Join Rachel and Jacqueline for a special interview with Faezeh Izadi about Muslims in Canada. Faezeh is an International Ph.D. student of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary, originally from Iran. She got her bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, but after two years of engineering works, Faezeh changed her path to humanities and joined the Comparative Religions and Mysticism MA program at the University of Kashan, Iran. After seven years of teaching and leadership experience in educational institutions in Iran, Faezeh decided to pursue her study abroad. She received her second master’s degree in Religious Studies from Queen’s University, Canada. Faezeh’s current research interests surround the relationship of value systems with benevolent activities. She is also interested in addressing issues related to Islam and Islamic societies through the lens of sociology of religion.
Welcome to Nearly Numinous! Today, Rachel and I will be interviewing a special guest and friend of ours, Faezeh Izadi! Faezeh was a student in the Religious Studies MA program at Queen’s while we were, and we thought it would be great to bring her on the show to chat, so she’s going to be teaching us about Muslims in Canada.
Thank you! Thank you so much for inviting me!
Thank you for coming on the show! We haven’t talked in a while, so it’s nice to see you.
Nice to see you two again. You’re really doing a great job and I’m so excited to be here today.
So what have you been up to since we graduated?
And honestly, I have lots of rest in the past year and I applied for a Ph.D. I got admission from the University of Calgary and right now I’m just packing to move to Calgary, yeah.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you plan on researching when you’re in Calgary?
Yep. I want to work on the relationship between value systems and actually charitable activities in organization and benevolent action of individuals. More specifically, I want to compare this kind of activity, charitable activities between people, specifically, inside organized religion with people out of organized religion, mostly secular spiritual people, for example, to see, is there any significant differences? Because of value systems for doing such thing? Yeah, this is my plan, we’ll see happens.
That’s really, really cool and really interesting.
So today, we’re going to be talking about Muslims in Canada. And that’s something that you’re especially interested in. But I thought first, maybe for listeners who may not know that much about Islam, could you give us a little bit of background about some of the main things that you think that they should know?
Yeah, sure. Islam, is the last of the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions. Islam as an Arabic term comes from the three-letter roots of Salama, which means peace, soundness, and safety. You will probably say that Muslims say Salam or Salam Alykum as the greeting, right? Islam has the same route with Salam and Salam means “peace be upon you.” The word Islam literally means “submission” or “surrender.” And as the name of the religion, it means “submission to the will of God.” By doing this, looking at the root of the word Salama, a person will find inner peace, safety and soundness in life. If I want to explain how a Muslim is, obviously the followers of Islam are called Muslims. But according to the Qur’an, the central religious text of Islam, Islam is a very inclusive faith. I mean, Islam does not consider itself as having originated in the seventh century, the time of Prophet Muhammad, it is the universal faith based on a universal truth, not a historical event, or just figure. It considers itself as the religion of all the Prophet before Muhammad from Adam to Muhammad. So Muslims believe Adam was Muslim, Abraham was Muslim, Moses and Jesus were Muslims, because all of them submitted to the will of God. Right? Yeah, so for example, in their recent clashes between the Palestinians and Israeli raise again, by the issue of Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, I saw that one of the significant topics mentioned by pro-Palestinian activists on their Instagram Live or article or in statements made during solidarity rallies in various countries was that Islam is not anti-semitic or anti-Judaism and their most important argument was that we as a Muslim, believe that Moses was the prophet of God and Moses was Muslim. So how can we be, for example, anti-Judaism? Yeah.
So would you be able to tell us what some of the key beliefs and practices are in Islam?
