Catholic-Muslim dialogue will go on in Canada


While Muslims marched through the streets of Cairo, Ramallah and Tehran to protest the Pope's speech in Bavaria, in Toronto Muslims and Catholics were handing out awards to one another and vowing to continue the dialogue.

At the annual National Muslim Christian Liaison Committee dinner Sept. 19, author and activist Raheel Raza and Scarboro Missions interfaith desk director Paul McKenna were honoured for promoting interfaith understanding.

The official dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Canada also unanimously passed a resolution calling for continued dialogue, "whatever the subsequent apologies have achieved or failed to achieve."

At the dinner for about 70 representatives of the largest Christian churches and largest Islamic organizations in Canada, Pope Benedict XVI's Sept. 12 speech was rarely mentioned, and keynote speaker Raffi Mustafa concentrated on questioning the moral correctness of Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan.

The committee's statement worked out at its Sept. 18 board meeting "came in almost as a footnote, and a positive one at that," said Fr. Damian MacPherson, Catholic representative to the organization.  

"We discussed it for about 10 minutes," he said. 

The only official statement on the issue from the Muslim Canadian Congress was a press release deploring the shooting of 60-year-old aid worker Sr. Leonolla Sgorbati in Mogadishu, Somalia. It's not that the MCC approves of Pope Benedict XVI's use of a 14th-century quote from Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologos, just that there are more important issues, said MCC president Farzana Hassan.  

"I would also say that the reaction in the Muslim world is always extremely frenzied. The masses are illiterate. This is how they respond," Hassan said. "However, among the educated classes in Canada, for instance, the response has been 
extremely tempered."

Canadian Islamic Congress president Mohamed Elmasry told The Catholic Register he did not believe the Pope's words would have any lasting impact on 
Catholic-Muslim relations.

"We still have a capital from the former pope, who did an excellent job in an outreach effort," Elmasry said. "This Pope has made a few mistakes, but the net result 
is still positive."

"We always need dialogue. It doesn't matter what happens," said Abdulkadir Bulsen, president of the Canadian Interfaith Dialogue Centre.

Bulsen said it was the responsibility of the educated and privileged few who are involved in interfaith dialogue to reach out and involve ordinary Muslims and Catholics in dialogue.

"If we cannot widen this, it won't mean so much. If only a few people ó educated, polite people ó get together and talk and go home, that's not the purpose (of dialogue)," Bulsen said.

Ramadan and Lent are excellent opportunities for Catholics and Muslims to learn more about each other, and the religious values they hold in common, said MacPherson, director of the archdiocese of Toronto's ecumenism and interfaith dialogue office. MacPherson would like to see Catholic pastors invite local imams to speak at their churches during Lent. While the priest could present the pillars of Lent (prayer, fasting and almsgiving) the imam would present the pillars of Islam (which also include prayer, fasting and almsgiving).

The Canadian Islamic Congress already runs a program during Ramadan (Sept. 24-Oct. 23 this year) encouraging mosques to open up to local Christian communities for tours and talks on the basics of Islam.

"This is now the time to focus on the positive elements of each one of our faiths," said the MCC's Hassan. "Both faiths exhort adherence to generosity, forgiveness, kindness and understanding, and compassion, and universal human value. I would urge both of them to concentrate on those precepts of their faith rather than anything else, rather than the antagonism, the recrimination, the anger. That's the only way we can overcome these problems."

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   Pray Hear: Muslim Women want Larger Roles
By Karla Bruning    

NEW YORK - Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, was a day of many firsts for Laury Silvers, a practicing Muslim and professor of Islam at Skidmore College. It was the first time that she had ever prayed beside a man. It was the first time that she had ever led a sermon, or khutbah, and the first time that she had ever been led in prayer by a woman, Nakia Jackson.

"It signals the beginning of the end of an entitled male authority in Islam," Silvers said. "It's a huge step toward shared authority. This is a profound new way of thinking."

While traditional Islamic jurists prohibit women from leading prayer, particularly in the presence of men, some communities around the world are challenging the status quo. A small but growing movement is pushing traditional boundaries with a smattering of services led by women. In Washington, Karamah, an organization of female Muslim lawyers, is host to a leadership-development program in which women learn about Islamic law and conflict resolution in the hope of fostering female leadership.

So far there are no known female imams - religious figures who lead prayers in a mosque - in North America. But for some, the day when men and women will pray side by side with equal leadership seems inevitable.

"It's just a matter of time," said Pamela Taylor, a co-chair of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, which sponsors a women-led prayer initiative. "I think it will be the mainstream."

There are female imams already in China and Germany, but they lead only women for the most part. In May, 50 female clerics, authorized by the Moroccan government to give sermons to both genders but not to lead prayers, graduated from a seminary in Rabat. A small movement to promote female clerics started in South Africa in the mid-1990s, and women have led prayer groups in Spain.

In the United States, the movement started with an uproar when Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led a mixed-gender prayer in New York in March 2005.

The event sparked a flurry of publicity; fatwas, or legal opinions; and even death threats against Wadud and her family.

