Religious class for deaf Muslims tests limits of American Sign Language
The teacher is late for class, but none of the students seem to mind. Instead, they are scattered around the main floor of Masjid Toronto, a mosque in the city’s downtown core, seemingly lost in their own conversations.
Hands move frantically and eyes indicate comprehension. For many of the 20-or-so students in the room here to attend the city’s only Islamic class for deaf Muslims, being able to socialize with others from the community is as rare as the chance to learn about their faith.
“Deaf Muslims don’t have many opportunities to meet others from that community, so the chance to have those social connections is very fulfilling,” said Amina Daimee, among the first Muslim ASL/English interpreters who graduated from the George Brown College program this year.
“And because of this class, many of them feel it’s finally their time to access their faith and Islam, because they have never had that before,” said Daimee, who attends the class with her parents who are both deaf.
The teacher, Sheikh Abdool Hamid, arrives and everyone gathers on the floor around him. He begins with the customary prayer, usually done in Arabic. But for this bimonthly class he has promised to keep his lessons strictly in English so that Daimee can use American Sign Language to communicate.
“It’s a new learning experience for me. I have never had to speak before without using Arabic terms,” said Hamid.
But in a class as diverse as this, even English has its limitations. Many here began speaking Pakistani Sign Language, Arabic Sign Language and Turkish Sign Language long before they knew ASL existed — and are only now learning the nuances of the second language.
Moreover, ASL doesn’t really take diversity into consideration, said Daimee. Words like ‘Mecca’ and ‘Mohammed’ simply don’t exist. So the class has agreed for now to simply spell such words out.
Some English words have to be adapted for the Islamic context.
“The sign for ‘prayer’ is different for Muslims, and you can’t make the sign for ‘blessing’ like Catholics do, in the shape of a cross. It would be something else,” said David Kolenda, an ASL/English interpreter who has been helping the group out.
But the challenge of communicating with people from a dozen countries is further complicated by what they already know.
“There are signs that are very unique — even in Pakistan they might have a sign for Mecca, but if you go to Kuwait, they might have a different sign for Mecca,” said Daimee.
Which is why most of the first class in April began with an extensive discussion on the most basic aspect of any religion class: a common sign for God.
“Almost everyone in the class had a different sign for Allah,” said Daimee. “They all pointed upwards, but the biggest difference is the shape of the hand,” she explained.
“Then people had different signs for ‘imam’, for ‘Quran’, even for ‘Islam’ . . . so those are the things we had to discuss to set what we would use for this class.”
“So in a way, with every class, we are kind of making up a new language on the spot,” she said. And perhaps the beginning of what some may see as a distinct Canadian-Muslim sign language.
“Language is always evolving, so who knows what will happen?” said Daimee.
This is the first time, in over 15 years, that there has been an official Islamic class for deaf Muslims, said Rabia Khedr, executive director of the Canadian Association of Muslims with Disabilities, the group organizing the classes. The community, made up of dozens of individuals, has largely been isolated from each other since then.
“Some of these people have come to a mosque after a long time,” said Khedr. “For many of the teenagers, this is their first time being involved in anything religious,” she said.
“And what they all really want is a class where they can learn the basics of their faith — who was Adam, the stories of the prophets, and learn what prayer really is — basically an Islam 101,” she said.