The Ninth General Conference:Islam And The West Past - Present - Future
A Strong Beginning for Muslims in Canada By: Dr. Farid R. Ahmad.
A STRONG BEGINNING FOR MUSLIMS IN CANADA
By: DR. FARID R. AHMAD A TRUSTEE OF THE OTTAWA MUSLIM ASSOCIATON CANADA
The number of Muslims in Canada quadrupled over the last 25 years, from about 100,000 to 400,000, and nearly half of that increase took place over the last 5 years alone. That fast rate of increase has become news worthy these days, as noted by the March 1997 article entitled “More Muslims than Presbyterians: Canada's Changing Religious Landscape”1 Paul McKenna, author of that article, expects that by the year 2000, the Muslim population in North America will outstrip the Jewish population here. The religious, social, economic and political implications of the changing religious demographics in Canada are examined in this brief presentation. So far, the Muslim population in Canada has pulled together to protect their religious beliefs and cultural heritage, and is fairly successful in practising Islam and teaching the religion to their children and grandchildren. Overall, their efforts have been constructive and in line with the Islamic way of life, that embraces the Muslim beliefs, good morals, respect for others' beliefs, peaceful coexistence with justice for all, and proper care for all of Allah's creations. This strong beginning is beneficial and encouraging for the future Muslim generations in Canada.
Canada and its Social Values:
Canada comprises the northern half of the North American continent including its adjacent islands, excepting Alaska, which belongs to the Untied States.2 Canada's total area is 3.85 million square miles (10 times the area of Egypt), and its present population is about 30 million (or half the population of Egypt).2
Canadian Society, like Islamic society, recognizes certain basic social needs, such as education, general productive democracy, sexual equality, fairness and peace.3 Ethnic communities in Canada are free to maintain their heritage and their religious identity. 3 As Dawood Hamdani points out, "The Canadian constitution makes no distinction on the basis of race, ethnic origin, colour or creed. Religious and other fundamental rights are fully guaranteed.” 4,5
More than once in recent years, Canada has been judged by UNESCO as the best country in the world to live in. The factors in that choice include matters which are -important to mm's way of life and his needs, such as material, education, health care, environment, human rights and freedom.
The Muslim Community:
Canadian Muslims are widely diversity in many ways, wish the religion of Islam as the only link between them. A few are Canadian born, from Muslim parents or new converts to Islam, but the large majority is new immigrants who arrived here after the Second World War. The community Muslims is from all national, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. They are further divided according to their beliefs as Sunni, Shiite, Isama'ily and Druse, and their education and professional training are at all levels of the scale.
Their common belief in Islam, and their concern for their identity and the future of their descendants, have driven them over the years to work together to establish a functional Muslim Community in the Canadian mosaic. Those beliefs have been strong enough to unite them.
1. Muslim Organizations
When minority groups realize that they have some worthwhile goals, which they cannot accomplish as individuals, they form associations or societies that bring them together to pursue those goals. Following that tradition, Canadian Muslims have formed Islamic organizations in most Canadian centres of population. Their main goals are to organize the basic services that the community needs right away, such as holding daily and weekly prayers, arrange classes to teach Islam to the children and adults, maintain and Islamic library, hold Islamic weddings, and engagements.,, etc. Such organizations also undertake long-term Planning for major construction projects if the community size and finances justify it.
For Muslim minorities in western society, the mosque is an important focus, as it serves many functions, and gives the Muslims there a sense of pride and self respect. Some of its uses have been beauty daily described by Ahmad Yousuf in his Ph.D. thesis entitled "Muslims in Canada: A question of Identity", who wrote: "It is the mosque or masjid more than any other institution that helps new Muslims in Ottawa a-alit to their non-Islamic surroundings. By facilitating the integration of new immigrants into the Muslim community, the Ottawa Mosque contributes strongly toward the institutional completeness desired by the community. The mosque functions simultaneously as a religious institution, a social organization, and an educational resource”.3
Beyond any doubt, building a mosque in a western city, with the traditional features of a dome and a minaret, is a good measure of success of the local Muslim community. Thus, judging by the number of mosques in the major Canadian cities we must conclude that the Muslim communities here have made a strong beginning for themselves and their descendants.
