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CANADA. Muslim immigration to Canada began in the latter part of the nineteenth century, but the great majority of Canadian Muslims are recent immigrants. For most, emigration from their ancestral lands involved dramatic changes from hegemonic to minoritarian status and from a setting where Muslim religious values are reinforced to a predominantly Christian country that sometimes assumes religious uniformity among its citizens. That context presents particular challenges to Canadians of Muslim heritage.

Baitul Islam Mosque, Maple, Ontario, Canada

Most of the early Muslim pioneers came from Turkey and the territory under Turkish Ottoman rule known as Greater Syria, and some from South Asia. Reportedly there were 13 Muslims in Canada in 1871, 300 to 400 in 1901, and about 1,500 in 1911. Between 1911 and 1931 the size of the Canadian Muslim community declined to 645 owing to the departure of many Turkish immigrants who were classified as enemy aliens during World War I. Additionally, the 1907 government restrictions on the admission of immigrants from Asia reduced Muslim immigration to a trickle. Those able to immigrate to Canada tended to be part of a chain migration of relatives and people from the same villages. The resulting communities were closely knit, primarily Sunni and “Syrian” (Arab) in origin.

During this period before and immediately after World War II most of the expansion in the Muslim community came from natural increase (births over deaths). After 1951, however, community growth became much more a product of immigration. There were between 2,000 and 3,000 Muslim residents in Canada in 1951. By 1971 this figure had multiplied more than tenfold to 33,370; in 1981, it had tripled to 98,160. Between 1981 and 1991 the Muslim population grew dramatically, rising by 158 percent to 253,260. Nearly eight out of ten Canadian Muslims were born outside Canada (mostly in Asian and African countries), and most entered after 1965. They included a large number of refugees from Lebanon, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Bosnia.

Most Canadian Muslims are Sunni. In addition there are various Shi’i groups, including Isma’ilis and Twelvers. It is estimated that Sunnis are in the majority (about 70 percent), followed by Isma’ilis (20 percent), with Twelvers and other groups such as the Druze and Ahmadis (Qadianis) accounting for the balance.

The Muslim population of Canada is ethnically diverse as well. About ninety percent claim a single ethnic origin. Of these more than 82 percent were of Asian and North African descent, including Indo-Pakistanis (numerically the most dominant), followed next by West Asian and North African Arabs and then by Iranians, and Turks, plus a very small percentage of East and Southeast Asians, including Chinese and Filipinos. The remainder (18 percent) represents a wide range of ethnic origins, including European (mostly Balkan but also British and French), African, African-American, Caribbean, “Canadian,” and others, reflecting the diversity of worldwide Islam. Of Canada’s two official languages, about 30 percent of Canadian Muslims reported English as their mother tongue in 1991, while only 2 percent claimed French. Most reported the language of their country of origin as their mother tongue. The Muslim population’s age distribution is relatively youthful. Historically, more Muslim males than females have entered as immigrants; today there are about 120 males per loo females among Muslims. The average educational background of Canadian Muslims exceeds the national average, especially among males.

Muslim men appear to be well placed in Canadian society, with a large majority falling in the “professional” or “white-collar” occupational category. Prominent Muslims have held positions as provincial cabinet ministers or provincial court judges. Muslim women are much less represented in the professions and, despite their superior educational attainment, they are less well placed occupationally than Canadian women in general. The average employment income of Muslims, especially women, is about 1o percent lower than the income for equivalent Canadians in general.

The great majority of Canadian Muslims live in large urban areas. The province of Ontario is home to 57 percent of Muslims; other provinces with large Muslim concentrations include Quebec (18 percent), Alberta (12 percent), and British Columbia (1o percent).