Yeah, sure. Muslims have three principles of belief. First, tawhid, or the concept of indivisible oneness of God as a creator and sustainer of the world. It’s a very important belief in Islam as it recognizes the absolute monotheism of God. The second principle is Nobuwwa or prophecy is a concept that God has chosen the perfect prophets and messengers to teach religion and to show the true path to humanity. And the last one is Ma’ad and the Day of Judgment. After death, Muslims believe human beings will leave this world and enter another eternal world that they will be judged for their action. Yeah, these three are the principles of belief. And in addition, the religious practice, the religious practice of Islam is based on tenets that are known as the Five Pillars. Okay, should I talk about Five Pillars right now?
Yeah, if you want to
These Five Pillars are the profession of faith or the shahada, which is the most fundamental expression of Islamic belief. It simply states that Okay, “there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet.” Just this. When you say this, you become a Muslim, and it emphasizes the monotheistic nature of Islam. The second pillar is Salat or daily prayers, Muslims are expected to pray five times a day at the specific times. This does not mean that they need to attend a mosque in order to pray. Muslims can or actually are expected to pray anywhere in a school and university, I don’t know, in a workplace, anywhere, at that specific time. However, they are meant to pray towards Ka’ba or the House of God in the city of Mecca, located in Saudi Arabia today. The third pillar is almsgiving or Zakat. Zakat is an Islamic finance term, referring to the obligation that an individual has to share a certain proportion of wealth annually to certain charitable causes. This almsgiving is a religious duty, it’s kind of mandatory duty for all Muslims, who meet the necessary criteria of wealth to help the needy. And by Qur’anic ranking, it’s next after prayer in importance. And the fourth pillar is fasting during Ramadan or Saum in Ramadan, the nine months in the Islamic calendar. Muslims are expected to fast the whole month from dawn to dusk. Obviously, there are exceptions made for those who are physically or mentally incapable of fasting such as the sick, elderly, pregnant woman and so on. And yeah, an interesting point about fasting for Ramadan is that the Islamic calendar is lunar-based so Muslims experience Ramadan a different season throughout their life and it’s really, is a different big different, is a big difference between fasting in, for example, summer and winter. And the last pillar is pilgrimage to Mecca or Hajj. And right now, we are at the time of Hajj; Hajj has a specific time. And of course Covid-19 type of Hajj, not the usual one, but but but by very limited people. Yeah. And all Muslims who are able physically, mentally, and financially are required to perform Hajj at least once in their lives. Hajj focuses on visiting the Ka’ba and walking around it seven times and doing a special ritual based on a specific guideline. Yeah, sorry. It was supposed to be brief, but these take more.
That’s okay. Um, I’m hoping to go a little bit more detail in some of these practices. And you’ve given us a good, good summary of the different practices and, I just thought it was interesting to note maybe for our listeners who might have more of a, a Protestant understanding of religion that focuses more on faith, specifically in religion, that’s a very common in the West that people think that the main thing in religion is faith. But as I’m hearing what you’re saying, it’s, it’s faith, but it’s also very, very important, the practices of Islam. And that’s just something that I wanted to highlight for our listeners that I think is really important.
Yes, actually, Islam has really emphasis on practice, not just belief. There is a Sharia law, for example, the law that in some sects that specifically talk about everything in life. It’s not something for just prayer time, for example, you’ll have some religious duties for drinking water, sleeping, I don’t know maybe wearing clothes and everything in your life. It’s a complete, or at least in some sects or interpretation, there is a complete guideline for everything in your life. How you can marry, how you can give birth, for example, even, or something that is very natural in life. And yeah, it is very intertwined with everything in life, it is not something separate from the faith and from the living of life. Yeah.
You and I were talking recently about different pilgrimages practiced between the two main sects of Islam, the Sunni and the Shia Muslims. And you had mentioned that there’s a Shia pilgrimage to a place called Karbala. Now, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about this pilgrimage as well, because I know most of the time that I hear about Muslims doing a pilgrimage, it’s it’s the one to the, it’s the Hajj, the one to Mecca. So I was just wondering if you could say a little bit more about that one. And, and I was also wondering, why do you think that pilgrimage is such an important practice in Islam? Yeah, sure.
