Globe and Mail report on Canada’s Muslim Communities: It’s the "Spiritual" vs. "Religious"

Today’s Globe and Mail carries an excellent report on the composition of Toronto’s Muslim community. Sarah Elton, a CBC Radio producer, pens the piece.

In a crucial departure from conventional classification of various Muslim communities, Elton, a Muslim herself, categorizes Muslims, not between “fundamentalists vs. moderate” or “liberal vs. extremist,” but broadly splits them between “spiritual ” and the “religious,” with the former being the majority.

She writes:

“The first group, spiritual Muslims, form the majority here. They believe in the fundamentals of the religion but are flexible in their interpretations — they don’t pray five times a day and they may not eat halal meat. For these people, religion involves a personal set of beliefs and behaviours.”

“The next largest group is religious Muslims, who are more observant in their dress, food and prayers. They go to mosque, yet they’re not extremely involved in religious activities, unlike the third and smallest category, who are not only strictly observant but believe it is their duty to influence others to adopt a religious way of life.”

This may not be a definitive classification, as many are split by class, race and political leanings of the right vs. left, but generally speaking, she is right. In a 2001 survey, CAIR in the US reported that only 10% of American Muslims regularly attended the mosque, and this holds true for Canada as well.

He report also provides a much needed statistical report of the ethnic makeup of the Muslim communities.

1. South Asians (Pakistanis, Indians and B’deshis) 130,000
2. Iranians 80,000
3. Somalis 70,000
4. Afghans 65,000
5. Arabs 22,000

The above numbers are accurate, but will surprise many media personalities and politicians alike.

Read and reflect.

August 19, 2006

The many meanings of Muslim

World events have placed the city’s Muslims ‘under a microscope.’ So why are they still so misunderstood?

Special to The Globe and Mail

It was at a Saturday afternoon Jays’ game last month that it happened. During the seventh inning, Toronto teacher Riyad Khan and a few friends went to grab something to eat at a concession stand; as they made their way back to their seats, says Mr. Khan, “One guy looked at us and started screaming ‘Hezbollah!’ ” Mr. Khan was wearing jeans, a T-shirt — and a fez cap, which, along with his beard, visibly marks him as a Muslim.

This was not the first time his appearance has drawn attention. He often finds that people stop and stare at him on the street. On some occasions, he’s been called Bin Laden by strangers. With the ongoing conflict between Israel and Lebanon, the recent arrest in Toronto of 17 alleged terrorists and this month’s breaking news of an alleged plot by British Muslims to blow up as many as 12 airplanes in mid-air, he and other Muslims living here are preparing themselves to be on the receiving end of more suspicious looks.

“It almost feels like the whole Muslim community is put under a microscope, and anything you do or say is scrutinized,” he says. “That’s frustrating.”

But does the notion of a “Muslim community” even make sense in a city like Toronto?

As it happens, the city’s 250,000-strong Muslim population is one of the most diverse in the world. Toronto Muslims come from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Caribbean. There are Shiites and Sunnis. (The division in the religion occurred at the time of the Prophet Mohammed’s death, when a dispute arose over who his successor should be — the Shiites believe in 12 saints that the Sunnis don’t recognize.)

There are also Shia sects such as the Bohras, Ishnashris and Ismailis, a community that made news last year with its ambitious plans to create a spiritual centre, museum of Islamic art and public park at the site of the former Bata shoe-company headquarters.

Mr. Khan owes his Muslim roots to his parents’ background in Trinidad, about as far from the hard-line madrassas (religious schools) of Pakistan as one can imagine.

Because there has been a huge influx of new Muslims into Toronto, particularly from India and Pakistan but also from Africa and Afghanistan, many recent immigrants bring cultural traditions that affect their interpretations of the religion.

This means in Toronto, you can find people practising an Islam that is moulded by Albanian culture in one mosque — saying an additional set of prayers roughly comparable to saying Catholic rosaries, with men and women praying together — while in mosques with a predominantly Indo-Pakistani congregation women pray separately, sequestered from the men.

There are also variances in the way different Muslims practice religion and interpret and follow the words of the Koran.

Mohammad Qadeer, a Toronto Muslim and professor emeritus of Queen’s University who has studied the social geography of ethnic neighbourhoods in the GTA, explains these differences by identifying three distinct categories of Muslims.

The first group, spiritual Muslims, form the majority here. They believe in the fundamentals of the religion but are flexible in their interpretations — they don’t pray five times a day and they may not eat halal meat. For these people, religion involves a personal set of beliefs and behaviours.