The Al-Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, Alberta, the first of its kind in Canada and one of the oldest in North America, was completed in 1938. It was constructed through the efforts of a small number of Muslim families, primarily in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with support and funding from non-Muslims as well. Both men and women played important roles in the development of the mosque and its administration. For two decades it was the only mosque in Canada. The original structure is now preserved in a historical park honoring early Canadian pioneers. Mosques are now found in all major Canadian cities; in addition, some Muslim groups hold religious prayers and observances in public buildings. Muslim religious leaders or imams are often brought in from different parts of the Muslim world to attend to the social and spiritual needs of the local community. Other important Muslim institutions include religious and language schools. Community links are reinforced through newsletters, journals, and newspapers.

A number of important religious and charitable institutions have appeared, both local and national. At the national level, the Council of Muslim Communities of Canada (CMCC), founded in 1972, is an important umbrella organization. The CMCC grew out of a commitment to self-help and a perceived need to develop an integrated approach to issues facing the Canadian Muslim community. It is a member of the Federation of Islamic Associations in the United States and Canada. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women, established in 1982, brings women together in a national organization with a focus on women’s rights, gender equality, Islamic education, appreciation of Muslim cultural differences, and outreach with women of different religious backgrounds. Another important umbrella organization is the Toronto-based Ismaili National Council for Canada, which coordinates the activities of all branch regional councils.

Other major organizations include the Muslim World League (Canada branch), which has an active office in the Toronto area; the Toronto-based Canadian Muslim Education and Research Institute, which is in the process of developing a resource guide on Islam; and the Muslim Research Foundation, an international organization established in 1985 to enhance global understanding of Muslims and Islam through research and publication. Organizations focusing on international development include the Children of Islamic Nations (COIN), the Ismaili national and regional councils that link with various Aga Khan foundations, and the International Development and Refugee Foundation (IDRF), which emphasizes an Islamic approach to social and economic development. Across Canada organizations of Muslim students are common.

There have been at least three major waves of Muslim immigration to Canada: one beginning at the end of the nineteenth century up through World War II, the second from the postwar era to around 1967, and the third and largest wave from 1967 to the present. Each immigration cohort had distinctive formative experiences in adapting to Canada and made distinctive contributions to Canadian society, and the descendants of each form distinct cohorts. Superimposed on this is the diversity resulting from varied national, cultural and linguistic origins, educational and occupational experiences, and income levels. More recent immigrants have far greater contact with relatives in their ancestral lands and oldcountry ways. As a result, different cohorts and generations of Canadian Muslims may have differing views on religious observances and practices. Generally speaking, immigrants (who are in the majority) tend to be less accommodating in their conception of Islam than are the Canadian-born Muslims.

Muslim immigrants came to Canada largely from countries where their religion was taken for granted and institutional supports for practicing it were plentiful. The challenge of their new environment has been felt not only by individual Muslims and families but also by the Muslim community as a whole. At one level, the challenge is internal to the community but at another level it is societal in scope. For example, differences in political or ideological attitudes within the community, sometimes glaring and sometimes more nuanced, tend to appear in the context of international crises such as the Gulf War or of newsworthy events, for example, the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. During the Gulf War allegations of dangers from “internal terrorism,” knowledge that Canada in past wars had detained “enemy” groups, and Canada’s position in this war were difficult for Canadian Muslims. This resulted in unfavorable news coverage and actual (if underreported) harassment. Muslim organizations and individuals made representations to the media and government. The federal government organized advisory groups of community leaders and organizations in response. This resulted in increased awareness and somewhat more evenhanded media coverage of Canadian Muslims and their religious practices. For example, Ramadan is sometimes given press coverage and even congratulatory front-page headlines.

Nonetheless, popular television and film programming continue to be major sources of distortion and libel regarding Islam and Muslims. In recent years, more immigrants have brought traditional dress codes to Canada, specifically the veil (hijab). The visibility of the hijab and a common Canadian association of it with female oppression makes it controversial in the larger society, but most who wear it do so without harassment. By contrast, the predominantly African cultural practice of female circumcision (clitoridectomy) has been reported among some recent immigrants (particularly Somalis), and it is highly controversial. Even among Muslims such sharply divergent cultural practices can undermine community unity. [See Hijab; Clitoridectomy.]

