A bridge to understanding
Saanich pharmacist takes public on journeys to the heart of his faith in an effort to counteract negative stereotypes of Islam
Times ColonistTuesday, September 12, 2006
Naz Rayani has a prescription for tolerance and understanding in the post-9/11 world.
During the past 12 years, the Cadboro Bay pharmacist has taken over 40 trips and more than 1,000 people to the heart of his culture and his faith — the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre in Burnaby.
The trips are Rayani’s way of increasing awareness of Islam as a faith and as a way of life.
“After Sept. 11, it became even more urgent,” says Rayani. “My customers were saying ‘Naz, I know you’re a Muslim, but I didn’t know you were a terrorist.'”
The gentlemanly Muslim says his tours of the Jamatkhana are an easy way to counteract the extreme side of Islam commonly portrayed in western media. The three-storey house of prayer and community on Canada Way has been designated by the Aga Khan, the Ismaili spiritual leader, as one of five ambassadorial buildings in the world, symbolic of who Ismaili Muslims really are.
“If I could take a tour here every day, I’d do it every day,” says Rayani. “This is the way I boast about my culture. I can take 50 people there and they all come out and say, ‘Wow, Naz.’ And I don’t have to do a thing.”
On this recent morning, Rayani and his wife Yasmine board the ferry in Swartz Bay accompanied by Michael Hadley, associate director of UVic’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, members of Victoria’s Muslim community and about 20 others interested in learning about Islam.
“It’s quite wonderful, the cross-section of people that come,” says Cadboro Bay resident Patricia Murray.
Hadley, a practising Christian, is making his fifth trip with Rayani to the Jamatkhana this year.
“I realize we share many values, among them inclusiveness and compassion and a desire to serve,” says Hadley. “I also realize it must be very difficult to be a public Muslim today, after 9/11. The Muslim faith has been stereotyped and one way to understand some of the subtleties is to begin to share with people who walk that path.”
Visiting the Jamatkhana allows people to see in a physical context how Muslims try to integrate Islamic culture into daily life, says Karima Ramji, one of the Victoria community’s spiritual leaders.
“In my experience, the minute you walk in, the building has a spiritual aura all over it. Your faith is all around you,” says Ramji. “Hopefully, those that attend the tour experience the same thing and get a better understanding of what it’s all about.”
After bouncing along to Burnaby in a yellow school bus, the group begins the tour in the sunken courtyard garden with fountains — a representation of the earthly paradise — outside the domed building. The building, an example of modern Islamic architecture, was designed by Bruno Freschi and opened in 1985 by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney, says volunteer Shaheen Tejani.
The building is not visible from the highway and many get lost trying to find their way here. Layers of trees and bushes are symbolic of the Islamic idea of layering and depth and of mystery, says Tejani, because Allah is a mystery.
The group stands under the dome at the entrance to the building, feeling small and sheltered.
“It gives you a feeling of greatness before you walk in. It makes you forget about ferries and cellphones,” she says.
Inside, the group learns about the use of calligraphy and geometry in Islamic architecture. Its members admire the touches of brass, wood and marble in the mostly concrete structure, and wonder at the tapestries. One, dating from the 12th century, is made from 24-karat gold thread.
They stand in the octagonal-shaped staircase, built to represent an interior minaret — the typical Islamic spire with an onion-shaped crown — from which the faithful are called to prayer.
“I’m quite impressed,” says senior Max Yas, a secular Jew.
In the prayer hall, sitting on the silk carpet as warm light streams in from lantern-shaped windows, they learn about Islam from scholar Sikeena Karmali. It’s a moving experience for Nafissa Shariff-Kassam of Victoria.
“The most unique thing about today’s tour is that I’m with a group of people who are not of the same faith,” she says. “To be able to openly share and talk and reach out and be proud of who I am and who I represent is amazing, and it’s very emotional for me.”
“I feel we’ve opened up a door, a little more understanding on Islam,” says Rayani, on the bus to Tsawwassen.
“Sept. 11 was a sad day and there is not one Muslim who could support those acts.”
Anyone interested in a trip to the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre can e-mail Naz Rayani at email@example.com. The bus trips and lunch are courtesy of the Ismaili council.
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GETTING TO KNOW A COMMUNITY
– Ismaili Muslims belong to the Shia branch of Islam.
– Eighty per cent of Muslims are Sunni, 20 per cent are Shia.
– Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims believe there is only one God and that the Prophet Muhammad is his messenger. They also believe His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam, or spiritual leader, of the Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendent of Muhammad.
– Ismailis live in 25 countries around the world. In the late 1960s, the community came to Canada. Many arrived as refugees in 1972 during the political upheaval in Uganda.
– Shaheen Tejani, a volunteer at the Burnaby Jamatkhana and Centre, said the Aga Khan told the Ismaili community it had to stop being refugees. ” ‘Make Canada your home,’ he said. The Aga Khan wanted us to figure out what it meant to be a Canadian living in the West and an Ismaili living in the West,” she said. “The answer is the building, the Jamatkhana.”
– The Ismaili community is known for its ethic of volunteerism, service to society and support for humanitarian causes.
The Aga Khan Foundation Canada has raised millions of dollars with its World Partnership Walk. The walk is held in nine cities to raise money to support development projects in Asia and Africa.