The Islamic philanthropic ecosystem in Canada developed via a non-linear route that saw visionary leaders leveraging the energy and activism of a growing community to meet the challenges at hand. Contributor Abdul Nakua provides a historical overview and suggests that Islamic philanthropy holds lessons for Canadian society as a whole.
In May 2016, media outlets flooded the airwaves with news about the massive wildfires in Fort McMurray. Mosques across the country mobilized their resources and launched various campaigns to support the city’s residents. Muslim-led charities and relief organizations issued appeals for donations, and local organizations in Alberta opened their doors to residents fleeing the fires. It was an example of the coming of age of Islamic philanthropy and highlighted the maturity of a charitable ecosystem within the wider social-good sector.
However, it is worth noting that the development of this ecosystem was neither a linear nor a simple trajectory. It took an arduous route, growing by an iterative process that mobilized the energy and activism of a growing community.
Its development mirrors that of the Muslim community. By 1931, Canada’s Muslim population was 645 people. That number grew to approximately 33,370 by 1970. As the community started to cluster in major cities, their growing needs became more apparent, and there was a pressing need to address them. But these young communities and their leaders faced tremendous challenges. They were scattered across a huge geographical span with meagre financial resources and a small pool of potential donors, and they lacked organizational capacity. With no hierarchical structure mandated by the faith, the strategy for community development aligned along two tracks: meeting immediate local needs and building organizational infrastructure to support the local work and create cohesion within the many constituent parts of the community.
The lack of hierarchy necessitated a strong mobilization and organization of the community. Early efforts in building organizational capacity focused on forming strong ties between Muslims in the US and Canada, organizationally, socially, and culturally. An influx of students pursuing their studies at universities across Canada and US provided the impetus for this community-building endeavour. Driven by a vision that mirrored the ideas of the Islamic revival in their countries of origin, they established the Muslim Students Association (MSA) in 1963, serving both the United States and Canada. Out of this sprang up other organizations, such as the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim Arab Youth Association. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was founded in 1981 as a direct outcome of strategic deliberations started in 1975 by the leadership of MSA National. Profession organizations such as the Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers, the Association of Muslim Social Scientists, and the Islamic Medical Association of North America were also founded by the same cohort of Muslim students in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Council of Muslim Communities of Canada was created in 1973. Some of these organizations remained active and grew in different paths, while others ceased to exist.
Within North America, Islamic philanthropy flourished at the nexus of three forces: visionary leaders, a strong mission, and unmet needs.
Sustaining these initiatives was of paramount importance as financial resources were limited. This mandated the need to revive and nurture philanthropic culture. Within North America, Islamic philanthropy flourished at the nexus of three forces: visionary leaders, a strong mission, and unmet needs. Giving and philanthropy has a long-standing tradition in Muslim societies and played a vital role in building a vibrant Muslim culture over many centuries. Islamic philanthropy brings a spiritual dimension to the calculus of giving. This, in turn, influences the nature, scope, and even timing of giving. Fundamentally, giving is conceived as a duty to God, and wealth is considered an endowment from God that should be used as means to promote the common good for the purpose of maximizing community welfare. To that end, its accumulation is discouraged, and a number of broad tools were instituted for its fair distribution. For example, zakat – a wealth tax of 2.5% is the third of the five pillars of Islamic faith.The institution of zakat is not only a means of alleviating poverty, but also a tool to invest in community capacity to address unmet needs. In addition to this obligatory giving tool, Muslims are encouraged to give voluntarily, with no limit in “sadaqa”(almsgiving). Both words are mentioned more than 80 times in the Qur’an, often associated with prayer. (Within Shia jurisprudence, there is an additional annual contribution called “khums” – which means “one-fifth,” or 20% – that is mandatory on any surplus annual income.) Motivation is a powerful force in philanthropy, and these underpinnings provide a solid framework for motivation for giving.
Across North America, this mission was put into action by visionary Islamic leaders and pioneers. They effectively leveraged the spiritual dimensions of giving to motivate the community to meet the challenges at hand. Dedicated leaders crisscrossed North America to inspire and challenge Muslim communities to give for worthy causes. It was not uncommon for these efforts to include overseas trips to Muslim countries. They were instrumental in charting a unique culture of giving across the continent. This effort was a true grassroots endeavour, where a vast array of social connections were woven together and family and kinship networks were effectively leveraged.