Hajj is something for all Muslims, Shia and Sunni, may believe that it is something religiously obligatory if you are capable of doing that, but Shia beside Hajj has another significant pilgrimage. It’s one of the actually world’s largest annual public gathering maybe the largest actually, of course before the Corona time. People go to Karbala, the city, a city in Iraq today forty days after the Ashra day by foot actually. They do that for the commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein, Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, Muhammad. It’s not just in, it’s not performed just in one day, but during a period of, I don’t know, ten days or two, two weeks or so. And, for example, in 2016, the number of participants reached around 25 million to visit the Karbala. Yeah, that’s if you search for example, for the picture, it’s really amazing. Yeah, yes. And you ask about reason for importance of pilgrimage in Islam. The pilgrimages bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims if they want to talk about the role about Hajj or Karbala for Shia Muslim. And actually this journey, though physically important, could be, actually, there are an inner journey too, and it is the spiritual aspects of the journey that is very, very important for Muslims. And it’s offer a chance to kind of start a new life before God and before the individual. Yeah, for example, Hajj itself could be really a starting point again in your life, you can start living with another, I don’t know, view to the world and before God, yeah.
Of course, you moved to Canada a few years ago, but I was just wondering, in general, like what does it mean to be a Muslim in Canada?
Yeah, to answer this question, or any question about Muslims in general, I should first mention that about 2 billion Muslims exist worldwide, with infinite diversity in race, language, culture, and geographical distribution, and as religious researchers, we know how religion is intertwined with these elements. So, when we want to talk about Muslims in the world, we have to ask more specific questions. Which Muslims? in which region? In which sect? As Canada is a multicultural society, it’s the case, particularly in Canada. I mean, Muslims are quite diverse here; they include peoples from culturally and linguistically distinct societies in the Middle East, for example, East Asia, South Asia, South-east Asia, and Africa who really vary in ethnicity and culture as well as religious affiliation. One of the professors of Sociology and Women’s Studies at York University, Professor Hayedeh Moghisi, who got her MA and Ph.D. from Queen’s, has done valuable research on the subject of Muslims diaspora and migration. And she specifically published a book on Muslims in Canada. If I’m not mistaken, she says in her book that Canadian Muslims originate from more than 85 nations. You can imagine that within each national category, there are also different ethnic, cultural, and sectarian groups with very distinctive degrees of religious commitments. Social, economic, and political conditions of life in the originating country, as well as levels of education, by and large, define how these Muslims live in Canada. These factors, to a large extent, also define their levels of flexibility and openness to change. So, it is really hard to talk about the “Islamic identity” of this heterogeneous group. If I just want to point to one example: There are women who say that we are Muslims and consider hijab as an obligatory religious duty in Islam. But at the same time, there are women who say that we are Muslims too and do consider hijab as an optional or just recommended duty.
Islam has a very long history in Canada, much longer than what I had realized from what I learned in my middle school or high school history curriculum. And I was wondering if you could walk us through some of that history.
The first serious presence of Muslims in the Americas dates back to the era of slavery. Scholars estimate that between 14 percent of all slaves and 20 percent of African slaves brought to the Americas were Muslim. Based on the documents, some of them spoke the Arabic language or some slaves refused to eat pork or drink alcohol. Frederick Denny in his great book, An Introduction to Islam, talks about this issue with more detail and states that since the twentieth century, African Americans have tried to recover their lost cultural and spiritual traditions including Islamic heritage. Today, we know that one-third of the total Muslim population in the United States are African American. Besides these Muslim slaves, Denny talks about 3 waves of Muslim Immigration to North America. First, Middle Eastern Muslims, mostly unskilled and uneducated labourers from the Arab world, began arriving in America in the late nineteenth century. The second wave goes back to the end of the First and Second World Wars. These Muslim immigrants mostly were from Arab countries again but also from Eastern Europe and the Soviet regions. And since the late 1960s, after immigration laws took effect in the United State and then in Canada, the third and largest cohort came and continue to arrive, from many different countries. This group includes a high proportion of well-educated professionals who have a sophisticated, global perspective. According to Denny, the two earlier waves had mostly economic motivations, but the third wave was often motivated also, by the desire to escape political oppression and persecution. Oh, to add something interesting, apparently or based on official documents actually there were more than 150 Arabs on board the Titanic, and 20 were saved including a 17 years old girl, from a Shia Lebanese family. I read this in the book by Professor Liyakat Takim about Shiism in America. She had a family and all of them died and she came to Canada. She came to the United States, sorry.
