A HISTORY OF THE MILWAUKEE ISLAMIC DAWAH CENTER
1989 – 2012
By Waheed Ahmed
In 1990, I wrote a history of the Islamic Center of Milwaukee, which was published as a booklet. It covered the period from 1982 to 1987. That history was based on personal knowledge and experience during the time I was president of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee (ISM). My association with the Da’wa Center and its predecessor: the Islamic Information Service (IIS) however, is spread over almost three decades. When I sat down to write this history, I had only my memory to rely upon but ordinary human memory doesn’t contain dates and to write history without chronology would have been meaningless. I was engaged in this dilemma when I suddenly realized that I had bundles of files given to me by Sr. Amatullah Mahmoud, our past treasurer after she resigned. I scanned all those files and extracted as much information as I possibly could. Sr. Amatullah had meticulously kept the record of the Da’wa Center for which she deserves the gratitude of the community.
Historically, Islam has always been a religious movement, meaning that it has never been confined to homes and places of worship or trapped in groups and cultures. It has always been on the move. If it arrived somewhere, it spread, sometimes even without a conscious effort on the part of its followers but on our part, its store of values, potentialities and possibilities has to be laid open so that the citizenry could see its contents. This is what we call Information Service in general terms and Da’wa in Islamic terminology.
When the Islamic Society of Milwaukee was formed in 1983, we had created in its Majlis-a-Shura a Da’wa chair, whose first occupant was Br. Ayyub Alamin. This perhaps was a pioneering effort, which laid the foundation of great developments in the subsequent years. The Islamic Center, the seat of the ISM was situated in a conservative neighborhood, which could not be expected to welcome Islam with open arms. We needed a presence in the inner city to establish contacts with prospective Muslims.
The Islamic Information Service
The idea of the information service, with all its ramifications, was a germ which I had carried with me, when I left the country of my birth: India. In my student days in the 1950s, the propaganda war between the communist and the capitalist ideologies was being waged with full ferocity in the Third World. The Communist party was gaining strength in India. Two of its provinces had elected communist governments and it had a strong presence in the place I lived. The European colonialists were being defeated in Southeast Asia. India and Indonesia were on the threshold of revolutions. Phrases like Dominos Effect were much in circulation. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Secretary of States: John Foster Dulles were determined that no more countries in Asia should fall to Communism. It was important to propagate the values of “freedom and free enterprise”. United States Information Service was active in many cities in India giving out information and distributing literature. There was also an “Atom for Peace” exhibition, organized by the U.S. State Department in which I had participated as a scientific guide. So when I came to this country, the seed sown decades ago in my consciousness began to germinate. I was on the American soil and it was time to return the favor.
In March 1987 the Islamic Information Service came into being in Milwaukee. At first it operated from a grocery store owned by Ayyub Alamin and Ali Lubbad on Center Street. It had a hot telephone line listed in the phone book and was attended to around the clock 24/7 by Ayyub. When they closed the store the phone was transferred to Ayyub’s house. The calls were answered live. We did not believe in answering machine which we thought was an impediment to communication. This tactics bore fruit in liaising with many segments of society: individuals, churches, synagogues as well as the media. For instance, in 1989 when the controversy about Imam Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the author of “Satanic Verses” broke, the WISN-TV (channel 12) contacted our information service for a spokesman from the Islamic community and I gave a half hour interview on T.V. presenting the Muslim point of view. Thus, owing to its hot line the Islamic Information Service became the frontline liaison agency in Public Relations as well as for Da'wah in Milwaukee.
We also published many leaflets and periodicals under the information service. Some of the periodicals I edited were: ISI Newsletter, Islamicus, the Commentator and the Shahadah. The Commentator was a monthly newspaper, which dealt with social and political issues. It had an implicit Islamic message and was designed to reach the general public rather than specific Muslim readership. Unfortunately, the team which produced the paper fell apart and this unique publication came to an end. Nevertheless, the idea is still alive and Insha-Allah some Muslim entrepreneurs and journalists will rekindle it in the future.
One of the famous events we planned and executed was to hold the Friday prayer in Pere Marquette Park in downtown Milwaukee, right across the street from the Journal-Sentinel building. The Milwaukee Journal on July1, 1987 carried the following news under the heading “Muslims to march Downtown Friday”:
“Milwaukee Muslims, who say they want the general public to know about their views on moral and social issues, will hold a service at 1 p.m. Friday in Pere Marquette Park on Old World 3rd St. between W. State St. and W. Kilbourn Ave.
