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The First Mosque in Canada – Al Rashid, A Utopia of Place and Community Engagement

Tammy Gaber
Laurentian University, Ontario, Canada tgaber@laurentian.ca

Introduction

Those who have believed and have emigrated and have struggled in the way of God with their wealth and their lives are sublime in their degree with God. And those, they are the ones who are victorious.

Qur’an, Al Tawbah 9:20[1]

In the late 19th century, dozens of pioneering Muslims immigrated to Canada from the Levant region (present day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) to establish new lives in a new world[2]. By 1931 the number of Muslims in various Canadian cities was over 600, with half in the central area of the country – in the flatland Prairies[3]. For decades the small number of mercantile Muslims in Edmonton who wished to gather for social and religious meetings made due in private spaces, however by the early part of the 20th century, the need was great enough to warrant the construction of a mosque[4], Canada’s first. The Al Rashid mosque was opened in 1938, funds were raised from local Muslims, citizens of Christian and Jewish faith[5] as well as the donation of the land from the City. This collaborative effort was indicative of the new world community of ideal shared spaces. Al Rashid was also used for Church group meetings, social and club events of the larger non-Muslim community and various mixed events, acting as a community center. 

Echoing the first community of the religion, 1300 years prior, these first Muslim immigrants to Canada chose to shed cultural baggage and to engage their religion and its space within the opportunities and constructs of their new country, and understood that faith meant engagement with each other and with the larger non-Muslim community.

The methodology of study for this mosque will look at the architectural language chosen, patronage and community use. The mosque represented an important moment in the history of Canadian immigration and construction and also served as an ideal, if not utopian, example of settlement and engagement.

Mosque architecture in the Contemporary West

The struggles of contemporary mosque design as articulated by a number of architects and architectural historians6 are compounded with diaspora communities in the west, as they try to reconcile preconceived notions of what mosque architecture was to them in their homeland and the new foreign context. Many communities choose to transplant variations of historical idioms from specific Islamic regions in the design of reconfigured and newly built mosques in the west. However in the case of al Rashid, the design was not motivated by replicating historical idioms and the resultant design set the mosque up for a different kind of success.

The First Canadian Mosque

The architecture of the Al Rashid mosque betrays the circumstantially naïve, and unassuming approach to edifice identification. A local building contractor, Mike Dreworth7, with no prior understanding of ‘Islamic architecture’, relied on the patrons descriptions and ideas as well as his experience building in the prairies and vocabulary of Ukrainian church architecture (of which he was a member) prevalent in the Prairies.  Dreworth blended these seemingly incompatible ideas and designed an edifice that in many ways represented the unassuming way that the pioneer Muslims acclimatized to their new Canadian home: red brick, gable roofed, two minarets with Ukrainian onion domes topped crescents (see Figure 1).

The main floor housed the ablutions room at the front and the imam’s room at the back. The main space is a rectangular room, amply lit by a number of arched windows on either side and furnished with a collage of donated rugs, a corner mihrab (Mecca oriented niche) wood structure and small minbar (pulpit) pedestal (see Figure 2). Like many other mosques, the simplicity of the main worship space allowed for a flexibility of use, which included communal prayer and events like weddings, funerals and lectures. The basement was used social gatherings, teas, dinners, bazaars, and business meetings8

The architectural form of this first mosque proved directly influential in the design of subsequently built mosques in the region9. According the Edward Saddy, the first Muslim Judge in Canada, who was present during the opening of the mosque and served as mosque president on several occasions “The community was proud of this building and how well used it was by everyone.” 10 During the opening event for the mosque in 1938, then Mayor John Fry noted that, “It is significant that people of many faiths are sitting friendly together. This could not have happened in some lands.”11 The master of ceremonies was Mayor I.F Shaker of the Albertan town of Hanna who was of Christian Arab descent and the renowned Islamic scholar Dr. Abdullah Yusuf Ali performed the dedication.  The tone was set for a new, plural Canadian Islam, housed in this first

  •  see:

Haider ‘Muslim space and the Practice of Architecture A Personal Odyssey’p.31,

Fethi ‘The Mosque Today’ p. 53

Holod, Renata and Hasan-Uddin Khan. The Mosque and the Modern World Architects, Patrons and Designs since the 1950s. p.227

Khan, Hasan-Uddin. ‘An Overview of Contemporary Mosques’ p. 247.

Serageldin, Ismail and James Steele. Architecture of the Contemporary Mosque. p.12.  

  •  Hamdani The Al-Rashid: Canada’s first Mosque 1938, Edmonton p.19.
  •  Al Rashid Mosque Twenty-fifth Anniversary Celebration p.5.
  •  The edifice of the Al Kareem mosque in Lac La Biche (originally built in 1956 and later rebuilt in 1989) and the Muslim Community of Edmonton (built 1988) mosques have clear references to the Al Rashid design composition and façade both documented by the author..
  •  Judge Edward Saddy, telephone interview with author, October 22, 2015.
  •  Mayor John Fry quoted in Hamdani The Al-Rashid: Canada’s first Mosque 1938, Edmonton p.13.

edifice. Later, during the 25th anniversary celebration in 1963, the second imam of the mosque reflected:

