Celebrating Family and Diversity – History of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto Part 3
By Muneeb Nasir
[This is the third part in the series covering the history of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, one of the first Islamic Centers to be established in Toronto. Many of the men, women and young people involved in the Islamic Foundation would become leaders and community activists in the North American Muslim community well beyond the confines of this mosque – a testimony to the dynamism of the Foundation in the early decades].
The 1970s were a period of flowering for the community of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto.
The activities of the organization were moved into the newly acquired building at 182-184 Rhodes Avenue. The building consisted of 2 floors and a basement; the main floor was converted into a prayer hall and the upper floor was used as a multi-purpose hall for social events and to conduct educational classes; adjoining, the main building was a house that was rented out.
As one of the few Muslim facilities in the city, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto was soon to become a hub for the community.
The Friday prayers were established and conducted by volunteer Khateebs, among them were Farouk Ghanie and Abdul Hai Patel, and the community’s weekend educational and social activities had now found a home.
The Muslim community in Toronto in the 1970s went through an increase in its population with the change in immigration policies allowing immigrants to come in from many developing nations.
This diversity of the growing community was soon reflected in the membership of the Islamic Foundation.
The organization attracted newcomers from the Middle East, South East Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and the membership included families, students and new converts to the religion.
A new Muslim who pronounced his testimony of faith (shahadah) in the Islamic Foundation was Abdullah Hakim Quick, who would later become a popular Imam at Toronto’s Jami Mosque.
Hakim Quick took his shahadah in 1970 from a well-known American Muslim leader, Dr. Ahmad Sakr, who was visiting the Foundation to conduct an educational camp.
In 1972, the Presidency of the Foundation passed from Dr. Fuad Sahin to Hasib Khan.
In the subsequent years, most of the founding Directors were to move on and, by 1976, the composition of the Board reflected new faces – the President was Mahmoud Khaial, the Secretary’s position was held by Abdel Moniem Abdel Fattah and the Treasurer was Mohamed Nasir.
Mahmoud Khaial, who lived close to the mosque, established the daily prayers and held halaqas for the Board members to improve their religious understanding and cement relationships.
During the mid-70s, the building was to go through extensive renovations, much of it carried out by the membership.
The outer façade of the building was upgraded, the prayer area on the main floor was transformed into a welcoming space, and the upper level and basement were renovated to allow for social functions and weekend classes.
Much of this renovation was spearheaded by Mohamed Nasir who would assume the presidency of the Islamic Foundation during this period and was re-elected to the position, almost uninterrupted, until the mid 1990s.
The programs and activities of the organization were also to increase – children’s classes were held regularly on Sundays followed by a Tasfir and a discussion circle.
The Sunday gatherings would become the focal point for meeting and socialization of the membership.
By 1977, the Friday prayers were conducted by Dr. Sanaullah Ansari, an educator, who also taught the children’s classes on Sundays.
Family and children’s camps, special lectures, dinners and Iftar gatherings in Ramadan were on the calendar of yearly activities of the Foundation.
The Iftar dinners on Saturdays in the month of Ramadan were highly anticipated events and were a showcase of the community’s cultural and culinary diversity with each week’s dinner being catered by a different ethnic group.
Muslims came from across the city to attend this gathering.
The Islamic Foundation and the Jami Mosque also developed strong inter- organizational relations and shared joint programs.
The membership of each mosque would partake in each other’s Iftar gatherings in Ramadan – at the Islamic Foundation on Saturdays and at the Jami Mosque on Sundays.
Along with the Croatian Islamic Centre, the two organizations would form an Islamic Coordinating Council that would hold establish Eid prayers at the CNE grounds in Toronto. The joint Eid prayers of the Islamic Foundation and the Jami Mosque would continue until the late 1980s.
The relations between the two organizations extended to include planning joint social gatherings, such as an Annual picnic and an Annual Eid dinner, as well as printing Islamic calendars and Eid cards.
The women in both mosques – Opheera Nasir and Ayesha Jinnah – would play pivotal roles in cementing this relationship with their networking and organizational skills.
In 1978, the Islamic Foundation would retain an Imam, Iysa Ade Bello.
Bello, a Nigerian, was a graduate in Islamic Law from the Islamic University of Madina, Saudi Arabia and was enrolled in graduate studies in the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto.
He went on to receive his Ph.D from the university in 1986.
His appointment solidified the Islamic Foundation of Toronto as a mosque.
With Iysa Bello as the Imam and Mohamed Nasir as the President, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto would become a highly inclusive mosque – young people and women became actively engaged in the organization.
The great debate about barriers separating men and women in the mosque would take place and the ceiling high separation would be reduced to a nominal waist high, removable barrier that extended only partially across the length of the hall, giving women the choice of whether to stand behind it.
