Remembering the community leadership and interfaith peacemaking of Shahina Begg, co-founder of the WISDOM women’s organization

Shahina and Victor Begg.

EDITOR’S NOTE—Shahina Begg, the wife Victor Begg and his lifelong partner in countless community projects in Michigan and Florida, died on August 23, 2022. She was the mother of Sami Begg, Yusuf Begg and Sofia Begg Latif—mother-in-law of Isma Begg, Nazira Begg and Farhan Latif—and grandmother to Zohaib, Dalia, Sarena, Adam and Ayla. The following article is a tribute from all of us at Front Edge Publishing and Read The Spirit who worked with Shahina over the last 15 years on various books to which she contributed. We all miss her!

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Shahina Begg—

Daring to cross barriers

Throughout her life, Shahina Begg dared to cross barriers that others thought were too daunting for her—starting with learning to drive. She was a University of Detroit student living in Detroit, at the time, and was so determined to conquer the skills needed to drive a car that she set off on her own—even though all she had was the loan of “a junky old car” with expired license plates. Her adventures in early driving led to so much anxiety that, one day, she wound up crashing into a utility pole! Victor tells the whole story in the memoir, Our Muslim Neighbors.

That daring decision to learn to drive, despite the flaws in that old car, was nothing compared with her even more daring decision to marry Victor. She came from an Indian-Hindu background while his family was steeped in the deep Islamic traditions of Hyderabad, India. Anyone reading news headlines from India in 2022 understands what the young couple was risking.

As they fell in love, Shahina boldly decided to convert and adopt Islam as a faith that would sustain her throughout the rest of her life—and, as many community members have attested in tributes to her life, now has guided her to heaven.

But conversion to Islam is an enormous challenge, involving years of learning! Shahina proved herself equal to that task.

In the personal story Shahina chose to contribute to the collection of WISDOM women’s stories, titled Friendship and Faith, she wrote about the long and daunting train ride she took across India to meet Victor’s family for the first time. Because he was unable to accompany her on that trip, she had to make that journey on her own.

“As I set off on this long train journey, I had no idea how the meeting with Victor’s parents would go. His mother’s name was Hasina Sultana, and his family was very well-known in their region of central India. Victor’s grandfather was chief justice of the Hyderabad court and his uncles also were justices. I was a convert to Islam but I had not yet studied much about Islam, at that point. I didn’t even know all of the Arabic prayers that are important in Islam. What would Victor’s parents think about me?”

Spoiler alert: That adventure in crossing India had quite a happy ending. Victor’s mother embraced her at the end of her long ride.

In Our Muslim Neighbors, Victor also writes about how—early in their marriage—Shahina helped him start a family business, which eventually became a successful chain of stores called Naked Furniture. That success helped to establish both Victor and Shahina as well-known civic leaders across southeast Michigan. However, that business startup also was a daring gamble. Many evenings, the two of them would close up the store and set out in a truck to personally deliver the furniture they had sold. In his book, Victor tells the story of a man who lived in a third-floor apartment buying a heavy dresser—so heavy that both Victor and Shahina strained their muscles at every step to deliver that order! On those steep steps under an almost crushing burden, she never wavered in helping Victor lift and push until the dresser was safely in that man’s apartment.

Victor and Shahina also partnered in co-founding one of southeast Michigan’s major Islamic communities, the Unity Center. Then, years later when they moved to Florida, both were involved in local Muslim groups as well as in friendship circles among the diverse residents of their neighborhood.

Among Shahina’s most lasting achievements, during the many years they lived in Michigan, was co-founding WISDOM, Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro Detroit.

In her introduction to Friendship and Faith, award-winning journalist Patricia Montemurri adds her own tribute to the pioneering work of Shahina and her several co-founders, writing in part:

WISDOM started after Gail Katz, who is Jewish; Trish Harris, who is Catholic; Shahina Begg, who converted to Islam from Hinduism; and Peggy Kalis, who belonged to the Unity Church, met over informal lunches to discuss the underpinnings of their faith. Together they formed the Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro Detroit, aka WISDOM. Over the past decade, the non-profit WISDOM has presented and co-sponsored more than 100 public programs in and out of Michigan, highlighted by women sharing stories of friendship that cross divisions created by the imagined barriers of religion. They teach that the Golden Rule is universal across faiths. As important as what people believe is how they behave. Show me; don’t tell me. One of WISDOM’s first outreach programs was to make aid packages for children affected by war in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2006. As they filled each package, they asked participants to recite a tenet from the dozen faiths represented in the room about how to love your neighbor as yourself.

To learn more, order your own copy of the book, Friendship and Faith, on which Shahina worked tirelessly both in the 2009 first edition and again when the book was later expanded into the current version. We know that Shahina would smile if there were some additional book sales, now, because those sales benefit her legacy at WISDOM in an ongoing way.

As a result of her remarkable life and always welcoming spirit, Shahina Begg’s passing is mourned by thousands of people who have been inspired by her example across the U.S.

And her passing certainly is mourned throughout our network of writers and authors.

We send our condolences to her entire extended family.

 

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