The next largest group is religious Muslims, who are more observant in their dress, food and prayers. They go to mosque, yet they’re not extremely involved in religious activities, unlike the third and smallest category, who are not only strictly observant but believe it is their duty to influence others to adopt a religious way of life.

People from all sects and all ethnicities can belong to any one of these three categories, because Muslim religious habits vary greatly, no matter one’s sectarian affiliation, says Mr. Qadeer.

You could be an extremely religious Sufi, subscribing to this mystical form of Islam that puts the religion of acceptance and love over all other things; or you could be a deeply committed Wahhabi, and apply the teachings of the Koran without interpreting them, in the same way a fundamentalist Christian chooses to read the Bible. Rather, it is the level of a person’s religiosity that affects the day-to-day life, he says.

“Spiritual Muslims . . . would be more lax. They may not keep all 30 fasts in the month of Ramadan. They may dress in a very Western way, and when going out they wouldn’t be strict about eating non-halal. A spiritual woman wouldn’t wear a veil. A spiritual man wouldn’t wear a beard,” he says.

Religious Muslims, on the other hand, will be more regular in their prayers and strict about eating halal meat. The women will also demonstrate their religiosity through dress — by wearing a hijab, and perhaps even a niqab, which covers everything but the face — while the men will wear a flowing, untrimmed beard.

In Farideh Afshar’s family alone, there exists a huge range of practices.

Ms. Afshar, a Shiite originally from Iran, prays everyday, but she rarely goes to mosque. Her daughter believes in God and prays as much as she can, but she doesn’t go to mosque, either. Whereas Islam is so important to her one brother that every week when his daughters were young he spent hours driving them to a madrassa, her other brother doesn’t even believe in any particular religion. They all identify themselves as Muslims.

For Ali Asaria, a 25-year-old engineering consultant and recent graduate who was born in Toronto to South Asian parents who immigrated here from Tanzania, these cultural and religious influences keep people here from discovering a way to practise a version of Islam that is both true to the religion and to the larger cultural norms of Canada.

“I think the overwhelming issue that hasn’t been dealt with in Toronto is this notion of the split identity. Muslims in Toronto don’t know how to be Muslims and Canadians at the same time,” he says, adding that as a second-generation Canadian, he’s searching for what it means to be Muslim here.

The biggest hurdle, when trying to create this new identity, he says, is that once you say you’re Canadian, others often assume that you are giving up your Muslim ideals and becoming entirely “Western.”

“There’s no such thing as a Canadian Muslim,” he says. “So how can you be Canadian and Muslim? We’re trying to solve that.”


AFGHANS: 65,000

Afghans are relative newcomers to Toronto, the first wave of immigrants arriving in the early 1980s after the then-Soviet Union invaded their country. Because of ongoing political turbulence, Afghans have continued to settle here.

Today, the community numbers approximately 65,000. Virtually all are Muslim, with the majority being Sunni.

“In general, Afghans are people of faith,” says Adeena Niazi of the Afghan Women’s Organization. However, in Toronto, she stresses, they do not practise a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam like that of the Taliban. Rather than rejecting a religion that has often been used as a tool of repression in their homeland, Afghans here often rely on Islam for support when confronted with stress, she says.

“They are all survivors of trauma,” she notes, pointing out that almost every single Afghan here is a refugee or comes from a family of refugees.

In the past decade, however, the community has become fairly well established, says Jamal Kakar, executive director of the Afghan Association of Ontario. “Ten years ago, there weren’t many families who owned houses. Now I’d say that seven out of 10 own them.”

In the Greater Toronto Area, Afghans live and attend mosques near Don Mills and Overlea; in Scarborough, along Markham Road near Ellesmere; in Regent Park; and in Mississauga, as well. On Sundays in Scarborough, crowds of Afghans head to Bluffers Park and Milliken Park to fly kites.

Toronto’s most famous Afghan is probably Nelofer Pazira, a journalist, filmmaker and human-rights activist, best known for her role in the movie Kandahar.

IRANIANS: 80,000

Perhaps because Toronto’s first wave of Iranian-Muslim immigrants were fleeing the repressive religious regime that rose to power after the fall of the relatively liberal, but politically oppressive, Shah of Iran, they have a reputation for being more culturally Muslim than religious.

Most are Shiites who began to immigrate in large numbers after the revolution in 1979, continued throughout the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and still arrive today. The number of Iranian-Muslim immigrants in Toronto is currently estimated to be about 80,000.

