If you live in North America, Europe, or other countries with a considerable concentration of Muslim minorities, chances are that there might be a Muslim conference that is close to you during the Holiday break. I have always striven to attend such events with my youth group and later with my family.
If you are planning to attend a conference (for a list of the major events, see below), you may find the following checklist useful to maximize the spiritual, social, and educational experience. If you have never done it before and prefer to go somewhere else or simply have a “stay-cation” [stay-at-home vacation] , I hope that this list may motivate you to consider going and being part of this interesting experience of Muslims in the west.
1. Begin With the End in Mind
This is a fancy way of reiterating the foundational hadith in our Islamic tradition, in which our prophet Muhammad Peace and blessings on him said: إنما الأعمال بالنيات و إنما لكل امرئ ما نوى – the actions are dependent on their intentions, and every human shall be judged based on what was the real intention behind his deed.
You may be attending this conference simply because you have no choice!
You may be going with your auntie or mother who is trying to match you with a potential wife or husband, in this sea of young Muslims of different age groups and professions.
You even may be going for site seeing while enjoying the discounted hotel room rates
Whatever your situation might be, always keep Allah in your “statement of intention”.
Our scholars used to say: تعدد النوايا تجارة العلماء – Having multiple intentions is the best deal that the scholars aim for, since they know the reward will be as big as their intentions.
In other words, DREAM BIG, and expect BIG returns from our generous Lord, even for what you perceive as small or casual deeds.
- You may have the intention of تكثير سواد المسلمين , as the famous companion Abdullah Bin Um Maktum, who insisted on joining the Muslim army in the battle of Al-Qadeseyya despite being blind; he was asked: didn’t Allah excuse you from this duty? He answered that I wanted to increase the population in the Muslim army “ولكني أكثر سواد المسلمين بنفسي”.
- You may have the intention of accompanying the righteous, which by itself opens doors for attaining Allah’s mercy; prophet Muhammad PBUH says: هم القوم لا يشقى بهم جليسهم
With these people around, no one in their presence will be disappointed
2. Setup Your Knowledge Experience in terms of quests and questions
There is a reason why platforms like quora became popular these days: the question-answer formula always provides the right ingredients for learning. You may also have noticed that the most engaging part of any lecture or seminar is the QA session, even if you felt that already know the answers or if the questions are being redundant or repeated.
The ideal student of knowledge should not react to whatever content is provided to them. This is a recipe for passiveness, spoon-feeding, and easy-come-easy-go bursts of gems. Now don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that ANY knowledge is good, ANY lecture is beneficial, ANY reminder might be the one that will make that point finally sink; however, this article is about taking your Ilm & conference experience to the next level (Ilm is the Arabic world for knowledge).
Regardless of your age, academic background, and Islamic and community involvement, you already encounter many situations in your life that generate many unanswered questions: the argument you had in philosophy class, or that Facebook post that caused a long thread of comments, or even choosing an elective course for the next semester, all are opportunities to keep your list of questions long and rich.
You didn’t have time to prepare questions before the lecture? It is fine, your questions and concerns are already there in some corner inside your mind. Just take 5 minutes before the lecture itself to scribble down 2-3 comments and check if the speaker addresses them. If not, then it’s your chance to be proactive and send your questions in. With this mindset, you are not a passive listener anymore, and you are being an active participant in the conversation even without saying a single word.
3. Utilize Quality Time with Family & Community Members
Let’s face it: technology and social media has created huge gaps between parents and kids, husbands and wives, and community members. One cannot emphasize enough the value of spending quality time with those who are close to you. Prophet Muhammad Peace Be Upon Him said: “الأقربون أولى بالمعروف” – Those who are closer to you deserve the most attention and kindness.
If you are a family guy: most conventions provide decent programs for all age groups, including a kids-specialized educational and fun program; you don’t want just a babysitting or daycare service with TV being on for the whole time. I know of many parents who attend with the mere intention of immersing their children in a holistic Islamic experience, in addition to having the best Muslim family quality time.
How can that count as “family-time” if the kids are away from you? my wife and I always check on our kids, hang out with them and meet their friends and counselors in their respective programs. We also make sure to have meaningful discussions during meals, prayer times, and in the hotel room before bed time.
