A Canadian Prayer Rug Weaves Together the Stories of First Nation’s People, Muslim Immigrants, and…

Do a quick search of prayer rugs, and you’ll see many motifs present in them: archways, geometric arabesques, domes, often in hues of red, gold or green. Some have mosques or the Ka’bah — the holy mosque in Mecca — featured prominently in their designs. While these rugs are very beautiful and ornate in and of themselves, they are a reflection of the culture in which they are created. To a western audience, the designs of a prayer rug — even Islam as a whole — remain largely in the realm of foreigners and desert dwelling Arabs, imagery held over from the orientalists. These images, and the beliefs associated with them, remain on the periphery of acceptance. To your average person, they’re nice to look at, but not taken seriously as anything but another reflection of the “other”, from which much xenophobia stems. “Arabism” is often equated with Islam — that is, anything resembling Arabic culture is somehow Islamic. This is even more inaccurate when you realize there are a broad spectrum of cultures that get unfairly lumped in to just being “Arabic”, despite countries like Syria, Pakistan, India, Turkey and more having their own unique cultures. This is similar to how the broad spectrum of Indigenous cultures in Canada, including Cree, Blackfoot and Assiniboine, are all seen as interchangeable — and that’s without even getting into the differences between First Nations, Metis and Inuit.

However, the idea of a monolithic “Islamic” culture is one that is not necessarily rooted in Islam itself. In his essay, “Islam and the Cultural Imperative”, Dr. Umar Faruq-Abdullah writes that,

“In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly and, in that regard, has been likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving but — having no color of their own — reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow.”

He stresses the necessity of creating a uniquely American — and by extension Canadian — Islam that reflects the bedrock of our own culture. The Canadian Prayer Rug was always seen as a means to that goal.

The Green Room hired Métis designer Kit Walton, who had a fascination with Islamic motifs and architecture, to solve the riddle of what the prayer rug would actually look like.

“Canada is such a mashup of cultures coming together,” she says, and the challenge was finding a way to weave together “the history of Edmonton, the history of the Islamic culture and Alberta and… Treaty 6 and the land before everyone started coming in.”

Over the past year, Alberta has become the staging ground for the landmark Truth and Reconciliation commission, which has sought to bring to light the abuse and mistreatment of Canada’s Indigenous peoples at the hands of white settlers. Particular focus was given to the residential schools, which has sought to strip Indigenous children of their language and culture. Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin labelled the practice “cultural genocide.” It has since spurred everything from a revived interest in Indigenous culture to formal apologies by the Canadian government to the country’s Indigenous population. Many speeches by Alberta’s premier begin with acknowledgement of being on Treaty 6 territory, alluding to the historical document signed in 1876 by 50 First Nations bands that covered land use in most of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Incorporating the Indigenous story into the rug required tact and respect, but not so blatant and obvious as to “tokenize” it, as Taouba Khelifa, Program Manager for the Green Room, put it. After all, the easy way out would just be to slap a medicine wheel in the middle and call it a day. On the other hand, the rug had to acknowledge the history of the Muslim community here, while reflecting the universal aspects that every Albertan holds dear.

The shape and design of the rug went through several iterations. At one point, leather was considered as the medium for the prayer rug, a reflection of Alberta’s ranching history. Other designs had the rug shaped like the province itself, the design being an aerial map that included depictions of mountains, plains and the North Saskatchewan River. Symbols considered included prominent Albertan flora, like Saskatoon berries, pine cones, and cattails. The prominence of the Al Rashid mosque on the rug was also an element that required thought; would the building itself be woven into the pattern, or would its presence be shown through symbolism? Of course, Edmonton’s reputation as “oil country” also came up as well.

“There was a joke that ‘perhaps this rug will be made out of petrochemical product,’” Taouba says.

As Kit worked on the face of the rug, her designs also had to be mindful of the medium of weaving.