Equally important to constructing a mosque is the way it is maintained and operated, and that requires constant long-term caring and support by the congregation in charge. A mosque that is misused, or plagued by quarrels and lies, or poorly maintained, is a sign of failure and must be avoided. A successful mosque requires a dedicated core of Muslim individuals (preferably men and women), who are sincere, serious, compassionate and reasonable. Proper staffing of the mosque with a learned Imam who is fluent in Arabic and the local language; adequate cleaning staff; and numerous volunteers for teaching and doing odd jobs around the mosque are also essential to the smooth operation of the mosque.
Thus, a mosque can be of tremendous value for Muslims in western countries, but it is also a responsibility and a challenge. Allah's guidance, patience, and great wisdom are needed for the success in constructing and operating a mosque.
The first mosque in North America is the "Al-Rashid Mosque", which was built in the city of Edmonton in western Canada in 1938, and is now saved as a heritage building. The Muslim community there is still going strong, and a newly built Islamic centre has replaced the old mosque.
3. Religious Education:
Teaching Islam to Muslim children, and upgrade the knowledge of adults about Islam is a major responsibility of Muslim communities in the west. Most Muslims here are aware of that responsibility and take it seriously. Thus, Islam is taught in some Muslim homes, at the mosques (s), and at private classes organized by the Muslim communities, in suitable locations around the city. Beside the Imam, the teachers are usually Muslim volunteers. These efforts are functioning fairly well in Canadian cities.
A few attempts have been made at teaching the religion and other school subjects at full-time Islamic schools, for the lower grades, but the success of those attempts is still very limited.
Many of the mosques and Islamic centres in Canada are now well equipment with Islamic literature, and good libraries. The Islamic library in the Ottawa Mosque is well organized and proven to be of great value to the local Muslim community and their non-Muslim friends.
4. Informing non-Muslims about Islam
The prevailing tendency in western news media seems to be in favour of discrediting Muslims everywhere, by describing them, openly or otherwise, as backward, savage and terrorists. They do that by giving prominent exposure in newspapers, radio and TV to any crime or inhumane event that is committed by Muslim groups anywhere. This constant attack has made the Muslim minorities in western countries immediate suspects of most terrorist acts, and quite often those accusations are proven to be unwarranted. In addition, the religion of Islam is often criticized for its harsh treatment of criminals, and for its restrictions on Muslim women.
Therefore, for self-defense, the Muslims living in western countries should be particularly careful of the way they live, and treat their neighbours and colleagues; since all that will reflect on Islam and its people. In addition, Muslim communities in Canada, which are well organized, should make it their duty to communicate positively with the non-Muslim community around them. We consider this interfaith communication to be very important and we conduct it, in Ottawa, in the following ways:
- Send good Muslim speakers to schools and colleges to talk about Islam, and encourage students and their teachers to visit the mosque and ask questions;
- Organize interfaith dialogue meeting, on a regular basis, with interested adults;
Invite the news media to attend and report on major events and special occasions at the mosque;
- Invite political figures and news reporters to attend social events of the Muslim community;
- Write constructive articles or letters to the editor, about Islam and the Muslim community.
The role of Imam:
The presence of a learned Imam in an active Islamic centre of a western country is an invaluable asset for the whole country. In Ottawa, we were lucky and honoured to have as Imam, the late Dr. Tawfik Muhammad Ali Shahin, who served here since 1980 and passed away in April 1997. He was the first official Imam for the Ottawa Mosque, and he set the standards for what an Imam in North America can do for Islam and the Muslims of that country. He was given a free hand to lead the community and serve their needs in whichever way he chooses, and I am happy to report that he took his job very seriously and benefited the community in many more ways than we expected.
Beside leading the prayers at the mosque, delivering Khotbas (sermons) for the Jumaa and Eid prayers, explaining Islam and the Qur’an to Muslim children and adults, and commemorating Muslim religious occasions, he showed us how to unite our diversified Muslim community, how to improve our skills and education, how to resolve family conflicts and respect each other, and how we should treat our neighbours, and be of service to our communities in Canada and abroad.
