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Islamic History Month - October 12, 2011

 

As-Salamu Alaykum (Peace Be Upon You) and good morning ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to be here today to join you in celebrating Islamic History Month. As a Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage who immigrated to this country 30 years ago, I understand all too well the importance of recognizing the contribution of Islam to Canada and the world in shaping our national identity. 

 

Islamic History Month

Islam is not new to Canada. Many believe that the first Muslims came to the country with the large wave of immigration in the 1960s and 70s, when in fact, 13 Muslims were reported in the national census of 1871 - 4 years after Confederation. Muslims have contributed to the social fabric of the country almost since the founding of the nation itself. Edmonton even holds the oldest mosque in North America, built in 1938.

Currently, Muslims make up Canada’s largest non-Christian faith group. There are close to 1 million Muslims in the country (940,000 to be exact) representing 2.8% of the population. Out of that figure, 50% are Canadian-born. It is estimated that by 2030, Muslim-Canadians will grow to 6.6% of the national population. Globally, Muslims make up almost a quarter of the world’s population, a staggering 23.4%.

It is important to note that on a national, as well as global, scale, the Muslim population is not homogenous. Muslims originate in countries ranging from the Middle East, to the Indian subcontinent, to as far as Southeast Asia. In Canada itself, the Muslim community is comprised of 40 different national, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds.

The reality is that we live in a pluralist society. If Canada’s national heritage is the sum of all Canadian backgrounds, then it is evident that an understanding of Islam is pertinent to our national identity. 

This especially rang true after the events of September 11, 2001. It became essential to promote an understanding of Islam, a religion of peace and tolerance. Supported by my peers and passed unanimously by Parliament in 2007, Islamic History Month was created to foster dialogue and acceptance, as a way to teach all Canadians about the Islamic faith, leading to greater social cohesion.

As Judith Miller, a member of the Islamic History Month advisory board and professor of English at the University of Waterloo so eloquently put it, A rediscovery and renewed appreciation of Islamic history and the present day accomplishments of Muslims give us a wider understanding that will help us see -- and address -- present conflicts within the larger view of human history.”

  

The Charter of Medina

We need look no further than to the life of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to gain a greater understanding of what it means to be a true member of society. Living in a cultural mosaic such as Canada, we can learn directly from the Prophet’s example, not only as a religious leader, but as a political head of state. 

When the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) emigrated from Mecca, his place of birth, to Medina, he inherited political leadership of a pluralist city-state. Various faiths strived to live together in Medina – Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, polytheists, even atheists. After decades of war among the different groups, the Prophet attempted to create stability and a peaceful coexistence by setting into place what is considered to be the oldest written constitution, the Charter of Medina, in 622AD.

The Charter was a rarity of its time. It was written with the intention of promoting a plural society, giving equal rights to every citizen as well as a say in governmental matters. Each citizen made up one nation, or “Ummah,” and each were considered to be members of society, regardless of religion, race, or ancestry.

The document supported a sense of security in the community - individual protection, security of women, and religious freedom – in addition to establishing tax and judicial systems. Much like in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, where everyone is entitled to freedom of religion and belief, the Charter of Medina promulgated an idea of tolerance. As is often stated in the Qu’ran, “To you your religion, and to me mine.” 

 

Islamic History: Yesterday and Today

We often think of the Middle Ages as a dark time; a set of lost years filled with disease and destruction. In fact, while Europe was going through a period of darkness, it is the Islamic world that lit humankind in innovation. From 600 to 1600 AD, an era that is better known as a “Golden Age,” the Islamic world observed a great influence on arts, science, medicine, architecture, humanities, and spirituality which has had an impact on the modern world to this day. 

Knowledge is of the utmost value in Islam, with the seeking of knowledge being the highest form of religious activity. As God is supposed to be all-knowing, the quest for knowledge means that we are striving to further know God. When the Qu’ran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), he heard “Iqra, “ or read. "Read in the name of your Lord who created, created man from a clot. Read, for your Lord is most Generous, Who teaches by means of the pen, teaches man what he does not know." (96: 1-5) In Islamic thought, human knowledge is imperfect, which means that it requires exploration and advancement through research and experimentation.