“Traditional prayer rugs are quite intricate and I couldn’t really do anything too intricate because of the weaving techniques,” she said. Weaving as a medium doesn’t allow for fine, intricate details the way embroidery or stitching does. Even still, certain elements of the rug — such as the crescent moons — would later be embroidered.

Noor Iqbal, an elementary school teacher and weaver of the prayer rug, worked with Kit to brainstorm ideas of the design, and translate the designs into something that was feasible to weave.

Weaving is a textile art in which two distinct sets of yarns are interlaced together, typically on a loom, to produce a fabric. As a medium, weaving itself is an integration of cultures.

“Weaving isn’t necessarily something that’s indigenous to this place. There’s not a lot of weaving heritage here,” Noor says, referring to First Nations cultures in Alberta. The tradition of weaving doesn’t reach back thousands of years, as it does in other parts of the world. Ukrainian and Francophone communities brought over the weaving heritage from their homelands when they settled here. “[Weaving] comes through in an immigrant context… The medium speaks to an immigrant identity.”

The project used only locally sourced wool and dyes made from plants and herbs native to the Edmonton region to further reflect the spirit of locality. However, it also limited the colour palette that could be used in designing the rug, as natural dyes and wool typically produce more subdued colours, not the more vibrant and saturated tones found in regular textiles.

The design process for the rug took over 4 months of research, brainstorming, and various iterations before landing on a main focus and design.

Ultimately, the focus of the rug came down to Alberta’s one universal aspect that connects everyone living in it, whether Indigenous or immigrant, born-and-raised or newly-arrived, religious or not.

“It tells the story of the land,” says Rachel Pereira, a researcher on the project. “It’s really important because, when we think about how to be in this place and how to honour those who came before us, I think the land is so central to that. The land is so central to Indigenous ways of life and we’ve disrespected it so much — intentionally and not intentionally — and I think it’s a reminder of the sacredness, I think, of the land.”

For Kit, it tells her story, being Métis, and growing up in rural Alberta and experiencing the landscape. For her, incorporating the natural aspects of Alberta was important, as a reminder of how people should respect the land and, by extension, the place they live in.

The final design is a testament to the story of Alberta’s land — from the boreal forest to the central agricultural plains, to the mountains and rivers to the west — and the shared history of its peoples. All of these threads have been woven together to create something beautiful.

At the center of the rug stands Alberta’s official tree, the lodgepole pine, mimicking the motif of Cyprus trees found on traditional Syrian and Lebanese rugs. Surrounding the tree is an arch — a common feature in traditional rugs — which is inspired by the architecture of the Al Rashid mosque. The arch shifts into four sets of rich colours, representing Edmonton’s bold seasons, while also paying homage to the four cardinal directions. The two crescent moons in the top corners symbolize the crescents on the Al Rashid mosque and the Islamic lunar calendar. The wheat on the bottom represents Alberta’s prairies and its abundance of food, and the blue triangles represent the Rocky Mountains and the flow of the North Saskatchewan River.

With many people inquiring about how to get the Canadian Prayer Rug for their own homes, The Green Room approached Shubinak, an ethical clothing manufacturer based out of Lahore, Pakistan, to produce replicas for consumers. “It is a spiritual product, it connects you with the creator,” says Sayed Farooq, founder of Shubinak. “It cannot be made with anything which has stains of, you can say, unethical manufacturing.”

Shubinak employs artisans from Pakistan, and uses sustainable materials to create woven, embroidered and screen-printed fabrics and textiles. To Sayed, this traditional and human approach to creating the prayer rug for consumers is part of being a responsible corporate citizen, and this philosophy lined up with the philosophy of the prayer rug. “The design of the prayer rug, it’s very localized and at the same time it connects with the history of Islam,” he says. “The key is knowing where the product is coming from.”

The overall theme of the rug is to promote a sense of welcoming. In Cree, the word pehonan means “gathering place.” Similarly, the Arabic word masjid refers to a gathering place, serenity, and home. This rug is meant to be a symbol of home, and that no matter where we come from, this land — “glorious and free” — is our home.

Our story.

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