By Kayla Empey
The first thing I saw when I emerged into the warmth of the building was a coat rack weighed down by heavy winter coats and a sign that asked for shoes to be removed. There was a black rug with a line of boots laid out in front of me, so I began to take my own off.
“Excuse me, the women’s entrance is over there.”
My heart was pounding in my chest so hard I could almost hear it. I had been inside for seconds, yet I had already managed to do something wrong.
“I am sorry, should I leave and come back in the other door?” I glanced up to see a man, probably mid-40s, smiling at me.
“Don’t worry about it, you can just head over there.” He pointed towards the other side of the room, to what looked like a hallway.
I was at the Islamic Information and Dawah Centre International, located near the intersection of Bloor and Dufferin. Islam is the second largest religion in Toronto, representing about eight per cent the population. There are no other mosques in Dufferin Grove, so people come from all around the area to be able to express their faith.
Being a Catholic, I have always been interested in learning more about other religions but have been afraid to feel out of place if I were to visit a mosque. I decided to put my fears aside because while this centre is similar to a regular mosque, the Dawah Centre’s main goal is to welcome all people, Muslims and non-Muslims.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Great, the Imam is waiting for you. Follow me.”
A younger guy led me into a small office, just big enough for a desk and chair. Sitting inside was a man with a pure white beard. He was wearing a robe that reached from his neck to his ankles and a round cap on the top of his head. He introduced himself as Shabir Ally, the Imam of the mosque. He explained that Imam means “faith leader.” I had been in contact with him over the past week to plan a time for me to visit, and he had invited me to join their Friday sermon and prayer.
Shabir Ally handed me a small, blue book. It read “Qur’an, English translation.” I noticed that there was a little piece of paper that he had placed inside for me, marking a specific page. I opened it to find several verses about Jesus and Mary, a topic I know quite a bit about.
After chatting for a few minutes, Shabir Ally’s wife, Sabi Ally, led me to the main room through the women’s side. It was a large open area. Stripes of deep green and brown carpet extended down the entire room, making it look longer than it was. The walls were all white, with delicate designs engraved into them. There were people scattered all over. Some sitting on the floor, some on a chair, some standing. Many praying. The only furniture was a row of chairs at the back of the room and a microphone at the front, not yet in use.
The men were at the front half of the room, the women at the back. There were two large grey dividers that separated the room. In between the dividers was thick red rope, allowing the front to be seen by certain angles. There were about triple the amount of men, forcing their bodies close together.
I was approached by a woman who grabbed a blue piece of cloth and gestured to my head. I nodded and leaned forward, allowing for her to put it on me.
“God bless you,” she said as she walked away.
As I was waiting for the sermon to begin, another woman approached me. She sat down in the seat beside me, curious about the purpose of my visit. I told her that I am Catholic and was just there to observe. She smiled and jumped up out of her seat, asking a row of women sitting in chairs along the back wall to move down so that I may have a better view of the preacher and the men at the front.
Sabi Ally told me that men and women do not sit together in the mosque due to the nature of how Muslims pray, to respect personal space and each other’s bodies. Everyone must feel comfortable in order to focus on devoting themselves entirely to Allah. I did not quite understand until I witnessed prayer first-hand.
Muslims pray five times a day: before dawn, afternoon, late afternoon, after sunset and late at night. The mosque is open for all to join in prayer any of those five times.
I noticed that the prayer was done completely in Arabic, even though the Imam had said that most of the people who attended did not speak this language.
“The prayer has this unifying force among Muslims,” Shabir Ally told me. “What it means now is that Muslims all over the world, regardless of the languages that are native to them, learn how to recite the prayer in Arabic. That means that when I go to Malaysia and I visit a mosque, I feel at home because I know it is the same prayer.”
People speak a variety of languages at the Dawah Centre, and there is a diversity of cultures as well. During my visit I met a woman named Marcia Ramirez Cabalceta who is originally from Costa Rica. She said she is beginning to feel at home at the mosque, but for her that was not always the case. Marcia has been a Muslim for 14 years, but only began coming to the mosque about five years ago. She was told by several people that congregation was only for men, that women should stay at home. Also being from a country where the Muslim population is small, Marcia did not want to feel like an outsider.
One day Marcia was reflecting on her faith and decided that she should not care what people think because she prays for the connection with God, not to please others. She chose to attend the Islamic Information and Dawah Centre with her husband at the time and noticed that there were many women who went there to pray from all sorts of cultures. They were accepted there. She realized that joining the congregation should be for everyone, despite race or gender.
Sabi Ally told me that the varied backgrounds can make it difficult for everyone to communicate effectively at times, but because they come every week you get to know them despite that. For almost the entire two hours I was there I saw people hugging, laughing, waving. Every person had a smile on their face.
As I was getting ready to leave, a few women come up to tell me that it was nice to meet me. I stood around talking to them for a while. I reflected on how nervous I had been to attend, worried that I would not be accepted since I was not a person of Islamic faith. Even though I made a mistake as soon as I walked through the door, I was never made to feel like I was out of place – every person I encountered greeted me with a smile.
“Thanks for coming, come back any time. You are always welcome,” Sabi Ally told me. And I knew it was true.
Want to learn more about Dufferin Grove? Check out the Farmers’ Market
Located at 875 Dufferin Street, the Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market hosts a collection of local organic vendors. The market runs every Thursday from 3-7pm year-round.