SHAFAQNA -Â When Imam Jamal Hammoud first visited the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton in 1987, he knew it was special. The cityâ€™s first mosque has deep rootsÂ in the community, the original house of worship built in 1938 on 111th Avenue and 102nd Street. That building has since been moved and preserved at Fort Edmonton.
â€œI consider it like the first mosque in Arabia. Itâ€™s special. I feel like Islam started in North America at Al Rashid,â€ Imam Jamal said in a recent interview.
But what really impressed him when he became the imam at Al Rashid two years ago was the faith communityâ€™s long tradition of reaching out to neighbours living nearÂ the Calder mosque, part of the Canadian Islamic Centre at 13070 113th Street.
â€œI found that the mosque in Edmonton is building really good relationships with the non-Muslims,â€ says the imam, noting regular open houses, the Taste of Ramadan event and active interfaith dialogueÂ with other Edmonton faith communities.
â€œThey have very nice habits at this mosque. Itâ€™s special. Before the day of Eid, during Ramadan, they visit all the neighbours, like hundreds of them, with cards, inviting them for a special dinner.â€
The mosque also hosts about two tours of visitors each week from schoolchildren and university classes. â€œWe receive people and we make presentations to them aboutÂ the Muslim religion.â€
Since charity is one of the pillars of the Islamic faith, Al Rashid helps the cityâ€™s needy by collecting donations from all local mosques for the Edmonton Food Bank.
Along withÂ other caring Canadians, Hammoud is also tackling the growing problem of how to help refugees come to Canada from countries devastated by war. Al Rashid is working closely with the cityâ€™s Mennonite community to sponsor refugees from Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.
Hammoud, 52, shares the leadership at Al Rashid with another imam,Â Sherif Ayoup. A volunteer board of members administers aÂ multitude ofÂ services and events. Preaching, leading prayers, marriages, funerals, counselling â€” an imamâ€™s duties arenâ€™t that different from those of leaders in other faith communities. But Al Rashidâ€™s special status places a heavier burden on its imams.
Al Rashid is the supervising mosque for all other Sunni mosques in the city, serving aboutÂ 90,000 Muslims. It owns the Edmonton Islamic Academy â€” a K-12 school â€” and the Muslim cemetery, soÂ all funerals occur via Al Rashid. It also administers a post-secondary scholarship program. Al Rashidâ€™s institute for thoseÂ wanting to memorize the Quâ€™ran currently has about 500 students enrolled.
Marriage counselling is a huge part of an imamâ€™s duties, says Hammoud, who meets weekly with the Alberta Council of Imams to finalize divorces.Â As the representative in CanadaÂ of the Grand Mufti of Lebanon and the Supreme Muslim Court of Lebanon, HammoudÂ is the only imam authorized to issue divorce decrees for Lebanese Muslims in Canada. Divorces by CanadianÂ courts are recognized in the process leading to Islamic divorce decrees, which are then sealed by the Lebanese consulate in Ottawa.
Imam Jamal also keeps busy mentoringÂ four Edmonton-born University of Alberta students whose goal is to become imams. As the senior imam for Alberta, he serves both Edmonton and Calgary, where he servedÂ for 25 years prior to moving to Edmonton. He is hosting an interfaith dialogue there with Christian clergy on Sept. 28 and is planningÂ to organize a similar event for Edmonton. Heâ€™s eagerly anticipating the three-dayÂ Festival of Sacrifice, orÂ Eid-al-Adha,Â which begins Thursday.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Hammoud and another imam founded the Canadian Council of Imams, an effort that included meeting then prime minister Paul Martin.Â Since then, Hammoud has initiatedÂ the Alberta Council of Imams and the Alberta Muslim Council, vehicles for co-ordinating activities and services as well as governing the faithful.
Hammoud started his journey toward becoming an imam as a boy of 11, sent to El Azhar Institute in Beirut toÂ learn the Quâ€™ran. â€œMy father noticed that my voice is very beautiful and he said â€˜You are created for this.â€™ â€
WinningÂ prizes for memorizing the entire Quâ€™ran, young HammoudÂ attracted attention in Canada. After graduating Al-Madinah Islamic University, he was persuaded to emigrateÂ in 1986 with wife Roula, to serve asÂ an imam in London, Ont. In 1990,Â the family, which eventually includedÂ five children, moved to Calgary.
â€œI love Canada; all my children were born here,â€ Hammoud says with a broad smile.