Mawlana Hazar Imam was in Houston recently, granting the last Mulaqats of his historic Diamond Jubilee visit to the United States. His presence is felt in every Jamatkhana but most, perhaps, in the Center that he opened in 2002, with the Governor. This red brick building by a lake, with live oaks in its spacious lawns, houses the Administration offices of the Jamati institutions, and has come to represent the permanent presence of the Jamat in the United States.
Inshallah, with the Imam’s announcement that he has confirmed plans to establish an Ismaili Centre in Houston, joining others in Burnaby, London, Lisbon, Dubai, Dushanbe and Toronto, the United States will also have a facility that fulfills an ambassadorial role. Such a building can elevate the profile of the US Jamat, and enhance dialogue and connections with other communities.
For the past 15 years, the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center (IJKC) Houston, while not on the same scale as the other Ismaili Centres around the world, has been the primary site used to engage the Jamat and the public through cultural and educational programs.
Search, enlightenment and bonding
At the inauguration of IJKC in 2002, Hazar Imam said: “The Center will be a place of peace, humility, reflection and prayer. It will be a place of search and enlightenment... It will be a Center that will seek to bond men and women of this pluralist country to replace their fragility in their narrow spheres by the strength of civilized society bound together by a common destiny.”
Hazar Imam's five-day visit to Houston in March 2018, is an opportunity to reflect on how IJKC has realized the Imam's vision through its programmatic activities, and built bridges of understanding with other communities and organizations.
“While a mosque or masjid is the religious building most often associated with Muslim piety, a range of spaces for worship and practice can be found throughout the Muslim world. For Ismaili Muslims, the Jamatkhana is the main space for religious and social gathering,” I explain to visitors, as a volunteer tour guide for IJKC.
Most often, the guests are attending a social, cultural or educational event at IJKC, and are fascinated by the building’s remarkable architecture. An objective of the Council for USA is to encourage dialogue and bring communities together through programs hosted at IJKC.
TEDx conferences, lectures, film screenings, musical concerts, food drives, book launches, debates, and art exhibitions have all been held at IJKC, to inform the general public about Islam and the Ismaili tariqah, the diversity of our various cultures, as well as to be a venue for civic engagement. For example, the 2016 Sugar Land Mayoral Debate transformed IJKC into a stage for five candidates competing to become the city's new mayor. Local residents and the media participated in learn more about the candidates and their platforms.
Beyond civic engagement, the TEDx conference is an example of how the center encourages the sharing of ideas and new knowledge. “We celebrate remarkable thinkers and doers, innovators and humanitarians, and creative performers of all stripes, each with a powerful idea to dramatically shape our world through the talk of his or her life,” said Murad Ajani, President of the Ismaili Council for the Southwestern United States. The day-long conference featured speakers from all walks of life speaking on a variety of topics bonded by a common theme — “Small Town, Huge Ideas.”
But it’s not always as sunny at IJKC. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Center served as a staging ground to coordinate rescue efforts and disseminate resources to areas most impacted by Hurricane Harvey’s wrath. Over 2,500 volunteers quickly organized to help serve the greater Houston area, and a Command Center was established there to support the Jamat through the disaster.
Several volunteers went out on a rescue mission to assist families who could not leave due to rising water levels. Others made sure resources, such as food and medical supplies, were available to those most in need. They worked throughout the night and slept at the Center to ensure the safety of evacuees who were displaced.
The Center's mission continues
At a luncheon hosted by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Hazar Imam said: “Civil society is a key resource for development. Everything we do together to invest and enhance the capacity of civil society is a blessing that you give to the populations in those countries.” He added, “I hope we can work together in building bridges between our institutions and our programs.”
The Governor commended the leadership of the Imam to improve the quality of lives for people around the globe and noted the strong spirit of volunteerism within the Ismaili Community. He referenced the Points of Light Award, where the community was recognized in the presence of all five living former U.S. presidents, for its relief efforts following the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey.
Fifteen years after its opening, the same ethic is evident, and partnerships and dialogues have flourished, with over 50 programs for the general community being hosted at IJKC in 2017. These ranged from Eid luncheons to Navroz cultural programs, concerts, lectures, and food drives to voter registration efforts.
“We have a state motto — and that motto is friendship: said Governor Abbott to Hazar Imam this week, and "This is a friendship that has lasted many years and that we expect will continue many years into the future.”
IJKC continues to illustrate its friendship with the local community, and how it is an integral part of the Houston cultural landscape.