Jami Mosque served changing community
Toronto’s oldest mosque welcomes all
 
By Tom G. Kernaghan
 
 
Toronto’s oldest mosque sits on a quiet street just east of High Park.

Jami Mosque has served many Muslim newcomers by offering youth and marriage counselling, funeral services, religious education, and settlement advice since it opened in the late 1960s. Located at 56 Boustead Ave., the mosque has been a spiritual Canadian home to a diverse mix of Muslims from all over the world—Europe, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa, and the West Indies.

“We’ve never had a label on our mosque,” says Amjed Syed, the administrator of Jami Mosque, adding their masjid (its Arabic name) is for all Muslims, and is open to all people. “We don’t bar anyone…. Our policy from day one has been to keep our doors open to the public. That is the beauty of this place.”

However, first-time visitors to Jami might be surprised to find the building design isn’t as they had expected.

Prior to 1968, the building was home to the High Park Presbyterian Church (now in Swansea). At that time, the largely British Christian community was picking up and heading to the suburbs, society in general was becoming more secularized, and postwar European immigrants were moving into the area. Among them was a small community of Balkan Muslims who needed a place to meet and pray. The new European Christians preferred their own churches. So, with its attendance dwindling, the High Park Presbyterian Church sold to the incoming Muslims. Thus, Jami Mosque was born.

As immigration increased during the 1970s, other Muslims arrived in Toronto and soon found Jami Mosque was the only central place to meet.

“People came from a broad range of places,” recalls Syed. “People came from as far away as Ottawa and Sudbury.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Muslims began to establish themselves and move to smaller cities and the suburbs, where they built new mosques, in some cases to serve particular ethnic communities. As urban housing became more expensive and newcomers began moving directly to the suburbs, Jami Mosque, like the Presbyterian church before them, saw its numbers fall considerably.

“This is not the truest spirit of Islam,” says Syed, who regrets divisions within the Muslim community and is disappointed that many second-generation Muslims are drifting away from the faith.

“It’s the common denomination,” quips Syed, in reference to secularization in general.

Though most of the early congregants have moved away, some do remain in the area and regularly attend prayers and gatherings.

“There is a lot of sentimental attachment to Jami,” says Imtiaz Uddin, who, like Syed, has been a part of the local Muslim community since its early days. “It was the first. It gave some people financial help, and sometimes mental help. It was the cement and glue that kept us together and gave us the goodness of the country.”

Syed is hopeful the mosque will continue to play an important role in the community. Recent immigrants from East Africa now regard Jami Mosque as their central base.

“We have become the mosque for people in transition,” says Syed.

Also, some young Muslims are showing fresh interest in their holy book, the Qur’an, and the mosque has also seen new converts to Islam. However, Syed calls them “reverts”: in the Islamic faith, he says, all children are born Muslim in the sense that they’re born in a state of submission. The word Islam means “submission before God.”

“Our doors are open for every human being,” says Uddin.

Since 2000, Jami Mosque has participated in Doors Open Toronto, an annual event coordinated by the city’s cultural division. Syed understands some might feel uncertain about entering a Muslim place of worship. The event acts as an invitation, which he believes helps ease people’s apprehensions. Jami also welcomes groups of curious non-Muslim school children.

“It is not in our hands to change anyone’s mind,” stresses Syed. “We’re not out converting people. We’re not evangelical.”

But they are a part of the greater community.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, non-Muslim neighbours came forward and helped guard the mosque against vandalism.

“The neighbours were very supportive,” says Syed. “We were pleasantly surprised. The response was overwhelming.”

For more information on Jami Mosque, please see www.jamimosque.com or call 416-769-1192.



(Divercity column – The Village Gleaner – September 2005)