The first Muslim student association in Canada, est. 1946

The first Muslim student association in Canada, est. 1946

By Hassam Munir

On the evening of November 1, 1946, the very first NBA basketball game was played at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens between the New York Knickerbockers and Toronto Huskies. The NBA would go on to become a very important institution in the history of Muslims in North America, giving us legendary athletes and community-builders Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. This year, the NBA is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

A few days prior to that first NBA game, in late October of 1946, a group of Indian Muslim students established another very important institution: the Association of Muslim Students of America, or AMSA. By the summer of 1947, AMSA had started a publication, the Muslim News Bulletine, edited and published by a student named Mohammad Ameen Khan Tareen from the address of 177 College Street in Toronto, Canada.

Tareen was doing his post-graduate work at the University of Toronto. He was likely one of the 15 Indian Muslim students who received scholarships to do their post-graduate work at UofT starting in 1944, as part of the India Post-War Development Scheme; in return, upon completion they were required to return to India and work for the government for 5 years. [1] This means it is likely that he returned to India/Pakistan, and why he drops off from the record in 1948.

But while he was in Toronto, though, he served as General Secretary of AMSA and was something of a public speaker, once giving a “noon-hour address” in the Hart House Debates Room on the topic of “Mohammedanism,” and other times speaking about Indian politics. In early 1948 he was in Toronto again after returning from a 5-week trip to New York to cover the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. [2] So far I have not been able to find any other details about Tareen or any other Muslim students in Toronto or elsewhere in North America at the time who may have been involved.

We do know that Noor Hassanali, who would go on to become President of Trinidad and Tobago (the first and thus far only Muslim head-of-state in the West), was studying at the University of Toronto at the time, and was very involved in campus life, including being the captain of his varsity soccer team. [3]

He graduated in 1947. Engineering student Mirza Shams-ul Huda came to UofT from the University of Calcutta through the scheme mentioned above. He did research on soil mechanics for the Hydro Electric Commission of Ontario, traveled across Canada visiting different engineering departments, co-founded the Canada Pakistan Association, and was seen off by his friends during a heartwarming departure at Union Station in January 1949. [4] But we don’t know if they were active within AMSA.

We know very little about AMSA’s activities but we do have a sense of its vision, thanks to the copies of two issues of the Muslim News Bulletine (no. 7 and 8) which were sent to The Moslem World, and excerpts of which were published in the “Current Affairs” section of the journal’s 37th issue (p. 314-16) in 1947.

The text, quoted in full below, reflects an emphasis on developing understanding between peoples, perhaps inspired in part by the recent tragedies of the Second World War and the unfolding Partition in South Asia, where Tareen and AMSA’s founders were from.

For the moment, it is unclear what eventually became of AMSA, the Muslim News Bulletine, and Tareen. I have so far not been able to find any later references to them. Today, there are hundreds of Muslim Students Associations (MSAs) in schools, colleges and universities across the United States and Canada. MSAs as we know them today trace their lineage to the 1960s, and the umbrella organization, MSA National, marked its 50th anniversary in 2013. The MSA at the University of Toronto, Tareen’s own campus, has a rich history going back to 1965. But the story of AMSA, the first known MSA on the continent, has been forgotten, and deserves to be told at the 75th anniversary of its founding.

❝The Association of Muslim Students in America, is an organization of Muslim students from various parts of the world. Realizing the urgency from the promotion of understanding between various nations of the world as a necessary step towards the achievement of peace and harmony among the warring elements of the universe, the Muslim students in this country felt the necessity of an organization which could authoritatively explain the Muslim viewpoint before the other nations. The AMSA is essentially a religious and social organization, keeping aloof from the controversial politics of the world. It’s only object is to understand the non-Muslims and present the Muslim point of view on various world problems to facilitate a better understanding between the nations of the world.
The AMSA made a beginning, although it could not properly be put into shape until the end of October last, in September, 1946, when a batch of enthusiastic Muslim students reached San Francisco from India. Since then the student movement started by these handful of young men, has progressed at a very rapid rate. It is thus necessary to take stock of the situation and to see whether the AMSA has really lived up to its noble aim and whether, on the basis of achievements it has to its credit and the work it has done, it justifies its existence. Basing our answer on the opinions and comments by its member and various other elements connected with it, we can safely state that the AMSA has really done the job in this country. In the same issue we are publishing, as a sample from a multitude of such letters, a few comments that have been made about the Association and the MNB (Muslim News Bulletine).
The basic aim for which AMSA was started was to fulfill the need of promoting an understanding between the Muslim world and the people of America. A short while after reaching America we had fully realised that our doubts were quite correct and well-founded. Many Americans, due to a lack of information and knowledge about the fundamentals of Islam, considered Muslims as heathens. Other problems were also quite misunderstood and the result was that the Muslims and their ideas and problems were not taken at face value. The prejudice played its part.
We do not at all claim that during the last ten months we have been able to absolutely remove such a state. That is a far bigger problem than an organisation like ours can competently and fully tackle. But we are satisfied that we have and we would contribute our honest share towards the solution of the problem. And also we have been successful — very successful, if we may say so — in laying down the foundations for an attack on this problem and from there others construct and develop their solutions.
The members of the AMSA have worked both individually as well as the parts of the organisation. They availed every of every opportunity afforded them, to acquaint the people here of the real problems of the Muslim world. Radio, newspaper, platform, and pulpit – every method was utilized to do the job. The task and the responsibility was heavy but the young men, with their inherent zeal and capacity to overcome the hurdles, did a fine job. Various interested elements, who were afraid of the rising movements, tried to stop and hinder our activities but we ‘marched forward’ with trust in God and confidence in ourselves.
But these achievements should not dazzle us. They are but a small fraction of the huge task that still lies ahead. We must proceed, like an ambitious army which though pleased with the smaller victories is never satisfied until final success, towards our final goal. We have still to do the task.
We would take this opportunity to appeal all the Muslim students in this country to get together and organise themselves. Organisation, on a smaller scale though it may be, gives you strength. Wherever there are a group of Muslims they should open a branch of the AMSA. For it is through this that we can be sure of our strength. Cooperation and coordination of our efforts would lead us towards the achievement of our final goal. Through organisation we would be able to promote a better understanding between the American people and ourselves. And promotion of understanding is the only sure way of establishing peace in the world.❞

Photo credit: Diana Tyszko/University of Toronto

[1] “Job in Pakistan Awaits Engineer U of T Graduate,” The Varsity, vol. LXVIII, no. 62, 12 January 1949, p. 1, 3.

[2] “Hart House Bulletin,” The Varsity, vol. LXVI, no. 81, 12 February 1947, p. 2; “India-Pakistan Subject of Talk,” The Varsity, vol. LXVII, no. 85, 16 February 1948, p. 1

[3] Isabel Teotonio, “U of T grad loved as national leader,” Toronto Star, 22 September 2006,

[4] “Job in Pakistan,” The Varsity

[Reprinted with permission of the author and the iHistory website where this article was originally published]