"Initially it was shock and awe, especially from the males," said Raheel Raza, a Pakistan-born freelance journalist in Toronto who has since led congregations of men and women. "Sometimes a person has to do something that is considered radical to get the whole process moving."

After being invited by two Toronto Muslim organizations, Raza became the first woman in Canada to lead mixed-gender Friday prayers in April 2005. Raza had led many interfaith prayer services in churches, temples and synagogues, but never among a Muslim-only congregation.

"My idea of doing this was only to set a precedent," Raza said. "To say that men and women are spiritually equal in the eyes of God. That's what I got from the Quran."

People who support women leading prayers note that the Quran, the sacred text of Islam, does not forbid female spiritual leadership. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a leading scholar of Islamic law at UCLA, issued a fatwa in favor of women-led prayer.

"There is evidence," he wrote, "that the Prophet on more than one occasion allowed a woman to lead her household in prayer - although the household included men - when the woman was clearly the most learned in the faith."

Still, a taboo against female spiritual leaders has persisted.

"It is a thing that happens at a time when the entire Muslim world is under siege," said Aminah McCloud, the director of the Islamic World Studies program at DePaul University. "With that they are holding fast to unexamined and unreflected-upon tradition."

In the wake of the Wadud prayer, Imam Zaid Shakir, a prominent American Islamic scholar, wrote: "A woman leading a mixed gender, public congregational prayer is not something sanctioned by Islamic law."

But since the Quran does not forbid female leadership, scholars look to the hadith, a collection of sayings and actions attributed to Muhammad, for answers. But McCloud said that the hadith offers insights that could be used for and against female imams.

In some cases, scholars state that women are allowed to lead prayer only if they stand behind the congregation, rather than in front, so as not to distract the men present as she kneels before them.

But Silvers, a co-founder of, said that scholars and opponents were more open to debate and discussion than before.

"Now they're no longer feeling like the sky is falling," said Silvers, who is the subject of a documentary about American Muslim converts currently being filmed by Mark Ezovski, a director in Brooklyn. "There's the opportunity now to talk more at length about it. We're getting a wider range of views."

Nakia Jackson, of Malden, Mass., has led prayers a few times after attending the Wadud prayer and said that most of the feedback is now positive. "The people who voiced opposition have gotten quieter," she said. "And they are no longer speaking 
en masse."

Raza, who calls the work she does a "silent revolution," said she and other women hope one day to become imams. "My dream is to win the lottery and have a mosque or sacred space for women by women," she said, stressing her desire to seek more training., the Web's largest nondenominational spirituality site, asked Taylor, who holds a master's degree in Islamic studies from Harvard Divinity School, to write 24 spirituality exercises for Muslims. She has also thought about becoming a chaplain at a university, hospital or jail. Taylor has also led mixed-gender prayers a few times. At one such service, her 11-year-old daughter was asked to give the call to prayer, a duty usually reserved for men or boys.

"That was just so affirming," Taylor said.

Raza echoed that sentiment.

"In the history of Islam there have been women leaders, even the Prophet's daughter," she said. "But unfortunately, for 1,400 years men have spoken for us and told us what our rights or lack of them are. It's time for Muslim women to reclaim those rights and speak for ourselves, and that is what I'm trying to do."

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  Under Cover

Political or spiritual, oppressive or liberating, modest or intimidatingófew subjects provoke such dissonant reactions as the veil. Five Muslim women talk about why they wear itósometimes against their familiesí wishesóand how itís received on the streets of Toronto 

By Denise Balkissoon
Rabia Khan, 21
University of Toronto

I started wearing a niqab last June. I had been thinking about it for a very long time. It is a part of our religion, but in Saudi Arabia, where I was born, it was more cultural. When I came to Toronto nine years ago, I wore a hijab, thatís it. But I wanted to wear a niqab because itís a step ahead to your modesty. It was a bit of a struggle in the beginning, but itís OK now. My family didnít know I was wearing itóand when my dad found out, he was really worried, saying it makes trouble for me to travel and so on. My mom does not wear a hijab; she does not cover her head. It was a tough decision for them, whether to force me to not wear it. My mom thought I was just wearing it temporarily, but she started reflecting and reading, and she was cool about it later on.

Wearing a niqab is something that brings out the best in you. It makes you focus on the better things in life, not on things that are temporary. When you are a teenager, you have to stay away from all the makeup, the jeans, the nice dresses. This whole society is built on outside appearances. You are not supposed to mix freely with men. When you talk to a male, do it in a businesslike manner, to the point. The more you talk, the more you will get fond of them. It does not mean that we are cut off from the world. We do thingsóI take science at university. We have dads, uncles, people we are allowed to talk to.

People do sometimes limit their conversations with me now; they think I donít speak English. I do get a lot of stares. Once, at the bus stop, there was a lady who did not speak English. She came to me and started talking to me in what seemed like gibberish, and she did a weird gesture, like she was trying to point a gun. People driving by started staring at me. I was kind of panicked, wondering, what was she thinking about? I could not talk to her, and she could not talk to me.

