Shaken by a grim discovery, an Imam builds a bridge to Indigenous Communities

Shaken by a grim discovery, an Imam builds a bridge to Indigenous Communities
Imam Irshad Osman, center, with Muslim students at the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Ontario, Canada. Courtesy photo.Imam Irshad Osman, Danforth Islamic Center, TorontoMarch 15, 2022

By Imam Irshad Osman, Danforth Islamic Center, Toronto

The grim discovery of the mass graves of  Indigenous children in the Kamloops residential schools in the summer of 2021 sent shockwaves across Canada and the world, once again unearthing the unspoken sensitive history of Canada. Like hundreds of other organizations, Justice for All Canada and the Canadian Council of Imams issued a solidarity statement which was read out by over 75 Canadian Imams in their Friday sermons on July 9, 2021.

As an imam at the Danforth Islamic Center in Toronto, I read the statement to my congregation and was confronted with the bitter reality emphasised in the last paragraph: “Our pledge to you as Relatives: We will stand and work with you to bring healing, justice and peace with Truth and Reconciliation.”  It gave me a severe jolt. It questioned my integrity.

The pulpit is renowned as place of truth; still, I asked myself if I was being sincere when I invited the congregation to stand in solidarity with our Indigenous neighbours who were experiencing such deep grief and trauma. I found myself questioning the role I ought to play in leading reconciliation efforts needed to make such a bold pledge with integrity.

This was the spark that led me to form the Muslim-Indigenous Connection program with the support of IFYC’s Racial Equity and Interfaith Cooperation Alumni award.

I'm a settler on the Turtle Island. As a more recent immigrant, I don't share the history of the colonizer nor am I an accomplice in their unspeakable crimes against Indigenous peoples. However, I am living on the land which originally belongs to a community whose history I did not attempt to learn nor whose permission I attempted to seek before calling this place my home.

As a Muslim, my duty towards Indigenous communities should extend even further. We are reminded in our tradition of the first Muslim migrants who, fleeing oppression in Makkah, came to Abyssinia and then on to Medina. The example of the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was to acknowledge and honor the hosts and leaders of the lands wherever they went.

In fact, when the first refugees visited Abyssinia, they recounted the story of Jesus and Mary in the Qur’an as a way of honouring and accepting the Christian traditions of the reigning King. These traditions magnified the sense of guilt and hypocrisy I had when reading that statement in front of my congregation about not doing enough to acknowledge the Indigenous peoples and traditions of this land.

As Muslims we follow the Prophets of God in terms of their actions and the model that they stood for. All prophets from Abraham to Noah to Moses to Jesus to Muhammad stood against injustice and advocated for the marginalized and the oppressed. They were sources of light, love, and reconciliation when the world was engulfed in darkness.

Inspired by this collective mission of the Prophets, I set out to develop trusting relationships between Muslim and Indigenous communities to stand against injustice and be a bridge of healing.

Trust is an important factor in developing and sustaining relationships. However, having largely lost trust in faith institutions and the legacy of centuries of cultural genocide and spiritual violence by the very religious groups they were forced to assimilate into, Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers are not widely included in interfaith discussions. Hence, using learning and dialogue to rebuild trust and authentic engagement were made as the foundational values for the Muslim-Indigenous Connection program.

It is not that the Muslim communities in Canada have never engaged with Indigenous communities. There have been shining examples from across the country. However, like many instances of cross-cultural engagement, these efforts have been reactive in response to an immediate need such as relief work after a natural disaster, or demonstrative actions such as attending public protests.

These efforts have merit but are not designed to build trust or sustain relationships. Many of these efforts did not engage youth, which led me to ask how youth could be brought together to model relationship building and sustainable solidarity.

The Muslim-Indigenous Connection program, also known as MIC, started with training 25 Muslim youth on the art of dialogue to encourage reconciliation. It continued with providing multiple opportunities for youth to learn about native spirituality, values, beliefs and struggles from Indigenous elders themselves. It continued with Muslim youth going on a site visit to the Six Nations Indian reserve to internalize what they learned so far through sights and sounds and meeting people on the ground. It culminated in participants implementing micro projects in small groups to effect change for the common good.

One group raised funds for the only dual-language immersion high school in the Six Nations reserve to preserve and revitalize Indigenous languages, culture, identity, and way of life for current and future generations.

Another group learned about mental health struggles and intergenerational trauma shared by both Indigenous and Muslim youth in Canada, while another group prepared care packages to support a women’s shelter that supports Indigenous women and children recovering from the traumas of violence and homelessness by providing culturally inclusive, safe spaces to offer spiritual healing and maintain their identity, self-esteem, and economic and physical well-being.

Finally, one group created a blog to document their experience of this unique, first-of-its-kind journey to share with the wider Muslim community.

The seed we planted has grown into a beautiful plant. I can see its growth when we are asked to run similar programs in other cities. I can see its progress when we are asked to develop customized curriculum for Muslim high schools.

I can see its impact when we are encouraged by community and organizational leaders to scale the program up. I can see its relevance to the Canadian community when we are invited by other faith communities to share the MIC experience and replicate it with their youth.

For me, the biggest blessing of this experience has been seeing Muslim youth actualizing the 4-Rs of Trust (Responsibility, Relationship Building, Respect, and Reflect) with their Indigenous counterparts. It is observing Muslim youth beginning from a place of vulnerability and humbleness by consulting the Native leaders before starting the micro projects.

It is seeing them signing up to become the youth coordinators to support the next cohort in the fall. It is witnessing MIC youth proudly signing the Pledge of Allyship at the end of their 5-month training to commit to this journey as true ambassadors of this vision.

When one of the graduates read out the Statements of Allyship at the graduation ceremony, I instantly knew it came from a place of sincere solidarity and conviction, the true foundation of interfaith cooperation.


(source: Interfaith Youth Core). Irshad Osman is a recipient of a 2021 IFYC Racial Equity & Interfaith Cooperation Alumni Award. Applications are now open for the 2022 awards, which support IFYC Alumni in creating experiences and opportunities that build bridges across lines of religious, spiritual, and secular differences while simultaneously seeking racial justice.