The genesis of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) lay in the establishment of its predecessor organization, the Muslims Students Association of the United States and Canada (MSA). Sparked by the vision and determination of a dozen international Muslim students gathered on the campus of University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana on January 1, 1963, MSA was founded and fueled by limited resources but unbounded energy.
The founding members of MSA met in a spirit of egalitarian partnership. They represented a great diversity of national, linguistic and even jurisprudential background among themselves. At the same time they shared a yearning for a future in which they and those who come after them will be torch-bearers and practitioners of a way of life they had committed themselves to. They spoke as equals and launched their collective endeavor through a democratic process of decision-making that has set the standard for ISNA of today.
From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, the Muslim population in North America grew rapidly. Students from college campuses graduated into communities and sought to explore and celebrate their growing Muslim and American identities. Community based Muslim organizations grew across the country. In 1981, MSA collaborated with the three associations of Muslim professionals that had grown with it to constitute the Islamic Society of North America. In this new order, ISNA took up the role as an overall continental membership and community organization with MSA focusing its leadership and service on university campuses, as a constituent of ISNA.
Al-Amin Masjid in Gary, Indiana served as headquarters with limited space and mostly volunteer staff until a fully functional headquarters was established in Indianapolis, IN in 1975, which moved in 1977 to temporary buildings on the newly acquired land in Plainfield, IN. The new graceful building on that property came on line to become the seat of ISNA’s general secretariat in 1981.
ISNA has maintained an unbroken and deeply entrenched culture of democratic elections and decision-making, electing its leadership through a process of members nominating and then voting to elect its officers. An election committee appointed by ISNA’s governing board oversees a rigorous process of conducting elections independently.
An egalitarian democratic ethos has been at the core of organizational behavior in ISNA. The business of ISNA has been conducted through a number of standing committees, including the executive committee, ad hoc committees and staff committees as needed, all using consensus forming and decision making processes to accomplish assigned or agreed upon goals.
As the communities that ISNA supported began to flourish, they began to outgrow the support that ISNA provided. By the late 1980’s, North American Muslim communities had become more vibrant than ever before, but also somewhat less connected, both to ISNA and to each other. It was time to focus on what the Muslim communities of the new millennium would need.
Over the course of the next decade, ISNA underwent a major paradigm shift. It started to actively engage other faith communities and interfaith organizations, and to establish partnerships with government and civil society organizations, pursuing its commitment to building a Muslim community that is active and visible in the greater society. As this work grew, so did the involvement of ISNA’s constituent communities, demonstrating that interreligious engagement was an integral part of American Muslim life. With the attacks of September 11th, this work became even more crucial.
In the years since, needs of local communities have gone beyond supporting their mosques alone; so has ISNA’s contribution to their achievements. With 57 years of uninterrupted and treasured history, ISNA has maintained its vitality in leadership and service by learning from experience and sharing best practices for sustaining strong religious communities in an ever-changing environment. In the decade of 2020 ISNA is poised to achieve not only relevant understanding and practice of our own faith in relation to that of others, but also to work together to make positive change in the society, the country and the world that we all share.