by Daood Hamdani
(January 12, 2012) – This May, as Muslims mark the twentieth anniversary of the induction of Al-Rashid mosque in Fort Edmonton Park, the country’s largest living history museum, the spotlight will be on the leadership role of Muslim women in this historic event.
Fifty years after they burst onto the front line to help complete the construction of Canada’s first mosque in 1938, Muslim women took over a floundering campaign to save it from demolition. They surprised many by not only preserving this irreplaceable piece of Canadian heritage but enshrining it in the history museum. Al-Rashid, once a bustling hub of community life, started drifting into disrepair after the congregation outgrew it and moved to a new Islamic centre in 1982. Numerous efforts to raise money and find a new location for the old structure failed. Al-Rashid was set for demolition in 1988. Out of options, the Muslim community could only hope for a miracle.
To many, including Canadians of other faiths, the loss of the country’s oldest mosque and a Canadian heritage building was unthinkable. Al-Rashid was more than a place of worship. It was also the story of the struggle, adjustment and integration of early Muslim settlers.
While the community braced itself for the inevitable, the Terrific Twelve, a group of twelve women who belonged to a relatively new and untested organisation, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW), which was founded in 1982 to speak for Muslim women, defiantly dug in to save the mosque. Led by Lila Fahlman and Razia Jaffer, founder and president of CCMW respectively, these young, highly educated women of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds included second-generation Canadians and new immigrants, working moms, full-time homemakers and single professional women.
Their audacity to take on what had thwarted community leaders sparked a buzz. The media was taken by surprise by this “strange twist” because the Terrific Twelve did not fit the stereotype of Muslim women as subservient housewives. Within the Muslim community itself, there were sceptics. Doubts were raised about the ability of a women’s organisation to lead the project. Some called the move naïve, while others welcomed it.
Unfazed, the women pressed on. Their unyielding resolve won over many naysayers and inspired a dispirited Muslim community. They formed alliances with Canadian mainstream organisations interested in preserving old and unique buildings in order to draw upon their influence, and launched an educational campaign to calm the fears of those who viewed the admission of a mosque into a Canadian history museum as a “foreign intrusion”, emphasising the contribution of Albertans of all faiths in building the mosque and the deep Muslim roots in the country that predate the Canadian Confederation in 1867.
In the end, they prevailed. Funds were raised and conservation authorities agreed that the mosque, as an historic place with heritage value, deserved a place in the history museum. In 1992, a renovated Al-Rashid, repaired to the meticulous standards prescribed for the heritage buildings and restored to its 1938 look with the original furnishings, opened to the public in Fort Edmonton Park amid tributes to the leadership of these remarkable women.
Today, the mosque is a living legacy for all Canadians. Instead of hewing to the old thinking, the Terrific Twelve transformational leaders challenged ingrained attitudes, discarded outdated assumptions and shifted the way local authorities see the collective heritage of all Canadians.
Preserving Al-Rashid was not a Muslim issue, they argued – to the surprise of many Muslims. As a heritage building, it belonged to all Canadians and they shared the obligation to pass their collective heritage to the next generation, undiminished. Their call was heard. Prominent organisations like Fort Edmonton Foundation and the Alberta Historical Society committed funds, making it the only instance that a Muslim religious institution was wholly funded by Canadians with contributions from mainstream organisations.
Simple as this sounds, it was in fact a big leap in thinking and orientation. It made Muslims see themselves as an integral part of the broader society and made all Canadians aware that Canadian heritage is more than just the customs, traditions and artefacts of European sources.
* Daood Hamdani (email@example.com) is a pioneer in the study of Muslim Canadians, faculty member of the Canadian Muslim Leadership Institute and author of “The Al-Rashid: Canada’s First Mosque 1938” and “In the Footsteps of Canadian Muslim Women 1837-2007”. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).