Just days after students endorsed a motion calling for expanded prayer space on campus, two new spaces at Emmanuel College and Robarts Library have won praise from student groups and administrators.
The new prayer space and ablutions facility in Emmanuel College were officially opened on January 22. The Canadian Jaffari Muslim Foundation, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, the Islamic Institute of Toronto, the Muslim Chaplaincy, and the Muslim Students Association at U of T all helped cover the $25,000 cost of the prayer space, while the cost of the $75,000 ablutions facility was shared by Emmanuel College and Victoria College.
“It’s beautiful,” says Hasna Egal, a fourth-year neuroscience student, “the Muslim prayer space is welcoming, clean and very quiet.”
It’s not an uncommon sentiment, in the newly renovated Muslim prayer space at Emmanuel — from the sweeping rugs, to the sunken shoe racks and the Islamic art work that decorates the well-lit walls.
The decision to add a Muslim-only prayer space to Emmanuel College, a Christian theological school, may have privately caused a few raised eyebrows. But it’s a decision that makes sense, according to Emmanuel College principal, Mark Toulouse.
“There’s a history of Emmanuel College and the Muslim community that has been standing for about four years now,” said Toulouse. “In February 2010, we started the Muslim studies program, as well as the Canadian Muslim continuing education certificate program. We also have a master’s program — the Muslim Studies track, for students interested in becoming Muslim chaplains.
“So, we’ve looked at this question of increasing Muslim studies on campus, and recognize there’s a need to pay attention to the lived experience of what it means to be a person of faith as a Muslim.”
The decision to construct the new prayer space has been welcomed by the Muslim community on campus and by U of T’s first Muslim chaplain, Amjad Tarsin. The programs focusing on Islam and new spaces for Muslim students are all an expansion of Emmanuel’s efforts to enrich multifaith dialogue both on and off campus.
“I think it’s going really well — the space is very beautiful. The whole space fills up every prayer time, but what’s also really cool is that you can find people studying there and using it as a hangout space,” said Tarsin.
Asked whether a Muslim prayer space can be inclusive to all students, Tarsin said: “It’s definitely inclusive and I wouldn’t see why not. Students are welcome to observe prayers. I don’t think it hurts to have a few places around campus for prayer and worship. It’s what students need.”
Plans for a multi-faith prayer space on Robarts Library’s eighth floor are also well underway. The push for more prayer space has been led by
University of Toronto Students’ Union vice-president, equity, Noor Baig, as well as the newly-formed Student Committee for Appropriate
Accommodation and the Office of Student Life.
“We’ve officially confirmed the plan to make the prayer space this summer with the Robarts staff,” says Baig. “We haven’t advertised it yet, as we didn’t want students waiting too long in case of any delays. There’s always a need for more prayer areas on campus. Designating a space in Robarts makes sense — it’s a high traffic area in a central location.”
The newly-renovated space will be an inclusive area for students of all faiths to pray, no matter what religion or practice they adhere to. A draft of guidelines is being formulated in collaboration with the
Multi-Faith Centre for different groups to be able to use the space at the same time. The new prayer room will be open in the next few weeks, though no firm date has been set.
“We’ll definitely be spreading the word about it through all our different channels, and there will be a launch event,” says Baig.
But word has already gotten out, and the prospect is getting students talking.
“It would be really convenient,” says Egal. “Some of the other prayer areas around campus are tiny and cramped. It would be great to have a large space that’s central.”
It’s all part of the bigger plan for inclusivity that Toulouse highlighted. “It’s our responsibility to provide the space that will enable people to join our community and to live out what is important to them in terms of their faith.”
Although there are no statistics available on the frequency of prayer space usage, the Ontario Human Rights Code requires the university to make reasonable religious accommodations for all students, staff, and faculty.
There are over 75 faith-based student groups at the University of Toronto, and more than 150 formal worship services held every week. The university has a long tradition of Christian theological education, with more than 10 such programs and nearly 2,000 students studying for a degree in theology, and there are fledgling programs in Jewish and Muslim theology at Victoria and St. Michael’s Colleges respectively.