Building vibrant communities in a new land
The initial focus of Islamic philanthropy and Muslim charitable works was directed toward meeting community needs through building mosques, Islamic centres, and schools. The earliest mosques were built in Edmonton and Lac La Biche, Alberta, and in London, Ontario. Soon after, Toronto and the GTA became the focal point of the Muslim community, and this was where growth became more conspicuous: from humble beginnings between 1961 and 1968, when the first Muslim congregation gathered in a crowded leather shop near Dundas and Keele streets, to the purchase of the former Presbyterian Church at 55 Boustead Avenue in 1969. The Islamic Foundation of Toronto was formed in 1969. The Croatian Islamic Centre was created by repurposing an old Catholic school building, bought for $75,000 with the support of the local Catholic Croat community, and completed in 1973. In the same year, the Ottawa Muslim Association announced that a new purpose-built mosque would be constructed, and construction began in 1977.
In Quebec, the Islamic Centre of Montreal started services in 1962 in a rented office on Sherbrooke Street. To obtain official status, the young community lobbied to have Islam recognized as a minor religion. Bill 194, a private bill, was passed in the National Assembly and received assent on August 6, 1965. With $13,000 in the bank, the community started the construction of the community centre in 1971.
Similar efforts were initiated in other provinces. In British Columbia, Al-Masjid Al-Jamia Vancouver began as a cultural centre for Pakistani-Canadians in 1965, and the BC Muslim Association was established in 1966. The Islamic Association of the Maritime Provinces of Canada was established in 1966 and later renamed the Islamic Association of Nova Scotia. Dartmouth Mosque was formed in 1971. Hazelwood Mosque was built in Winnipeg in 1976. The Jaffari Community Centre of the Shia Muslim community was formally opened in 1979.
Schools were also an important part of the community’s institution-building efforts. Weekend classes were a staple offering for all the mosques. In 1983, ISNA Islamic School in Mississauga was the first private school established. It was purchased from the Peel District School Board.
For each centre or mosque built, there is an untold story about a pioneer who mobilized the community and worked tirelessly to lead volunteers and fundraise and manage community politics.
Interestingly, Islam was recognized as a distinct religious category only in the 1981 census. By that year, the Muslim population had tripled to 98,163 people. In the next decade, the community grew to 253,260 people. The Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City was born in 1985 out of the Laval University MSA that was established in 1972. This centre was later the scene for the worst massacre in a place of worship in Canada. The Muslim Association of New Brunswick’s centre was built in 1985, the Islamic Association of Saskatchewan’s in 1989, and the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador’s in 1990. The growth expanded to the Arctic: the Midnight Sun Mosque in Inuvik was built in 2010 and Iqaluit Masjid was completed in 2016.
The impetus to establish these institutions was to protect the community from the dangers of disintegration and to nurture a strong identity for the faithful community as it deepened its roots in Canadian soil. These centres fostered the spiritual, social, and cultural life of the community, and most became more than places of worship: they were community hubs running a variety of activities – Sunday schools, study circles, libraries, social halls, recreational facilities, sometimes even funeral homes.
For each centre or mosque built, there is an untold story about a pioneer who mobilized the community and worked tirelessly to lead volunteers and fundraise and manage community politics. They made the road by walking it. Many followed in their footsteps to expand on their good works.
From community preservation to community building
By the early 1990s, there was a shared sense among community leaders of the need to define something more specific and reflective of the Canadian Muslim reality and experience, a way to build a specific Canadian Muslim identity. Continental ties gave way to strong local and national organizations. The Muslim Association of Canada was founded. ISNA Canada was created. Later, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) Canada followed suit. More than 180 mosques were established across the country, many created by repurposing old churches, houses, retail shops, banks, restaurants, and even a gas station – a huge feat for the young community. There is no accurate count of Islamic schools, but rough estimates put the number at close to 80 schools of different sizes.
The second phase of philanthropic growth focused on relief work, social services delivery, and advocacy.
The lasting legacy of this phase was the creation of a vital and vigorous charitable ecosystem. This led to the organic development of the second phase of philanthropic growth, which focused on relief work, social services delivery, and advocacy.
Human Concern International was formed in 1983. In 1984, in response to the devastating famine in Ethiopia, the International Development and Relief Foundation was formed. Since then, international relief and aid have become a feature of Canadian Muslim communities – because relief aligns with the core values of Islamic philanthropy, but also because of the ties between Canadian Muslims, many of whom were immigrants to Canada, and their countries of origin. Islamic Relief Canada, ICNA-Relief, and Penny Appeal are among today’s most active Muslim-led relief organizations.
Social services organizations started to take form and build culturally sensitive and appropriate service models. Islamic Family and Social Services Association in Edmonton (created in 1992), the Muslim Welfare Center in Toronto (1993), and Islamic Social Services Association (1999) were among the first cohort. Islamic Social Services Association was established in 1999 in Washington, DC, and split into two independent organizations, one in the United States and one in Canada (in Winnipeg), in 2003.