At a broader societal level, prejudice surfaces intermittently against non-British, non-American, and non Western European immigrants. In addition, Muslim immigrants represent a region of the world where the geopolitical interests of the West are strong and where there are frequent confrontations between Muslim and foreign interests. Negative images and stereotypes of Muslims and Islam are also encountered in the entertainment media (radio and television), popular literature, and cartoons, as well as the cinema. The Gulf War increased displays of prejudice as Arab and non-Arab members of the Canadian Muslim community were harassed, intimidated, and vandalized, as well as being rumored targets of government internment. Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East and more recently in the Bosnian conflict creates additional difficulties for Canadian Muslims.

The community faces a number of important issues. At the internal level, Canadian Muslims are still grappling with the issue of internal diversity. The issue of diversity is not unknown in many of the countries from which these immigrants came, but it is made more complex in the Canadian environment partly because of their newly acquired minority status and partly because of new national, cultural, and ideological mixture. Although religion bonds people together, apart from religious activities interethnic contacts tend to be limited. A major issue confronting the contemporary Muslim community is how to unite into a coherent whole.

Another issue facing the community concerns the difficulty of practicing the faith in a nonfacilitative, Christian environment. Observing prayer five times a day and dietary restrictions requires immense resistance to pressures from the larger community. Somewhat related is the issue of how to preserve the Islamic cultural heritage while facilitating Muslim integration into the Canadian secular mainstream and, more importantly, how to transmit the heritage effectively to the Canadian-born generation. For parents the marriageability of their children is of primary importance, and pressures toward ingroup marriage are strong, particularly among immigrant parents. There tends to be greater control over daughters than sons and greater tolerance for a son’s dating and marrying a non-Muslim woman, which contributes to a greater incidence of outmarriage among males and leaves a pool of eligible Muslim females. In 1981 about one-fifth of Muslim husbands and one-tenth of Muslim wives were married to non-Muslims (excluding converts). These figures have implications for the transmission of religious heritage. Studies indicate that where both parents are Muslim, practically all their children are Muslim; where only the father is Muslim, 36 percent of the children are Muslim, and where only the mother is Muslim, 23 percent are. Within each family type, Canadian-born Muslims are less likely to have children who are Muslim.

Concerns regarding the training of children link with the fact that the legacy of Muslim achievement and contributions to Western civilization are not widely known in Canada. This is reflected in school textbooks and in the training of public school teachers. The concern of Muslim groups about children’s education has been repeatedly expressed by identifying shortcomings in textbook coverage of Islam and, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, by pressing school boards to broaden the traditional Judeo-Christian perspective to include Islamic values in school programs in moral and religious education.

Gender-related concerns are central for Canadian Muslims, including issues relating to defining propriety in male and female behavior; the tradition of male kin’s control over the actions and dress of women and girls, youth, dating, marriage, and possible intermarriage; and the family and public roles of men and women. This continuing interplay of external and internal issues tends to reflect duration of residency as well as ethnic origin and religious identification.

Despite pockets of bigotry and ignorance, there is a tradition of tolerance in Canada. Muslim and nonMuslim activists are working toward improved understanding between faith communities, and Muslim groups have begun to monitor ways in which the larger society misrepresents or distorts Islam, denies Muslims rights, or restricts their ability to practice their faith or transmit it to their children. With respect to the community itself, diversity in interpretation, practice, and cultural tradition presents challenges. As the Canadian Muslim community moves toward the twenty-first century it continues to address issues surrounding adaptation to Canadian society within the framework of Islamic principles.


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Abu-Laban, Baha, and M. Ibrahim Alladin, eds. Beyond the Gulf War: Muslims, Arabs, and the West. Edmonton, Alta., 1991. Abu-Laban, Sharon McIrvin. “The Co-Existence of Cohorts: Identity and Adaptation among Arab-American Muslims.” Arab Studies Quarterly 11 (1989): 45-63.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. “Islam.” In The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2d ed., vol. z, pp. 1097-1098. Edmonton, Alta., 1988.

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Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/canada/

  • writerPosted On: November 4, 2012
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