So did her family all die on the Titanic?
Yeah, yeah. Yes, and
Yes. But at least we know that at least this fact this group’s of family had Islamic background. But probably most other Arabs had Islamic background too. Yeah. And, yes, this was about the whole story. If I just focus on Canada, specifically, the first recorded Muslim family arrived in Upper Canada from Scotland in the early 1850s. Four years after Canada’s founding in 1867, the 1871 Canadian Census found 13 Muslims among the population. And 80 years later, the first Canadian mosque was constructed in Edmonton, when there were approximately 700 Muslims in the country. By 2011, the Muslim population passed the one million mark, more than three percent of the total population and representing one of the fastest-growing religious groups. 67% of Canadians were Christian at that time, 24% had no religion, and 3% were Muslim. So, Muslims are an integral part of Canada today. There are lots of Mosques around Canada, lots of Islamic schools, Muslim cemeteries, Halal restaurants, Sufi mystical societies, and so on.
That’s really cool. So you’ve looked into some research regarding Muslim dispersion and integration, identity and political orientation in Canada. Could you tell us a bit about what you found in this research?
Sure. I’ve brought some interesting data with me today. Two-thirds of all Canadian Muslims live in just two cities: Toronto and Montreal. If we add Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, we can say that more than 80% of Muslims live in these big cities. Regarding Canadian identity for Muslims, according to the 2016 national survey of Muslims in Canada, conducted by The Environics Institute, most Canadian Muslims, I mean 94%, express a strong or very strong sense of belonging to Canada. The survey reveals that strong majorities consider both Islam and Canada to be very important parts of their personal identity. 83% of Muslims were “very proud” to be Canadian, compared with 73% of non-Muslim Canadians who said the same thing.
[laughs] That’s kinda funny
[laughs] And yes, Canadian Muslims reported “Canada’s freedom and democracy” as the greatest source of pride. It’s worth mentioning that Non-Muslim Canadians affiliated with a religion are not as likely as Muslims to place strong importance on their religious identity, but are also less apt to place strong importance on their Canadian identity, except for mainline Protestants. Non-Muslims overall are more likely to identify with being Canadian (43%) than with their religious identity (28%), with another one-quarter (24%) placing equal emphasis on both their Canadian and religious identities. If want to talk about political orientation, an estimated 79% of Canadian Muslims voted in the 2015 Federal Election according to a recent post-election poll conducted by Mainstreet Research. Yeah, we can see that 65% voted for Liberal, 10% for NDP, 20% — 2%, sorry, for Conservative, 1% for Green, and 1% other.
Yeah, that’s really interesting. All those percentages and stuff. I find the fact especially of that non-Muslims tend to have less Canadian pride than Muslims, Canadian Muslims.
Yes, yeah. Yeah. they emphasize both.
So what challenges do you think that there are for Muslims in Canada?