These were followed by the Sakeenah homes, NISA Homes, Naseeha Mental Health, DEEN Support Services, Smile, and others. Advocacy groups were established to support the community and combat rising systemic racism after 9/11. CAIR-CAN, later renamed the National Council of Canadian Muslims, and The Canadian Muslim Vote are among the active organizations.
With the emergence of digital platforms and crowdfunding tools, there was an early adoption of online giving. Anfiq, created in 2013, was the pioneer fundraising platform. Launchgood is another platform based in the US that is rapidly gaining prominence in this space.
Anti-terrorism laws brought policy changes that changed the working environment significantly, and soon Canadian Muslim-led charities were disproportionately and unfairly profiled by the CRA.
Islamic philanthropy enjoyed healthy growth, both organizationally and operationally, at the turn of the century. The first chill came with the growing prevalence of the war-on-terror discourses. The political rhetoric helped create suspicion around these charities. Anti-terrorism laws brought policy changes that changed the working environment significantly, and soon Canadian Muslim-led charities were disproportionately and unfairly profiled by the Canada Revenue Agency.
Recently, two reports exposed how Muslim-led charities have been in the crosshairs of the government since as early as 2003. The first, published by the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, an Ottawa-based national coalition of Canadian civil society organizations, ascertained that from 2008 to 2015, the CRA’s Review and Analysis Division completed audits of 16 charities, eight of which had their charitable status revoked, of which at least 75% of those were Muslim-led charities. The second, titled Under Layered Suspicion, exposed how auditors for the CRA select, interpret, and analyze data to support their conclusions. It became evident that these audits are a product of a process that lacks transparency and precision. In another sign of the maturity of the sector, the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC) launched a legal challenge against the CRA on Charter of Rights grounds, alleging both a violation of religious freedom and discrimination by the CRA audit. The lasting impact of these actions is the erosion of trust in government agencies within the Muslim charitable sector.
Despite systemic Islamophobia, the Muslim charitable sector continues to grow and evolve. During the Syrian refugee crisis, for instance, Muslim charities played a key role in sponsoring families, helping with the resettlement programs, and supporting the acclimatization and integration of these families. For example, MAC worked with the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia, the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, and the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Ottawa among others to sponsor 38 families. It partnered with COSTI Immigrant Services and other settlement agencies to support 493 families. This work was recognized by the governor general of Canada.
Despite systemic Islamophobia, the Muslim charitable sector continues to grow and evolve.
The third phase of the development of Muslim giving and Islamic philanthropy is defined by two features. The first is the increased capacity of individual Muslim philanthropists and a pattern of giving to public causes in the wider community. In 2015, two prominent Muslim Canadian business leaders, Mohamad Fakih and Kashif Khan, launched the $1-million Salaam-TPL Fund to support the families of veterans. In 2016, Sajjad Ebrahim announced a $2.5-million donation to William Osler Health System Foundation. In 2018, Shakir Rehmatullah, the president and founder of Flato Developments, made a seven-figure gift to Markham Stouffville Hospital. In 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched its Refugee Zakat Fund, and in 2020, it successfully raised $1.5 million from Canada and the United States. In 2021, more than $1 million of a $5-million pledge was donated for the redevelopment of Mississauga’s Trillium Health network. In 2022, hockey star Nazem Kadri donated $1 million to a surgical centre in his hometown of London, Ontario. In the same year, the Islamic Shia Ithna-Asheri Jamaat made a $1-million donation to Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital. These are some of the more notable examples, but it is likely that many professionals and entrepreneurs are giving substantial amounts to many worthy public causes.
The second feature is that the institution of “waqf” started to take shape. At its basic level, waqf is meant to be a transfer of wealth from individuals to community through irrevocable deeds, but invested to create community benefit. It could be conceived as allocation of resources from current consumption to investing to build productive assets for the community and society at large. Historically, waqf (“awqaf” is the plural) is a vehicle for individuals to express their contributions to the culture and society. Waqf has a long-standing tradition in Muslim societies and played a vital role in building a vibrant Muslim culture and promoting socio-economic welfare over many centuries. This is especially true during the Ottoman time. The waqf system is recognized as a unique institution of Islamic public administration, according to Wolfgang Drechsler, a professor of governance at Tallinn University of Technology. He asserts that it was Islamic societies who innovated waqf by creating or improving its organizational form(s), legal framework, and set of values. Indeed, during the Ottoman era, individuals, not the government, built infrastructure such as universities, schools, libraries, hospitals, hostels, soup kitchens, as well as roads, sidewalks, water supplies, and bridges. (A detailed discussion about the attributes of this institution is beyond the scope of this article.)
