As a child growing up in Fishers, Sajjad Shah was often embarrassed about his Islamic identity.
He hid his Muslim faith from his classmates at Hamilton Southeastern High School rather than celebrating it.
“Muslims have a bad reputation,” Shah said. “I didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb.”
What Shah once buried in the background now leads his life’s work.
Today he is the proud owner of Muslims of the World: an Instagram account with nearly 700,000 followers that has grown into a multi-million dollar fundraising platform, raising over $6.5 million for humanitarian causes in the last two years alone purposes at home and abroad.
Shah, 31, has also opened two coffee shops – one in his hometown of Fishers – called Muslims of the World Coffee and is the co-author of a book called Muslims of the World: Portraits and Stories of Hope, Survival, Loss and love”.
“Now I’m proud to be a Muslim,” Shah said. “It’s a beautiful belief, and I don’t shy away from it.”
However, this success was not expected or originally planned, Shah said. When he created the Instagram page in 2012, his goal was unique.
“To change the way the world sees Muslims,” Shah said, “in a positive way.”
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The second oldest of five siblings, Shah was born into what he considers a traditional Muslim Pakistani family — his parents’ marriage was arranged, his father prayed five times a day, his mother wore a headscarf (hijab) and he and his siblings attended Sunday school of the mosque — which portrays him as an outsider in Hamilton County, he said.
“The Fishers school system was overwhelmingly white,” Shah said, “so I just did what I needed to do to fit in.”
As a child, he couldn’t ignore the awkward stares his mother endured. But at parties where only pepperoni pizza was served, he could go hours without eating. He could also lie to his friends during Ramadan, telling them he wasn’t hungry for 30 consecutive days, every time they asked him why he wasn’t eating lunch.
“You’re starting to feel like you’re different from other people,” Shah said. “I was embarrassed for a long time.”
When most of his friends went to college after high school in 2009, Shah, like many other traditional Muslims who are encouraged by their parents to stay at home, stayed close and attended Butler University. He connected more with the Muslim community during this period, he said, and discovered an amazing diversity among practicing Muslims.
The Birth of the Muslims of the World
Inspired, Shah then attempted to reverse the narrative around Muslims in a post-9/11 world. He created an Instagram account called “Muslims of the World” with the intention of sharing small, intimate stories from some of the interesting Muslims he knew in hopes of destigmatizing Islam.
It started with a post from a friend rescuing a cat in downtown Indianapolis, attracting about 100 followers, Shah said.
The next post, another 100 followers, he said, until suddenly Muslims from across the US shared their stories on his account.
Although Shah’s father, Syed Shah, said he encouraged his son to educate people about Islam when Shah was younger, he was not pleased with his son’s ambitions to create the Instagram account.
“My concern was that he would not become a victim,” he said. “I remembered reading on the news at the time, people with beards, people with a Muslim identity, they were being beaten up. And I didn’t want that to happen to him.”
His father’s fears have since turned to joy.
“Sometimes I tell him,” Syed Shah said, “You’ve proved me wrong.”
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Almost ten years later, Muslims of the World has over 680,000 followers, including several celebrities such as international supermodel Bella Hadid.
“It’s a grassroots site that’s grown the grassroots way,” Shah said, relying on the art of storytelling.
As the report developed, the seriousness of the stories increased. Stories like a young Muslim man stabbed to death in Lexington, Kentucky while delivering pizza, or a Muslim woman in Pakistan whose face was burned off by acid, or a Palestinian baby burned alive.
Shah felt compelled to act. Instead of just posting about it, he decided to use his platform to raise funds for support.
One of his first campaigns was a GoFundMe campaign set up to raise $30,000 for Indianapolis’ Al Haqq Mosque, which nearly burned down in 2015. Over 550 people donated a total of $28,157 on day one.
Later, when a local Muslim from Al Fajr Mosque died and had no money for funeral expenses, Shah created another GoFundMe with a goal of raising $3,000. Within 45 minutes of creating the account, he reached $3,100.
Shah soon saw the potential power for good beyond Instagram-driven attention.
“This could be something,” he said, “so much bigger.”
Become a multi-million dollar fundraiser
Through Muslims of the World, Shah has raised over $6.5 million in support of various causes stretching from Indianapolis to Somalia since 2020 alone: $723,699 was raised to help cover hearing aid and eye surgery costs in Ethiopia ; $678,300 for food baskets in Yemen; $240,822 for food and clothing in Syria.
“Everyone’s struggle is real,” Shah said. But to decide who to help, he focuses on “what causes require the most immediate attention and lack awareness.”
Shah said the money he raises does not go directly to him. He works with well-established nonprofits that are local and instead has the money sent directly to them. He relies most on website LaunchGood, a fundraising platform launched in 2013 that has since raised over $330 million in 151 countries and over a million donors.
Nadeem Riaz, Global Business Director at LaunchGood said: “(Muslims of the World) is our main fundraiser on the platform.
“Nobody has collected as much as them,” said Riaz, “as quickly as they have.”
Within the final month of Ramadan, Riaz pointed out that the Shah had raised over $1.2 million between relief efforts in Somalia and Yemen.
Riaz attributes Shah’s success to Muslims of the World’s storytelling, voice and performance, which he says resonates with large audiences.
“There are thousands of people asking for money,” Riaz said, “but there are very few who are able to tell the story in a way that really resonates.”
Though Shah also believes good storytelling is key, he blames his success on divine intervention.
“I wish I could sit here and tell people what the secret sauce is,” Shah said, “but ultimately it’s God’s plan.”
He also thanks his team of about 20 people, Shah said, which includes several baristas at his two coffee shop locations and his wife.
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The journey closes
When Shah opened his first Muslims of the World coffee location on West 38th Street in June 2021, he did so with the same intention he created the Instagram page with.
More than just serving coffee, he has used his shop to collect volunteers and put together relief packages for Indianapolis’ homeless population; he used it to assemble hundreds of other care packages that were stacked onto a truck for delivery to Afghan refugees at Camp Atterbury; For one of the refugee couples who couldn’t afford a wedding, he even used his space to celebrate their marriage.
“Our entire platform has good vibes and brings people together,” Shah said. “That reflects what we’re trying to do with our Instagram page.”
He emphasizes that despite the name, the café is for everyone.
When it opened its second location in Fishers in March, Shah was pleased to see it filled with Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Since then, business has been booming there.
Shah said the love and support he received from his hometown really came full circle on his journey.
“I started out in Fishers,” Shah said, “and what I was so embarrassed about growing up that I would hide is now what the town officially loves about me.”
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