IlmFest Minnesota 2012

When the story of our Prophet has fallen on the oblivious ears of the Muslim Ummah, it’s the Imams’ obligation to shed a guiding light. This Saturday, under the banner of AlMaghrib Institute, ten beloved Shaykhs, teachers and poets ascended before a Minnesota audience of 1,600 attendees for one purpose: to fulfil that obligation.

The room teemed with Muslims and non-Muslims as diverse in language, race, culture, history as they are numerous. The topic in discussion? The seerah of our beloved Prophet, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdullāh al-Qurashi al-Hāshimi, upon whom is Allah’s peace and blessings.

Canadian poet Boonaa Moḥammed embraced us as host for the night. And in spoonfuls of ʿilm, we consumed story upon story, lesson upon lesson, wisdom upon wisdom from the mouth of our teachers. Beginning with Brother Farḥān ʿAbdulʿAzeez. A speaker who shook us to humility for our ignorance about the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ.

Straddling the worlds of sixth century Makkah and twenty-first century America, Brother Farḥān transformed foreign, distant events from seerah into relevant, telling lessons for our time. I hadn’t heard of this Brother until now, to be honest. But when ʿAmmār al-Shukry introduced him as “the one who will make you smile, laugh and cry with tissues by your side,” I realized he was no joke. Brother Farḥān took us through the trials of Mu`tah, when the ṣaḥāba gathered around our Nabi for a livestream of the Muslim-Roman battle abroad—they wept at the spilled blood of their brothers. Brother Farḥān then dove forward into Syrian, Burmese and Gazan current affairs, raising the question, “When we gather around media outlets today, on who and what do we concern our hearts and minds?”

Brother Farḥān spoke with such vigor, such authority, that by Allah, I scanned the audience and found eyes and faces glistening where tears streaked. “For two miles,” he said about ṭā`if, “Rasūlullāh ﷺ never raised a foot except that it was struck by stones.” Words pulled heart strings, a delivery shared by all those who spoke after him.

Following him was Shaykh Saad Tasleem, a new personality to the Minnesota scene, as well as the AlMaghrib sphere at large. With his trademark leather jacket and hair groomed to perfection, Shaykh Saad took youthful strides to the stage and addressed the oft-forgotten demographic: Muslim youth. And they are a forgotten demographic, make no mistake. But Shaykh Saad reminded us of their historic role in propagating the message of Allāh. What stories he gave delved into the themes of social media, love and marriage, image branding and maturation; he unerringly balanced his prose to suit, ensuring everyone in the audience would derive benefit. A few GEMs from our own #IlmFest Twitter hashtag [which, by the way, trended worldwide...]

Scholars of the past believed it is impermissible for a Muslim to get married without knowing the fiqh of marriage and divorce.

The ṣaḥāba back then took better care of their MANY wives better than our own men take care of ONE wife.

Why do we accept that our boys will be boys? Why can’t we take the stance that our boys need to grow into men?

An enraptured crowd of zealous social media-users, theater-goers, daughters, sons, political activists, some married, others not, shared laughs and tears with Shaykh Saad “Nowadays,” he said, “Muslim sisters will daydream about their ideal husband. ‘Yeah, umm, Ryan Gosling… But with a beard and thobe.’”  His keen eye on youth culture is, perhaps, what garners him the attention and admiration of the AlMaghrib crowd. And his pop-cultural references are always an added pleasure. We ask Allah to keep him firm.

The program was running smooth at this point, until along came a man on stage, cloaked in a thobe and turban-esque ḥijāb (or a ḥijāb-esque turban, I can’t be too sure). He then plopped down on the couch, back slackened, seemingly comfortable with Boonaa’s frustration. After an exchange of silence and anger, the man finally revealed his identity. Lo and behold, before us was Shaykh Kamāl el-Mekki. Thank you, Shaykh, for that surprise. And you said you would be in Sudān this weekend? Mashā` Allāh, the way you manipulate our expectations shamelessly…

But as a previous student of Shaykh Kamāl, there isn’t a single person I would’ve hoped to see beneath that turban more than him. His Somalia/Banana Republic jokes; his colorful impersonations; his mischievous grin that reads, “I solemnly swear I am up to no good.” In his last trip to Minnesota, he left no nationality immune to his self-hosted banter-fest. But his jokes on the ʿIlmfest stage came to an abrupt stop after he admitted: “I made tawba from the ugly baby jokes… and now I ran out of material.” Attendees scanned him hard to detect traces of Shaykh Kamal’s compassionate side. After a few rounds of banter, he finally let it out: “Qabeelat Madinatayn is by far my favorite Qabeelah.” Yes, indeed, these words did bring some of us to tears.

Inside jokes aside, Shaykh Kamal el-Mekki did not stray from the event’s theme. His elaboration on seerah was so sensitive to detail, to a forensic degree, he broke the events of hijrah, ṭā`if and al-`Isrā wal-Miʿrāj into their smallest components to evoke a larger truth: nothing in seerah is random. Nothing is coincidental. Probe beneath the surface, as our Shaykh taught us, and we find lessons embedded in every element of his life… That when he replied to Jibreel, “mā `ana bi qāri`” in the cave, some scholars translate his words, “and what would you like me to read?” This alone reflects a human perfection in his noble attributes, ﷺ: obedience, patience, courtesy before a stranger, even when his breath constricted by the grip of a mighty angel.

Of course, we digressed a bit from Seerah for some jokes and laughs. ʿIlmfest Talent Show: the one time in the history of Islamic academia where spiritual leaders will flex a lil muscle for the crowd’s enjoyment. Boonaa Moḥamed brought in a steady stream of talents on stage, from nasheed-singing to cooking, `iḥrām-wearing football match to poetry… We awed at Shaykh Saad’s artistic flair, when in minutes, he whipped out a graphic display that beautifully read: “From Somalia to Gaza, with Love.” From Shaykh Yāsir Qādhi, we pleasured our ears with Boonaa poetry recited in a Bri’ish accent (AE-esque, but with sophistication); melodious Qur`ān recitations from Shaykh Ibn Faqih; and even more poetry from the lips of Shaykh Omar Suleimān, Ottawa’s Brother Phil and New York’s ʿAmmār al-Shukry.

“What if he ﷺ told you, ‘I remember the time your salāms reached me / and I responded, peace also be upon you.’” —Shaykh Omar Suleimān

My personal favourite: ʿAmmār al-Shukry’s Jannah poem, followed by his new release, “Until I See You.” Lyrics that only existed for me in YouTube videos and Facebook statuses had now come to life. We held our phone cameras to capture the scene. We savoured every moment.

Suddenly the show morphed from a poetry slam into a fitness boot camp, as Shaykh Yāser Birjās challenged audience members in a push-up showdown. And from there, to the second batch of speakers for the night. I remember seeking out my AlMaghrib “gang” in the audience, and in turn awing at the faces before me. New Muslim faces returned my gaze. Muslims I had never seen before. Muslims drawn, no doubt, from the nooks and corners of my state, their collage of faces infused with the full spectrum of age and skin color. Muslims that would have remained unknown had it not been for AlMaghrib’s festival of ʿIlm. And I remember thinking to myself, these are the faces of `Ummat Muḥammad. What beautiful faces they are.

To be continued…

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