Tribune Staff Writers
September 5, 1999
Thousands of the Islamic faithful--clerics, scholars, celebrities and ordinary individuals who crossed continents and oceans to heed calls to prayer and community--met at McCormick Place on Saturday for the annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America.
"This is a great context for us to get together for Allah's sake," said Yusuf Islam, the former British pop singer Cat Stevens, who converted to Islam in 1977, changed his name and left show business.
Aside from calls to prayer, Yusuf Islam's comments, which came during a program titled "One God, One Humanity," commanded the largest audience of the day Saturday.
As an imam softly intoned passages from the Koran, hundreds of Muslims at a time filed silently into the room, the verses echoing and tumbling around them in the cavernous exhibition hall at the lakefront convention center.
Outside the hall, hundreds more stood in small groups, speaking languages native to parts of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Children chased each other around registration booths as old acquaintances rekindled friendships and young people introduced themselves.
As many as 30,000 people were expected to attend the four-day event, which runs through Monday.
"Everybody comes here for their own reasons, but mainly for the unity of it all," said 19-year-old Ahsan, a computer science major at the University of California at Berkeley.
Members of an egalitarian religion unlike many Christian sects in that it has no institutional hierarchy, the North American Muslims had a unique opportunity to listen to and learn from Islamic scholars. Interpretations and modern-day applications of various verses in the Koran could be found in dozens of lectures and among scores of videotapes in nearby meeting rooms and exhibition halls.
But the most common reason for attending appeared to be the camaraderie of being among fellow Muslims.
"Because you're living as a minority in a community, this acts as a focal point," said Ausaf Faruqi, 43, a resident of London and managing editor of the Muslim news magazine Impact International. "Together, there is a sense of belonging, a faith system, a value system."
That theme of inclusion also was extended Saturday to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
At a news conference Saturday afternoon, ISNA President Muzammil Siddiqui said the theology of mainstream Islam "is to have good relations with all humanity, regardless of religion, color or gender."
Yet in the past, the Nation of Islam's teachings have equated being white with being evil, a stance some critics have called racist.
But recently, there have been signs Farrakhan is positioning the Nation of Islam to become more acceptable to the larger Islamic community, ISNA Secretary General Sayyid M. Syeed said.
Some of those changes, Syeed said, include observing Ramadan, a monthlong period of worship and fasting, at the same time as other Muslims, and including a Friday day of prayer in the doctrine.
Delegates from the Nation of Islam and other Islamic groups have been meeting recently, Syeed said. Farrakhan, he added, has assured the delegates that "he will make transitions in his beliefs that will be more complementary to traditional Islamic teaching."
Leaders of the weekend conference also were mindful that many Americans' only exposure to Islam is through media reports on Farrakhan's organization or on tensions in the Mideast and Eastern Europe.
They expressed hope that through the conference and other, similar meetings, they would reach non-Muslims and make Islamic holidays as familiar to the general public as such Christian and Jewish holy days as Easter and Yom Kippur.
"We believe the time will come very soon, with the beginning of the new millennium, when news readers will be saying, `Today is Ramadan, Day One,' " Syeed said. "This is the kind of discipline we need in America."
But another kind of discipline is demanded for Muslim youth, said professional basketball player Tariq Abdul-Wahad of the Orlando Magic, who attended the conference to coach children's sports camps. Abdul-Wahad began attending the event a year ago, two years after he converted to Islam in college.
"Now, today, we are dealing with American Muslims," said Abdul-Wahad, 23. "The Muslim youth of America went to American schools, and they're the ones who are going to take Islam to the next level."
But to do so, young people must resist the temptations of a society in which there are what Yusuf Islam called "uncontrollable freedoms." This anything-goes mentality stands in stark contrast to Islamic rules and laws, he said.
Young people could be seen striding through the convention center Saturday, wearing black T-shirts that read "Taking it to the Streets" over street clothes and ethnic garb.
One teenage girl wore a hijaab--a floral-printed scarf of the type worn by most Muslim women--that did not quite cover the logo of her designer-name T-shirt. Other teens wore overcoats or formless dresses called jilbaabs to completely hide their forms.
In a shopping area reminiscent of a Middle Eastern souq, videotaped lectures titled "Debate: Is There Fun in Islam?" and "Strict vs. Moderate" hinted at the diversity among the convention's participants.
Islamic businessmen said the convention offered an unusual opportunity to market their wares to what is typically a disparate population.
Among those doing a brisk business were bookstores, gold and carpet merchants, and even a company catering to Muslim insurance needs.
Tribune religion writer Steve Kloehn contributed to this report.