Abdul Aleem Bashir, a Chicago Muslim will speak. Afterward, a prayer will be said and the group will march south on 3rd St. to W. Wisconsin Ave., west to N. 4th St., then back to park.
The event will be sponsored by the Islamic Information Service here.”
So on July 3, 1987 after the prayer the congregation consisting of men, women and children marched in downtown Milwaukee with Islamic banners and slogans with messages concerning social issues; needless to say that the event was fervently covered by the media. The T.V. cameras were there and the Milwaukee Sentinel published a detailed report on Saturday, July 4, 1987 with pictures.
When the grocery store closed, the Service moved to a dentist’s office at 42nd and Hopkins, who was kind enough to offer a part of the facility for our use. On Sundays, there was an Islamic studies session on the premises. Among many people, who attended were two sisters, who brought their husbands along: Dr. Rizwanullah Arain and Dr. Sultan Mallick. From then on the plan to purchase a building began to take shape.
Milwaukee Islamic Da’wah Center (MIDC)
The present facility, at 5125 N. Teutonia Avenue, was a mini shopping mall and was a foreclosed property, consisting of a pizza parlor, a restaurant, a beauty shop and a doctor’s office. We purchased it for $55,000 and the deal was closed on March 31, 1993 (the deed recorded in Registrar’s office on 4-6-1993, Reel 3006, Image 1303) between the South Milwaukee Savings Bank and the North American Islamic Trust of Indianapolis. The Trust holds the title to the property and functions as a guardian to safeguard its ownership and ensure its proper use.
In order to purchase the building and operate it, raise funds and satisfy all the legal requirements, we needed an organization. I will divide the history of this organization, which we named: Milwaukee Islamic Da’wah Center Inc. into three phases:
Phase one: 1993 – 2002
We created a Board of Directors, consisting of the pioneers, who were as under:
Dr. Rizwanullah Arain: chairman, Br. Ayyub Alamin: vice-chairman and acting director, Sr Talibah Hanif: secretary, Dr. Sultan Mallick: treasurer, Dr. Islam Hussain: member, Br. Ismael Rashad: member and Dr.Waheed Ahmed: member. Later when Dr. Islam Hussain left town, the vacancy was filled with Br. Mohammad Ali (Kamal).
Funds were collected from inside as well as outside the community. The building price was paid in cash. I must, for the record, mention the names of those who gave $1,000 or more. To the best of my recollection, those names are as follows: Dr. Rizwanullah Arain, Dr. Sultan Mallick, Dr. Islam Hussain, Dr. Ahmed Ali, Dr. Ali Gama’, Br. Jamil Sarsour, Br. Shafi Khan and Br. Mohammad Ali (provided furnishing). Br. Ibrahim Khalil ( provided carpeting for the masjid). A substantial amount of money came from the Islamic Medical Association and a loan of $10,000 from the North American Islamic Trust (This loan was soon paid back. The building’s title was held by the said Trust.) It must be pointed out that the other dedicated Muslim men and women, who contributed smaller amounts and their labor were of no less importance and deserving of our gratitude.
Considerable efforts were made to remodel the building and adapt it to our needs. Our acting director, Br. Ayyub Alamin was spending a great part of day and night in the Center and was available to talk to anybody who walked in out of curiosity or was seeking information about Islam. Those were the heydays of Da’wa as innumerable persons took shahadah. There was a weekend school conducted by Sr. Nahid Arshad, which attracted a lot of students from all parts of the city. The Islamic Family and Social Services Inc. were also housed in the Center.
The Board Dissipates:
Then the usual thing happened. There was squabbling and in-fighting in the Board --- perhaps no more so than in any other Islamic organization --- but unfortunately, because of inexperience in dealing with people of various temperaments and persuasion, some Board members started demonstrating impatience and lack of perseverance and stopped attending Board meetings. The Board’s authority soon evaporated and the Director was left solely in-charge.
There were some interim rearrangements. A succession of committees was formed under Br. Ayyub. At one time Stefanie Miller was made secretary. After Dr. Mallick’s resignation Noman Tugan and then Azhar Masood were made treasurers. One significant development during this period was that Shaikh Zakaria Nurdeen was appointed Imam by the Acting Director.