For the Muslim, the Mosque is the centre of this religious life, the focus of his social and cultural interests, the beacon of his spiritual guidance and the source of his moral insight. This is even more so in the case of the Canadian Muslim. The Mosque, for him, is the bridge between the civilizations of the ancient and the modern worlds and the most effective medium of direct communication between the cultures of the West and the East. The Mosque in Canada is the best platform of the Canadian Muslim to present the truth of his religion and to show his goodwill toward his fellow men, and to practice his faith in the existence of God, the brotherhood, equality and freedom of all mankind. This is what a mosque is for and what our Mosque here in Edmonton can be and should be.[6]

The Community of Al Rashid

Members of the first generation of the Muslims in Edmonton described an ideal space and place of gathering, sharing and growing that was inclusive and empowering. The end of the land lease required the mosque be moved twice. In addition to this, by the mid 1980’s the size of the community had grown too large for the mosque which was abandoned as the community focused on the construction of a new mosque complex (by the same name).   The efforts of twelve women of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women were solely responsible for the tenacious struggle to raise funds from Canadian Muslims, federal and local governments and various organizations to save the destruction of the mosque, through restoration and to lobby for the relocation of the mosque to its now permanent home in the Fort Edmonton Park in 1992.[7] Although the current community now uses a newer purpose-built facility, the story of that first mosque persists as an example of ideal, if not utopian, arrival and settlement of a new community in the country.  

Figure 1. Al Rashid, Canada’s first mosque which was built in 1938, is now a national historical landmark in the Fort Edmonton Park. Photograph by author, 2015.

Figure 2. Interior of main worship and community space of Al Rashid mosque. Photograph by author, 2015.

Canadian Mosques

The importance of Al Rashid is paradigmatic within the Canadian context. The adaptation of both the architectural expression and of the first Muslims that used Al Rashid represented not only ideal community engagement, but specifically an ideal for the Muslims in this country to continue to aspire to.  Over one hundred and forty mosques have been established in Canada since AlRashid[8], in both purpose-built spaces and in reconfigured existing buildings. Many of these mosques have included strong historical references, some have attempted to blend and create a new architectural language appropriate to the context. However, the utopia of place and community engagement revealed in the inclusivity of both the building process, the opening and the use of Al Rashid demonstrated a spirit of an Islam in Canada that was exemplar.    

References

Al Rashid Mosque Twenty-fifth Anniversary Celebration. (Edmonton, 1963). Brochure.

Awid, Richard Asmet. Canada’s First Mosque – The Al Rashid. (Edmonton: High Speed Printing, 2010).

Fethi, Ihsan. ‘The Mosque Today’ Architecture in Continuity Building in the Islamic world Today. Ed. Serban Cantacuzino. ( New York: Aperture, 1985).

Haider, Gulzar. ‘Muslim space and the Practice of Architecture: A Personal Odyssey’ Making Muslim space in North America and Europe. Ed. Barbara Daly Metcalf. (California: University of California Press, 1996).

Hamdani Daood. The Al-Rashid: Canada’s First Mosque 1938, Edmonton. (Toronto: Canadian Council of Muslim Women, 2010).

Holod, Renata and Hasan-Uddin Khan. The Mosque and the Modern World Architects, Patrons and Designs since the 1950s. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997).

Husaini, Z., Awid, R., Tarrabain, K. Muslims in Canada A Century of Achievement. (Edmonton: Arabian Muslim Association, 2000).

Khan, Hasan-Uddin. ‘An Overview of Contemporary Mosques’ The Mosque History, Architectural development and Regional Diversity. Ed. Martin Frishman and Hasan-Uddin Khan. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994).

Saddy, Guy. ‘The first Little Mosque on the Prairie.’ The Walrus. Oct/Nov. 2008.

Serageldin, Ismail and James Steele. Architecture of the Contemporary Mosque. (London: Academy Editions, 1996).

Steele, James. ‘Al Rashid Mosque, Edmonton, Alberta.’  Architecture of the Contemporary Mosque. Eds. I.Serageldin and J. Steele. (London: Academy Editions, 1996). Pp 168-169.

The Sublime Quran. English Translation. Laleh Bakhtiar, Trans. (Chicago: Library Islam, 2006).


[1] The Sublime Qur’an. p.161.

[2] There were 13 Muslims in 1871 in Canada, which was followed by successive waves of immigration, with over 300 by the turn of the century. See:

Husaini, Z., Awid, R., Tarrabain, K. Muslims in Canada A Century of Achievement. P. 22.

[3] Canadian Census quoted in both Saddy ‘The First Little Mosque on the Prairie’ p.1  and Hamdani The Al-Rashid: Canada’s first Mosque 1938, Edmonton p.4.

[4] A serious undertaking considering the toll the Great Depression had taken on the congregants and the region. See:

Al Rashid Mosque Twenty-fifth Anniversary Celebration. P.3-5.

[5] Saddy ‘The First Little Mosque on the Prairie’ p.2. 

[6] Abd Al-Ati, Hummudah qtd in Al Rashid Mosque Twenty-fifth Anniversary Celebration p. 12.

[7] Hamdani The Al-Rashid: Canada’s first Mosque 1938, Edmonton p.18-24.  

[8] The author is currently conducting a large-scale study of the mosques in Canada to document and examine approximately forty examples from all of the regions in the country. Al Rashid was one of the first visited and documented in this study.  

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