An adult convert to Islam, Ify Okoye spent her first couple of years learning about the religion from books. It wasn't until the Beltsville woman started going to seminars given by the AlMaghrib Institute that she really began to understand her new faith.
"I look at my Islam completely as the pre-AlMaghrib phase and the post-AlMaghrib phase," says the 25-year-old Okoye, a student at Bowie State University. "After attending my first class, I see there's such a breadth and depth to the Islamic tradition, and also a real practical intellectual tradition that's vibrant, that can work today, that Muslims in America can use."
Okoye plans to spend today and tomorrow at the Baltimore Convention Center, where the Sunni Muslim institute has chosen to present Ilm Fest 2009, an Islamic education conference previously held in New York, Chicago and Toronto. With the large Muslim communities of Northern Virginia and New Jersey within driving distance of Baltimore, organizers are hoping to attract as many as 1,500 of the faithful to hear Islamic scholars speak on such topics as Muslim acceptance in America, domestic violence and "Reclaiming Islam From the Jihadists."
Ilm Fest 2009 marks a sort of homecoming for the AlMaghrib Institute, which was founded in Maryland eight years ago. Muhammad Alshareef, a Canadian citizen, was teaching at a Muslim day school in College Park when he began to organize scholars and develop the curriculum for the classes now taught in one- and two-weekend seminars throughout the United States, Britain and Canada. Ilm Fest is the annual culmination of those single-subject seminars.
"With Ilm Fest, it's an opportunity for a bunch of speakers to come in with different topics, it allows us to pick up on some current issues," says Alshareef, the president of the institute. "Something that separates Ilm Fest from other Muslim conferences is the tendency of those coming to the event to be more focused on seeking knowledge. Even though it's a conference setting, you'll actually see people with notebooks and pens."
The event comes as young American Muslims try to reconcile their faith and their citizenship in the post-Sept. 11 United States. Organizers say this year's Ilm Fest - the name comes from the Arabic word for knowledge - has been designed to address that struggle head-on.
"What we're trying to do is give a public space to make Muslims feel that, look, there's nothing wrong at all with being who you are, there's nothing wrong with expressing your beliefs, with being proud of being who you are," says Yasir Qadhi, the institute's dean of academics. "That is part of the vision that the founding fathers had, where there would be a country where each and every religious group, ethnic group, political group, would have the right to be who they are, while they participate in the civic responsibilities of being a part of the new republic which is now known as America.
"I would go so far as to say that many times we have to learn our own history as Americans and teach that history to some of our fellow Americans who seem to have lost the plot, if you ask me, and they feel that America is simply one monolithic vision of what religion or what identity or what ethics people should have."
In the United States, associations between Islam and terrorism have proved an obstacle to wider acceptance. Waleed Basyouni, who will be delivering the presentation on reclaiming Islam from the jihadists, sees interpreting the Quran correctly for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims as vital.
"I believe there's a lot of people who have used that [language] gap, that ignorance that maybe some people have, to introduce a different message than what the original message was," he says. "And those who have authentic knowledge and information plus that moderate worldview, I think they are the best people to ensure our brothers and sisters who live in America, American Muslims, that they practice Islam in the correct way."
Qadhi says the threat of Muslim extremism in the United States has been exaggerated by the media.
"We don't really have a serious problem of extremist youth out there who are willing to do terroristic acts," he says. "But what is not exaggerated is the very real anger that is felt by Muslims when they see their religion portrayed in such a negative light. And that anger, definitely, we need to make sure that it is channeled in a proper direction, and that is education and teaching people about our religion."
Alshareef said Baltimore was chosen for Ilm Fest 2009 in part as a reward for a thriving Maryland-D.C.-Virginia chapter of AlMaghrib, which has attracted as many as 500 students to the seminars it gives three or four times a year. Sally Mahmoud is a former president of the local chapter; the 25-year-old Columbia woman is looking forward to the event this weekend.
"When you're going to a conference you're meeting all sorts of people from all different paths of life, and that's sort of what you're going to get here, too," says Mahmoud, a pharmacy student at the University of Maryland.
"But in addition, all these people are students, you know, students of knowledge. They appreciate the knowledge. They travel for it. So you're getting a different type of Muslim crowd. They may be a little younger, they're more active, they're striving to become better people. So that's kind of the nice thing about it."