Day 4 – Masjid Al-Qalam – Al-Qalam Islamic Community Centre

After an hour of unrushed cycling, I am in front of Masjid Al-Qalam, Al-Qalam Islamic Community Center in North York.

You will find Masjid Al-Qalam at 344 Marlee Avenue.

It’s close to Glencairn TTC Subway Station, in an almost self-contained community unto itself.

I had learned of this masjid from a flyer I picked up inside Masjid Toronto after Jumah Prayers last Friday.

They are facing a urgent fundraising challenge. It is also a masjid I’ve never visited before.

Masjid Al-Qalam is currently a leased storefront inside a strip mall. There are no other Masjids in the area, and now the owner wants to sell the building. The volunteers who founded the masjid are raising funds to purchase the building, as well as the unit next door and the apartments above it.

If they are successful with their purchase, the rent from the neighbouring storefront and the residential units above both storefronts, will be enough to carry the costs of running the Masjid. Consequently, this would seem to be a one-time capital fundraising campaign rather than an ongoing operating fundraising effort.

In front of the Masjid I meet two fathers who are picking up their kids from Evening Islamic School.

From them I learn there are maybe 30 Muslim Families in the apartment high rises a few blocks south of us and perhaps double that in a housing project some distance north of us.

And that’s it.

Very few Muslim families supporting the only storefront masjid in the area.

Urban planners talk of Food Deserts, of pockets existing within a city where it is easy to buy junk food yet near impossible to purchase nutritious food.

Here in North York, Marlee-Ville may be about to become a Spiritual Desert.

At least from the Muslim point of view.

I also learn from one of the dads, Brother Abdusalam, that he had his kids enrolled at another larger masjid’s school, yet found they were only getting the students to memorize the Qur’an in Arabic without any translation nor comprehension. The teacher here ensures children know what they are reading, that they are learning the Arabic language as they go along.

Both these dads are worried about the potential loss of Al-Qalam Center. They briefly wonder if moving to a location closer to Yorkdale Mall may make a difference? Doing so may mean more Muslim families who could financially keep a Masjid like this afloat.

Yet it becomes clear, this current location happens to be most convenient where it is. Its loss would be immediate to all who learn, pray and break fast here.

The wudu facilities for the brothers are modest yet quite acceptable. One must go downstairs and pass the Evening Islamic School currently in class.

It’s nice to hear little children properly reciting the Qur’an with overlapping voices. Their teacher sounds like he’s keeping them all in check.

I have to see this in action after I complete my Asr Prayers upstairs.

The name of this Masjid, Al-Qalam is from an Arabic word meaning The Pen.

ن ? وَالْقَلَمِ وَمَا يَسْطُرُونَ

Nun, wa-’l Qalami wa maa yaSturoon

Nun. By the pen and what they inscribe,

Qur’an Chapter 68, Ayah 1

Qalam or Pen is a word widely understood to be associated with education. Hence, how appropriate that here, one would find an above average, if not excellent, Islam and Arabic teacher.

The teacher is Shaikh Muhammad. He is from Sierra Leone.

Watching him handle the baker’s dozen of students of different ages all at varying levels of Qur’an reading ability, it is hard not to imagine you are watching a Brazilian plant or factory manager handling a dozen different subordinates all at once without error.

The children are laughing, yet learning. His gaze is stearn, yet out of the corner of his eye, he’s watching all of them. The kids think they are getting away with slacking in their reading. They keep getting caught.

This is in fact the 2012 equivalent of the Canadian tradition of the one room school house.

The children’s ages are anywhere from kindergarten to grade six.

For every error, the student must re-recite the verse correctly five times. At certain key words, he grills them as to its meaning. They answer in English. He continues.

Watching this as a grown-up, it’s obvious for these children in this basement evening school, years from now, they will likely say Shaikh Muhammad was their favourite teacher.

The small prayer hall on the main floor is empty and I am able to get some rare down time during Ramadan. The air conditioning has made me cold. It’s been mad humid all day. Stepping outside I warm up within moments.

