INDIANAPOLIS — It all started with an Instagram page in 2014. An Instagram page sharing the beauty of Muslims and Islam.
Now, that one Instagram page, "Muslims of the World," has helped bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars for families in need across the world.
Seven years later, the organization's founders, Sajjad and Fatimah Shah, have created a vigorous virtual community through Muslims of the World, also known as MOTW.
It's a nonprofit that never set out to be a nonprofit. The Shahs wanted nothing more than to promote the lives — altogether raw, beautiful, and honest — of both practicing Muslims and non-Muslim with the world around them.
Since its origin, MOTW has published a book, started a world-traveling nonprofit organization, and, most recently, opened a coffee shop in Indianapolis.
"We're not just selling coffee here," Sajjad Shah said of the message he tries to relay to his customers. "I guess people can call us a coffee shop, but I think we're so much more. You could call us a French and Arabic pastry shop, but I think we're so much more. I think that my whole goal is to really share this with as many people that walk in here."
"Last week, they (customers) did a Bible study here. And you know, it's like ... they're doing a Bible study in a coffee shop called Muslims of the World! It's really important that we have our doors wide open for everyone, and we don't really care, you know, who you are, what you stand for. You got a seat at the table at Muslims of the World Coffee and Pastries."
The commonality between Muslims and non-Muslims
The location for "MOTW Coffee and Pastries" was purposeful for Sajjad Shah, a Hoosier native and co-founder of MOTW. Although he drives about 40 minutes to the coffee shop from his home in Fishers nearly every day, it's the community interaction that drives him.
He and his wife Fatimah are without a doubt busy, as they own and operate three other companies, in addition to MOTW. But, they make the time for that community interaction they not only wanted to create for others.
"You know, this whole weekend, I was behind the counter working," Shah said in an interview. "And, it's just the best way to interact with your customers. People can hear about a great cause. But when they say like, 'yo, the owner is actually up in here like, serving people, talking to people, sitting down with people,' it just hits differently."
As much as Shah wants to reach several types of communities, he also wants to be rooted locally. More specifically, West 38th Street, where he lived as a child until the fifth grade before his family moved to Fishers.
The area couldn't have provided a better foothold in prioritizing diversity with the International Marketplace all but encapsulating 38th Street and Lafayette Road. It brings so many different folks from several different cultures to the city's west side.
Now, Shah is only furthering that mission.
"Last week, they did a Bible study here," Shah said, pointing at a group of White, non-Muslim people enjoying coffee together. "And you know, it's like ... they're doing a Bible study in a coffee shop called Muslims of the World!
"It's really important that we have our doors wide open for everyone, and we don't really care, you know, who you are, what you stand for. You got a seat at the table at Muslims of the World Coffee and Pastries."
Shah and his wife are both children of immigrants. His wife, Fatimah, is from Yemen and he is from Pakistan.
They both grew up in predominantly White communities, which often produced a feeling of insecurity about being Muslim, Shah said.
"My wife and I, we've always made it our agenda to showcase the beauty of Islam through our character, through our manners, through our behaviors," Shah explained. "And, at this point, we started meeting tons of Muslims that we realized were also going through that same struggle of not being able to really be proud of who they are. So I made an Instagram page called Muslims of the World ... it was kind of like 'Humans of New York.'"
Much like the ever-so-popular catalog "Humans of New York" (HONY), which shares the lives of New Yorkers to millions of followers on social media, MOTW shared the story of Muslim people through photos and captions.
Shah says his goal was not to focus on the faith, but the beautiful commonality between Muslims and non-Muslims.
"My goal was ... more so on beautiful stories that anyone can resonate with, but they happen to be about Muslim people," Shah said.
"It could be a mother who has a child with autism, a mother who has a child with Down syndrome. And when she shares that story on Muslims of the World, well, a Jewish mother, or a Catholic mother, or whatever it may be — an atheist mother — who also has a child with Down syndrome, all of a sudden started resonating with that story," Shah said, as an example for how the MOTW Instagram page has had a cross-cultural impact. "And they were like, 'hey, I actually have a lot in common with this Muslim.' And that was kind of our way to break down those boundaries ... and bringing people together."
Soon, the stories the Shahs shared on MOTW spread like wildfire, and now they have nearly 650,000 followers.
Changing lives one post at a time
As more and more MOTW posts grew to resonate with people around the world, donation offers began to roll in.
People would read a story about someone from the page and, if it resonated enough, they wanted a way to give money to help with whatever problem they may have had.
They soon created a donating platform, which quickly became a global nonprofit organization.
"We started going to these different countries ... and sharing stories of all the people there. And we started raising millions of dollars for different people that were in need," Shah said.
On one of their most recent trips, the MOTW crew was able to raise nearly $1 million for children in Ethiopia who are Deaf or have cataracts. With that money, Shah says, MOTW was able to provide thousands of Ethiopian children with hearing aids or cataract surgery.
"Muslims of the World kind of just took off and became this household name that both Muslims and non-Muslims really fell in love with," Shah said.
By 2018, MOTW published a book (similar to the evolution of HONY). The book shared the varying lives of those practicing the Islamic faith around the world, and thousands are sitting on the coffee table of homes around the world.
The organization's popularity doesn't stop there though.
They've gone to countries like Kenya and South Africa with celebrities in tow, most of whom reach out to the MOTW crew to be a part of their Africa trips. Most recently, supermodel Bella Hadid inquired about joining their next mission trip.
Shah says big names such as Hadid typically go with MOTW on their trips because, simply put, "it's a great cause."
"The story resonates with a lot of people," he said.
That story of resonance, of finding commonality, also hits home for other marginalized communities, Shah said.
"It was ... it was just raw, real stories," Shah said. "And when you receive these raw, real stories, it resonates with people. No one cares, on Humans of New York, if you're Black, White, Brown, if you're Muslim, Christian, Jewish — it's just like, 'oh, what a great story.' Same thing on the Muslims of the World."
MOTW Coffee and Pastries
MOTW Coffee and Pastries opened with a bang in June.
Hundreds, possibly even thousands, have already traveled near and far to the coffee shop, located at 4873 West 38th Street.
"Coffee brings people together," Shah said. "And even though it's Muslims of the World Coffee and Pastries, I would say 85% of our customers are not Muslim. Maybe 15% are Muslim. So it is exactly what we're hoping for."
MOTW Coffee and Pastries has two French pastry artists that come to the coffee shop every morning to make their Arabic and French pastries fresh, sweet treats that you don't find easily in Indy.
They have partnered with local roasters, Tinker Coffee Company, a familiar favorite for Indianapolis residents. The coffee shop's walls feature two prominent paintings, one of Muhammad Ali and another of Malcolm X, wich were painted by Egyptian artists from Indianapolis.
"We have access to a lot of artists all over the country, but we wanted to get whatever we could from Indiana," Shah said.