Foundation, NJ U. S. A
the Message Continues ... 5/206
Newsletter for January 2019
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The Story of the Transformation of a Community
by Nasir Shamsi
Mehfle Shahe Khorasan, the First Shia Center of the American Shias of Indo-Pakistan had its 30th Anniversary in August 2005. As one of its first congregants, I was asked to pen down my thoughts about what is now endearingly called Mehfil. I do not know where I read it, but I agree with the succinct message in this quote: “The history is to a people what brain is an individual". The living communities always record their history. It is 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 anything and everything that transformed them from a group into a community. For us in these critical times, the study of our early struggle 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 story of Mehfil is the story of evolution and development of the first Shias of India-Pakistan origin who started arriving in New York in the late 60’s and 70’s, in search of better living for their families. Until the early 70’s, it was hard for a new-comer from Pakistan to find a Pakistani, much less a Shia in New York.
It was 1973; I 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 at the entrance and a skeleton association was formed.
Later this year, Sultan Karamali and Yusaf Haroon, two entrepreneurs, and dedicated Shias from Karachi bought a church in Englewood, New Jersey and named it “ Mehfle Shahe Khorasan “, to be managed by a Trust by the same name. Shaikh Muhammad Sarwar, a young, erudite and pious scholar was called in from Karachi, as the Resident Alam of the Center. Shaikh Sahib who had finished his education in Najaf lived next door from the center. 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. Same year, SANA (Shia Ithna Asha’ri Association of North America) bought a property in Delran in South Jersey ( about 80 miles south of Mehfil) and established the second Shia Center.
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 of the programs at Mehfil. 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. The feeling of being part of a community always 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 synergy 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 a common goal. There is nothing that cannot be achieved through the combined power of individuals united into an association or organization. The synergy resulting from the combined power of a community can work miracles. All successful organizations give special attention to this. They encourage their management bodies to participate in workshops on communication skills and leadership development programs.
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 not very happy, because of long commuting, for choice of North New Jersey 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 the basement of Dr. Manzoor Rizvi’s house in Bloomfield, New Jeresy in 1984 was another milestone toward the community building effort. I was present in that meeting attended by leaders from different parts of New York and New Jersey. A truly representative body of some 20 people laid the foundation of the Muslim Foundation and agreed upon its mission and 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, leaving the titular role of the Khorasan Trust as owner of the property. The MFI gave the center a representative character through greater participation of the community. It contributed to the spirit of volunteerism, which over the next three decades was to produce a number of good leaders in the community. Many of these leaders helped in creating and managing programs, even centers at other places.
Driven by enthusiasm and initiative of Hasan and Salman, two Mehfil boys still in their early teens, the MFI launched the First Shia Sunday School in the basement of Mehfil. I was fortunate to be among its early 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 boys and girls; among them were Aazim, Arif, Hasan, Ali, Salman, Adnan, Jafar, Saba, Zehra, Shahana, Huma and Durrana. They were all brilliant, disciplined and eager to learn. I call them our superstars of the 80’s. They are all doing well now; 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 Maulana Saeed Akhtar Rizvi (of Bilal Mission, East Africa) came to the US at the invitation of MFI. He gave instructions at a two-week long Summer Camp for the Shia youth at Alpine, New Jersey organized by the Mehfil Sunday School and MFI. Kids from New York also participated in this Camp. His books, “ The Elementary Islamic Instructions “ and another book, “ The Guide Book of Quran “ became the first two publications of MFI. Printed to fulfill the needs of the students of the Mehfil Sunday School, now these books are taught in many Shia schools. This made MFI embark on publication course; it continued publishing more books. It has 25 Publications to its credit, including the English translation of Shaikh Tejani’s monumental work: Shias are the (Real) Ahlul Sunnah “- a remarkable title. ( I had the privilege of editing 22 out of the 25 books published by the MFI.) By now MFI had also launched a Quarterly Magazine, Payame Aman, the first Shia journal in the US; I served as its editor for all, except for its early issues, which were edited by Syed Baqar Rizvi. Payame Aman was distributed free to 3000 Shias nationwide. The first copies of each issue of the Magazine were made available at the entrance of the Mehfil. It was once again the two students of Mehfil Sunday School-- a brother and sister team (Adnan and Saima), who, in 1993, helped start the MUNJ (Muslim Youth of New Jersey), the First Shia youth association in New Jersey; they simultaneously launched also a bi-monthly Newsletter, “ Awakening “. This was the first time Shia youth had a newsletter of their own, with articles, poems and cartoons contributed by the boys and girls of the community.
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, Baytul Qayem (est. 1985) in the South, Baitul Asr and Astana-i Zahra in Central Jersey. 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 provided cooperation and support to the other Centers in New Jersey and New York. Although these centers work independently of one another, yet there is a remarkable connectedness between them and their managements. The MFI established its own Center in Franklin Township in recent years. Even though it moved its office to the 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 is our Community’s unsung hero ! Nobody has gauged its performance. The most remarkable thing about Mehfil is that although it started as a small center, yet, almost unknowingly, it has played a vital role in transforming the early Shia groups into a community; some of its congregants reached out nationally and they were able to inspire major Shia projects at other places. To name a few of these projects and programs: they were among the founders of JANA (Jafria Association of North America); 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 as 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 the first Principals of this school.
The community building
movement that started with establishment of Mehfil in 1974 had
to go full circle and find its fruition. In 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). The brother from New York mentioned that his sons
(who were also present at the time) were very unhappy; they said
while ISNA had done so much, what had we (the Shias) done ? The
New Jersey brother said:
The brother from New York took the suggestion to heart. Two weeks later, they met with ˝ dozen other community leaders in Maryland. It was unanimously agreed to form a national Shia organization to address, among other things, the socio-economic and political issues facing the community. Thus UMAA (Universal Muslim Association of America) was formed as the First national organization of the American Shias.This was the fulfillment of a mission that had begun in 1974 -- the final flowering of an effort that had commenced with the first small community center. This is the journey of a community from Mehfil to UMAA, the quintessence of the Shia heritage in America. UMAA is beginning of a New Era !
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