Good question, Jacqueline. Muslims are a minority group in Canada, and minorities always face many challenges, no matter why they are a minority. Of course, I have to mention that according to various studies and surveys, Canada is a good country in terms of respect for the rights of minorities. But if I want to return to the question, I think the great challenge to Muslims here or probably in all non-Muslim majority countries is to be able to live securely with Islamic norms of belief and behaviour. And sometimes this could be a very difficult task. In the case of Canada, I think, some of these challenges are due to society and some are due to differences in behaviour or beliefs among Muslims themselves. For example, Bill 21 in Quebec, which bans some civil servants, including teachers, police officers, and lawyers, government lawyers, from wearing religious symbols at work, is a law that violates the right to freedom of religion and unfairly focuses on people who express their faith through what they wear. So, this law actually causes disproportionate harm to some minorities, like hijabi women, who are already marginalized. Isn’t it kind of systematic discrimination?! This was an example of the challenge that law or kind of society poses to Muslims. But I think most of the challenges for Muslims are of the second kind. I first mentioned that Muslims in Canada are heterogeneous. There are many cultural differences in the behaviour of Muslims. More importantly, there are different views on “what is Islam? or rather, what are the religious duties of Muslims?” Moreover, even between a sect from one nationality, the degree of commitment to what they call Islam varies from person to person. For example, you may have a friend or colleague who says “I am a Muslim.” But, he or she, for example, never prays, or sometimes, drinks alcohol and the like. Things that your other Muslim friend doesn’t do and considers them contrary to Islam. So, in this case, you as someone who doesn’t know much about Islam, and haven’t been in touch with many Muslims, might ask yourself: Do Muslims drink alcohol or not? Do Muslims, for example, shake hands with someone of the opposite gender or not? And, yes, this can pose serious challenges for Muslims who practice Islam in such cases. For example, I’ve seen and heard about the drinking culture here in Canada, at universities or more in the workplace. I mean, I heard about many academic or business meetings, casual gatherings, or Christmas parties that are sometimes held in the bars, where many practicing Muslims are reluctant or actually are not religiously allowed to go there. And yes, so they can’t be socially integrated with the people around them, their friends or colleagues, and so on. But I think it’s because of the differences of behaviour mostly. The planner don’t know how, for example, should do, I don’t know maybe…
Like me, for example.
Unknown Speaker 31:08
No, this is nothing… yeah.
Unknown Speaker 31:11
When I asked for example of Muslim from challenges, mostly they consider this, that we have very important meeting in bars we can join but some of our friends say, “we are Muslim” and they go.
They’re not non-practicing Muslim actually. And then, practicing Muslim can’t. And yeah, mostly, I think I’m don’t experience so much. But I think when you explain for people, for example, for colleague, for boss, that’s as a Muslim, I can’t come, they don’t insist to gather all the time in a bar for example.
In bars, yeah. Yeah. It’s mostly when we, we’re not aware of someone else’s, like cultural… I don’t know backgrounds or I don’t know how to say that better. Sorry about that.
Yeah. These days, I, I saw that, for example, it’s very common that any organization or any, or anyone who wants to plan ask about food restrictions. Always they ask about how do you eat or what is your restriction? I think it’s good idea to add on another question: what is your another religious restriction, for example? I’m not sure.
Yeah,I’ve noticed sometimes for different events at Queen’s there’s, there’s a question about dietary restrictions if there’s going to be food, but then there’s often also this question about, is there anything else that we can do to make, like, that we can better accommodate your needs?
Yes, yes. It was great.
Yeah. I like the open endedness of that question. So it can be anything. It can be something related to disability, it can be something about religious practice, it can be like anything. And I really appreciate that.
Yes. Yes. It’s great. It’s great, I think. Yeah, for example, in this, they can vote that, they can write that we can’t come to bars, for example, for the party or some such thing.
So what do you think the future looks like for Muslims in Canada?
Future? This question is very difficult to answer, at least for me. What is certain is that Canada’s Muslim population is growing due to immigration, conversion and birth. And I think Islam and Muslims are still somewhat exotic presences in Canada. But it seems to me that there are good mutual efforts by Muslims and the rest of society to accept each other, to respect each other and in some ways to integrate effectively or interact constructively. And, yes, certainly, the role of governments and their policies in this path is very important.
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