In early 2011, Washington, DC bustled with opportunities to learn about Islam. Young Muslims could find social events and intellectual talks in the city, and devotional gatherings in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. The educational pickings were, no doubt, rich. But if you were looking for something more personal, more communal – a safe space to share experiences around spirituality – you were in a bind.
Two friends found themselves frequently talking about this missing element, so they invited a few neighbors to their home to discuss what it might look like to help one another develop spiritual growth and establish a stronger community. The one invitation sprouted regular gatherings. Soon, a small group of us were meeting weekly at their home in Columbia Heights, with common goals: to use our collective experiences to enrich our individual spiritual journeys and grow closer to God, and to build a community founded in empathy and companionship.
The halaqa quickly took on a regular shape and pattern. We met weekly, mostly among friends at first, and newcomers trickled in as word spread. We began each gathering by asking people to share how they were doing. It became clear that opening on such a personal, reflective note helped set the tone for the rest of the discussion – so we named this form of sharing a “check-in” and made it an integral feature of the halaqa. We’d follow check-ins with a group conversation focused on a particular subject – like finding meaning in prayer, dealing with loss, and connecting to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). We’d close each meeting by choosing a topic for the next week, arriving at a consensus through the method known as “Fist to Five.”
From those early meetings among a few close friends, the halaqa evolved into a trusted spiritual gathering open to the whole community: men, women, Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds, those raise in the faith, those new to Islam, and those just considering it. Within a couple of years, the halaqa gained such popularity that the number of seekers outgrew the space available to comfortably host a group (especially during Ramadan, when attendance would surge). The size of the gathering – and the consistent stream of newcomers – soon made it difficult for all attendees to share their perspectives, connect meaningfully, and maintain closeness with fellow halaqa-goers.
Given the original emphasis on creating intimacy and facilitating replicable small-scale gatherings, a few people offered to form a second halaqa in another DC neighborhood. To help them, community members met to identify foundational elements to carry forward, anticipate challenges, and encourage a smooth expansion. The new halaqa began with discussions about the spiritual needs of the new halaqa community, the difficulty starting from scratch, and the desire to remain connected to the original community.
As we see both halaqa spaces as two limbs of the same body, we periodically organize large group hang-outs to continue spiritually and socially connecting through potlucks, outdoor activities, and excursions.
The expansion of the halaqa community has spurred new projects and ideas. From spearheading weekend brunches to townhall dialogues, more people have taken ownership over creating opportunities for DC-area Muslims to strengthen the community outside of the weekly gatherings in creative ways. In early 2014, the newest Neighborhood Halaqa successfully sprouted up in Cambridge, MA, reflecting the common desire for spiritual nourishment in our neighborhoods. The halaqas in DC continue to evolve to address the changing needs of those attending.