Citation for Canada

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Abu-Laban, Baha and Sharon McIrvin Abu-Laban. "Canada." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 17, 2022. <>.


Abu-Laban, Baha and Sharon McIrvin Abu-Laban. "Canada." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 17, 2022).


There have been at least four major waves of Muslim immigration to Canada: the first wave from the second half of the nineteenth century up through World War II, the second from the postwar era to around 1967, the third from 1967 to about 1990, and the fourth wave from 1990 to the present. The third and fourth waves are the largest, and the latter is characterized by greater diversity of immigrant Muslims. The great majority of Canadian Muslims are recent immigrants.

Of the early Muslim pioneers, most came from Turkey and the territory under Turkish Ottoman rule known as Greater Syria, and some from South Asia. Reportedly there were thirteen Muslims in Canada in 1871, three hundred to four hundred in 1901, and about fifteen hundred in 1911. Between 1911 and 1931, the size of the Canadian Muslim community declined to 645 as a result of the departure of many Turkish immigrants who were classified as enemy aliens during World War I. Additionally, the 1907 government restrictions on the admission of immigrants from Asia reduced Muslim immigration to a trickle. Those able to immigrate to Canada tended to be part of a chain migration of relatives and acquaintances from the same villages. The resulting communities were closely knit, primarily Sunnī and “Syrian” (Arab) in origin.

During the period before and immediately after World War II, most expansion in the Muslim community came from natural increase (births over deaths). After 1951, however, community growth became much more a product of immigration. There were between two thousand and three thousand Muslim residents in Canada in 1951. By 1971, this figure had multiplied more than ten-fold to 33,370; by 1981, it had tripled to 98,160. Between 1981 and 1991, the Muslim population grew dramatically, rising by 158 percent to 253,260, and between 1991 and 2001 it increased by 229 percent to 579,645. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Islam was the fastest growing religion in Canada. At the end of the first decade, two out of one hundred Canadians are Muslim; about 72 percent of these Muslims were born outside Canada (mostly in Asian and African countries) and two-thirds of them entered Canada since 1991. Of the more recent Muslim immigrants to Canada, a large number are refugees from Lebanon, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, among other source countries.

Each wave of Muslim immigrants had distinctive experiences both before and after immigration to Canada that have contributed to patterned differences in accommodating to the new environment and in transmitting religion to subsequent generations. This is reflected to some degree in differences in interpretation and practice. Advances in technology also allow recent immigrants to better retain contact with their ancestral countries and friends and relatives left behind. As a consequence, different cohorts and generations may reflect contrasting views. Generally speaking, recent immigrants (who are in the majority) tend to be less accommodating in their conception of Islam than are Canadian-born generations. Superimposed on this cohort diversity is the diversity resulting from varied national, cultural, and linguistic origins, educational and occupational experiences, and income levels.

Most Canadian Muslims are Sunnī. In addition, there are various Shīʿī groups, including Ismāʿ īlīs and Twelvers. It is estimated that Sunnīs are in the majority (about 70 percent), followed by Ismāʿīlīs (20 percent), with Twelvers and other groups such as the Druze and Ahmadīs (Qādiānīs) accounting for the balance.

The Muslim population of Canada is ethnically diverse as well. Some 90 percent claim a single ethnic origin. Of these nearly 80 percent are of Asian and North African descent, including Indo-Pakistanis (numerically the most dominant), followed next by West Asian and North African Arabs and then by Iranians, Turks, and a very small percentage of East and Southeast Asians, including Chinese and Filipinos. The remainder represent a wide range of ethnic origins, including European (mostly Balkan but also British and French), African, African American, Caribbean, “Canadian,” and others, reflecting the diversity of worldwide Islam.

Ethnic and linguistic diversity can be found even within the same seemingly homogeneous sect. For example, the first wave of Ismaili immigration to Canada originated from different countries in East Africa and was conversant in Swahili, Gujerati, Hindi, Urdu, and a dialect of Gujerati known as Kacchi/Kutchi. More recent Ismaʿili immigrants to Canada came largely from Central Asia, notably Tajikhistan and Afghanistan, but also from Iran and Syria. The challenge of maintaining coherence within the Canadian Ismaili community is only a microcosm of a much larger challenge facing Canadian Muslims in general. Although the majority of Canadian Muslims reported the language of their country of origin as their mother tongue, about three out of ten reported English as their mother tongue, whereas relatively few (2%) claimed French.

The Muslim population is relatively young (29 percent are under fifteen years old), compared to the Canadian population as a whole (19 percent are under age fifteen). Historically, more Muslim males than females have entered as immigrants; today, there are about 110 males per 100 females among Muslims. The average educational background of Canadian Muslims exceeds the national average, specifically, 56 percent of Canadian Muslims had some level of postsecondary education, compared to 44 percent for the total Canadian population. The educational attainment of Muslim males is higher than that of their female counterparts; however, Muslim women exceed the average for Canadian women in general.

Muslim men appear to be well placed in Canadian society, with a large majority in “professional” or “white-collar” occupations. Prominent Muslims have held positions on city councils, in provincial legislative assemblies and the federal parliament, and have served as cabinet ministers (provincially and federally) and provincial court judges. Muslim women, however, are much less represented in the professions and, despite their superior educational attainment, they are less well placed occupationally than Canadian women in general.

Despite their relatively high educational attainment, Canadian Muslims do not fare as well as other Canadians in terms of income. For example, the average annual employment income of Muslims is about 20 percent lower than the income for equivalent Canadians in general. Authoritative accounts attribute this differential to workplace discrimination against Muslim men and also women who reportedly experience more discrimination than men. Unemployment and underemployment rates are rather high among Canadian Muslims. Some of this may be attributable to the relatively high proportion of refugees among recent immigrants.

The great majority of Canadian Muslims live in large urban areas and four provinces. Ontario is home to 60.8 percent of Muslims. Other provinces with large Muslim concentrations include Quebec (18.7 percent), British Columbia (9.7 percent), and Alberta (8.5 percent).

The first mosque in Canada, the al-Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, Alberta, was completed in 1938. One of the oldest in North America, it was constructed through the efforts of a small number of Muslim families, primarily in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with support and funding from non-Muslims as well. Both men and women played important roles in the development of the mosque and its administration. For two decades, al-Rashid was the only mosque in Canada. The original structure is now preserved in a historical park honoring early Canadian pioneers. Today, mosques and Ismaili jamatkanas (prayer houses) are found in all major Canadian cities; in addition, some Muslim groups hold religious prayers and observances in public buildings. Muslim religious leaders or imāms are often brought in from different parts of the Muslim world to attend to the social and spiritual needs of the local Canadian community. In earlier times, parents relied on weekend schools to provide religious and language training, but now full-day Muslim schools are growing in number across the country, often justified in terms of their superiority in encouraging children to openly appreciate their faith and resist peer pressure. As well, Muslim home schooling groups can maintain contact and obtain curricular materials through the Internet. Community linkages through print and electronic newsletters and newspapers have grown and access to specialized television programming, as well as cable, satellite, and Internet access, have dramatically increased the volume and intensity of networking and information sharing.

A number of important religious and charitable institutions have appeared, both national and local. At the national level, the Council of Muslim Community of Canada (CMCC, formerly the Council of the Muslim Communities of Canada) and the Ontario-based Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) are among the largest mainstream organizations and came into existence out of a commitment to self-help and a perceived need to develop an integrated and coherent approach to issues facing the Canadian Muslim community. The Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR CAN) seeks to empower Canadian Muslims in the fields of media, human rights, and political activism. Another noteworthy organization is the Muslim Canadian Congress, which espouses a “modernist” view of Islam. The Canadian-Muslim Civil Liberties Association (CMCLA), established in 1994, is a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote the legal rights and freedoms of Canadian Muslims. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW), established in 1982, is an inclusive organization focusing on women 's rights, gender equality, Islamic education, appreciation of Muslim cultural differences, and outreach to women of other faiths. Another important umbrella organization is the Toronto-based Ismaili National Council for Canada, which coordinates the activities of all branch regional councils. The Islamic Social Services Association of Canada (ISSA) (founded in 2000) links Muslim service providers to a North American network, offering training seminars on family and mental health issues that are designed to be spiritually and culturally relevant, and encouraging the development of specialized services.

Another major organization that is ethnic in name but actively works on behalf of Muslim Canadians is the Toronto-based Canadian Arab Federation, a national, nonpartisan umbrella organization that represents Arab-Canadians, both Muslim and Christian, on issues of public policy. Organizations focusing on international development include the Children of Islamic Nations (COIN), the Ismaili national and regional councils that link with various Aga Khan foundations, and the International Development and Refugee Foundation (IDRF), which emphasizes an Islamic approach to social and economic development. At the local level, Muslim organizations are abundant, as they exist in relatively large numbers in virtually all of Canada 's urban centers. Muslim student associations can be found across college and university campuses.

Muslim immigrants represent a region of the world where the geopolitical interests of the West are strong and where there are frequent confrontations between Muslim and foreign interests. These international events can have local ramifications. However, Canadian Muslim responses to incidents such as the controversy surrounding the September 2005 Danish newspaper cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muḥammad are usually found on the editorial pages and not in public demonstrations. Both the Gulf War of 1991 and the crisis surrounding the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were particularly problematic for Canadian Muslims.

During the period surrounding the Gulf War of 1991, the Canadian media gave a lot of attention to the possibility of “internal terrorism.” This, together with Canada's foreign policy position on the war and awareness that in World War II Canada had forcibly relocated Japanese-Canadians as “enemy aliens,” added to the apprehensions among Canadian Muslims. Muslims experienced harassment, intimidation, and vandalism, but this was possibly underreported because of fear of potential repercussions. Muslim organizations and individuals mobilized and made representations to the media and government. In response, the federal government created community advisory groups and many in the print and electronic media became more sensitized.

The September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and their aftermath raised fears of another backlash against Canadian Muslims. The federal government, some nongovernmental organizations, and non-Muslim Canadians stepped in faster than they had during the period around the Gulf War some ten years earlier. For example, then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was photographed visiting a mosque, the Canadian Federation of Nurses created bumper stickers stating “Muslim Canadian Supporter,” and many Muslim organizations across the country reported receiving reassuring phone calls from non-Muslims. Nonetheless, there was a sharp spike in anti-Muslim public sentiment as well as reported incidences of hate/bias crimes and racism including attempts to burn mosques and Islamic centers, physical assaults, property damage, verbal harassment, and death threats. The backlash remained very strong for at least the first year, after which it began to subside perceptibly. During this period, as well, the Canadian government initiated an ambitious program of legislative reform aimed at increasing national security and supporting the international war on terrorism, eventually culminating in Bill C-36, the Anti-Terrorism Act. New laws and policies extend across a range of areas encompassing airline security and screening, financial transactions and banking, law enforcement, immigration and citizenship, taxation, and security surveillance. The government and its critics continue to debate how to best find a balance between security and civil liberties. Canadian Muslims, in particular, felt that they were targeted by the new legislation, branded as security risks and vulnerable to racial profiling. There were several high-profile cases of Muslims being forced off plane flights for what proved to be unfounded reasons. There have been some widely publicized arrests and detentions of Muslims and trials are still pending. Since September 11, 2001, many Muslim groups have become proactive in documenting instances of racial profiling, hate crimes, intolerance, and discrimination.

