American Civic Life

On Their 60th Anniversary, ISNA Celebrates Interfaith Bridgebuilding 

By Arshan Khalid
Islamic Society of North America's 60th anniversary celebration with an interfaith banquet, September 3, 2023. Photo courtesy of Arshan Khalid

Islamic Society of North America's 60th anniversary celebration with an interfaith banquet, September 3, 2023. Photo courtesy of Arshan Khalid

“This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — Black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace,” reflected Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his penultimate book fittingly entitled “Where Do We Go From Here? 

Where do we go from here? That is a great new question for humanity.   

On September 3, 2023, over 200 members of different faith communities, clergy, government officials, and public servants gathered to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Islamic Society of North America’s founding by joining together in an interfaith banquet and dinner.  

I have always wondered: why is it that we do this? Why do we still gather? Why make the effort, and why attempt to come together? The question and the answer to it are somewhat obscure. It is perhaps even a little enigmatic and possibly a little elusive. Interfaith attendees to such events always describe a feeling of warmth, a sense of togetherness, and a feeling of vulnerability that they say they have hardly experienced other than in gatherings like this. So, henceforth, people keep coming.  

The Parliament of the World’s Religions just returned to Chicago after 30 years, the city of its birthplace, and thousands gathered to capture or even get a taste of this feeling that many describe as enthralling. This gathering at the Islamic Society of North America is a similar attempt from the Muslim community. As ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) grows to 60, 60 years also approximately marks the year in which the great Civil Rights leader Malcolm X transitioned into orthodox Islam and became formally known as El-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz after that.  

But this transition also marked a parallel shift in Malcolm’s life.  

Malcolm X wrote from his Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, “During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept on the same rug — while praying to the same God — with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in words and the deeds of the white Muslims, I felt the same sincerity among the Black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana.” 

Although not visible, it was a transition in Malcolm’s life to a more ecumenical position in his views on collaboration, community, bridgebuilding, and understanding. Malcolm X’s views converged with his contemporary, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Dr. King often reflected upon what he called the “sacred” words of the Declaration of Independence, a “promissory note.” He wrote, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they signed a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note promised that all men — yes, Black, and white — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”   

Being vulnerable with each other, no matter how difficult it is, we learn something more about ourselves.

But why am I saying this, and what am I trying to convey? For the Muslim community, a gathering like this is a testimony that the promissory note of, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is still alive and becoming. Despite the struggles of xenophobia, shattering of communities, and separation, this American dream is still very much alive and living. It is a testimony that in coming together, something special happens. That is being vulnerable with each other, no matter how difficult it is, we learn something more about ourselves. 

And finally, in being in solidarity and harmony with each other, we learn that life is about sharing and community building. It is supposed to come together, regardless of our differences. A verse of the Qur’an states, “O humankind! Behold, we have created you all out of a male and a female and have made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.”  

Therefore, we hold a gathering as an attempt to get to know one another, to meet each other, and to honestly try to get a glimpse of one another despite our seeming differences. It is then in the hope that we will move closer and closer towards realizing that perfect union that we dreamt of and in the hope that we will all play a part together in realizing it. I leave you with the words of the first African American former President, Barack Obama, in this hope — a hope that we all see as American and that we all have witnessed repeatedly:  

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. Because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass, that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve, that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering a new era of peace.”   

Arshan Khalid holds a master’s in divinity from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His senior thesis was entitled “A Place for All People: The Possibilites and Challenges of Interfaith Organizations, from a Muslim Perspective” in which he studied the leading interfaith organizations in America.