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As a child growing up in Fishers, Sajjad Shah was often embarrassed by his Islamic identity.
In front of his peers at Hamilton Southeastern High School, he was more likely to hide his Muslim faith than celebrate it.
“Muslims have had bad reputations,” 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 of nearly 700,000 followers that has grown into a multimillion-dollar fundraising platform, generating over $6.5 million for humanitarian causes locally and abroad in the last two years alone.
Shah, 31, has also opened two coffee shops – one in his hometown, Fishers – called Muslims of the World Coffee and co-authored a book titled “Muslims of the World: Portraits and Stories of Hope, Survival, Loss and Love.”
“Now I’m proud to be a Muslim,” Shah said. “This is a beautiful faith, and it’s not something I shy away from.”
This level of success was not expected or initially planned though, Shah said. When he created the Instagram page back in 2012, his goal was singular.
“To change the way the world sees Muslims,” Shah said, “in a positive way.”
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The second oldest among five siblings, Shah was born into what he considers a traditional Muslim Pakistani family – his parents’ marriage was arranged, his dad prayed five times a day, his mom wore a hijab (headscarf), and he and his siblings attended Sunday school at the mosque – casting him as an outsider in Hamilton County, he said.
“The Fishers school system was predominantly all white,” Shah said, “so I kind of just did what I needed to fit in.”
As a child, he couldn’t ignore the uncomfortable staring he witnessed his mother endure. But, he could forgo eating for hours at parties where only pepperoni pizza was served. He also could lie to his friends during Ramadan and tell them he wasn’t hungry for 30 consecutive days each time they asked why he wasn’t eating lunch.
“Slowly, you just start feeling the fact that you are different from other people,” Shah said. “For a long time, it was something I was embarrassed about.”
When most of his friends left for college after graduating high school in 2009, like many other traditional Muslims who are encouraged by their parents to stay home, Shah stayed local and attended Butler University. He connected more with the Muslim community during that time, he said, and discovered amazing diversity among practicing Muslims.
Inspired, Shah then sought to reverse the narrative surrounding Muslims in a post-9/11 world. He created an Instagram account called Muslims of the World, intent on sharing small, intimate stories of some of the interesting Muslims he knew, hoping to destigmatize Islam.
It started with a post of a friend saving 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 U.S. were reaching out to share 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 by his son’s ambitions to create the Instagram account.
“My concern was that he does not become a victim,” he said. “I recalled reading in the news at the time, people with beards, people of Muslim identity, they got beaten up. And I didn’t want something like that to happen to him.” 
His father’s fears have since morphed into joy. 
“Sometimes I tell him,” Syed Shah said, “‘you proved me wrong.'” 
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Nearly ten years later, Muslims of the World has obtained over 680,000 followers, including multiple celebrities like international supermodel Bella Hadid.
“It’s a grassroots page that grew in a grassroots way,” Shah said, relying upon the art of storytelling.
As the account developed, the seriousness of the stories intensified. Stories like a young Muslim man in Lexington, Kentucky, stabbed to death while delivering pizza, or a Muslim woman in Pakistan whose face burned off by acid thrown at her, or a Palestinian baby burned alive. 
Shah felt compelled to act. Instead of just posting about it, he decided to use his platform to fundraise in support.  
One of his first campaigns was a GoFundMe set up to raise $30,000 for the Al-Haqq mosque in Indianapolis that nearly burned down in 2015. Over 550 people donated a total of $28,157 on the first day. 
Later, when a local Muslim from Al-Fajr mosque died and didn’t have money for funeral costs, Shah set up another GoFundMe aiming to raise $3,000. He hit $3,100 within 45 minutes of creating the account. 
Shah soon realized the potential power for good beyond Instagram-driven awareness. 
“This could be something,” he said, “so much bigger.”
Through Muslims of the World, since 2020 alone, Shah has raised over $6.5 million in support of various causes, stretching from Indianapolis to Somalia: $723,699 raised to cover the cost of hearing aids and eye surgery in Ethiopia; $678,300 for food baskets in Yemen; $240,822 for food and clothes in Syria.
“Everyone’s struggle is real,” Shah said. But to decide who to help, he narrows his focus on “what causes need the most immediate attention and have no awareness.”
Shah said the money he raises doesn’t go to him directly. He partners with established non-profits that are on the ground and has the money sent straight to them instead. He most often relies on the website LaunchGood, a fundraising platform launched in 2013 that has since received over $330 million across 151 countries and over one-million donors.
Nadeem Riaz, global business director at LaunchGood, said, “(Muslims of the World) is our number one fundraiser on the platform.
“Nobody has raised as much as they have,” Riaz said, “as quick as they have.”
Within the last month of Ramadan, Riaz pointed out that Shah raised over $1.2 million between Somalia and Yemen relief efforts.
Riaz attributes Shah’s success to Muslims of the World’s narrative style, voice and delivery, which he said resonates with a large audience.
“There are 1000s of people asking for money,” Riaz said, “but there are very few who are able to tell the story in a way that’s really going to resonate.”
Although Shah also believes good storytelling is key, he defers his success to 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 of the baristas at his two coffee shop locations and his wife.
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When Shah opened his first Muslims of the World Coffee location, on West 38th Street, in June 2021, he did it with the same intentionality that went into creating the Instagram page.
More than simply serving coffee, he’s used his store to gather volunteers and build care packages for Indianapolis’ homeless population; he’s used it to assemble hundreds more care packages piled onto a truck for delivery to Afghan refugees at Camp Atterbury; for one of the refugee couples that didn’t have the money to afford a wedding, he’s even used his space to celebrate their matrimony. 
“Our whole platform is having good vibes and bringing people together,” Shah said. “This echoes what we try to do with our Instagram page.”
He emphasizes that, despite the name, the coffee shop is intended for everyone.
When he opened his second location in Fishers in March, Shah was pleased to see it filled with Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Business has been bustling there since.
Shah said the love and support he’s received from his hometown has really brought his journey full circle.
“I started off in Fishers,” Shah said, “and what I was so embarrassed about growing up, what I would hide, is now what the city officially loves about me.”
Contact IndyStar reporter Brandon Drenon at 317-517-3340 or Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonDrenon.
Brandon is also a Report for America corps member with the GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world.
Report for America, funded by both private and public donors, covers up to 50% of a reporter’s salary. It’s up to IndyStar to find the other half, through local community donors, benefactors, grants or other fundraising activities.
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