After the Sunday Salat-uz Zuhr prayers, women and men would join the tafsir circle and engage in lively discussions over tea and snacks in the basement.
In the mosque, family events were marked, and by the late 1970s and early 80s, these including many celebrations of births (Aqiqah), a reflection of the young families who were part of the membership.
Lecturers were, very often, invited to address the congregation and deliver Friday sermons.
Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, an Islamic scholar at the University of Toronto and a Shia, would lead the Friday prayers on numerous occasions.
Abdalla Idris Ali, a Sudanese native and a political economy graduate student at the University of Toronto, often substituted for the Imam while he was away.
Young people would be put forward by the Imam to deliver the Friday Khutba, including the author and Irfan Alli, both of whom would gain valuable experience in community organizing through the Islamic Foundation that they would use to run city-wide youth programs.
Other young members would be given positions of responsibility, including Shafeek Mohammed, who was put in charge of education.
Camel Xerri, who converted to Islam in his teens, was elected to the Secretary’s position.
Opheera Nasir would become a pillar of the Foundation, mentoring younger women and, along with Amany Khalifa, Joyce Mohammed, Shahjehan Jalaluddin and Nazmoon Ali and their daughters, organize camps and cultural events.
Other families – Abdul Moniem and Amany Khalifa, Mohammed and Shahjehan Jalaluddin, Rasem and Yusra Abdel Majid – were involved in organizing children’s camps in the mosque as well as halaqas (learning circles) that would be held on a rotating basis at the homes of members; the circle would be followed by the much anticipated snacks and socializing!
These men, women and youths would become actively engaged in leadership roles beyond the Islamic Foundation of Toronto in later years, a testimony to the dynamism of the mosque in this period.
The Islamic Foundation of Toronto distinguished itself during the 1970s for its engagement of families in all aspects of the organization, a multicultural membership and the strong ummah consciousness of its leaders which allowed the mosque to celebrate and appreciate the diversity of the community.
As the 1970s came to a close, the organization had developed stature, confidence and a reputation in Toronto’s Muslim community that would lead it to launch a project in 1981 to build the city’s marquee mosque in Scarborough.
The next installment in this series will look at the Islamic Foundation of Toronto in the1980s and the drive to establish the first purpose-built Islamic Center in Toronto.
PROFILE – Mohamed Nasir
Mohamed Nasir was the longest serving President of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto and one of the pioneers in the development of the Muslim community in Toronto.
Mohamed Nasir was a well-known business leader in Guyana prior to immigrating to Canada.
He was born on the West Coast of Demerara and was one of the young businessmen who launched successful businesses in the capital city of Georgetown in the immerging nation of British Guiana in the 1950’s.
By the early 1960’s, he had established a successful pharmaceutical business which formed part of a chain of family businesses.
While in Guyana, he gained a reputation for being an outspoken advocate for Islam and for supporting community initiatives.
In 1973, he arrived in Toronto and immediately became actively involved in the Jami Mosque and the Islamic Foundation of Toronto.
He spearheaded the establishment of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto Centre, one of the largest Islamic Centers in Canada and a landmark in Scarborough.
He almost single-handedly raised the profile of the organization and of Toronto’s Muslim community with his extensive travels in the Muslim world in the 1980s and 90s, in support of the Islamic Foundation‘s project.
He held the position of President of the Board of Directors of the Islamic Foundation for close to two decades.
He also served as the Vice Chairman of the Board of the Canadian Islamic Trust Foundation, a nationally based foundation serving the Muslim community and as a past member of the Majlis Ash Shura of ISNA, a continental Muslim organization.
He was instrumental in the establishment of the Muslim World League offices in Toronto and the Islamic Society of North America’s headquarters in Canada.
He has served as a mentor and an advisor to a number of other community based organizations and as a resource person on issues of the Muslim community in Canada.
His inclusive nature and universal approach to Islam encouraged active participation of all ethnic and cultural groups, as well as, women and youths in the Islamic Foundation during his term.
In 1993, Mohamed Nasir was recognized by the Canadian government for his community service and philanthropy with the commemorated medal for the 125th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation for making “a significant contribution to Canada, to his community and to fellow Canadians.”
The award stated that “the decoration is a reminder of the values of service, individual respect and community effort on which Canada was built and on which its quality of life will always depend.”
Mohamed Nasir is one of the pioneers of the Canadian Muslim community on whose shoulders we all stand.
(Muneeb Nasir is President of the Olive Tree Foundation (www.olivetreefoundation.ca), a public endowment foundation. He served as a Board of Director of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto in the early 1990s, on a number of committees in the organization from 1974 to 1995 and as Chairman of its Program Committee for many years).