iHistory: Other than Columbus
The dictionary defines public history as: a broad range of activities undertaken by people with some training in the discipline of history who are generally working outside of specialized academic settings. But why this need to seek the truth at the micro level?
In this unsettling age of so called fake news, social media overtaking all other forms of communication and the gnawing desire to go “viral”, even reality seems like a delusion. And then reality can be different for everyone. Though it is easiest to go with the flow wherever it takes you, some are brave enough to go up-stream to try and discover the truths left behind. There’s more to reality than the mainstream. iHistory is a blog dedicated to an alternative narrative of history. The focus is on the stories of Canadian Muslims, but this knowledge base is relevant to anyone seeking the millions of missing pieces in the huge jigsaw puzzle which is humanity’s combined existence.
The mind and heart behind this massive undertaking is Hassam Munir. Here he shares with us his thoughts on what he thinks about various aspects of his work.
TheLinkCanada: Do you think in the present political environment; your work has greater relevance than ever before? Especially since we Canadians are celebrating our 150 years on the world map?
Hassam Munir: I would like to start by mentioning that at iHistory I am not as such celebrating 150 years of Canada’s existence. My intention is to take advantage of the sudden surge in interest in the dominant narrative of Canadian history, by sharing an unrecognized aspect of it; the history of Muslim communities in Canada. The very fact that this history is not already recognized is one reason, for Muslims and other communities who have been denied their rightful place in Canada’s history that July 1, 2017 should be a day of reflection, not just celebration. There are many other reasons as well, one of them being the fact that people have inhabited the vast land known today as Canada for a lot longer than 150 years. I feel the recent degeneracy in US politics has given Canada an opportunity to serve as a role model by embracing its history in a way that is honest and not just celebratory.
Are there things worth celebrating in Canada’s history? Yes, there certainly are. As someone who benefits every day from the use of insulin, one of the greatest Canadian inventions, I can attest to that, and that’s just one of many examples. But the toxic political environment that we see developing in the US, in Europe, and even in Canada means that each Canadian will have to work doubly hard to achieve the Canada which we dream of, and ultimately wish to make a reality. And to do that we’re first going to have to change the way we learn and understand our history. Canada’s 150th birthday is a great opportunity to make a commitment to do exactly that. And part of the relevance of my work is to inspire Canadian Muslims to be at the forefront of this corrective effort.
TheLinkCanada: During your research for the articles were there any surprises that you encountered about the history of Muslims in this part of the world? Or were the facts as you expected them to be?
Hassam Munir: It is well known that Muslims have lived in the Americas for centuries due to the transatlantic slave trade which brought thousands of them here from Africa. Islam has a very long history in the United States, in Brazil, in Jamaica, and elsewhere. But Canada has always been more of a mystery, and that’s partially due to the assumption that Africans were not enslaved in Canada. So, were African Muslims enslaved here? Quite possibly, yes. But the history of slavery in Canada hasn’t received much scholarly attention, and until that happens and more details are uncovered, we can’t say with certainty. In 2015, when I wrote about the history of Muslims in Canada for iHistory (and for The Link Canada), I thought I had exhausted all the information that is available on the history of Muslims in Canada.
I found out that I was wrong. I have uncovered so much more in the past few months. There are many surprises within the stories themselves. The first recorded Muslims in Canada were a young Scottish couple with the surname Love and they arrived in 1851. In 1912, an Indian who was possibly serving as the first Muslim journalist in Canada was arrested and almost deported for allegedly voting in an election. In 1925, a Lebanese Muslim was challenging the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly on trade along the Mackenzie River. The Qur’an teacher at Canada’s first mosque, Al-Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, later became an award-winning violinist. In the 1960s the small, remote town was home to more Muslims per capita than any other town or city in North America.
These are just some of these incredible stories, and I am continually surprised, not only by their existence, but also by how fascinating and inspiring many of them are and how unfamiliar we Canadian Muslims are with them. But I’m confident that we can turn that around and embrace our history in this land, so that these stories will not be a surprise to future generations of Canadians, Muslims and otherwise.
TheLinkCanada: Unfortunately, whenever there is talk about history of the Americas, the emphasis is whether the event was before Columbus or after Columbus. As if this was the single most important happening in the history of this continent. Do you think it is true? If so then how can your work contribute towards shifting the focus from this singular event?
Hassam Munir: I certainly don’t believe that the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in the 1490s is as important as it’s often made out to be. After all, not only are we talking about the history of two entire continents here, but we’re talking about two continents that had been inhabited for thousands of years and had been home to incredible civilizations long before Columbus got here. And on top of that, so much of the two continents’ history has been erased that we can’t even be sure of what it is that we don’t know. This in turn gives Columbus even more of the spotlight, since we don’t know how much history and heritage was eradicated because of his so called “discovery”.
I intend to use my work to shift the focus not from the narrative of history in which Columbus gets so much importance, but from a similar narrative in which the history of Canada is made out to be exclusively a history of Western European settlers and, on the flip-side, the history, and contributions of Muslim and other communities in Canada is erased. And in trying to challenge and undo that erasure, I’m also experimenting to see the extent to which using social/new media can help us share our own narratives without having to wait and hope for the government, the academia, or anyone else to recognize it.
And that can be done in the case of the emphasis on Columbus as well, and in fact, it has been done and there has been some success; in the US, for example, there has been a strong citizen-led push to turn Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day. It is important to not get so caught up in the misrepresentations of history to not explore the options to write your own history and share it with the world.