Knowledge during the Islamic era came not only from Muslims, but through a synthesis of ideas from a diversity of cultures  - Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and others. Much like the world of today, there was a globalization of culture and learning. Extensive libraries were built in every major Islamic city, and students from abroad would study at Islamic universities to learn Arabic or translate books from Arabic into Latin or Hebrew. Islamic ideas that were transmitted to medieval Europe ultimately had an influence on the Renaissance. 

We focus on history and science through too Eurocentric a lens. Islamic scholars contributed to the foundations of the modern age: Al-Jazari was a brilliant engineer who invented mechanical devices that were used hundreds of years later in the Industrial Revolution; Alhazen made significant contributions to the principles of optics, which laid the foundation for present day cameras and cinema; Al-Zahrawi is called the father of modern surgery, developing surgical tools that are still used in hospitals; and Al-Khwarizmi is credited with inventing algebra as well as Arabic numerals and the use of zero.  This is even demonstrated by the presence of Arabic words in our present-day vocabulary, such as algebra, chemistry, atlas, earth, aorta, pancreas, and cornea. 

We cannot forget about the women either. Contrary to popular belief, women are given equal status as men in Islam, where the Qu’ran states “be you male or female, you are equal to one another.” Miriam al-Ijli al-Astrulabi crafted astrolabes, an early type of global positioning system, and Fatima al-Fihri founded the world’s oldest university in Morocco in the 9th century. This is a shared heritage that we all have and can be utilized as a means of better understanding amongst us.

 

Contribution of Canadian Muslims

We must make a journey into the past in order build and design a better future, but we must also take the present into account. Present-day Canadian Muslims are a well-established part of the community and make an immense contribution to the social fabric of the nation.

Muslims are among Canada’s most highly educated citizens, with 45% possessing at least one university degree. Tyseer Aboulnasr is a female professor of engineering who received the Order of Ontario, among other prestigious awards, and Hoda El Maraghy was named the first women dean of engineering at the University of Windsor.

Canada also has the highest per capita number of Muslim Senators and MPs in the Western world. Muslims exist at all levels of government – at the municipal level, Naheed Nenshi was elected as mayor of Calgary; at the provincial level, Yasir Naqvi, recently re-elected MPP for Ottawa Centre; and Yasmin Ratansi, the first and only female Muslim MP from 2004-2011.

Muslims participate in the arts. The widely acclaimed musician K’Naan is a Canadian of Somali descent. Zarqa Nawaz, a British-Canadian writer, journalist, broadcaster, and fimmaker of Pakistani origin has transformed domestic and international perceptions of the country through her acclaimed show Little Mosque on the Prairie. It is the contribution of Canadian Muslims such as K’Naan and Nawaz that influence the outlook of Canadian and global citizens, and ultimately impact our society.

 

Conclusion

Much like in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the Golden Age of Islam, we live in a pluralist society that requires an understanding between cultures and religion in order to survive. A part of being Canadian is to know eachother and celebrate our differences.

An understanding of Islamic History, however, is not simply an understanding of the Muslim point of view, but an understanding of world history and our heritage as Canadians. Contributions of Muslims in the past and present have had an impact on the social fabric of Canada and will have an impact on its future. 

Our future is in our youth first and foremost. I mentioned that about 50% of Canadian Muslims were born in this nation. Recognition of Islamic history allows Muslim youth especially to build a bridge between the past and present, giving them a greater sense of self while integrating into this society. I have traveled far and wide in this country, meeting youth, and I can remember a particular moment when a little Somalian girl in a hijab told me that seeing me, a Muslim woman Senator, finally made her feel like she belonged in this country.

I will leave you with these words from the Qu’ran:

“O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may come to know one another and not that you may despise each other. 

Hold to forgiveness, command what is right; but turn away from the ignorant.”

 

Thank you for allowing me to join your celebration today. I wish you all peace.