An endowment of $1 million by the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities helped to establish the first endowed chair in Islamic studies in Canada, at the University of Alberta in 2006. In 2011, the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College, at Western University, was established by a $2-million endowment. In 2019, a $1-million donation was made by the Bay Tree Foundation, a family foundation of Mohammad Al Zaibak, to the National Arts Centre Foundation to encourage Arab-Canadian artistic programming.
Enriching the social innovation ecosystem
With the focus turning to social innovation and social finance, waqf is a versatile instrument that can be easily used to enrich the social innovation ecosystem. Cash waqf and sukuk – community bonds – are new tools being developed as social financing instruments that can propagate the values of Islamic giving. This will likely be the new frontier for Islamic philanthropy in Canada and North America.
Islamic philanthropy and Muslim giving can be analyzed along a number of dimensions, such as the giving patterns by individual donors, the unique attributes of Islamic giving and its path to maturity within the Canadian context, as well as its trajectory into the future and how it can enrich the Canadian philanthropic landscape.
It is difficult to determine the exact size of the Muslim-led philanthropy ecosystem. The best estimate is based on an analysis of T3010 filings for the year 2018, which reveals a total of 359 charitable organizations, most of which are small religious institutions and Islamic schools. Revenues in the Muslim organization ecosystem totalled at least $520,380,478 in that year. The majority of organizations, or 72%, have annual revenues under a million dollars. The 50 largest Muslim charities generate 87% of the revenue, totalling $454,694,396.
As a ratio of the Canadian charitable ecosystem, Muslim charities account for only 1.6% of religious-based charities (21,966 charities). However, their share of the collected donations is 3.2% (calculated based on the Cardus report linked above). It is important to note that this number does not include donations by Muslims to other charities and causes.
As for the giving patterns of individual donors, there is a scarcity of data in Canada. However, a recent study, conducted by Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and focused on Muslim American giving in 2021, is instructive. The study found that Muslim Americans gave more money on average ($3,241) compared to the general population ($1,905) – that is, 70% more. Extrapolated on the total population, the estimate of the total donations could reach as high as $4.3 billion in 2021. Muslims give a smaller proportion of their charitable dollars directly to houses of worship or mosques (27%) compared to the average population (51%). The second largest area of giving is relief, both international (13%) and domestic (11%), totalling 24%, followed by COVID relief (14%) and donations to social services (11%). The study also confirmed what has been observed over the years: neither public recognition nor tax-deductible receipts are key motivations for giving. Rather, giving is considered a duty to God.
Surprisingly, despite its size and success, Islamic philanthropy attracts little attention from the wider philanthropic sector.
Two recent trends might be good indicators of the maturity of the Islamic philanthropy ecosystem in Canada and the US. The Muslim Philanthropy Initiative was inaugurated in 2019 at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The intended focus of the program is to understand and further enhance Muslim philanthropy in all its facets. The second is the hosting of a symposium in March 2021 by the Centre for Religion and Its Contexts, at Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. Back in 2014, the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Foundation for Philanthropy – Canada hosted a conference that brought together charity leaders, donors, and volunteers to explore Muslim philanthropy in Ontario. Surprisingly, despite its size and success, Islamic philanthropy attracts little attention from the wider philanthropic sector.
The virtue of Islamic philanthropy is grounded on a moral imperative and a community ethic paradigm: to build community solidarity by reducing inequality and discouraging hoarding of wealth. Through its various instruments, it brings a new calculus with the aim of optimizing three interconnected domains: the spiritual domain, which is the glue that makes the parts whole; the financial domain, where savings are reinvested in the economy to create community wealth; and the social domain, which aims to build social cohesion by addressing the unmet needs of all community members. Islamic philanthropy makes meeting those needs not only a state responsibility, but one that individuals can play a key role in. It elevates consciousness of community values of solidarity and compassion by balancing the inherent competitive edge in the capitalist system – and its individualistic tendencies – by taming desires, reducing consumption, and mobilizing spiritual energies to counter egocentric living.
The illustration that accompanies this article, created by Opola Karim, is entitled Serenity – a feeling evoked by the use of traditional Islamic geometric patterns. She notes that colours such as blue and yellow elicit feelings of hope and peacefulness. Using a ruler and also drawing freehand creates a sense of imperfection, a comment on the idea that no one is perfect, yet we can try to be the best versions of ourselves.