Histories of Islam

Muslims are an integral part of Canadian society, and yet their history and contributions to that society are often overlooked, says Aslam Bulbulia. Events like those in October for Islamic History Month go some ways towards changing this situation.

The Islamic history event takes place Oct. 27 at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch. | Photo courtesy of Aslam Bulbulia

[Islamic History Month carries] in some ways a double edge of separating yourself, of treating Muslims as different, as Other,” says Bulbulia, the community engagement coordinator for the Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies who helped put together the upcoming Vancouver event for Islamic History Month. “[However], until there is a visibility of Muslims within the city, opportunities to specifically celebrate are useful, in the sense of pride for your traditions and background.”

Some of these historical Islamic traditions, as well as modern depictions of Muslim life, will be on display at Vancouver’s Islamic History Month event, which takes place Oct. 27 at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch.

Miniatures and mehndi

Post-colonial encounters with the Muslim world tend to underplay the contributions of Muslims in the history of civilization,” explains Bulbulia. “The dark ages for Europeans were actually the golden ages for Muslims. Advances were made in terms of mathematics, astrology, medicine. [But] a lot of these contributions were largely ignored during the Renaissance and the colonial period.”

Aslam Bulbulia, community engagement coordinator for the Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies. | Photo courtesy of Aslam Bulbulia

One traditional art, calligraphy, is skill originating in some parts of the Muslim world, notes Bulbulia. “There was a religious interpretation among Sunni Muslims that discouraged the depiction of every living being, animals and people. [Such depiction] is an act of creation, and that is supposed to be only what God does. But that’s not the case in much of the Shia Muslim world, where there’s a longstanding tradition of miniature paintings that includes people being drawn.”

This interpretation by the Sunni Muslims led to an importance given to the written word, to the beautification of text, and to many styles of calligraphy, says Bulbulia. The Kufic script, for example, was different, “a block lettering, rather than what’s traditionally associated with Arabic calligraphy, which is round, stylistic markings.”

This script is still in use today, adds Bulbulia, and can be seen in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant district. “At the Vancouver Mural Festival, the Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies did a mural that uses a modern version of the Kufic script. It’s a beautiful quotation from the Koran that talks about mankind being created into many different nations so that we may learn from one another.”

The Islamic History Month celebrates modern Muslim life, as well as Muslim history, continues Bulbulia. Artists will be on hand to demonstrate calligraphy techniques in person, and vis-
itors can also experience henna hand painting, an art currently in use by North African and Indian women.

Henna is a dye made from lea[ves] and used for beautification purposes [for] religious holidays and wedding celebrations, [often with] flower motifs,” says Bulbulia. “I’ve seen women in my family getting their mehndi done before big events.”

Starting conversations

Bulbulia is new to Vancouver, having emigrated from South Africa a year and a half ago.

“Every community has a lot to offer in terms of understanding the diverse nuances of histories that populations have experienced,” he says. “Whether it’s learning about the histories of African origin, whether it’s a geographic origin or a religious orientation that’s privileged – there’s always a lot to learn.”

This form of education has been at the centre of Bulbulia’s time in Canada.

“I found very beautiful people here with really good hearts who I’ve been able to learn from,” he says. “The way indigenous communities are starting conversations [to] recognize and try to rectify injustice [is] to me a tremendous motivation for social change.”

Changing society is something about which Bulbulia feels strongly.

“To be an accepting, multicultural, multi-religious society means accommodating and celebrating the needs of every community within the country,” he says.

For more information, please visit www.vpl.ca.