If you are a community activist or volunteer: the convention provides a fresh environment to meet with your team and brainstorm, ideate, and evaluate future projects for your community. I had my best discussions with coworkers, mentors, and students while walking in the bazar of some conventions (one of those took around 3 hours of continuous walking and ended in me joining the board of our local masjid after years of resistance 😊… Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, alhamdulillah)
4. Plan for a Holistic and Digestible Meal of Inspiration and Knowledge
The parallel sessions with different speakers, scholars, and activists is an opportunity and a challenge at the same time. How can you navigate between all the speaker names, known and unknown, and select the best lectures amongst different catchy titles and big words?
Let me give you an “Ilm nutrition” recipe that I have formulated throughout the years. While I am in no position to give nutrition advice on healthy eating, at least I am aware that right meal should contain a balanced dose of protein, carbs, fibers, fruits, and vegetables. When it comes to “Ilm meals”, you need a balanced mix of the following:
- Spirituality and Iman boosters
- Activism and political engagement
- Skills development (public speaking, time management, etc …)
- Family dynamics and relationships (parenting, marriage and relations, … )
- Intellectual topics (atheism, Quran and temporary issues, daawa and outreach… )
I strongly encourage to leave your comfort zone of topics and speakers (spirituality for example) and to widen your scope and exposure. Try to attend topics on history, entrepreneurship, conflict resolution, and career planning. If you feel that the conference topics are being dull and same-old same-old, then do your due diligence as a proactive community member and suggest to the organizers what topics and discussions you would expect in future events.
Regarding speakers, it is very understandable to follow your favorite speaker from hall to hall, but I would also suggest trying others who are less known to you. You already follow all the tweets and videos of your relatable teachers and scholars, and sometimes you may benefit a lot from new perspectives and specialties. Think of the convention as an open buffet of knowledge that allows you to try new flavors for free, while of course keeping an eye on your favorite ones.
5. Experiment with Different Note-taking system
My favorite memory from each convention or course I attend is that thick paper notebook, full of hand-scribed notes, doodles, and phone numbers. I literally Laugh-out-Loud when reviewing some of those jokes, feel goose-bumps when reading that story, and stumble upon some of those deep analysis points that my notes carry.
Our scholars used to say: ما كتب قر … و ما حفظ فر …
Whatever you write down, you be instilled and kept, and whatever you memorize will escape and run away.
I may have to dedicate another post for different note-taking systems that I have tried or encountered throughout the years, but here are some quick thoughts:
- Use color coding and tagging to make your notes more searchable. For example, some of my tags include: #Quran, #Seerah, #Intellectual, #Atheism, #Marriage, #Psychology, #Productivity , …
- You don’t have to write down every Ayah, hadith, or story mentioned; you can ask Shaikh Google later when you clean up your notes. You just need to write keywords that will help you search the text later.
- Keep track of the main topic, even if you missed some details or gems
- While I try to grab every new information or gem, what you really need at the end of each lecture or seminar is the 3 MIT’s (Most Important Takeaways). In other words, stop trying to capture and recreate the lecture experience through your notes.
- Your brain is optimized to function better with a paper + pen combination, much better than any electronic storage or system.
- The best notes are the ones that you try to remember and then write in your own words after the lecture.
6. Smile at the organizers and volunteers, thank them sincerely, and help make the overall experience smooth and enjoyable.
The growing size of the Muslim community is always a good problem to have. Just thin about it: If the majority of the 4000 US masajid are still having parking lot issues on Jumma and Eid prayers, you can only imagine what happens if the same people get together in a convention with 15,000 – 20,000 participants.
All this burden is carried by a group of volunteers and organizers who are either unpaid or underpaid. They put endless hours before and after the actual events that usually nobody sees, they get all kinds of complains and negative attitudes from attendees, and they don’t receive the spotlight and the attention that speakers and performers get…
What do they need from you?