North on Yonge, near Finch, is the heart of the community, a.k.a. Tehranto, home to dozens of Iranian grocery stores, jewellery shops, hairdressers, real estate agents, restaurants and fast-food joints.

Further north, in Richmond Hill, is where wealthier, more established families have chosen to buy their homes and settle.

The Imam Ali Centre at Bermondsey and Eglinton is a Shia mosque where many Iranians go to celebrate weddings and high holidays and also attend funerals.

SOMALIS: 70,000

There are more Somalis living in Toronto than anywhere else in the world outside of Africa and almost all of them are Muslim, says Ibrahim Absiye of Midaynta Community Services. The vast majority arrived in Toronto between 1993 and 1996 after being displaced by civil war.

The major Somali enclaves in the city are in Jamestown, Lawrence Heights, East and West Mall and Regent Park, where you’ll find a mix of Somali businesses including restaurants, stores selling traditional clothes like masr and diraa for women and khamis for men, as well as mortgage brokers and real estates agents catering to the large number of people who are now buying homes. Many Somalis also live in Toronto Community Housing — so many in fact that Somali is the number one language spoken on these properties.

Politically charged hip hop artist K’naan Warsame, who fled war-torn Mogadishu, is probably the most famous Somali-born Torontonian. His struggle to rise to the top of the hiphop world parallels the struggles many Somalis face as they try to join the Canadian mainstream.

Somali Muslims are Sunni and quite homogeneous, with one language, one sect and one religion, Mr. Absiye says. And it is religion that has become particularly important to women in the community, according to Muna Mohamud who is a Somali family violence counsellor.

“Most diaspora mothers are people who were not educated. . . . Religion became their escape. That’s why you see so many people wearing the veil.”


South Asian Muslims of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent represent the largest group of Muslims living in the GTA. This group has been moving to the Toronto area since Canada’s immigration policy opened up in the 1960s.

It’s people from this community in Britain who have experienced the greatest mistrust and animosity from non-Muslim Britons ever since the 2005 suicide bombings in London.

Even in Canada, South Asian Muslims are mistakenly associated with extremist madrassas, fundamentalist ideology and terrorism.

However, South Asian Muslims do not share one common definition, but instead hold a wide range of beliefs, from mystic Sufism to rigorous Wahhabism. Many belong to such Shia sects as the Ismailis and the Ishnashris.

There’s a truism that newcomers start off in East Scarborough and then move to Mississauga when things get better.

Those who settle more centrally tend to land in Thorncliffe Park. Because the South Asian community is well established here, some of their mosques are now undergoing a process that Toronto Muslim Mohammad Qadeer refers to as Canadianization. “In the old country, the mosque was a prayer place.

Here it is a community centre; it organizes picnics, it has summer schools,” he says, citing the Islamic Foundation mosque in Scarborough, which caters largely to Indian and Pakistani Torontonians.

Testimony to the diversity of beliefs can be found in the Noor Cultural Centre in Don Mills, a progressive non-sectarian Islamic centre that welcomes gay and lesbian Muslims.

ARABS: 22,000

About half of Toronto’s Arab population is Muslim (the other half is Christian), with the majority being Sunni.

“The Arabs are the least religious in the sense of attending mosques,” says Khaled Mouammar, national president of the Canadian Arab Federation. However, that doesn’t stop them from identifying as Muslims here or supporting Muslim causes in other countries — the war in Lebanon has demonstrated this recently, since Toronto’s largest Arab groups are Lebanese and Palestinian (followed by Egyptians and Iraqis).

Whereas some Sunni scholars on the international scene are debating whether to support Hezbollah, which is Shia, here these distinctions between sects don’t hold much weight.

Many Arabs here don’t preoccupy themselves with the politics of the Middle East as they have lived in the GTA for decades, cultivating a vibrant cultural scene that serves to keep them connected with their heritage. The cinema at Square One sometimes shows mainstream Arabic films from Egypt.

There is no single mosque in the city with a primarily Arab congregation. Those who pray often do so near their place of work: for example, at the Masjid Toronto, which is attended by downtowners and government employees, on Dundas Street near University Avenue. There are also prayers at the University of Toronto, the Hydro building on University and at Ryerson University, according to Ameena Sultan, a lawyer who grew up here.

1 comment for “Globe and Mail report on Canada’s Muslim Communities: It’s the "Spiritual" vs. "Religious"

  1. Frederick
    April 10, 2017 at 11:32 PM

    Mr Fatah, thank you for sharing.
    Very educational and informative article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *