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Nominated to the board of the Manitoba Islamic Association more than 30 years ago, Winnipeg’s Shahina Siddiqui made history instead by not taking her seat.
Although women had previously sat on the board of the Manitoba’s oldest Muslim organization, when Siddiqui and another woman were nominated, some members of the community claimed Islam forbade women in leadership.
"It’s on the record now for women to come and sit on the board," Siddiqui says of the subsequent legal ruling from a North American Islamic council confirming women could have leadership roles. Both women declined their nominations later.
That story is also on the record in the recently released book Manitoba Muslims: A History of Resilience and Growth, by former MIA president Ismael Ibrahim Mukhtar. The 300-page self-published book, written over the last three years, tells the story of how the province’s Muslim community grew in the last century and covers developments until the end of 2020.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Muslims lived in small clusters in Brandon, Winnipeg and the Interlake community of Hodgson. Manitoba is now home to an estimated 20,000 Muslims.
An accountant by profession and historian in his spare time, Mukhtar, 61, wanted to document the history of his community before the early days were forgotten. He pieced together the story of institutions and growth by consulting archival records and newspaper accounts and interviewing community members to pull together the 10-chapter book.
The author also relied on Free Press stories for more current history.
"I would say it’s basically a book for everyone and I would hope this book would create a more inclusive understanding of who we are as Manitobans and Canadians," Mukhtar says of his first book.
In addition to the Manitoba history, Mukhtar included a brief overview of Islam in the book’s preface, explaining the beliefs of the 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide and addressing the long history of Islamophobia and Muslim stereotypes in Western culture.
Although Muslims settled in Manitoba in the early 1900s, the early population was fluid, with many not staying long enough to establish a mosque or other institutions. Greater numbers immigrated to Manitoba in the 1950s and 1960s as professionals or university students, finding each other through phone book listings and eventually forming a community that met for Friday prayers. By 1960, a group of university students founded the Manitoba Islamic Association, and their first mosque opened in St. Vital in 1976.
"When I came here, we only had one mosque, and you knew everyone," says Mukhtar of how the community has changed since he moved to Winnipeg in 1986.
As the community grew through immigration and birth, so did friction between those more adapted to Canadian life and those coming here from other countries, says Mukhtar.
His book documents the controversy around the 2009 MIA board election, which involved court challenges, lawsuits and two years of infighting, with details laid bare in a lengthy appendix.
"It was an experience that had to be recorded and our community had to be more vigilant," Mukhtar says of subsequent constitutional amendments and new bylaws around board elections and composition.
It was also an experience that demonstrates the community was coming of age, says Tasneem Vali, former office manager for MIA and now vice-president of the board.
"Very good things came out of that, and to mention that was important," says the trucking company owner.
Mukhtar says tensions between the established community and those who join later is a common theme among all immigrant groups, but Muslims in Manitoba have the added challenge of cultural diversity due to the dozens of countries they come from.
"We are a community that has deep roots in Canada, but we are a community that receives regular influxes of immigrants," he explains.
Those difference may be less pronounced as Canadian-born Muslims move away from the cultural silos of their parents and grandparents, suggests Siddiqui, founder and longtime executive director of Islamic Social Services, a non-profit organization also mentioned in the book.
"For our grandchildren, their identity will be Canadian-Muslim," she says.
"They will know their cultural heritage and be proud of it."
Mukhtar hopes his book will help younger Muslims understand the legacy of institutions, schools, social services and other community-building activities previous generations established. He also anticipates others will pick up the story where he left off. For that to happen, Mukhtar says Muslims in Manitoba need to consciously preserve the records they already have and consider adding another institution to their roster — a Muslim archive.
"There is a realization that we need to organize our archives and put our historical documents together in an orderly fashion," he says.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.