Nazim Baksh on the utter uselessness of Islamic conferences. They are, as Nazim says, “a costly experiment aimed at dumbing down knowledge for the masses”, and his essay is an unsentimental deconstruction of the entire phenomenon of the Islamic Conference as glorification of mediocrity.
At the risk of sounding redundant let me say I have an allergic reaction to conferences whether Muslim in character or not. I don’t believe they will or have ever accomplished anything. That’s not to say the vendors at GPU’s bazaar who paid £900 for the privilege of selling a few trinkets and some colorful hijabs didn’t recover their cost and then some. The food vendors too may have turned a handsome profit leaving behind a heap of garbage and some messy restrooms for low paying unionized workers to clean up.
Muslim conferences are the biggest public innovation (bid’a) of our age and I am amazed that the Salafis are so dazzled by them. Conferences call people to a venue that is not a mosque to listen to speakers who become the center of gravity for a few days. In the last 30 years of conferences in North America we’ve managed to produce a class of scholars who hop from one conference to another spouting the same old cliché-riddled incoherent speeches. Don’t get me wrong! There are some gems in this group.
I am not ashamed to say that my personal favorite going back to the early 1990’s has been and still is Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. That’s because he stands apart for never repeating a lecture twice except for those early years when he was determined to lead a ‘smash your television revolution’ armed with Jerry Mander and Robert Bly. That was a long time ago. To this day he remains original and engaging because he respects people who he believes deserve a hearty lecture in return for the money they paid to get in.
Today, organizers of Muslim conferences are looking to spice things up by forging a lineup of celebrity speakers and performers on the lofty ideal of ‘Unity’ when all they’re doing is pandering to an already divided community. Deobandis, Berelwis, Salafis, Wahabis, Sufis, and the Shia may momentarily shed their allegiances to attend a conference but that can hardly be considered ‘Unity.’ As for the vast majority of young people, there is no distinction between Shaykh Hamza and Yasir Al-Qadi or Dr. Umar Faruq ‘Abd-Allah and Yusuf Estes or between Imam Zaid Shakir and Khalid Yasin or between Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri and Dr. Zakir Naik. The distinction is blatant: some speakers have knowledge while others know a few things. Conferences are a costly experiment aimed at dumbing down knowledge for the masses. The consequence is that every idiot armed with a hadith can come off as if he knows something.
In a few months thousands of Canadian and American Muslims will trade in their virgin eggnogs to attend the RIS conference where they will get 8-10 lectures in Arabic, a language spoken by a small fraction of those in attendance. There will be no speeches in Urdu, a language understood by the vast majority of those in attendance. The theme of the conference is not the role of mosques or the sacred message of the Quran, the two themes that have been making headlines all year on account of Faisal Abdur Rauf’s controversial Park 51 project and Rev. Terry Jones Quran burning aspirations. Rather, the theme will be the Ten Commandments and something about developing a roadmap.
But people will come, as they did at the GPU, to cheer and applaud and take some time to scour the landscape for a future spouse. I pray they find what they come looking for.