him the photos I had taken of the church inscription on my walk, and he really liked that. I thought it was fitting considering all the tribulations they’ve had to deal with in establishing their masjid in Philidelphia. Everything big starts small. Br. Hamza and Br. Ibrahim gave me some background on stuff that wasn’t shown in the documentary. If you aren’t familiar with the story, the FBI raided their masjid during Jumah (Friday) prayers. They kicked in doors, broke down windows, handcuffed people, and essentially ransacked the place, all under the pretense that some criminal from Utah was on the move and might have taken shelter in the masjid. Br. Hamza told me that the week before the raid, his daughter had fallen out a window and broke her arm. The day of the raid, one of the agents was taunting him and saying, “Oh we would have raided last week but your daughter broke her arm” or something like that, trying to taunt him, like, yeah we got tabs on you people 24/7. I guess there was no way to verify what the agent said because it never made it into the documentary.

Br. Hamza told me his wife couldn’t make it because she just had a baby last Sunday! I was surprised, although logically I should have kept in mind the events of the documentary did not take place recently. I was thinking, “Didn’t she just have one?” when it hit me, like, uh, yeah, New Muslim Cool wasn’t a live reality show.

We chit-chatted a bit more and then Br. Hamza and Co. had to roll out. Not before I got a picture with them, though!

After they left, I had an egg omelette with onions, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, and two slices of wheat toast. Yum. As I pulled apart the bread and broke off bits of omelette with my hands the Ethiopian woman who owns the place asked me bemusedly, “You want a fork?”

“Nah,” I said.  “Food tastes better with your hands.”

After I had some breakfast, I headed over to the Renaissance, ostensibly to attend Mars and Venus: Changing Gender Roles with Imam Zaid Shakir, Aisha Al-Adawiya, and Sulayman Nyang. Other plans were in store for me when I saw Shaykh Yasir Qadhi and Shaykh Yaser Birjas waiting on the opposite side of 9th and K Street, about to cross over to the convention center side. They looked like they were in a hurry. I was intrigued. As Shaykh Yasir Qadhi was about to zoom past me, I plucked up my courage and asked him what session they were going to. He told me they were heading to talk at a session in the convention center, and they had to be there in 5 minutes. I decided to go to their session instead. As we walked into the convention center and up to the second floor where the session was being held, I gave Sh. Yasir Qadhi and Sh. Yaser Birjas my business cards for Running Muslimah. They really liked the idea of a Muslim women’s fitness blog.

The session did not disappoint. I took mad notes. The session was Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness in the Maqasid al-Shari’ah (Goals of the Shariah).

Well, I’m going to stop here for now. I will continue tomorrow insha Allah and add pictures as well. Salaam!

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