Stereotyping and misrepresentation of Muslims and Islam have continued to be a problem in the entertainment media (radio and television), popular literature, cartoons, and cinema, and this has created additional difficulties for Canadian Muslims. However, in a first, in 2007, the government-owned, Canadian Broadcasting System (CBC) (mandated with the task of bringing Canadians together) introduced a national television sitcom written by a Canadian Muslim woman entitled Little Mosque on the Prairie. The series focuses on the daily lives of Muslim and non-Muslim residents in a small prairie community, depicting liberal versus conservative interpretations of Islam and bigotry and bias. The continuing program has drawn good audience ratings. As well, increasingly, public school systems are attempting to address the vacuum of information about Islam and the general media provides coverage of Muslim holidays and celebrations.

Canada is not always a facilitative environment for practicing Islam. It can be a challenge to find a secure place to pray five times a day or to strictly adhere to dietary laws in a society in which pork is seen as unremarkable. For some, public swimming pools contravene personal standards of modesty. In recent years, more immigrants have brought traditional dress codes to Canada. The visibility of the female headscarf (the hijāb) and, for some Canadians, its association with female oppression makes it controversial in the larger society and, for some, it has been a handicap when on the job market. Although the percentage of Muslim women who wear some form of headscarf has increased, a small majority of Muslim women in Canada do not cover their heads. Of those who do, most use some form of hijab that covers the hair, whereas an estimated two to three percent actually use a full-face veil (niqāb). Tensions between moderate and conservative Muslims have surfaced, around the issue of the hijāb as a religious necessity versus a cultural option. As well, issues have surfaced in the mainstream media. In 2007, controversy broke out in the province of Quebec when sports officials prohibited young girls from participating in a soccer match and later, in a second incident, in a martial arts competition—in both cases claiming that religious scarves present a safety risk. As well, in 2007, the complete veil (niqāb) became a focus in the Quebec provincial elections and voters wearing a niqāb were told they had to reveal their faces as part of the voter identification process. Quebec recently established a high-profile commission to address the issue of “reasonable accommodation” vis-à-vis increasing cultural and religious diversity.

Conflict between moderate and traditionalist practices and interpretations surfaced in 2005 in the Province of Ontario around the use of sharīʿah (Muslim family) law. Initially under the Ontario arbitration act, it was legally possible to use sharīʿah arbitration on property, family, and inheritance, but after vigorous public debate, and objections from some liberal Muslim groups, the Province revoked provisions that would allow for a sharīʿah option. Somewhat related is the issue of how to preserve the Islamic cultural heritage while facilitating Muslim integration into the Canadian secular mainstream and, importantly, how to transmit the heritage effectively to the Canadian-born generation. Pressures toward in-group marriage are strong, particularly among immigrant parents, and there are concerns about propriety in male and female behavior. At a less public level, the less common, predominantly African cultural practice of female circumcision (clitoridectomy) has been reported among some recent Muslim immigrants. The variability of positions on these different issues tends to reflect duration of residency as well as ethnic origin and religious identification.

At the internal level, Canadian Muslims are still grappling with the issue of Muslim diversity in the Canadian environment partly because of their newly acquired minority status and partly because of new national, linguistic, cultural, and ideological mixtures. A major issue confronting the contemporary Canadian Muslim community is how to unite into a coherent whole, across ethnic lines, particularly in the face of sect differences and differences in interpretations of and adherence to religious practices. A step in the direction of coherence occurred in 1992 with the creation of the Edmonton (Alberta) Council of Muslim Communities that brings representatives from over twenty different Muslim groups (including Sunnī, Shīʿī, and Ismaʿīlī) together to coordinate efforts, promote interfaith harmony, and collectively address issues faced by the Muslim community. Notably, this Council has succeeded in raising about $3 million for an endowment to establish the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities Chair in Islamic Studies at the University of Alberta. This unique initiative will help to increase knowledge of the diverse traditions, cultures, and interpretations that form the Islamic world and its relationship with other societies and faiths.

Despite pockets of bigotry and ignorance, there is a tradition of tolerance in Canada. Recent polls comparing Canadians with Europeans, Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders found Canadians least bigoted toward Muslims. Muslim and non-Muslim activists are working toward improved understanding between faith communities. At the same time, Muslim groups continue to address issues surrounding adaptation to Canadian society within the framework of Islamic principles.


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