A Muslim Woman Walks Into a Unitarian Church

May 8, 2009

Author: Leanne Larmondin

Source: Religion News Service


Some church-going families in the Western world would recoil at the thought of a Muslim being responsible for their children’s religious education.

But Farzana Hassan, activist, writer and advocate for Islamic reform, isn’t your average Muslim, and the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga isn’t your average suburban church.

Hassan, former president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, was recently hired as the director of spiritual exploration at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga, a suburb 15 miles west of Toronto. The part-time position in the self-described “liberal spiritual community” sees her working with up to three dozen children, ranging from 3 to 18 years old, every Sunday.

The kids, broken up into age-appropriate groups, are instructed in their own faith, other religious beliefs, social responsibility and sexuality.

Hassan, who is finishing her Ph.D. dissertation on Pakistani madrasas, was hired after an open candidate search. Calling herself a “secular Muslim,” she endorses a strict separation of church and state. Two of her books, “Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest” and `Women and the Challenges of Today,” have tackled issues of Islamic fundamentalism and the roles of women in the Muslim world.

While she observes Islamic holy days like Eid and Ramadan, she does not believe that her faith is threatened by associating with people of other faiths. She said her friends and family see it as a bridge-building opportunity.

“Muslims feel they’ve been under attack for some time because of some of the things that Muslims do abroad and even here in Canada; there have been so many Muslims incriminated as far as extremism and terrorism are concerned,” said Hassan, a mother of three grown children who previously taught at a local private school.

“When something like this (job) happens, they welcome it. They see it as something that will perhaps elevate the image of Muslims in the community.”

Hassan is perhaps one of the more striking examples of the blurring lines in North American faith. In Seattle, an Episcopal priest was recently defrocked for simultaneously embracing Islam, while an Episcopal bishop-elect in northern Michigan is fighting to save his job from conservatives’ complaints about his embrace of Zen Buddhist meditation.

Increasingly, faith is remarkably fluid. Just 24 percent of Americans view their religion as “the one true faith,” according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, while 70 percent say “many religions can lead to eternal life.”