‘Ottawa’ Egan: Ottawa’s bridge-building Imam, a Lightning Rod Post-9/11, Dies in Egypt
Gamal Solaiman, the highest-profile imam Ottawa has ever had, died in Egypt earlier this month, leaving a positive — though at times perplexing — legacy.
He is rightfully credited with building bridges to other faiths after his arrival at the main Ottawa Mosque in 1998, yet is remembered in some circles for his reluctance to readily admit the 9/11 attacks were the work of Islamic terrorists and for a confusing pronouncement supporting “jihad” against U.S. troops invading Iraq.
Yet today, Solaiman, who was 84 when he died in Cairo, is mostly fondly recalled.
“Gamal was a good friend,” wrote Larry Hill, formerly Ottawa’s deputy police chief, who dashed off a quick note from a distant airport.
“He was so welcoming to me and the Ottawa Police from the moment he arrived in Ottawa. Together, we went through the dramatic aftermath of 9/11. He had a gentle but firm hand on the tiller of his community and he provided leadership and advice to us as we struggled to meet the demands and fears of Muslims in Ottawa at that terrible time.”
Retired air force officer Idris Ben-Tahir, 77, was a longtime friend and actually broke the news of Solaiman’s death to the Ottawa Muslim community.
“He was friends with everyone from the prime minister to the Governor General,” said Ben-Tahir, who recalled that after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S., Solaiman worked for six weeks without taking a day off. (Indeed, then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and a number of cabinet ministers visited the mosque about 10 days after the earth-shaking events.)
“He was on TV and radio, in newspapers. He was everywhere.”
Indeed, “being everywhere” — particularly with imperfect English — led to occasional controversy and misunderstanding. In the aftermath of 9/11, while fingers were pointing at Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network, Solaiman said Muslims lacked the sophistication to pull off such a precise, orchestrated operation.
While he may have been attempting to balance conflicting feelings in an ethnically-broad community, there were suggestions he was wilfully ignoring the obvious.
More seriously, in 2003, while appearing on a Sunday television show, Solaiman said he supported jihad or holy war against American forces in Iraq. The reaction was one of condemnation — immediate and widespread — including on Parliament Hill, where there were calls to review his citizenship status and demands for an explanation.
By that Monday night, the imam had apologized for his remark, saying he would never encourage or support violence against an identifiable group of people.
No one disputes he was a learned man. Born in a rural part of Egypt, he was the youngest of four children who took to studying the Qur’an from an early age. By age 12, he had the entire text, roughly 100,000 words, memorized.
He studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he earned bachelor and master’s degrees in the 1960s. He taught in India for several years before moving to London, England and serving as senior imam at the Central Mosque for almost 20 years. He continued his studies, earning a PhD in Islamic law from the University of Exeter.
Ottawa’s Muslim community was still emerging when Solaiman arrived in 1998. Before the city had any mosques, a small group of Muslims began praying in the basement of Western United, near Somerset and Preston streets, in the 1950s and moved when it relocated as Northwestern United Church on Northwestern Avenue in 1964.
Eventually, the Ottawa Muslim Association bought property next door and the current mosque was built in 1976.
Brian Cornelius, the one-time minister at Northwestern, was both a neighbour and colleague of Solaiman’s. They spoke at each other’s churches and even led a course together.
“He was particularly grateful and spoke often about the inclusive nature of Canada,” said Rev. Cornelius. “He would say to me often, after 9/11, the first person I heard from was the church.”
Well-known Rabbi Reuven Bulka wrote a Citizen column with Solaiman about issues of faith and the pair were often together at community events.
“Together with the archbishop at the time, Marcel Gervais, Bishop Peter Coffin, and Pandit Dr. Madhu Sahasrabudhe, we were the National Capital Interfaith Working Group, which I was privileged to chair,” he wrote in an email response.
“We knew that if there was a communal concern that needed a push from the religious community, Imam Solaiman would be on the ready to lend his voice.”
Solaiman, a diabetic who never drove a car, was suffering from kidney failure. He is survived by his wife Saadiya and six children.
To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email firstname.lastname@example.org