The First Da’wah Conference:
The Da’wa conference arranged by us at 13th and Layton on May 24 and 25, 1997 was Milwaukee’s first and a landmark. Guest speakers were: Sheikh Muhammad Nur Abdullah, Abdulmalik Mujahid, Ali Suleman Ali, Amin Best, Amir Ali, Shamim Siddiqui and Mukhtar Curtis. The conference was organized by Sr. Amatullah Mahmoud, who did an excellent job.
New Architectural Plans:
A very enthusiastic and expressive architect by the name Hamid Al-Othman started working with Ayyub with a proposal to build a new masjid, replacing the existing building. His plans were good and he also was thinking of raising funds for the project overseas. One flaw in this plan however, was that he was working in isolation without any input from us or the community and he was very protective of his turf. The response from the community, as expected, was not good. However, I thought that despite these difficulties, he should be given a chance to reconcile the differences and implement the plan for the good of the community. So, in the Second Phase, when the Guardian Council was being formed, I asked him to be its member (see later).
Phase two: 2002 – 2008
In early 2002 some members of the community started meetings in the Da’wa Center on Sundays in order to seek and organize more participation in the Center’s administration. Both the parties: the current administrator Ayyub Alamin and Dr. Eugene Pruitt representing the other party approached me for arbitration. Dr. Pruitt presented me with a new constitution and a list of brothers and sisters to be included in the new administrative structure. The good thing was that both the parties were agreeable for a change. They also agreed for me to write the constitution and select a panel of administrators. The constitution, which I wrote, had the following salient features: The organization would consist of:
1. General Members, who will pay annual dues and have right to vote in elections.
2. A Guardian Council, which will function as a board of trustees, whose members will be nominated by mutual consultation from among the community.
3. An Administrative Council, headed by Chief Administrator. The Council will be elected by the General Members.
As the first step the Guardian Council was established. Its members were:
Dr. Eugene Pruitt: chairman, Br. Abdulhamid Ali: vice-chairman, Br. Kalim Wali: secretary, Sr. Amatullh Mahmoud: treasurer, Dr. Ahmed Dalmar: member, Br. Ayyub Alamin: member, Br. Hamid Al-Othman: member, Br. Ismael Rashad: member, Br. Mahmoud Malas: member and Dr. Waheed Ahmed: member.
A membership drive followed. Elections for the Administrative Council were held and Br. Kalim Hakim was elected Chief Administrator and others for their respective portfolios.
Some uneventful months passed before the elected Chief Administrator resigned (no cause given). The Council as a whole had never started functioning. The burden of governing the Center was now solely on the Guardian Council. On October 8, 2005, the Guardian Council passed an amendment to the constitution to the effect that if the Administrative Council was absent for any reason, the Guardian Council would function as such. Thus the idea of “democratic governance” suffered its worst defeat.
Hamid Al-Othman, the architect angrily resigned from the Guardian Council complaining against some members of the Council and took his architectural plans with him.
On January1, 2005 Shaikh Zakaria resigned as Imam of the Da’wa Center. So did Sr Amatullah as treasurer (Both of them later came back). Their places were taken by Br. Kalim Hakim and Br. Saud Ahmad respectively.
On May 14, 2005 Dr. Pruitt resigned as Chairman of the Board. His responsibility fell on me. He however remained on the Board until March 2008.
In 2006 Br. Isa Sadlon was appointed in the ISM as its Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer. His sincere wish was to work towards the integration of various mosques in the city. I thought that it would be a good idea to have him on our Guardian Council. Hence, in Oct. 2006 he was elected as an honorary (non-voting) member of the Guardian Council for one year period.
On May 13, 2007 Br. Al-Haji Hassan and Sr. Kissha Riley-Hendricks were elected to the Guardian Council.
Several years ago, we had held a fundraiser on the ISM premises with a view to purchasing a new building for the Da’wa Center or upgrading the present one. We had collected about $60,000. These funds were dormant in the bank while the prospects of acquiring new facility were not looking very good. The present building was badly in need of repair and there were several city code violations. We therefore decided to use the funds available to perform this urgently needed work. Contract was given to reroofing the building, which was completed in a timely manner. Bids were invited to remodel the masjid, the wudu and the kitchen areas. Various bids were considered. There was strong advocacy within the Guardian Council in favor of a Muslim contractor, who was a member of the community. He thus got the contract. However, the work did not progress very well and there were endless abrasive discussions within the Council and without. After the completion of one phase the next phases were not approved and the contract was given to an outside contractor, who completed the construction.
