By Fatima Kermali
With messages of hope and humanity, the 14th annual Prophet Day conference took place on February 9, 2020, at Rutgers’s University arranged by Muslims4Peace. The subject of the discussion revolved around migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Distinguished speakers inspired, encouraged, and explored a variety of methods that communities can come together to alleviate the current crises in practical ways.
The program began with a presentation by the Zaynab Ensemble, a Nasheed group formed in 2013 by American Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds: Irish, German, Pakistani Iranian, Egyptian, Bangladeshi, and Kashmiri to name a few.
Following the presentation, Dr. Waleed AbuShahba recited verses from the Holy Qur’an. As a board member for the organization, Dr. AnuShahba holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology and a post-doctorate at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. He also holds a professor and Qur’an instructor endeavors.
Next, Sakina Abdi, a student at Rutgers University studying nutrition, spoke about Muslims4Peace. She described it as a non-profit organization that aims to bridge people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds together. Their mission is to transcend the boundaries of faith and to unite every community based on education.
The first speaker then took to the podium was Afsheen Shamsi, who holds a position on the New Jersey ACLU board and has a Master’s degree in Strategic Communications from Columbia University as well as a BA in International Studies from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is currently a Director of Communications and Marketing for the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University.
Shamsi discussed the resolution that she created, calling on elected officials at every level to reunify migrant families, to put an end to migrant detentions, defund immigration enforcement, and allow families to go through immigration proceedings with legal representations. She asserted that many families are fleeing violence or persecution in their own countries by traveling great distances and overcoming dangers to have a better life in the United States. Consequently, they deserve compassion, protection, and assistance to go through immigration proceedings legally. Instead, they face atrocities in detention centers where they are traumatized. Shamsi was invited by the mayor of New Jersey to draft a resolution for such issues. With the assistance of the New Jersey ACLU, the resolution was passed by several New Jersey towns and is being considered by many others. Interestingly, Mayor Sadaf Jaffer was the first to lead in passing the resolution in New Jersey and the nation. Shamsi stated that as a Muslim, she felt that she was obligated to do this work because Prophet Muhammad taught her to speak up against injustice. She thus urges everyone to assist in ending the inhumane treatment of migrants by calling on their townships to raise their voices in ending this predicament.
Afterward, the stage was passed onto Mushi Bhuiyan; after training at NYU and Wharton, Mushi Bhuiyan is now a computer scientist and CEO of a tech company. Due to his fervent activism with local mosques and charities, he was given the 2020 Humanitarian Award. His work with the urban food alliance combats hunger every day in New Jersey by preparing food to the needy and homeless, dynamic work that makes a difference each spoonful at a time.
Bhuiyan remarked that it is food that truly brings people together. Besides, bringing people together, he aims to assist even those who are unknown and need assistance; many who are homeless and hungry are not visible in the streets begging for food or money. Thus, the Urban Food Alliance is an organization that seeks to aid those who are invisible members of the community that many do not realize exist. The Urban Food Alliance which started a year ago relies on donations and helps everyone in need, regardless of race or religion. So far 11,000 meals have been provided as of the day before the event. More information can be found on Urbanfoodalliance.org.
The next speaker who traveled from Texas, though originally from Boston is Dr. Craig Considine, a scholar, global speaker, media contributor, and author whose opinions have appeared in the NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, CBS MSNC, Newsweek and Foreign Policy. As a lecturer at Rice University Sociology department, Dr. Considine‘s areas of interest include Islamophobia, Christian/Muslim relations, and Prophet Muhammad. He began by offering his gratitude to all those who have made the event possible. Dr. Considine then poignantly pointed out, which many have forgotten, the one story that all of humanity share, that is, in fact, a refugee and migrant story. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden; Abraham fled from the persecution of Nimrod and went to the land of Canaan: Moses and the Children of Israel escaped slavery and fled through the Sinai: Mary and Joseph fled Bethlehem with Jesus to avoid the terror of King Herod and Prophet Muhammad and his companions fled to Abyssinia and Medina from persecution in Mecca. He then asked the audience to ponder over one’s own ancestors. For example, the Italians 60 years later fled fascism to Ellis Island. He boldly declared that everyone has one of these stories.
Thereafter, Dr. Considine requested the audience to focus on those who do arrive here. What are their hopes and aims? Concerning this reflection, Dr. Considine spoke of three issues regarding the life of the Prophet. First was Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of Muhammad. He was from Abyssinia who was enslaved, living in Mecca with no racial equality. He remarked that Prophet Muhmmad took someone like Bilal and elevated him, rather than just tolerating him. This action challenged people to think differently. He was not only non-racist but rather anti-racist. Therefore, Dr. Considine advised his listeners to not just tolerate, but empower the migrant. Secondly, in the first Hijra, the Prophet told some refugees to go to Abyssinia, a nation ruled by a Christian king. There, the refugees engaged in an enlightening dialogue. Despite grappling with theology, the Christian king defended the Muslim refugees from returning to their homeland and getting killed. Religious pluralism, he explained, is about engaging with one another to create bridges, not about sacrificing one’s faith.
The third example occurred in the second Hijra when the Prophet moved to Medina creating a reputation of trustworthiness. A functional society is not determined by race, religion or ethnicity. It is the constitution that makes America and all other nations great. Prophet Muhammad created this type of society by forming the Constitution of Medina that solidified the freedoms of religion and assembly. The message he was seeking to send was to find ways to work together while being different; yet, having the common goal of peace. He quoted Pope Francis who said about six months ago, “leave no one behind..”
He continued to comment that everyone is human first before any title, position or nationality. He stated we are all guests on Earth and do not own anything; God provides everything for us, and so we must work together. He affirmed that this concept will encourage all to view each other with dignity rather than dishonor.
