Imam Siraj Wahhaj, My Friend, My Hero.


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Written by Irtiza Hasan (contributing host)

My friend Muhammad Alshareef once told me, “If we think about people who could claim they may have traveled to every masjid in the USA and Canada – raising money, giving lectures, teaching… that list would probably have on it – Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, Dr. Jamal Badawi, Ahmed Sakr and of course Imam Siraj Wahhaj.”

These four can only be described as the forefathers and pioneers of the Muslim community in North America.

From 1997 until 2013 I had the opportunity to host Imam Siraj Wahhaj in my city, Houston TX, many times – starting with my days at the University of Houston MSA.

The Imam is almost 70 now but back then he would frequently make trips to Houston. In fact, I remember him once coming three times in a two month period for three different fundraisers. Those of us who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s with the Imam at our conferences and conventions remember him as the man with a million-dollar smile, ability to give fiery speeches and always at least four pens in his shirt pocket.

In Houston, our Muslim community had its divisions back in the day – and many will say we still do – the Imam was always a favorite across Muslim organizations and groups. They all lined up to invite Imam Siraj any chance they could – ICNA Houston, CAIR Houston, Texas Dawah Convention, Taleem ul Islam, Clear Lake Islamic Center, Masjid El-Farouq, Islam in Spanish, MAS  Houston, MSA UH, MSA Rice, Masjid W.D. Muhammad, Masjid Al-Islam, Muhammadi Masjid and of course the Islamic Society of Greater Houston.

The Imam in fundraisers alone raised hundreds of thousands – if not multi-million dollars for mosques, conferences, dawah projects and startup organizations – and I only speak about programs I personally attended. I wish I had exact numbers but would not be surprised if it reached 5 million dollars in Houston alone.

I think beyond people like Dr. Siddiqi, Dr. Badawi, Ahmed Sakr and Imam Siraj… there are other notable and respected figures for the American Muslim community such as say Hamza Yusuf or Yasir Qadhi. They impacted many people but largely catered to their bases in terms of Sufi or Salafi leaning audiences and organizations, respectively. There are other well-known national figures who have been surrounded by controversies and scandals – especially in recent years.

Imam Siraj was for everybody.  Nowadays, we hear Muslims claiming their disregard for labels and I understand that but I remember a time when most of us identified as traditionalists or progressives, Sufi or Salafi, ICNA or ISNA, Arab or non-Arab, etc.  No matter what team you were on, we all loved Imam Siraj. We all benefitted from his talks.

I had the opportunity to host Imam Siraj on behalf of multiple organizations and the man was truly selfless. Even in the age of AlMaghrib Institute – an organization that I care deeply about.  It introduced a self-sufficient funding model based on student tuition and was able to pay instructors handsomely. Some of the more qualified and in demand instructors could make up to $10,000 USD per course.  That all being said, Imam Siraj never asked for honorariums or minimum payments or deposits up front, etc. Never once. Not for classes. Not for conferences.

He would often ask me or my friends Anees Siddiqui, Zaheer Malik, Ismail Jafri or Mudassar Khan (all UH MSA Presidents during my time there) whether he can set up a small table and sell his old khutbahs on cassette tapes – and this well after CDs and MP3 had already come out! Imam Siraj would bring the old school cassette tapes and sell them for a few dollars.

The Imam was easily the biggest draw at every conference from 1992 to 2008. He knew how much the demand was for speeches and yet would not request any kind of  honorariums or payments.  Imam Siraj Wahhaj knew when he left his family in his beloved Brooklyn NY he would sometimes visit up to 6 cities before returning home.

McAllen TX.

Winnipeg Canada.

Des Moines Iowa.

Chicago, IL.

The list goes on. There were hardly any cities the Imam would not go to. When Muslims needed him, he never let them down.  He always showed up.

I was asking my friends whether Muslims believed in the concept of collective sin or collective shame.  There was a time a few years ago when Imam Siraj battled cancer. he reportedly struggled with medical bills and costly medical care and only a few brothers resorted to some private fundraisers to help support him. It was a truly shaming time for us.

When you meet Imam Siraj Wahhaj – if you knew Imam Siraj Wahhaj – you know he is a genuine and good man.

Recently Imam Siraj’s family has been in the news and to be honest I have not followed much of the details. Instead, I have been making dua and talking to friends around the country who are either close to the Imam or like me have worked with him in the past. I am personally upset at how the media has mischaracterized Imam Siraj and how they are pulling him into the story.  I cannot begin to imagine the pain of seeing your loved ones go through trials and tribulations. I can only express my love and respect for Imam Siraj Wahhaj – he is one of at least four pioneers for the Muslim community in this country.  There will not be another like him in terms of impact and influence for a very long time.

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