American Muslim Youth Group hosts 45th annual retreat

They arrived at Camp Saginaw carrying sleeping bags and blankets, hustled about a soccer field, mounted go-karts – even made s’mores. And just after 1 p.m. Saturday, the scores of boys and men turned east, toward Mecca.

“There’s a time for prayer, and there’s a time for play,” said Ahmad Chaudhry, 39, as the Muslim attendees prepared to perform two of five daily prayers beneath a canopy in Oxford, in southwest Chester County.

So went the gathering of more than 1,000 attendees in the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, a branch of the national Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The faction of Muslims, which trumpets a message of peace, believes the Messiah arrived in the 1800s – a splitting point with others in the Muslim world.

The retreat marked the 45th for the youth organization, founded in 1939. Organizers say the event, which began Friday and ends Sunday night, renews brotherhood and spirituality among the attendees, ages 7 through 40. The association has 71 local chapters and more than 3,000 members.

“They’ve traveled thousands of miles,” said Chaudhry, the association’s assistant president and an oral surgeon from Bethlehem. Last year’s event was held in Edison, N.J.

While the weekend retreat was meant to instill a positive identity in members of the community, it was also intended to demonstrate an affable image of Islam.

mka_usa_ijtema_american_9That’s important, group leaders said, especially when extremists – including the
Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – have presented a heinous, often masked, face of the religion. Extremists with the terrorist group have beheaded two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Other hostages are still being held.

“There’s lots going on in the world where the image of Islam is very tarnished by violence and cruelty,” Chaudhry said. “We want to try to set the record straight.”

The Ahmadiyya community is marginalized, even persecuted, in other countries, because of its beliefs, several said. The organization prides itself on peace and public service – it has raised money to fight hunger, planted trees to combat global warming, and hosted blood drives, including one at the retreat.

On Saturday, in the cabins and on Saginaw’s sprawling fields, there was fun to be had.

Bilal Rana, 35, the association’s president, brought his 7-year-old son, Kamal, for the first time. “He’s on a trampoline somewhere,”

Rana said.

mka_usa_ijtema_american_muslim_youth_retreat4Yameen Khalil, a 33-year-old doctor, traveled from Oklahoma to attend. He said the gathering was reason to actively prepare for the educational and recreational competitions.

“They’re going to be talking a lot of trash if we play bad,” Khalil joked, standing on the sideline of a basketball court. Teams were split into regions, his being the “Gulf” team.

The youngsters came ready, too.

“I was excited,” said 8-year-old Fadil Bajwa, after he recited a religious poem. He had previously performed before local chapters. Others were asked to melodiously recite the Quran, the Islamic holy text.

And in between the challenges, as the boys and men buzzed about the campgrounds beneath towering trees, there was an exchange of an obligatory greeting – “assalamu alaikum” – to wish peace on one another.