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August 17, 2005

Why Chicago is the SA Node of the American Muslim Community, Part I



One of the most amazing things about the Arabic language is the inter-relatedness of the plethora of words that exist in it, signifying a deeper meaning and connectedness in such related words. Perhaps a prime example of this can be found in the relationship between the words dîn and madînah; the former meaning a way of life, the latter meaning a city or township. While various relationships can be established between these two terms, one salient one is that the madînah is where the dîn firmly establishes itself and enriches the lives of the citizens. Thus, Madinah al-Munawwarah (The Enlightened or Radiant City) of the Prophet (salallahu `alayhi wa sallam) was the first place in Muslim history where the dîn became an integral part of the city and its inhabitants—where the dîn manifested itself as a vibrant entity in the lives of the denizens of Madinah. This relationship persisted throughout the classical glory days of Islam, as the flourishing of the Muslim nation as a whole was intimately entwined with the prosperity of cities. Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that cities such as Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Isfahan, and other such famous cities played such a critical role in the course of Muslim history.


Yet even more critical to the matter at hand here is that cities were both the cause and effect for the triumphs and accomplishment of individuals who affectionately called such places as their home. In a harmoniously symbiotic relationship, individuals were able to thrive academically, financially, and spiritually as a result of the environment fostered by a given city. In return, such individuals made their places of origin famous—even if such places were relatively unknown, enshrining such places in the annals of history. For example, the renowned scholar Imâm Abû Zakarîyya Yahyâ b. Sharaf is better known to most Muslims as Imâm al-Nawawî, this title being derived from his origin from the village of Nawa in Syria. The famous hadith scholar, Imam Abû `Abdullah Muhammad b. Ismâ`îl is better known as Imam Bukhârî, signifying his origin from Bukhara.  The list goes on: Junayd al-Baghdâdî, Rabi`a al-Basrî, and Shah Walîullah al-Dehlawî are among the many who are similarly known to have magnified the greatness of their cities.


Again, the theme here seems to be constant: cities provided the spiritual and psychological space for these individuals to actualize their potentials; in return, these individuals added to the historical greatness of their hometowns. To relate this to the American Muslim population, I see this community as standing on the shores of destiny—what the destiny exactly might be is impossible for anyone to predict. However, I would venture that this population is similar to the Islamicate lands in several ways; for the sake of this argument, I believe that one similarity lies in the power of modern American cities as venues to provide that space for Muslims to similarly flourish and thrive. Certainly, overall, there is much to be done in terms of establishing viable and efficacious institutions such as schools, research institutions, banquet halls, athletic centers, etc.—in short, moving beyond simply building masjids that remain empty except on Fridays. However, I am convinced that American cities provide enough of this psychological and spiritual space—and we have barely enough institutions—to cultivate the development of individual Muslims to accomplish significant deeds. In other words, there is enough of a relationship between the dîn and the township currently to advance this fledgling community.


In the American Muslim diaspora, this relationship is most evident in my beloved hometown of Chicago (contrary to popular belief, I don’t really live in Bangalore). No, I’m not a homer, but I would contend even among American cities, Chicago is unique for a multitude of reasons, thus affording it the formidable role of being a vital city in the yet-to-be-written future of American Muslims. To use the shores of destiny analogy then, this history has been etched in the sand with a stick at best; whether or not this will survive the tides is certainly an interesting discussion. However, what must be understood here is that the tides are of Lake Michigan, the sands are its shores, and the American Muslim community stands here with the Chicago Muslims as the vanguard. Perhaps they are not aware of their position, but it is crucial for them to be cognizant and embrace this responsibility. As for other Muslim communities in other cities, let us not forget that they too have significant roles to play in this story—the ending cannot happen without their contributions. But ultimately it is in Chicago that this story will play itself out, for better or worse.


To use the main analogy of this article then, if Muslims in America are to be the heart of this nation, then each community comprises a part of this heart. I’ve written about the significance of the heart before (here and here); suffice it to say that the spiritual future of this country depends on the efforts of the American Muslim community. In other words, as the Prophetic hadith states, if we’re not sound, then the entire body will not be sound. The heart is constantly replenishing itself simultaneously while sustaining the rest of the body. The heart itself is further divided into specialized areas that are responsible for various functions; specifically, each heartbeat is generated independently from the rest of the body, but even within the heart, there is a hierarchy in how this beat arises. Physiologically, the impulse starts in the SA node (located at the junction of the superior vena cava and the right atrium), travels to the AV node, to the bundle of His, Purkinje fibers, and so on–the end result is a heart beating in synchrony to ensure efficiency. The point here is that the SA node governs the governor of the body; when it fails, the AV node and other points along the pathway do have the ability to take over, but this is less than optimal.


To relate this to the introduction, Chicago provides an envirionment for her Muslims to thrive and thus make her even greater. This fair city is the SA node for the American Muslims because depending on how she will function through the actions of her citizens, it will shape the course of American Muslim history. Just as the entire body depends on the SA node, the entire American Muslim community depends on Chicago to embrace this responsibility before that which has been etched in sand becomes chiselled in stone. It is a madinah, waiting for a much needed dose of deen from her children.


In the next part, Inshallah I’ll deal with more specifics of what factors solidify Chicago being the SA node, as well as what this means for us Chicago Muslims. If you’ve read the whole thing, congratulations for having an attention span longer than a goldfish. I’d definitely enjoy hearing feedback on this, especially from out-of-towners. Part II will be up on Friday, Inshallah.




