Muslim Rituals,
Practices and Social Problems
in Ontario

By: Abdullah Hakim Quick

From: Polyphony Vol.12 pp.120-124
© 1990 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

"The growth in the South Asian Muslim population in Metropolitan Toronto has lead to an inevitable growth in their attendance at the mosques. The mosques promote the identity and security of South Asian Muslims in an alien environment. The author, who is leader of a mosque in Toronto with a large South Asian constituency, describes his dual function as a religious guide and a social counsellor. The latter role involves resolving disputes, including those between generations in South Asian immigrant families."

"South Asian Muslim Migration to Ontario"

In 1982 there were about 120,000 Muslims in Canada-roughly 0.5 per cent of the total population. About 40,000 were of Arabic origin, and 40,000 originated from countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad, and Fiji. About 20,000 were from Yugoslavia and Albania and the remaining 620,000 of diverse backgrounds, including local converts. In Metro Toronto alone, Muslims are now estimated to surpass 100,000.1

South Asian Muslims began migrating to Canada in small numbers in the l950s. They came from India, Pakistan, South Africa, Fiji, Kenya, Mauritius, England, and the Caribbean region and they carried with them a common bond of South Asian Islam-a mixture of the Hanifi School of Islamic jurisprudence and Indian culture and customs. Their intention was to advance economically, educationally, and socially. They hoped to escape poverty and political repression and acquire the material benefits available in North America.

The first significant migration from India and Pakistan occurred in the early sixties. In 1964 the Canadian government through its embassy in Pakistan, published a series of advertisements for job opportunities and training in Canada. A number of promising young men responded to this offer and emigrated to Canada. They were met at the airport in a very cordial manner, and given spending money and a three-month visa.2 The majority of the new immigrants from Pakistan and India were doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers and other professionals. Their South Asian degrees were not recognized, however, and consequently, they were forced to requalify in Canada in their own field or take up a new area of concentration. These young men were culturally isolated and since they were accustomed to a society of extended families and fixed cultural norms, they tended to become either totally submerged and lost in a new "Canadian identity" or socially alienated and withdrawn into their own
personal lives.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s they were able to send for their wives and children. This new addition to South Asian Muslim society was crucial in stimulating Islamic cultural and social growth. The presence of family meant that the isolated male individual, who created his own "island," had to seek out Muslim community life in order to set up his home, raise his children, and satisfy his family's social and religious needs.

The seventies and eighties brought a larger immigration of students and working class people, many of them related to the established immigrants. Now South Asian Muslim society in Ontario was more complete, for people from all classes were represented and with them came representatives of their religious persuasions and political leanings.

The South Asian Muslim immigrant, although highly adaptable to Canada because of prior knowledge of the English language and British customs, is only now beginning to feel at home in Ontario. One of the chief factors which contributes to this alienation is that Islam is a way of life which affects its adherents not only spiritually but socially as well. The observance of Eid, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (p.b.u.h.), the fasting month of Ramadan, and other religious occasions require group participation. South Asians had been accustomed to whole villages and provinces fasting together and breaking their fast at sunset. Most people of other ethnic or religious backgrounds do not understand
Islamic customs and tend to misrepresent Islamic traditions.

Early Support Systems for Coping with Isolation

Being a South Asian Muslim in the sixties and seventies in Ontario forced the individual to develop a dual personality. Out side of the home he or she was very much a part of Canadian society, adopting most of the recognized customs. Inside the home, the South Asian Muslim family constructed an environment similar to that of India and Pakistan. A type of "cocoon" was developed where the visitor, on entering the Muslim home, would be enveloped by the smells, sounds, and sights of home life in South Asia. Relationships were also the same, in that the South Asian man expected to be the absolute ruler of his home and his children were expected to be quiet and submissive.

This obvious contradiction has led to tension, division, and often violence in the home. In Canada the South Asian Muslim woman, for example, could not bear all the responsibilities of the household for economic pressures forced her out of her home and into the workforce. Contact with feminists also affected her outlook on the role of the husband and father.(3) Fatigue, depression, and misunderstanding have combined with cultural isolation and resulted in a very high percentage of family feuds and broken homes. Consequently, children growing up with this tension have inherited a disillusioned outlook on their family, culture, and religion.4

In the face of mounting social problems, South Asian Muslims turned to respected elders within their communities and increased their development of religious institutions. From the 1960s, mosques and Islamic centres were established in church basements, rented apartments, and small buildings. In 1967 Friday prayer was established at Hart House at the University of Toronto. By 1969 an abandoned church was converted into the Jami Mosque and regular prayers were being said throughout Metro Toronto and Ontario. With the establishment of the Mosque came the establishment of funeral services ("janazah"), official Islamic marriage ceremonies, organized Eid prayers and celebrations, birth ceremonies ("aqeeqah"), and family counselling. Imams and Quran teachers were recruited from South Asia and the Middle East. The imam, who in many Muslim countries is consulted on spiritual matters alone, was forced to counsel the families in cases of violence,5 teenage delinquency, and mental illness. He would visit homes, address public gatherings, and give sermons in the mosque. The mosque or Islamic centre, consequently, became the "second cocoon" sheltering the South Asian Muslims from the ills of Canadian society and accepting them when they could not cope with the pressures of the twentieth century.