I decide to take a quick look at the neighbourhood before it’s time to break fast. Notably, there are few national chain stores here. Most look to be mom and pop operations.

A stand alone storefront masjid would appear to belong here.

Adhan Al-Maghrib, the Sunset Call to Prayer. Time to break fast.

It being Monday, there is no big Iftar dinner planned. A big box of dates is available and Shaikh Muhammad encourages the dozen of us here to finish it off.

He then invites anyone who wants to stay to come downstairs for dates and juice.

After Maghrib Prayers, three of us head downstairs.

This part of North York is home to many Torontonians of Jewish and Russian descent. Consequently any number of stores import Russian grocery products for their customers.

This certainly was a once-in-a-30Masjids-moment. . .

Russian juice for Iftar dinner!

Myself, Shaikh Muhammad and one neighbourhood person who fasted today are the only ones here.

The local person isn’t Muslim but wanted to try Fasting. He prayed beside me upstairs by copying our ritual prayer, being a half step behind physical movement.

I ask him what he would lose if Al-Qalam Center was no longer here?

He answers since it is walking distance from his home, he might not be inclined to drive to a more distant masjid. Also, since this is a small community oriented space, it seems to be a size he is comfortable with.

I ask him directly if he is a Muslim? He hesitates to say no. But his is a look that appears on one who is contemplating a serious question.

He shares with us a little bit of Ghandi. We share with him a little bit of The Qur’an.

Shaikh Muhammad invites him for Taraweeh prayers later on, but since it’s a work night, maybe on the weekend instead. With that he leaves, smiling, having broken his first fast.

I ask Shaikh Muhammad about his philosophy of teaching.

He shares something about his childhood and upbringing in Sierra Leone. His first teacher used to hit him if he got things wrong. At some point he had enough of that and abandoned school altogether.

Another grown-up saw something in Muhammad and decided to mentor him personally, this time minus any hitting. It worked. He stuck with his Arabic and Islamic studies. He also promised himself if he ever became a teacher, he’d never beat the knowledge into his students. He knew firsthand the rod does not work.

He keeps reminding his students how lucky there are to be in Canada and that they should work hard and strive to make something of themselves.

In his grade school days, they had no paper. Instead they wrote on slabs of wood, the teacher would check their wood and then pass or fail their lesson. The wood was then wiped clean and they wrote on it again.

Like a personal etch-a-sketch or tablet computer today, these pieces of wood were their notebooks.

My jaw drops. You always imagine these stories in the abstract, yet here I was in front of a man just a bit older than I who was educated without paper.

It will be Isha soon, and without a coffee I will be wiped out.

Outside I don’t find anything open and am now worried about drowsiness, but I do find the crescent moon with several days thickness in-between a line of tree trunks on Marlee Avenue.

I make my way back to the Masjid and join the Isha Prayer. Initially, only a handful are present.

By the time Taraweeh begins, the prayer hall has filled up and it is standing room only.

Many neighbourhood people walk here for Isha and Taraweeh and keep joining us.

Indeed, if there were no masjid here, they would have to go a bit of a ways in any direction to make a congregational Isha and Taraweeh prayer.

I notice after a few rakats of Taraweeh, Shaikh Muhammad has his iPad sitting atop a portable sheet music stand. It is displaying verses from the Qur’an.

Sometimes, people praying Taraweeh behind an Imam who has memorized the Qur’an will hold a small Qur’an in one hand while silently reading along what is being recited.

It’s another way to learn the Qur’an.

Spotting an iPad with Qur’an App on a sheet music stand is the second once-in-a-30Masjids-moment of the night.

We prayed eight Rakats and most people begin to file out. As I feared, without at least one cup of coffee, it is difficult to stay awake for the full twenty.

I move to the back and am knocked out almost instantly. I awake from this power nap in time for Witr, yet am still unable to immediately get up join the final prayer of the night.

Afterwards, at the bottom of Marlee Avenue at Eglinton is a Coffee Time. I enjoy a small double cream double sweetener and am finally revived.

The bike ride back downtown is easier than the earlier one uptown.

Hopefully likewise for Masjid Al-Qalam‘s fundraising efforts.


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