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  1. you leave us with a cliffhanger of sorts..
    cant wait for part 2.

  2. Anonymous permalink

    I freakin’ hate your long posts, and no I don’t have the attention span of a goldfish – I did read this entry (well skimmed it for the most part)
    Just sum it up by saying.. Chicago > Champaign

  3. that post makes me squeamish… of course in a  “let’s step up to the plate and do something great” sort of a way… : “This fair city is the SA node for the American Muslims because depending on how she will function through the actions of her citizens, it will shape the course of American Muslim history.”
    what’s a “homer”? 

  4. a “homer” is someone who supports his home town (or sports teams) based on no other logic except that he’s from that town… i used it as a reference to this term as it’s always being used by the sportswriters on PTI/Around the Horn who label the other person when he makes the argument for his home team that he’s being a homer and not looking at the facts objectively.

  5. wasn’t there an episode of the simpsons in which they define something called “a homer.”
    like oh no, i think i just did “a homer”, anyone else remember that episode and what “a homer” means?

  6. nicely written piece.  i never caught the whole ‘din’ / Madinah thing.  very cool.  i’m interested to read the rest of it.
    the description of the heart brought back memories of my college physiology class.   the analogy was interesting.  i know that my masjid community in b’ham has mentioned the chicago muslim community as an example at times when we talk about our future here.  the chicago community has definitely been blessed, masha’Allah.  i wish i could move back. *sigh*

  7. Insightful post… I have to wait for Part II to fully enjoy and comment on some of the issues you bring up. I hope we Chicago Muslims are ready to be this SA node you talk about….

  8. After visiting many cities of the world….I must admit that there aren’t many out there like Chicago…Even here in Dallas, people talk about Chicago….waiting for part two…make sure you put it up before jumuah so that I can sit down for a nice read after having Biryani 🙂

  9. I don’t know KR. I’ll debate this with you once your done with your post. This introduction to the topic really doesn’t give any reasons, it just states the theory.

  10. Anonymous permalink

    i didnt think i have such a long attention span but apparently i do. yay for gold fishes.

  11. asalamu alaikum…madinah..din…wow. striking realization. this idea, your post is interesting. i never even think about chicago.

  12. I’ve heard this “American Medinah” concept before and I agree that Chicago will have a crucial role in shaping Islam in America.  Lets make sure we work to embed Islam into the lives of our children by not sacrificing our principles for the sake of integration and social acceptance.  The real challenge is in this balance.

  13. Anonymous permalink

    insightful….never looked at chicago like this..good post
    and oh : read more, learn more, change the globe <– copied from a Nas song

  14. It’s interesting how you mention Chicago in terms of not only the heart, but the centerpiece and driving force of the heart. In other words, a hub. Throughout history, Chicago has been the hub of the country, but in the form of infrastructure and industry. Everyday, thosands of trains, planes, and finished products are pumped from Chicago throughout North America and the world, and throughout history, Chicago has supplied the world with many of its innovations. But what you suggest is that soon, Chicago will pump intellect, leadership and ideas from its Muslim base that will affect and direct all Muslims in North America. To a certain degree, that process has already begun, as it looks like ISNA has permanently planted roots for its North American convention in Chicago. (That may be a bone of contention for some). Either way, time will tell. I don’t think that can happen though unless some form of centralized leadership is based in Chicago, and if north american Muslims are united enough to support such a thing, not to mention the fact that there are many major cities in America that perhaps feel the same. Either way, I do think your piece was a bit “homerish”, if you will, but then again, you wouldn’t be a true Chicagoan if it wasn’t. 🙂

  15. Chicago, as you and I whole-heartedly agree, is the best city in the Western Hemisphere. Living in Des Moines reminds me of that every single second of the day.
    The tune for the song you have playing is from a Mohammad Rafi song called “Baharow Phool Barsaaow…”
    Btw, thanks for the presentation at the waleemah…it was hilarious…:)

  16. hey salaamualaikum qidas…my mom said the same thing when she heard that music playing the other day from this site.

  17. thatd be pretty dope… to be isra al-chitown…i always judge a city based on its sports teams. that is reason enuf why chi is the best. and why indianapolis sucks.missing PTI, and missing cedric more,IJB

  18. Anonymous permalink

    salaaams wrwb,
    pre-mcat reading! jazaks ….and about this SA Node theory, I don’t think I can judge quite yet because you haven’t worked into the postulates and reasoning behind it but what about other hubs of American Muslim civilization, such as the Bay Area in California? Their Muslim communities seem to be pretty advanced as well …and until Chicagoans somehow convince the Ahmo’s owner to open up a chain there, you will only remain jedi knight.
    wsalaam wrwb

  19. Chicago is like a South Asian magnet. I’ve been to other cities with a good muslim/desi population, but there’s just such a sense of community here that you really can’t get anywhere else…at least not for another 30-40 years. But there’s always a bad side with the good. The city and even the suburbs aren’t the greatest place to raise kids (at least that’s what I think)…yeah kids can go bad anywhere if they’re not paid any attention, but I’ve grown up in a small town and I think parents have more “control” over their kids in small town. In larger ones they see ‘Uncle Khan’ and his kids are wild and it starts to influence your own kids…it’s a greater gamble…but Allahu Alim. 🙂

  20. great post KamKam…

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