The audience was then absorbed by Maryam Kashmiri, a British Kashmiri Muslim who is an internationally acclaimed writer and performer that has been featured in the movie “We Are Poets”. She presented poetry that encourages empowerment and altruism.
That evening, another award was presented to Dr. Sayed Moosa Jaffari, ENT specialist. In 1976, he joined Lakewood, a diverse community with a large Jewish population, his home as a practicing physician. He created a unique bond and trust with this community while also helping establish the Zaman center in New Jersey. He expressed what made him a successful medical doctor was his philosophy of believing that we are all the same inside. God has created everyone the same internally. In honor of Dr. Jaffari’s dedication to serving the community, he was presented with the Muslims4peace Lifetime Service Award.
Dr. Jaffari began his acceptance with a verse from the Holy Qur’an, declaring that the distinguishing factor in a person is not his wealth or beauty, his piety. The doctor expressed appreciation for the award and commended the organization for promoting peace in Islam because the Prophet was sent as a mercy to mankind. He communicated that he tried to live by two points in his practice: to treat people with utmost respect and kindness as well as performing all activities by seeking the pleasure of God.
The program continued with another special guest speaker, Dr. Sayed Moustafa Al-Qazwini, Founder and Director of the Islamic Center of Orange County and President of the Shia Muslim Council of Southern California. He holds a graduate degree in the Islamic Seminary of Qum and a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from the UK.
Sayed Qazwini began with the sole purpose of living in this country: establishing peace and harmony. One method of establishing that, he said, is to listen to others even if they are your opponents. He quoted from chapter nine, a verse from the Holy Quran that one should give protection to those who seek protection from you, even if they oppose you. He advised that when such situations arise in one’s life, to remember one’s faith and the Holy Prophet. Therefore, he continued, a Muslim’s goal is to reach out and embrace all people and extend peace to the entire world. He further warned that this journey is not effortless, rather perhaps tumultuous, but God promises, “Those who work sincerely with dedication for Our cause we will definitely guide them to their ultimate goal in this life.”
Furthermore, he was inspired that the organization along with other individuals came together to bring awareness for migrants and refugees, regardless of religion or ethnicity. He then quoted the Prophet who advised his daughter Fatima,
“Whoever believes in God and the hereafter should not harass, annoy or hurt his neighbor.” He then defined neighbors as all people. Sayed Qazwini then mentioned Imam Ali, who had dispatched a governor to the cosmopolitan city of Basra. Imam Ali had advised him that a leader must treat all equally and view them exclusively as human beings created by God. He said “The people of Earth fall into two categories, either you are a brother in faith or a brother in humanity,” Hence, Sayed Qazwini affirmed that we must welcome refugees and open our hearts and homes to them. He remarked that 250 years ago America was empty of immigrants until what is today a country of 330 million people whose descendants are all immigrants. They fled from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Eastern Europe from religious persecution and made this country great. Through tolerance and understanding, people were welcomed, and the nation broadened.
His second point was that Muslims should observe unity amongst the Shia and Sunni community and not allow further division by politics. Sectarianism, he proclaimed, is dangerous and has caused havoc in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan where there are target killings. Scholarly diversity is needed, not division.
Hereafter, the Leadership Award was awarded to Dr. Shereef Elnahal who served as the 21st Commissioner of New Jersey department of health and the first Muslim to hold any position in the New Jersey state cabinet. Currently, he is the CEO and President of University Hospital in Newark.
Afterward, Diane Hawkins who serves for the NAACP gave a unifying address stating her support for the interfaith community. She emphasized respecting one another. She proclaimed that it is faithful people who are responsible for changing the world, by coming together and demonstrating peace. She then expounded that the NAACP is an organism founded 1100 hundred years ago by a group of about seven people comprising of Caucasians, Africans, and Jews. They were tired of the injustice, racism, and hatred of the time and felt something needed to be done, thus forming the oldest living civil rights organization in America. The mission of the NAACP is to eradicate racism, injustice, and hatred. She encouraged all not to overlook the right to vote, stating that there is a power in doing so. She further explained that there are 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and 33 out of 100 United States seats in the Senate are open this year. Votes, she proclaimed, will determine who sits in those seats. It is our responsibility for our families and the future to be educated and engaged in the political process.
The final speaker of the evening was Rashida Tlaib, a politician and a lawyer who served In the Michigan State House and is currently in the US Congress of Michigan in the 13th district.
She first asserted that justice was Prophet Muhammad’s middle name because he spoke of integration and terminating slavery at a time when no one dared discuss it. Congresswoman Tlaib claimed that she was inspired by her Palestinian immigrant parents and their struggle; growing up in Detroit was a reminder to her of various movements from civil rights to labor rights. She grew up in a community that did not fear the other, but had similar values of understanding, wanting their children to be safe, and living with dignity She proclaimed that her districts did not share the same faith or ethnicity, yet she was elected because she shared the same values as this population. Tlaib mentioned that the Prophet spoke about the oppressed; likewise, we need to connect to our faiths and speak up. She lastly implored everyone when they hear or see oppression not to stand by, but rather to be present and speak up for others. One manner of doing so is to participate in interfaith dialogues or simply be present in such gatherings. Tlaib continued to assert that no one should belittle another by racist remarks nor should one remain silent in the face of it; after all, to remain silent in the face of such oppression is to condone it. The congresswoman asserted that it is the only way we can fight back against hate.
The program then concluded with a question and answer session. The event brought amongst the attendees a sense of hope and unity. This is the message the Holy Prophet Muhammad spread over 1400 years ago and continues to be advocated to this day.