ISNA Canada’s current President, Dr. Syed Imtiaz Ahmad, is exceptionally accomplished and dedicated to the service of the Muslim community both nationally and internationally.
This past September at the 53rd Annual ISNA Convention in Chicago, Dr. Imtiaz, received the Community Service Recognition Award at the 17th Annual Community Service Recognition Luncheon. In attendance were Sh. Abdalla Idris Ali (Executive Director, ISNA Canada), Seema Khan (Director of Operations, ISNA Canada) as well as Linda Sarsour, Tariq Ramadan and Imam Siraj Wahhaj.
Lanterns decided to sit down with Dr. Imtiaz to get to know more about this incredible man.
Lanterns: How did you get involved in Islamic work and servicing the community for over 3 decades?
I first arrived in Canada in the early sixties for graduate studies at the University of Ottawa, returned to Pakistan after completing my studies, serving in Pakistan for almost three years, and then immigrating to Canada in 1970, living first in Ottawa and then moving to Windsor for career advancement. In my early years in Canada, I only had marginal involvement in Muslim community activities.
In the mid-seventies, I was elected President of the Windsor Islamic Association. That was a watershed moment in my life, reawakening in me an urge to develop a deeper understanding of Islam and speak on it preferably to the larger Canadian population. While I had studied Islam in Pakistan from books written by scholars from various perspectives and in different contexts, much of it was out of curiosity. In Canada, I began to develop an understanding of Islam as a way of life with the Qur’an as the primary source. Also, among the early readings that left a deep impression on me were Maudidi’s Tafhim al Quran, with emphasis on getting to the essence of the Qur’anic message before getting into details, Allama Iqbal’s explorations in Asrar-e-khudi, related to Qur’anic concept of radhiatam mardhiyya, Malik bin Nabi’s book on the theme of responsibility and accountability, mas’uliyyah, Toshihiko Izutsu who provided an in depth understanding of the Ethico Religious Concepts in the Qur’an, and Nuh Ha Mim Keller where the word traveller appears in the title of one of his books.
I developed an urge to become involved in the Muslim community affairs nationally. My first significant involvement was in the Council of Muslim Communities of Canada (CMCC). Muin Muinuddin and Dr. Fouad Sahin were among the pioneers, and I worked closely with them. This national organization allowed me to attend meetings and conferences in various parts of Canada. In late seventies, I became involved in the events organized by the Muslim Students Association (MSA) of the United States and Canada. At the same time I was elected as President of the Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers (AMSE), giving me an opportunity to become involved in the formative thought processes leading to the creation of the Islamic Society of North America in the early eighties, with founding member organizations, American Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), Islamic Medical Association (IMA) and, of course, the MSA hold as the key anchor.
Lanterns: How did your involvement stretch beyond national borders?
In the early eighties I went to live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I served as a visiting professor at Eastern Michigan University. I became involved in the activities of the Muslim House there, developing acquaintances, in particular, with Said Ramadan and Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, American Muslim scholar in the Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan. While completing his Ph.D., Umar Faruq Abd-Allah conducted tafseer sessions on the Qur’an. This was my first encounter with a person who showed an unprecedented deep thinking on the Qur’anic message. I felt greatly inspired.
Lanterns: When did you become involved with ISNA?
My career with Eastern Michigan University in the United States spanned some thirty five years, bringing me closer to ISNA where I became engaged in a long chain of responsibilities, starting with the position of Vice President and an opportunity to work with ISNA President Dr. Ahmad Zaki Hammad, who impressed me with his distinctive approach to managing an Islamic Organization. I served as Vice President several times and subsequently as ISNA President, reaching out to other national organizations including Afro-Americans, forming a national council. At that time, I was in the company of scholars engaged in developing a rationalized approach to moon sighting, looking at choices of Itihad al Matalih and Ikhtilaf al Matalih.
Locally in Windsor, I was involved in halaqa sessions on understanding the meaning of words in the Qur’an and relating them to human personal and community development. I often had a sense but never sure whether Muslims while reciting the Qur’an regularly took the time to understand the meaning of words in the Qur’an, regardless of whether they were Arabic speaking or not. It appeared that despite strengthening their spirituality through sincere devotional practices, they felt that the explanations provided by the imams were adequate even if they could not relate those explanations to everyday living. I experienced it more directly in Malaysia where the students when asked to explain some verses in their own words could not do it beyond what they held in memory word-for-word from hadith or tafseer. Perhaps it was the rebel within me who made those observations.
Lanterns: Is there anyone person or persons in particular that have impacted you significantly?
It would be neglectful of me not to mention the fond memories I have for Dr. Ahmad Sakr with whom I had close extended contacts. There are so many others who became a source of inspiration and interesting encounters for me such as the ISNA founding President Dr. Ilyas Bayunus, as well as Dr. Syed M. Syeed, Imam Mohamed Magid Ali, Brother Ahmed ElHattab, Bahauddin Bade, Dr. Ihsan Bagby, Dr. Louay Safi, Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, Shaykh Abdalla Idris Ali, Habibe Ali, Basharat Saleem, and Dr. Mukhtar Ahmad. I had the opportunity of working closely with them. The danger in listing names is that I may forget many names of close contacts. I am very grateful to all of them for the opportunity to work with them.
The other Presidents under whom I served as Vice President were Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, Sheikh Muhammad Nur Abdullah, and Dr. Ingrid Mattson. One significant event that occurred during the time of Sheikh Nur was the Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) retreat in Kansas City and my role as SPC Chair. The key outcomes were a focus on youth and re-engagement of ISNA in educational programs for Muslims and others. ISNA Leadership Development Center (ILDC) was established, initially with a mandate for leadership training conferences and seminars tailored to the needs of communities.
Lanterns: How was ISNA Canada born?
In its nascent period, ISNA was carrying out operations both in the United States and Canada. ISNA went through a period where a sudden vacuum was created by the departure overseas of early pioneers and created a need for ISNA operations in Canada to raise their own funds. As a country, a need was felt to register ISNA as a charity in Canada, giving rise to the Islamic Society of North America Canada (ISNA Canada). Living in Canada, I served as ISNA Canada Vice President with Dr. Qutbi El Mahdi as President and also as ISNA Canada President and Vice President more than once. Among those I received great support for ISNA Canada work were Dr. Syed Afaq Moin, Dr. Mohamed Jinnah, Khadija Haffajee, Dr. Mohamed Bekkari, Pervez Nasim, Shameem Mohammad, Seema Khan, and many others whose names I may be forgetting but I remain indebted to them. In my responsibility for the Jami Mosque in Toronto I also worked with the imams Ibrahim Hussain Malabari and Dr. Abdul Hakim Quick. Someone who made a deep impression on me in terms of my Muslim community involvement is Dr. Jamal Badawi. After listening to some imams with raised voices and emotional high, I found the calm and reasoned speaking style of Dr. Jamal Badawi to be both soothing and comforting.
I continue to serve ISNA continental. At this time, I am ISNA Canada President again, now focused on rebuilding it after several years of a difficult period in its history.