Phase 3: 2008 – 2012
The contractor mentioned above was a member of the community and he considered it his right to attend all the Guardian Council meetings and as has been mentioned, he had support from inside the Council. Because of the rancorous meetings and the vehemence of the arguments, it was getting increasingly difficult to conduct business. The seriousness of the problem can be gauged from the fact that the contractor filed a law suit against the Da’wa Center. (The law suit was later settled outside the court by arbitration.) An administration with this kind of dichotomy and conflict of interests was untenable. The only solution to this problem seemed to be to scratch the Council and start anew.
A committee was formed to rewrite the constitution, which consisted of: Waheed Ahmed, Amatullah Mahmoud and Mahmoud Malas. The constitution was written, approved and adopted by the Guardian Council. It envisaged an administration headed by a president and a board of trustees. Members of the administration were nominated and approved by the GC. who were as follows:
Waheed Ahmed: president, Will Perry executive director, Shaikh Zakaria Nurdeen: imam, Kissha Said: secretary, Amatullah Mahmoud: treasurer, Ayyub Alamin: director of education and social services, Aamer Ahmed: director of outreach and Al-Haji Hassan: director of engineering services. Al-Hajj Ba was later nominated as Associate Director.
The board, consisting of following names was nominated: Abdulhamid Ali, Adnan Nazir, Ahmed Dalmar, Bayo Yusuf, Isa Sadlon, Mahmoud Malas, Naim Ziad, Rafat Arain and Waheedah Alamin. The president and the treasurer were to be ex-officio members. The Board was to elect its chairman and secretary from its members, which it did, electing Bayo Yusuf as chairman and Adnan Nazir as secretary.
In July 8 – 11, 2009, there was a very successful Open House coordinated by Aamer Ahmed
Demographic Survey Project:
For a community, to be able to control its own destiny, it is imperative that it knows its own composition, its number, its strength and its weaknesses. The official census does not provide data in the form that may be useful to us. The masjids can conduct such surveys but it takes a lot of technical expertise and resources. It can best be performed in an academic environment. In October 2009 the Da’wa Center took the initiative in this respect. Ameera Ahmed, my daughter, put me in touch with her contacts in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Thus three UWM professors: Dr. Anna M. Mansson McGinty, Dr.Caroline Seymour-Jorn and Dr. Kristin M. Sziarto undertook this survey project with their own private funding. The survey is still in progress and all the Milwaukee masjids and Islamic organizations are participating in this survey. Aamer Ahmed is the coordinator of this project.
Historically, the Muslim community in America, contrary to the Islamic teachings and traditions, has been somewhat aloof from the suffering of the general populace, whereas the Christian, the Jewish and other religious groups have been proactive in social welfare and public affairs. Our apathy had contributed to our negative image in the eyes of the public. This is all about to change now. We are out in strength, trying to lend a hand in the economic and social uplift of our fellow citizens.
The food pantry was started years ago in the Da’wa Center by Dr. Noman Siddiqui, which after his departure from the country had remained dormant. It has now come alive with the active support of ISM and Masjid-al-Huda. Hundreds of poor families receive food from the Da’wa Center every week. It would be right to say that all the Muslims of Milwaukee have joined together to make this project a success. Among many brothers and sisters, who are working on this project, are Sr. Kissha Said and Brother Will Perry, who are amassing enormous ajr for their akhirah.
The Board dwindles once again:
At the end of 2009, we again relapsed into some difficult times. According to the latest constitution, the treasurer is a part of the Executive Committee and sits on the Board as a non-voting member along with the president. The treasurer began to feel that as in the corporate culture, it was more dignified for the treasurer to work directly with the Board than to work through the executive committee and the president. This move had the potential of creating schisms. The president would then have no choice but to resign and let the Board take over full responsibility. The fact that this came up after the constitution was ratified and not while it was being written, rattled me. I was extremely troubled by the prospect of losing confidence in future collaboration. This feeling of disappointment reflected badly in the proceedings of the Board. The impact on the Board was devastating, which in time dwindled to an insignificant number. One by one the Board members resigned. The Imam and the treasurer also resigned, although their resignations may not have anything to do with the troubles stated. The treasurer’s vacancy was filled by Burhan Clark and Abdul Aziz was asked to fill in temporarily for the Imam. Since the Board ceased to function, the remaining Board members were invited to join the executive committee meetings and participate in decision making.
