North American Chapter Group
For the first time, this year’s North American Chapter Group (NACG) meeting was held at an international location - Al-Akhawayn University’s campus nestled in the Middle Atlas Mountains in Ifrane, Morocco. The meeting coincided with the World Sacred Music Festival in Fez, which had Water and the Sacred as its theme – understood as the source of life and inspiration nourishing not only the body but also the soul. This festival was an opportunity to experience the beauty and charm of world sacred music. The reflective spaces enabled participants to consider how faith, culture, and spirituality are interconnected, and can be explored to enhance all aspects of our practical and spiritual lives.
The annual general meeting began with opening remarks by the NACG President, Dr Nargis Virani and Secretary Shireen Khuwaja to frame the three day experience. Dr Virani delivered an inspiring session entitled Sacred and Water in World Religions with Special Reference to Islam, Shi‘ism and Sufism, which provided participants with a platform to understand the place and role of water in faith and spirituality. Dr Alessandro Cancian, a Research Fellow in the Qur'anic Studies Unit at the IIS, provided a thought provoking discussion on the notion of water as a sacred element within Islamic traditions through an exploration of Shi‘i Exegesis. Reflecting on these themes, alumna Sehrish Shikarpurya (STEP 2017) commented:
The theme of water and the sacred allowed me to search deeper within myself to understand more about how water serves as a symbol for not just purity of one's soul, but also purity with which one seeks to connect with the Divine.
Experiential learning was placed at the centre of this year’s meeting, which began with a comprehensive tour of the Old City of Fez - enabling participants to physically situate themselves and their learnings within the context. The experience continued through a series of visits to concerts - each of a distinct nature - which reflected on how water as an element could inspire and nurture expressions in our secular and spiritual worlds. Describing his experience, alumnus Nurdin Dhanani (WTEP 1987) said:
The NACG meeting in Ifrane was an incredible intellectual delight. The combination of educational sessions and visiting the Sacred Music Festival in Fez in the afternoons and evenings was an eye opener, into how music and especially Sufi renditions of spiritual search are so well accepted and appreciated. The last evening was something I have never come across – hundreds of youth in the audience, ranging from ages of 15 to 25, fully engrossed, by loudly repeating the praises to Prophet Muhammad once recited by the musicians. An unforgettable experience - one had to see and hear to feel the enchanted spiritual occasion!
The following day, participants viewed a special film presentation by alumna Tanya Panjwani (GPISH 2012). The documentary explored the life of Sanam Marvi, a Pakistani composer and singer who attributes her inspiration for singing to her faith. Shiraz Kabani, Head of the Department of Community Relations at the IIS, concluded the meeting by sharing, via video-link, some key developments and updates on forthcoming projects and publications at the IIS.
The meeting provided alumni with an outlet to experience and express the unsaid: the sacred nature of spirituality and symbolism that exists in nature around us, specifically through the element of water. These moments of awe and curiosity inspired many to continue to search for the unknown, and to learn more about the wonders of creation that exist in our surroundings.
Reflecting back on her journey, alumna Zahra Somani (STEP 2010) said:
My experience at NACG-AGM 2017 has had me rethinking ritual, form and essence, and the role of water in my own understanding of sacredness and connecting with my faith. People ask me sometimes what I love about being Muslim and the answer is always so simple: within Islam there is space to be who I am today, in the moment, without judgment. The practice of Islam (in my experience) allows for growth and movement; like water, it is fluid, it not only fills the vessel but also takes the vessel's unique shape so that Islam looks beautifully different in every body. It is a life-giving force, and when you remember that it can play the role of a river too, you tap into an awe-inspiring awareness of being on a journey. As we explored Fez, it was impossible to feel anything less than total intoxication, triggered by the colours, sounds, smells, and life inside each of these nooks and crannies. I'm so glad God has made us into nations and tribes...this life is so much richer for it.