The Eighties and Nineties

The eighties have witnessed a new phase for the South Asian Muslim community. Thousands of Muslims have entered Canada, and the sense of security for the established immigrants, coupled with a better understanding of the laws and rights of citizens, has enabled the Muslim community to enter the mainstream of Canadian life and begin demanding recognition and benefits. The South Asian Muslim community has been at the forefront: it has established television and radio programs, opened cultural centres, demanded civil and human rights, and established mosques and Islamic centres. In 1989 attendance at the two largest "Eid-ul-fitr" (festival of fast breaking) gatherings reached twenty thousand. This was one of the largest public Islamic gatherings in North America! Planning is now in progress for the establishment of Islamic social organizations designed to bring together the expertise of professionals and religious scholars. South Asian doctors, lawyers, accountants, and social workers are at the forefront of this move to address the growth of family problems by using the best of both worlds.

The younger generation, having grown up in Canada while being partially sheltered in the two "cocoons," has begun rejecting arranged marriages, typical South Asian households,6 South Asian dress, and South Asian expressions and mannerisms. Some have returned to their faith, however, in a sort of Middle Eastern-North American-South Asian blend of dress and expression. Others have opted for Canadian life and have developed an agnostic approach to theology. Given these changes, the nineties will be a very challenging era for South Asian Muslims in Ontario, as they struggle for acceptance and recognition. A few are planning to return home and re-submerge themselves in their original culture; most of those who remain are unwilling to be dissolved in the melting pot of the West.

Abdullah Hakim Quick is the Imam of the Jami Mosque in Toronto and a doctoral student in the Department of History, University of Toronto.


1. See Kettani (1969), 207.

2. Taken from the oral testimony of Yasin Siddiqi who migrated from Pakistan in

3. Case study: The author has been Imam of the Jami Mosque of Toronto for the last
five years. In an oft-repeated scenario the man and his wife arrive home from work
at the same time. He takes off his coat and expects to be immediately served and
fed a nicely prepared meal. When his wife says that she is tired and would like
him to help with the dinner, he responds with frustration and often violence. This
has frequently led to divorce or a divided household. The South Asian woman,
because of social expectations and stigma, often ends up losing her respect, her
family, and sometimes her sanity.

4. Taken from the oral testimony of Rahmath Shah, one of the senior members
of Toronto's Muslim community, October 4, 1989.

5. Case study from the files of the author: A frantic Pakistani mother called the Jami
Mosque complaining of her daughter being taken away by a Pakistani
Christian. I summoned the mother, the daughter, and the young man to the Jami
Mosque. He was a young businessman from a second-generation Christian family
from Karachi, Pakistan. I spoke very openly to the couple and found that they
had attended the same boarding school and as South Asians in a hostile
environment had fallen in love. His family wanted the girl to accept Christianity, and
the girl's family wanted him to accept Islam. The couple, therefore, decided to elope and practise their own religion. She complained of seeing her father frequently argue with her mother and of never witnessing any aspect of her faith till now. On interviewing the young man I found that he had no respect for Islam and wanted to raise his children as Christians. This newly found reality and the strong emotional pull of the girl's mother, who threatened suicide, eventually caused the young lady
to cancel the marriage arrangements (Spring, 1987).

6. Case Study from the files of the author: In the fall of 1988, a young Pakistani girl asked me to meet with her mother and her intended husband, a young "Rajput" Hindu. The mother cried openly and called for an application of "Shariah." The daughter blamed the parents for not observing "Shariah" themselves. The father, on hearing of the young lady's intentions, beat his wife and his daughter and left home. I spoke openly to the young man about Islam and its requirements. He was interested in hearing more and said,"Nobody has ever even asked me whether I was interested or respected your faith."

The couple was very young, and in order to understand Islam more and not to totally upset the mother, they have put off their marriage plans temporarily. Many other couples, not usually reported about at the mosque, have opted for marriage and in many cases isolation from the Muslim community.

References and Further Reading:

Barclay, H. B., "The Perpetuation of Muslim Traditions in the Canadian North." In
"Muslim World", vol. LIX, no.66.

Kettani, M. Ali, "Muslim Minorities in the World Today" (London: Mansell, 1986).

Rauf, M. A., "Islam and Islamic Institutions in the Americas." In Impact International, April, pp. 9-22

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