Planning for the Fourth Phase:
In 2012 some brothers and sisters, sensing the difficulties the Da’wa Center was going through, started meeting and discussing plans for the improvement of functions. They requested a meeting with the Board and the administrators. The meeting took place and it was decided to organize a planning retreat. A steering committee was formed consisting of Sr. Detra Rodgers, Sr. Kissha Said and Br. Aamer Ahmed. They conducted internal surveys and then organized a one day retreat on June 2, 20012 in the Washington Park Library. Based on the polls conducted in the retreat and the discussions that took place, they have compiled a proposal for the reorganization of the Center. This proposal is now being discussed and will soon be made public to invite comments.
The Da’wah Center is a non-sectarian and non-parochial organization but it has taken a tremendous struggle to maintain this neutrality. Special interests groups with narrowly focused dogmas and agenda are always on the look out to take over a masjid to operate from and are looking for openings. The future leadership should be very vigilant in this respect. Every individual as a Muslim has a full right to attend the masjid and participate in its activities. One can be a Salafi, a Sufi and whatever maslak one chooses to follow but must not participate in the Center as specifically oriented group and engage in divisive propagation. The imams and leaders must not show preference to one maslak or the other.
So far we have operated the Da’wa Center without deficit financing and borrowing money. This has not only kept us away from Shariah controversies but has made us recipient of enormous Barakah. We rarely had big donors but with whatever small donations we receive from our people and our well-wishers, we have met all the basic needs of the Center. If the future leadership maintains this policy, with Allah’s help the doors of the Center will never close.
If you write or study history, you do that not for entertainment but to learn and teach lessons. Every generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessor. You build on the strengths of your predecessors and you draw lessons from their mistakes and resolve not to repeat them. There are plenty of lessons you can learn from our story. One lesson you learn is that each person, who offers his/her contribution is sincere and is motivated by a desire to change the world. This does not mean that there are no bad apples. The trick is to pick them out and discard them in a manner which is least painful. Public service is not a bed of roses. In fact, it is a thorny bed. It pinches and pierces at every toss and turn and makes you wish you were somewhere else. If your tolerance level is low, you will probably be gone before long. Don’t forget that if you are dealing with people you are dealing with individuals, who differ in more ways than you can think of. So be generous and seek out goodness in them.
So far in our organizations, we have been using systems that we call universal, such as parliamentary system, democratic system, Robert’s Law and so on. But how universal are these systems and how beneficial have they been to our community? Clearly, we have two models, which we have for comparison. One model is what we have been emulating so far: boards, councils, committees etc which we select or elect, in which decisions are made by show of hands, which become binding. Frankly, this model has not served us well.
We have another model, the model of “charismatic leadership”. The Prophet was a charismatic leader; his khalifa was a charismatic leader. Imam Khomeini and Elijah Mohammad were charismatic leaders. Has this model been more successful than what we have? The answer is yes. Do Muslims respond more to such leadership than to one which depends on parliamentary and bureaucratic processes? History says yes. --- Caution! This model utterly fails when the charisma evaporates and the leader turns into a despot. This is historically what the problem has been. However, there may be some safety valves such as term limits.
In this model, the leader makes the decisions after consultation (Shura, a Quranic process) with a group of wise and senior people called “ahl al-hall wa al-aqd”, literally meaning “people who loosen and fasten”. The system is in vogue in some societies but has not been universally successful. Successful systems of leadership and governance are rooted in cultures and traditions. Democracy thrived under a tree in Athens. It was triumphant in the senate in Rome. It served the gentry, the clergy and the aristocracy well in England. It has bestowed power and prosperity on the oligarchs on the Capitol Hill. It failed in the Orient, in Cairo, Islamabad and Tehran. What are the odds that it will give the worshippers in the masjid satisfaction? We should have found out by now! We have tried both the models afterall.