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A brief History of AMSA and MSA

In October of 1946, the Association of Muslim Students in America (AMSA) was formed in San Francisco by students from India. It expanded to include Muslim students from other countries in 1947. It published the Muslim News Bulletin (MNB), which was edited in Toronto. The editor of the MNB was Mohammad Ameen Khan Tareen, 177 College Str, Toronto, Canada. The AMSA formed in order to “authoritatively explain the Muslim viewpoint before other nations” and especially the people of America.

During the first ten months of their existence they expressed that “they availed of every opportunity afforded them, to acquaint the people here of the real problems of the Muslim world. Radio, newspaper, platform and pulpit.” They appealed to Muslim students in America “to get together and organise themselves . . . to open a branch of the AMSA.” This organization pre-dated the Muslim Student Assocation, which still exists, by seventeen years (The Moslem World 37 [1947], 314-316).

The Muslim Student Association

The work of the Association of Muslim Students in America (AMSA), which began in 1946, in establishing Muslim student associations and increasing attendance of Muslim students from abroad of American colleges produced a need for national coordination. So in 1963 those associations held their first national conference in Urbana, Illinois and formed the Muslim Student Association National (MSA national). Apparently AMSA had ceased functioning. In 1976, the manager of the MSA book service and director of the International Muslim House in Ann Arbor, Michigan informed me that its first headquarters was in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the campus of the University of Michigan. Their new headquarters was moved to Al-Amin Mosque in Gary, Indiana in 1971.

Unlike FIA it had a lot of ethnic diversity–Arabs from different countries, Indo-Pakistanis, Iranians, Turks, and others. Its leaders were younger and less concerned with assimilating into American society since they originally had the intention of returning to their country. Initially it was less concerned with establishing communities outside of the college campus. Like the FIA it was more concerned with maintaining their Islam than with spreading it and were aware of Western culture and organization. Having attended college with these students in the later 1960s and 1970s, I know that it was no small task in helping students maintain their practice of Islam.

In addtion to duplicating the success of the FIA in holding annual conventions and raising money locally and abroad, they had an impact on the local development of Muslim associations. Although its focus was on campus activities, it eventually had an effect on off-campus immigrant and indegenous groups. They raised the level of knowledge of Islamic rituals since all of them were recently from the Muslim world and many of them had some formal background in learning Islam. Their ideas about organization, however, were basically Western. The first, second and third generation Muslims, as well as American converts generally regarded the students to be more knowledgeable about Islam than themselves. After attending school for four to eight years, many of the students–especially the Indo-Pakistani students–did not return home. They found jobs but continued functioning with MSA.

With its ability to raise funds, especially from overseas, MSA began establishing business and professional organizations useful in establishing off-campus institutions. The North American Islamic Trust (NAIT) became instrumental in establishing masajid, student houses, Islamic centers, full-time schools, and literature publishing (under the American Trust Publications, International Graphics Press, and Islamic Book Service). Its members created the American Muslim Scientists and Engineers (AMSE), the American Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), and the Islamic Medical Association (IMA). These professional organizations may have made more of a contribution to Muslim countries than they did to Muslims in America.

Its conventions attracted increasing numbers of permanent Muslim residents of America–including converts. They came for the bazaars with its literature on Islam, which most Americans relied on in teaching themselves Islam since there were few teachers. They came to listen to the lectures of major scholars flown in from Muslim countries–another valuable source in understanding Islam. They came to observe how Muslims who had grown up in Muslim countries conducted themselves. With the increase in conversions to Islam and their desire to learn Islam, MSA found another need it was able to meet. It helped converts get scholarships to study Islam in countries like Saudia Arabia. It also established the Islamic Teaching Center (ITC) to help instruct Muslims in America.

The interaction of Muslim converts with the Muslim students and settled immigrants made them aware of their need to be more exact in their practice of Islam. Recent converts inspired and embarassed them into wearing more appropriate Muslim attire–some Muslim women were dressed like Hindus and few covered their hair. Almost all the men shaved off their beards, including officials. Their constant and unending questions about practicing Islam in America made them more aware of the need for formal study of Islam. With the successes of MSA there came an increased strainage of members from the FIA. As the increased settlement of its graduating members in America increased, the per centage of its non-student administrators and members increased also.

Towards the end of the 1970s it became clear that in reality MSA was no longer predominantly a student organization. Furthermore, with the increase number of masajid and Islamic centers being established among converts and others, and the problems that developed with their establishment, a student focused organization could not maintain any leadership status.

The leaders of MSA who were no longer students realized that they had to formally changed their name and structure to meet the needs of the Muslims and maintain any leadership status among Muslims in America. It was aware of other national groups which were focused on community development before it. However, it felt that those groups of converts were not knowledgeable enough to lead them so it had to try to fulfill that need. After planning since 1977, in 1982 MSA changed its name to the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and changed its structure.

By Antar Ibn-Stanford, Ph.D.