- Keep them in your prayers and sincerely ask Allah to bless their efforts and give them baraka in their times
- Smile at them, encourage them, and keep a positive attitude
- Never complain without providing alternatives and asking how you can help
7. When You Meet a Scholar…
The Islamic convention provides an opportunity to interact with the speakers on a personal level beyond just watching their lecture online. The best benefit is the opportunity to learn from their Adab
Many love to take a selfie with the scholar, which is ok if kept within limits without promoting and instilling a culture of celebrity shuyuykh.
What I find more useful is to ask a directed question that only this scholar would answer and direct to me and me personally. This skill can be developed over time, but here are some suggestions:
- What is your favorite book on such and such topic?
- How do you keep your intentions in check?
- What’s your advice on balancing family, work, and community time?
Another important aspect of meeting the speakers is related to providing feedback, both in terms of praise and critique. Our religion requires us to thank people and be grateful (“He who does not thank people does not really thank Allah”) but at the same time despises over-praising and exaggeration (“if you meet on of those who praise people in their face, then throw dirt at their faces”)
Remember to make more duaa to the scholars in their absence as this is more beneficial for them; Prophet PBUH said: دعاء المسلم لأخيه بظهر الغيب مستجاب” [the prayer of a Muslim to his brother in his absence is definitely accepted].
Moreover, your feedback would be more valuable if you indicate clearly what clicked with you and what are the things that you wish could be added or removed from the talk. We should promote in our community a culture of honest objective feedback that goes beyond negativity and criticism from one end, and excessively praising and idolizing from the other end.
8. Get to know People from Other Communities
The Islamic convention experience cannot be completed without the social element. You’re not there to watch a non-stop series of lectures (which you can do from the convenience of your home) and you should search for inspiration from the presence of that huge crowd of Muslims and activists.
In addition to bonding with your own family and community members, I encourage you to expand your network by introducing yourself to other folks from other cities and states. You will realize that they have very similar struggles, issues, and concerns. You will be amazed by how such introduction can help you and them and boost the brotherhood/sisterhood. Over the years, such events have always kept the hope in my heart that our community is fine, has a lot of potential, and is definitely moving forward despite all the challenges.
9. Support Event Sponsors, Muslim Businesses, and Relief Organizations
I understand that some do not appreciate the business model for some Islamic organizations and look at things in an idealistic fashion, wishing that all can provide services “Fi Sabil Allah” (i.e. for the sake of Allah, which usually indicates free services and zero overhead). I usually refer people to this excellent TED talk, which provides a paradigm shift in the way we think about charity and overhead costs.
As an action item: make it a point to stop at the bazaar and spend some time at the different booths and organizations. The convention would never exist without such support from the Muslim Business owners. Of course they are there as a form of support
These exhibitors sponsor as a form of support first and foremost, and also to give some exposure to their businesses and non-profit activities.
On a side note, we should not take for granted the fact that we have such a huge congregation with a large margin of freedom to express our beliefs. We should keep other Muslim communities and minorities in our prayers, and reflect more on conceps of Umma, unity, and brotherhood. Our prophet PBUH said once:
“The believers are like one body in their love, mercy, and cooperation towards one another; if one limb of that body is in pain, then the whole body would show support and contribution”.
10. Take Time to Reflect, Pray, and Plan your Follow up Events Immediately
Like all things in life, the convention will come to an end, and people get withdrawal symptoms and may lose a lot of the momentum and the energy. Some folks refer to this as the “post-convention syndrome”. How can you protect yourself or at least minimize its effects?
- During the event, you will need some “me-time” for reflection, extra prayers, and extra duaa.
- Schedule a follow up event in your community ASAP to utilize the momentum.
- Use reminders, your calendar, and the companionship of the righteous for better results.
Call For Action…
If you live in North America, and would like take your Ilm to the next level, here’s a quick list of cool conventions and events:
- MAS ICNA Chicago (follow this link for a special discount through the Islamic Center of Detroit, ICD)
- RIS – Reviving the Islamic Spirit: link
- Qalam Institute Seerah Intensive (I attended their program in 2016, and it is AWESOME)
(Please feel free to insert in the comments section the names and links to other conventions and events in your area)
Please note that the author is not affiliated with any of these conventions. He is just a regular attendee who is trying to share his experience with fellow brothers and sisters
If you know someone who might benefit from this article, feel free to share it with them…