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The Garden State’s Unsung Hero !

The Story of Transformation of a Community 

by Nasir Shamsi 

Mehfle Shahe Khorasan the First Shia Center of the American Shias of Indo-Pakistan origin is 30 years old, this month of August 2005. As one of its first congregants, I am asked to pen down my thoughts about what is now endearingly called Mehfil. I do not know where I had read it. But I agree with the succinct message in this quote: “ The history is to a people what brain is to the individual “. The living communities do record their history. They keep an account of where they came from, what preceded them, what brought them together (and kept them) together -- their religious heritage, culture, aspirations, folkways and mores—their early struggles and any thing and everything that transformed them from a group into a community. For us in these critical times, the study of our early struggles and the role of a small center to help transform scattered groups into community has become all the more significant.     

Since I am trying to recap memory of events scattered over three decades, please forgive me for any omissions or mistaken dates. I’ll try to avoid mentioning names of persons, as much as possible, because they are too many and won’t fit in the confines of this small paper. 

The year was 1973. I had landed in New York in March of the same year. There was no place to observe Muharram. Men and women and small children of the only about 20 families from the Tri-state area assembled in the UN high School Hall on the East Riverside across from the 25th street in Manhattan, to commemorate the first Muharram, for most of us. The place was rented. The taped speeches were heard, a sister did Soz, followed by Matam and Noha Khawani. That was us - a small group of Shias hailing from India and Pakistan. Some funds were collected to purchase a place. A year passed.

In 1974, we met again for Muharram at the same place. A few new people attended and some more funds were collected this year. A sketch of the proposed building in New York was posted on the wall and a skeleton association was formed. 

Later this year, Sultan Karamali and Yusaf Haroon bought a church in Englewood, New Jersey and named it “ Mehfle Shahe Khorasan “ to be managed by a trust of the same name. Shaikh Muhammad Sarwar, a young, erudite and pious scholar was called in from Karachi, as the resident Alam. He lived next door from the center and had an excellent library. The Mehfil opened for Majalis for some time. It came down one day due to fire caused by a short circuit in the basement. Soon however a brand new building replaced the old church structure. In 1975, this small but comfortable facility became the first Imam Bargah in the Tristate area. 

I have fond memories of what now has generally come to be known as Mehfil. In 1977, we purchased our house in Montclair, not far from the Mehfil. We seldom missed any program. The families from New York also attended these programs. Because there was a physical place we could call our own, the loose group that we were before soon evolved into a community. A sense of friendship, brotherhood and camaraderie permeated the body politic of this newly born community.  There was expression of enthusiasm and caring for one another among its members. This phenomenon was hardly accidental; it was the flowering of the right to assemble, which generates energy and joy, ecstasy and mutual love. People respected one another, committed to struggling together rather than against each other. This gave birth to extraordinary energy among the members of the community. The worries and anxiety were replaced by optimism and sanguineness. 

It was a happy community. A couple of other associations had been formed by now. The good thing about association is that it unites into one channel the efforts of diverging minds, and drives them vigorously in the pursuit of the common goal. There is nothing that cannot be achieved through the combined power of individuals united into an association or organization.  

The associating power helped develop an enthusiastic and vibrant community in the NY/NJ Metropolitan area. The congregants of Mehfil, touched and charged by the newly discovered identity and a sense of self-awakening, were able to launch in the following few years a membership organization-- the Muslim Foundation of New Jersey (1984). This was a natural development of the process of community-making, guided by the prudence and wisdom of a few selfless leaders and a compliant but vigilant congregation.

There were other compelling reasons for forming a membership based organization, giving representation to the families scattered over more than 100 miles radius around the First Shia Center in the Metropolitan area. Mehfil was acquired and managed by a closely held Trust. As the community took shape, there was a growing demand from people to participate in the management. The New Yorkers early on were also not very happy, because of long commuting and for making New Jersey the home for the first Shia Center. They had all along been trying to find a place some where in New York.  

The founding of Muslim Foundation in a Bloomfield basement in 1984 was an act of great wisdom. I was present in that meeting attended by prominent leaders from different parts of New York and New Jersey. A truly representative body of some 20 people laid the foundation and agreed upon the goals of the Muslim Foundation. From now on known as MFI, it became the working body to manage and maximize the use of Mehfil as a Shia Center, reducing the role of the Khorasan Trust, the parent body to the minimum. Muslim Foundation accelerated the community building work.  

