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Arts establishes Canada's first chair in Islamic Studies

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By Richard Cairney: ExpressNews Staff

January 18, 2006 - The University of Alberta is establishing Canada's first endowed chair in Islamic Studies, with the help of $1 million pledged by the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities and matching funding from the government of Alberta.

It's fitting that the first such chair be established in Edmonton, Dean of Arts Dr. Daniel Woolf said during a ceremony to announce the new chair Tuesday.

"Edmonton is absolutely the place for this to have happened - in 1938, the first Mosque in Canada opened in Edmonton," he said.

The U of A Faculty of Arts will also contribute $1 million to the endowment, and Woolf said the chair holder could be hired as early as July of this year. So far, the position has garnered international interest, but won't be filled until the right candidate is found, he said.

Work on establishing the chair began with the creation of the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities (ECMC), said Larry Shaben, who chairs the council, which represents some 35,000 Muslims living in the greater Edmonton region.

"Gaining knowledge and education have always been important principles in Islam since the earliest days of the religion," said Shaben. "Thus, we in Edmonton's Muslim community are delighted at the U of A's announcement of Canada's first endowed chair in Islamic Studies."

The ECMC and the U of A Faculty of Arts are spearheading a major fundraising campaign to secure the academic chair in perpetuity. Nearly $200,000 was raised during Tuesday night's ceremony, bringing the total to about $270,000, excluding the province's matching grant.

U of A President Dr. Indira Samarasekera said the creation of the new chair is a perfect fit with the university's four cornerstones of talented people, learning, discovery and citizenship, connecting communities, and skilful organization and support.

"This is truly a milestone for the U of A," she said, adding that the ECMC "has set an extraordinary standard of philanthropy and advocacy," which will enhance and enrich the U of A learning experience.

"The chair will be a tremendously important addition to the community and to the faculty," said Nashir Karmali, education chair of the ECMC. "The person who occupies it will play a key role in increasing knowledge of the diversity of Islamic traditions, cultures and interpretations, the history of Islam's rich intellectual and cultural heritage, and its relationship with other societies and faiths."

Minister of Advanced Education David Hancock, who pledged $1 million in matching funds from the newly established Access to the Future Fund, said the chair contributes to the U of A's position as "one of the most progressive, innovative, forward-looking universities in Canada."

Woolf was clearly delighted with the announcement of the chair, which had been in the works for more than three years. In a world in which we are often faced with fear, intolerance and darkness, he said, "a ray of light has shone down on the U of A and Edmonton today."

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