Islamic publishing house flourishes in US
For decades, Islamic publishing in the US was a small but steady market, with just a handful of players.
But after the September 11 attacks, interest in the religion heightened, as did enrolment in Islamic studies courses at universities across the United States. Demand for copies of the Quran, biographies of the Prophet Mohammed and other key Islamic texts increased dramatically too, and a million Islamic publishers bloomed.
Or at least a couple of dozen, from personal boutique houses such as Muslim Writers Publishing in Arizona to bigger outfits like Tahriki Tarsile Qu’ran in New York. Today, Chicago remains something of an industry nexus – home to American Trust Publications, established in 1976 and run by the Saudi-backed North American Islamic Trust, and Iqra International Educational Foundation, whose popular Sirah series was first published in 1981.
But the oldest Islamic publisher in Chicago, and perhaps all of North America, is Kazi Publications, which has been producing, selling and distributing books from the city’s North Side for nearly 40 years. Despite humble beginnings, the firm’s annual revenue has nearly quadrupled over the past decade, from $250,000 (Dh918,000) to nearly $1 million, according to co-founder and proprietor Liaquat Ali.
The seeds of Kazi were planted around 1970, when Ali and his brother-in-law began importing books and handicrafts from Pakistan to sell in the shop of their friend Mahmoud Kazi, on Wells Street near downtown. In 1972, Ali returned to Chicago to run the shop with Kazi.
The duo noticed the rise of the Nation of Islam among local African-Americans and, taking advantage of a family connection to one of Pakistan’s leading publishers, began to focus on books. A leading local newspaper soon highlighted their shop as the best spot for Islamic publications. “It was so busy that I didn’t know what was going on,” recalls Ali. “I asked someone, ‘Where did you get the address of this place?’ He said, ‘Don’t you know? It’s in the paper.'” Kazi Publications was born.
Mahmoud Kazi soon accepted a teaching job at King Fahd University, in Saudi Arabia, leaving Ali in charge. But before he left, he and Ali noticed a problem. “So many locals were converting to Islam,” Ali recalls. “They wanted to name their baby appropriately, but they didn’t know what the names were.” In 1974, Book of Muslim Names became Kazi Publications’ first published work.
A few years later, the original shop burnt down. Ali moved to several locations before finding the shop’s current home, on Belmont Avenue, in 1984. No sign hangs from the squat brick building’s blue-green facade; Ali removed it after the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 to avoid anti-Islam sentiment. “We have a house in the back,” Ali, 64, explains. “I’m living there with my wife, so I got scared.”
Only swirling Islamic designs mark the entrance and most days the front door stays locked. Kazi, a non-profit organisation, makes the lion’s share of its sales through phone orders from universities and booksellers such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon. “The only customers who come here are people who know the place,” says Ali, unlocking the door for a visitor on a recent afternoon.
Inside the dusty, cosy space, rows are devoted to the Quran, the life of Prophet Mohammed, Islamic finance and jurisprudence. In the back are books for children, such as the popular Quran Made Easy, and a few shelves of Urdu publications. Among Kazi’s bestsellers are the works of Seyed Hossein Nasr, a respected professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University.
Nasr is the mentor of Laleh Bakhtiar, Kazi’s in-house scholar and production manager. Born in Iran to an American mother and an Iranian father, the 72-year-old Bakhtiar was raised mostly in Washington.
She married an Iranian-American architect and moved back to Iran with him in 1964.
They had three children and divorced in 1977, and Bakhtiar stayed in Tehran through the revolution and the years of war with Iraq. “My children and I lived for eight years in fear of our lives with daily bombs dropping all around us,” she says. In the decades since, she and other Iranian intellectuals have felt acute disappointment as the current leadership has repeatedly failed to live up to the revolution’s grand Islamic ambitions. This feeling, she says, fed into the 2009 protests, and continues to undermine the current regime.
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