TheLinkCanada: I found your article about Ali Ahmed Abouchadi very intriguing. I know that Lebanese in general and people from Beqaa are extremely resilient and enterprising. How did this article come about? How did Abouchadi make you write his story?Hassam Munir: The article about Ali Abouchadi came about through a very exciting process. It was a great experience for me as someone who is a maturing historian and particularly interested in the field of public history. I had been doing my research on the early history of the Muslim community in Lac La Biche, Alberta, and I was amazed to learn that Muslims had arrived there as early as the 1940s. At some point during that research, I came upon the name of Ali Abouchadi by chance, and realized that he and his uncle had in fact been the first Muslims to settle in Lac La Biche―in 1906!
Reconstructing his story was difficult because of a lack of sources; I relied heavily on summaries of his life written (presumably) by Lac La Biche residents who knew Ali, which had been kept by the Lac La Biche Museum in their records. I also relied on passing mentions of Ali in scholarly books, and several other sources. Piecing his story together in this way was very frustrating, especially when you’re aware that, despite your best efforts, you may be presenting information that is not precisely true. However, the article that emerged at the end was such a powerful story of a young Lebanese-Canadian Muslim immigrant’s resilience that even if just the gist of it is verifiably true, it’s still a story worth sharing.
And that really inspired me. It made me think of how much more of the history of Muslim communities in Canada must be buried somewhere, ready to be discovered and shared and hopefully reflected upon and used to inform our decisions about our identity and direction as Canadian Muslims. And I’ve discovered a lot of incredible history that I hope to share through this iHistory project and hopefully facilitate this learning process.
TheLinkCanada: In the write up about Lac la Biche there is mention of early Muslim settlers learning Cree and inter-marrying with Metis families. Do you think this positive interaction between early Muslims and their Indigenous neighbours needs to be further researched upon? Is there a hidden chapter of history which needs to be told? What did you find during your research?
Hassam Munir: I was very surprised to learn about Muslim-Indigenous interactions in Canada going back all the way to the first decade of the 20th century, and possibly even earlier. And I believe part of the reason for that is that there isn’t one, but two hidden chapters of Canadian history that converge here. The first is the history of Muslim communities in Canada, which has preserved in bits and pieces here and there but has never been organized and brought to the public’s attention; that’s something I hope to change through my work at iHistory. The second hidden chapter is the history of Canada’s First Nations, a history of lopsided and difficult relations between the original inhabitants of this land and those that came from elsewhere and settled it―including Muslims. I’m certainly eager to find out as much as I can about positive relations between First Nations and Muslims during more than a century of shared history in Canada.
However, it is also important for Canadian Muslims to think seriously and honestly about the way in which we have contributed consciously or otherwise, to the injustices that the First Nations have faced and continue to face in their own lands. So, it is great to know that, at a local level, the Muslims and Métis in Lac La Biche, Alberta seem to have had very good relations dating as far back as 1910. But did the same process that attracted Muslims to Alberta―the incentive of affordable farmland that was advertised to immigrants, for example―helped drive the First Nations in the region into reserves? Did the fur trade in which so many early Muslims took part benefit them and the First Nations they were trading with in a fair way? I mention this because while I have come across many examples of cooperation and mutual respect between Muslims and First Nations in Canada, the vast majority of Canadian Muslims are settlers and must be ready to face any discomforting realities that may emerge due to that fact as we pursue this research. We must be ready to accept those realities and we must be ready to make an active, sustained, and sincere effort toward corrective justice.
TheLinkCanada: There is always a challenge which every historian faces while writing about Muslims; the sectarian divide. Do you think you will be able to overcome this divide by including Muslims of all sects, ethnicities, and backgrounds in your research, yet staying true to the essence of what is Islam?
Hassam Munir: It is always important to be honest and fair when studying history. It’s also important to understand that history is a map of the past―it can represent what happened but it can’t exactly reconstruct it, and any map depends very much on the mapmaker. At iHistory, I am the mapmaker. I have my own background, made up of certain beliefs, practices, experiences, and preferences. Whatever I produce will inevitably be influenced by my background. I will try my best to create a map that honestly and reasonably represents the past. However, it is inevitable that there will be others who will disagree with me.
If you disagree, leave a comment, send me an e-mail or a message on Facebook. Let’s talk about the concerns. But until and unless I’m approached by someone with a reasonable issue with my work and a clear commitment to finding a conciliatory solution, I’m not too concerned about allegations of discrimination, erasure, or anything of that sort.
TheLinkCanada: The article about Lahore is extremely readable, informative, and interesting. Do you plan to write more such articles about other historical cities of the Muslim world?
Hassam Munir: I’m glad you enjoyed the article on Lahore. There are certainly many other historical cities in Muslim-majority regions of the world on which I would like to write articles, when I can find the time to do so. Eventually I may compile these into a book that will give a brief but detailed history of these cities, which I’m sure many visitors and tourists may find useful.
One of the benefits of writing in this way, known as thematic history, is that you attract the attention of people who have a pre-existing interest in the topic but not necessarily in its history. For example, a tourist visiting Lahore or someone who has lived in Lahore their whole life may find this interesting, even if they don’t go out of their way to read history textbooks. This approach is just one of the many new ideas that I make it a point to keep trying out; the goal is to make Muslims more familiar with their history, and the means are limited only by the imagination.