Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1998, Pages 35, 102
Dr. Sayyid Muhammad Syeed
By M.M. Ali
Dr. Sayyid Syeed is the current secretary- general of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a national umbrella organization with over 300 affiliates and links with some 2,000 mosques and community centers in the U.S. and Canada. As its chief executive officer, he has infused new life into this largest U.S. Muslim organization since he rejoined it three years ago.
Dr. Syeed was born in Kashmir six years before the British withdrew from the Indian subcontinent in 1947. He grew up in a religious Muslim family that was very much affected by the political turmoil which engulfed mountainous and once idyllic Kashmir when its Hindu maharaja joined the state to India against the wishes of its predominantly Muslim population.
Dr. Syeed’s formative years, therefore, were characterized by his attempts to reconcile or connect what he was learning from the Indian government’s curriculum taught in his classes with the realities in increasingly turbulent Kashmir and neighboring India and Pakistan. For answers to the problems engulfing the people of Kashmir, he looked in turn to the Islamic faith, in which he was tutored intensively, to the Western philosophies of liberalism and democracy, and also to the message of the “poet-philosopher of the East,” Dr. Mohammed Iqbal.
Specializing in linguistics (Dr. Syeed speaks, reads and writes English, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Kashmiri with fluency), he joined the faculty of the University of Kashmir. The 1960s in Kashmir, however, were particularly difficult years for a young man endowed with a sharp intellect, bursting ambitions and a penchant to speak his mind openly in a political environment that was averse to free speech or thought.
He soon realized that he would pay a steep personal and professional price for entertaining dreams for his homeland and for insisting on the right of self-determination that was promised by the United Nations to the Kashmiris. Instead of helping to gain his country’s freedom, he was losing his own.
Dr. Syeed therefore traveled to the United States, where he earned a doctorate in socio-linguistics from the University of Indiana in 1984. While on the university campus, he also became increasingly involved in the Muslim Students Association (MSA).
Ever since World War II, Europe has steadily lost ground to North America as the frontier of learning for the most promising young men and women of Africa and Asia. Since the early 1950s, there has been a vast flow into North American universities of students from the developing world, a sizeable number of whom come from Muslim countries.
The MSA has provided a meeting place for these students to congregate and to share experiences and the ideas that derive from them. Sayyid Syeed was elected national president of the MSA, and remained in this position from 1980 to 1983. It was during this time that he also became one of the co-founders of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
Toward New Pastures
After obtaining his doctorate, Dr. Syeed joined the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), a think tank and publishing house based in the U.S. national capital area, as its director of academic outreach. He held this position from 1984 to 1994, and concurrently served as secretary-general of the International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations (IIFSO) between 1988 and 1990. While at IIIT, he also served as general secretary of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), a national professional organization founded 23 years ago.
During this very active period he also was editor-in-chief of a respected quarterly, the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (AJISS), which is simultaneously published in Washington, DC; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Islamabad, Pakistan and Istanbul, Turkey. He nurtured AJISS from its inception and helped it blossom into the prestigious journal that it is today.
In the final editorial he wrote for AJISS in 1994 he observed: “Being involved in a movement during its formative period is a great challenge. Now that AJISS has been produced for 10 years, the vision of Islamic social sciences is much clearer. Potential writers have been identified, prominent scholars in the related fields have been drawn into the debate, and many young researchers are taking a cue for their future projects from the issues raised in AJISS.” If his career had ended there, it would have been a proud legacy for his successors.
Yet Another Move
In fact, however, Dr. Syeed was leaving IIIT for an equally demanding assignment. About his newest undertaking he wrote in that same farewell AJISS editorial: “Once again I have been called upon to take up a new challenge. After a decade of mobilizing Muslim intellectuals and involving both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars in a debate about the relevance of Islam to contemporary life, I will be dedicating more of my energies to developing an Islamic vision for North America in my new role as secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America.”
His assumption of the helm of America’s largest Muslim organization was no casual career choice, as he made it out to be. ISNA, which had begun with the highest hopes a decade earlier, was not in the best of organizational health by 1994. Its membership was down and its most recent annual convention had drawn only 4,000 people.
Driven by his missionary zeal and seemingly inexhaustible energy, Dr. Syeed and his family moved to Plainfield, Indiana, ISNA’s headquarters since its founding. That was no small undertaking, since Dr. Syeed and his wife, Rafia, have six children, three of them still living at home. Their oldest daughter, Afifa, is married to Sohaib Birzinji, a young Iraqi professional. She lives with her husband and their two children in Virginia. Dr. Syeed’s oldest son, Yasir, who holds a university degree in biology, worked until recently in Saudi Arabia but now has returned to Indiana. Daughter Najiba, a student of law, is at the University of Indiana, and another daughter, Nafeesa, and twin sons Esa and Musa, live with their parents in Indiana.
Together with a small group of dedicated people, Dr. Syeed pumped so much new life into ISNA that its 1997 convention in Chicago, IL attracted an estimated 22,000 men, women and children.
Dr. Syeed’s current schedule is a blur of workshops, seminars and meetings all over North America. An eloquent speaker who keeps his audiences spellbound, he also finds time for intellectual creativity and writing. He now serves as chairman of the editorial board of ISNA’s glossy bimonthly magazine, Islamic Horizons. Today, some 40,000 copies of Islamic Horizons are published and it reaches individual subscribers as well as Islamic centers, universities, libraries, think tanks and institutions where public policy is made.
Working with a very congenial Majlis-e-Shura (advisory committee) and an equally dedicated ISNA president, Dr. Muzzamil Siddiqi of Southern California, Sayyid Syeed has chalked out a comprehensive plan of action for ISNA. In his words, he hopes to make the organization truly representative of the “diversity of Islam in America.”
He already has embarked on building and strengthening bridges with other North American Muslim and non-Muslim organizations to make the work of ISNA all-inclusive. He also has developed excellent working relations with Dr. Warith Dean Mohammed, leader of the largest group of African-American Muslims. (African Americans make up close to half of the six to eight million U.S. Muslims.) Dr. Syeed sees this development as vitally important to the promotion of Da’wah (Muslim educational outreach) in North America, and for generating grass-roots Islamic participation in mainstream American society.
As part of his mission to fashion unity from an environment of diversity, Dr. Sayyid Syeed serves on executive boards of such national and regional organizations as the American Muslim Council (AMC) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), both based in Washington, DC. He also has devoted considerable time and attention to human rights issues, whether in Palestine, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya or within the United States. He has been interviewed or been asked to comment on Islamic topics on national television networks, and is much sought after by universities and research bodies to provide his input in seminars and conferences dealing with Islam and the 21st century.
Most important, however is the fact that, as chief executive officer of America’s largest Islamic organization, Dr. Syeed is playing a leading role in unifying the North American Muslim ummah (community) to play a defining role in U.S. and in the world of the 21st century. It would be hard to find a person better qualified for this historic responsibility.
Prof. M.M. Ali is a consultant and fellow at The Center for Planning & Policy Studies in the Washington, DC area.