Allah said to abide by the laws of the country you live inóif the countryís law doesnít contradict religious law. If itís a very necessary condition, we will remove the niqab. If itís something that will cause me trouble when travelling or a security issue, Islam says I can take it off. When I take an exam, I ask a female instructor to take me outside to make sure itís me who is writing the exam.


Summayah Hussain
Elementary School Teacher

I was born in Canada, but my background is Egyptian. Iíve been wearing the hijab since around Grade 5. Itís part of my identity. Putting on my scarf in the morning is just like putting on a shirt.

Iíve grown up in a time when people are more familiar with Islam than before. But although we have more of a visible presence now, there are still misconceptions out there. A lot of people think Muslim women covering their hair is a political symbol, or a message to the world. For me, itís a way to come closer to God.

The requirement for modesty isnít less strict for men; itís just different. They have to cover themselves; they have to wear loose clothes. They donít have to cover their hair because itís not a part of what makes them attractive, generally.

Shopping can be difficult. If I find a shirt thatís loose and good, I will buy two or three of them. Skirts are hard to find, ones you can actually walk in but that are not slit. Thereís a plaza on Rexdale Boulevard with several Muslim shops. They have stuff thatís imported from Jordan, Syria and Dubai, blouses and skirts in all the colours of the rainbow.

People should dress the way they do out of their own free will. For some people the veil is liberating, and for some itís oppressive. For me, itís linked to choice. If a woman has chosen this out of her own free will, it will be liberating for her

Raheel Raza, 57

Whether I wear Western clothes or Eastern clothes does not matter, as long as the overall message is one of modesty. When I came to Canada from Pakistan 18 years ago, I wore a dupattaóa long scarfówhen I started looking for a job. People in my community said, You are never going to get a job because you donít wear Western clothes. My first interview was with a doctor at Toronto General Hospital. I told him, This is how I come as a package, nose ring and allóhe laughed and then he hired me.

I fully respect those women who cover their hair, because thatís how they interpret the Koran. A head covering does not harm anyone; why is it a worldwide political issue? I donít want anyone to tell me what I cannot wear. But I donít believe in being extreme. I am against the idea of a woman covering her face. To me, itís not reasonable, not balanced, not logical. If itís not these things, then itís not Islam, because Islam is a faith of reason. The face covering is a barrier to security, especially in a post-9/11 world. A face is a personís identity; the niqab bars communicationóitís a mask.


Mariam Tahir, 16
Student, Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute
Thorncliffe Park 

I have been here for six years, since Grade 5. In grades 6 to 8, I started wearing a  scarf, but not strictly, like sometimes it would be off my head, off my shoulders. Since Grade 10, I have been wearing it completely. Toronto is good; itís very multicultural. I thought I would feel out of place when I first came here from Pakistan, but there are a lot of Muslims, and I donít feel awkward wearing my scarf or wearing my clothes the way I do.

The scarf kind of reduces the attention I get from guys. Without one I would be more friendly with them, I guess. With a scarf, it says to them not to get too close.

My parents donít force me. My mom wears a chador; itís like a shawl type of thing to cover her body, but she isnít strict about covering her hair. My parents were surprised when I said that I was going to wear the scarf. They did not want me to feel pressured, because in school it may not be accepted, but I told them, Itís my religion; I shouldnít care what other people say. Most of my friends wear scarves. Some other girls wear it from home and then take it off at schoolóthat happens a lot, because some people are forced to wear it. In high school, people have a rebellious nature to go against what their parents want.

Some days, my hair looks nice, and I think I donít want to wear my scarf. My parents wonít care if I wear it, so I think I can get away with it. But I am not wearing it for my parents; I am wearing it for God.

Modupe Otubu, 36

I started covering my hair six or seven years ago, right before I came to Canada from Nigeria. I was having so much trauma in my life at the time. My mother died while I was pregnant; my marriage was not working. I had to reach out to a spiritual power.

My father was an imam, and I was raised in a mosque, but I was never compelled to cover my hair. Nigeria is a secular country, and we have 250 ethnic groups. I always look at the head scarf from three angles: itís cultural, itís spiritual and itís political. In the Nigerian traditionówhether you are Muslim, Christian or another religionóa womanís dress is not complete until she has a scarf on. We have different fabrics, different styles of head scarves, different knots.

Because Iím black, my hair is hard to maintain. Iím not really into getting extensions, and if I want to straighten it, I have to keep it away from water. But I pray five times a day, and when I do that, I have to touch my hair with water. It doesnít work for me, to spend so much money on my hair when the moment I touch it with water itís gone. So, to me, the scarf is practical.

But the bottom line is modesty and decency. The amazing thing about Islam is that itís very individualistic. So what you regard as modesty might not be for me. And what I do might not be for you.

I ask people, Are you a Muslim by chance or by choice? For me, itís not by chance 

I am a Muslim by choice. Iíve studied it and it works for me. So I choose to remain so.

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