With sincerity and humility, he explained Islamic beliefs to non Muslims, helped Canadian judges with resolving court cases involving Muslims, and helped raise funds in aid of refuges and victims of natural disasters. Being a learned scholar, he wrote in detail about applying the religious teachings for modern-day problems.
Having experience the invaluable services of Imam Dr. Tawfiq Shahin, we consider it very important for our community, and other organized Muslim communities in the western world, to aim for acquiring the services of a learned scholar to serve as Imam and religious leader. That is not an easy task, and may require the assistance and cooperation of one or more of the Muslim governments and learned Muslim institutions. Proficiency in the Arabic language and good working knowledge of the language of the country where the Imam will serve is recommended.
Life with a large Muslim Minority:
Whereas the presence of Muslims in Canada in the 1950's and 1960's was small and noticeable, the Muslims have now become a sizable and dearly visible minority. Muslim adults are now actively contributing in all walks of life, and their children are learning at schools and colleges, and competing with other young Canadians for their first jobs. Mosques are now commonly seen in most Canadian cities, and Muslim events such as Ramadan and Eid are commonly recognized at offices, businesses and schools. Some results from the increase in numbers are considered here.
The general impression is that, now, many more non-Muslim Canadians are anxious to learn about the beliefs and customs of their Muslim neighbours. Since Canadians are polite and generous with their concern for others, they want to know what is acceptable to Muslims, and what may be offensive to them so that it would be avoided. The employers of Muslims and the school administrators want to find out, well in advance, the dates of the Muslim religious occasions and how much time off-work the Muslims should be allowed. The proper dress code for Muslims, especially for girls and women, is another piece of information that they ask about quite frequently. The police and social workers are interested in learning about how a Muslim family may function, what is the mother's role, and how the children may be punished if they misbehave. Nurses in hospitals ask about how Muslim invalids should be treated and comforted, especially when they are near death and the patient's family is in a depressed state. Many funeral homes are now organized to have the body of a deceased Muslim washed, and clothed according to Muslim traditions. There are many other questions about
Muslim weddings, inheritance, and the rights of women and children.
On the other hand, many Muslim here inquire from the Imam about the propriety of interest-bearing accounts, and about the mortgages on their homes. The large majority of Muslims here are concerned about religious education for their children, and whether their children should be allowed to join in the Christmas celebration and the exchange of presents the way Christians do. How should Muslim boys and Muslim - meet in a healthy Islamic atmosphere is a very important question that is of major concern to Muslim parents.
Many local politicians are genuinely interested in the fair treatment and well being of ethnic minorities, and courage the Muslim to participate in the elections, both as candidates and as voters. Many Muslim here realize that, for their own good, they should participate in active way in politics and elections at all levels of government. The radio and TV community stations encourage ethnic groups to broadcast cultural programmes in their own languages, and some already broadcast in Arabic and in Urdu.
Since the early days, Canadian Muslims have been strong in their beliefs, careful to fast to their religion, and pass it on to their children. As their numbers increased, they got better organized, and their efforts continued, as can be seen by the number of religious and charitable organizations, and the active Muslim institutions all across Canada. Good relations and productive communication with non-Muslim Canadians is beneficial to the Muslims here than arrogant and inflexible attitudes. The presence of sincere eloquent and tolerant Imams is always a blessing to Muslim minorities in the west.
(1) Paul McKenna "More Muslims than Presbyterians: Canada's Changing Religious Landscape". Private communication, Toronto (1997).
(2) Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Vol. 4,p. 711 and Vol. 8,p. 33. William Benton, Publisher, (1958).
(3) Ahmad F. Yousuf "Muslims in Canada: A Question of Identity" LEGAS, Ottawa (1993).
(4) Dawood H. Hamdani "Muslims in the Canadian Mosaic". Journal, Institute of Muslim Minority Vol. 5., No.1. United Kingdom (1979) :7
(5) Husaini "Muslims in the Canadian Mosaic: Socio-Cultural and Economic Links with Countries of Origin", Muslim Research Foundation, Edmonton (1990).