Soon after the adoption of its bylaws the MFI, driven by enthusiasm and initiative of two boys in their early teens, launched the First Shia Sunday School in the basement of Mehfil. I was to be, to my great fortune, among its early parent-teachers along with Dr. Manzoor Rizvi, late Dr. Haider Shamsi, Srs. Nasim Gokal and Mumtaz Ladak. I cherish with great love the memories of those happy Sundays. I had the pleasure of teaching our young sons and daughters; they were brilliant kids-- our superstars of the 80’s. They have mashallah done well in their lives; most of them married, they are devoted to serving both religion and community.  

This joint venture of the Mehfil and MFI acted as catalyst; it stepped up the community building work. The MFI sponsored the first religious Scholar. Maulana Tilmiz Hasnain Rizvi arrived in 1984. He was appointed Director of MFI’s newly created subsidiary, The Islamic Central Directorate with mandate to provide guidance in religious matters to the Shias of the Tri-State area. The then President of MFI, late Dr. Haider Shamsi purchased a house in Englewood, close to the Mehfil , only to house the ISD office and library.  

In 1984, the late Syed Saeed Akhtar Rizvi (Bilal Mission, Africa) came to the US at the invitation of MFI. He gave instructions at a two weeks Summer Camp for the Shia youth at Alpine, New Jersey. His book, “ The Elementary Instructions about Islam”

And another book, “ The Guide Book of Quran “ became the first two publications of MFI. These publications were printed to fulfill the needs of the Mehfil school students. This however put MFI on the publication course; it continued publishing more books. It has 25 Publications to its credit- not a small feat by any standards. By now MFI had also launched a Quarterly Magazine, Payame Aman, the first Shia journal in the US. It was distributed free to 3000 Shias nationwide. The first copies of each issue were made available at the entrance of the Mehfil. 

The influx of new migrants in the 70’s and 80’s greatly increased the numbers as well as the resources of the nascent community, which had already built three more Centers in New Jersey, Baitul Asr and Astana-i Zahra in Central Jersey and Baytul Qayem (est. 1985) in the South. New York also had now a big Center (the old Islamic Center at Queens Blvd) in Queens, New York, which was later replaced by the current Al-Khoi  Center in Jamaica, New York. The congregants of Mehfil , some of them particularly, supported the other Centers through participation. Although these centers work independently of one another, yet there is a remarkable connectedness between them and their managements. Even though MFI moved to its own building in Franklin Township to pursue its great goal of building the First Shia Masjid, the relationship as well as interest of its founder members with the Mehfil remains undiminished.   

Mehfil is a small facility. It’s the Garden State’s unsung hero ! Nobody has gauged its performance. The most remarkable thing about Mehfil is that although it started as a small center, but it has almost unknowingly, played a great role in transforming the early Shia groups into community and some of its congregants reached out nationally and participated, even inspired major Shia projects at other places. To name a few of these projects and programs: they were among the founders of JANA; they played a leading role along with their friends in New York, to help establish as well as manage the First Shia Center in New York—the Islamic Center on Queens Blvd, Queens for several years, until it moved to the building in Jamaica under new management and was renamed Al-Khoi Center. 

They closely worked with Dr. Khalil Tabatabai for his project in Karachi, Imam Hussain University. They also helped start the first Howza Ilmiya and a Shia youth school with live-in facility at Medina, New York in 1987. The two congregants of Mehfil sent their

Sons to help start the first session of the new Shia institute at Medina. Maulana Tilmiz Hasnain Rizvi and Maulana Amir Mukhtar Faezi worked as Pricipals of this school.

The community building movement that started with establishment of Mehfil in 1984 had to go full circle and find its fruition. It was year 2002. As the Providence would have it, a Mehfil congregant met a Shia brother from New York in the Breakfast Room at the Hyatt Regency, Washington DC (they were both there to attend ISNA annual convention), he told him that his sons (also present at the time) were complaining that we (Shias) had not done much other than the centers, while they (ISNA) had done so well. He responded:

  “ Don’t worry. Why don’t you call other community leaders when you go back home and let’s meet and form our own organization on a similar model ?”. The brother from New York took the suggestion to his heart. Two weeks later, they met with ½ dozen other community leaders in Maryland. There was a consensus to form a national Shia organization to address, among other things, the socio-economic and political issues facing the Shia community. UMAA (Universal Muslim Association of America) was formed and the American Shias have their national organization, in fulfillment of a mission that began in 1974. It is the final flowering of an effort that commenced with the first small center. This is the journey of a community from Mehfil to UMAA, the quintessence of the Shia heritage in America. The beginning of a New Era !


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