On the recent Columbus/Thanksgiving Day weekend, I was blessed to attend the third International Revert Muslims Conference in Brampton, Ontario, in Canada. This conference was hosted by the Ma’sumeen Islamic Center (MIC) 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 part of a diverse group of scholars and reverts with origins in Iran, Pakistan, India, Canada, and the US. The conference was organized and carried out by board members of the Revert Muslims Association (RMA), founded by revert Sr. Jennah Heydari in 2005, as well as many volunteers from RMA, IHS and MIC.
Speakers included Shaikh Jaffer H. Jaffer, the resident scholar of MIC; Shaikh Muhammad Ali Shomali from Iran; from the UK, Shaikh Muhammad Bahmanpour and Shaikh Mohammad Razavi; and from Canada, Shaikh Saleem Bhimji, Maulana Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi, Shaikh Hassnain and Sister Tahera Kassamali, and Shaikh Shafiq and Sister Arifa Hudda. The revert speakers included Sister Fatima Ali of Montreal, Brother Vinay Khetia of Toronto, and Sister Masooma Beatty of Colorado, as well as emcee Brother 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 both reverts and born-Muslims in the West. One of the beautiful things about the conference is the fact that believers from many different communities – and, in the case of many reverts, believers from no community at all – gather to experience the benefits of brotherhood and sisterhood. Many were moved by the sense of togetherness, and a sister from the US even announced her intention to convert to Islam after being invited to the conference and having felt the love and beauty of Islam at the event.
The topics of the lectures and workshops covered a wide range of needs. Shaikh Bahmanpour spoke on life, death, and the hereafter. He 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 supplied inspiring explanations and descriptions.
Shaikh Shomali spoke on the collective nature of Wilayah. Based on an article he has written in The Message of Thaqalayn (vol. 10, no. 3), he explained that we often think of Wilayah as an individual relationship of guardianship between ourselves and the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them) and God, but there is also a social function of Wilayah that stresses upon the unity of believers. Among many sources, he cited a saying of Imam Mahdi (may Allah hasten his reappearance): “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 may have, and that every believer should be meeting with and knowing of the well-being of other believers and interacting with them peacefully. He explained that this is a crucial duty in preparing the ground for the Imam’s return – we must unite and not divide, no matter what.
Shaikh Saleem Bhimji spoke on a Western-Muslim cultural identity in a very practical lecture highlighting six aspects of developing this identity. The aspects include using the common language, developing artistic expressions, finding contemporary manifestations of spirituality such as volunteerism, creating inclusive social events beyond just obviously “religious” events, and networking and supporting the businesses of one another.
Workshop topics included issues related to Salaat, Noor, the Qur’an, Prophets, Hijab, spouse selection, interfaith interactions, morals, facing difficulties, free will versus predestination, interacting with non-Muslim family members, mercy in the Qur’an, Irfan, social and domestic issues of reverts, and pluralism and perennialism to name a few.
There were Q&A sessions and many scholars and guests offered assistance to the cause of helping reverts, as well as of serving the needs of youth in the west. Vendors provided information and sold Islamic clothing, decorations, prayer items, and media. For many reverts, the vendors provided access to Islamic items and information that they did not previously know how or where to find them. Of course, Halal food was served throughout the duration of the conference.
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 photographed. Those 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 the group on Facebook. Anyone interested in learning more about Islam, getting help with revert issues or other issues, helping reverts find Shia contacts wherever they may reside, providing any 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 may feel the highly cultural/linguistic divisions of many Shia centers and organizations. It is often the case that reverts are seen as being 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.