When music class begins this week at Toronto’s Donwood Park elementary school, Mohammad Nouman Dasu will send a family member to collect his three young children. They will go home for an hour rather than sing and play instruments – a mandatory part of the Ontario curriculum he believes violates his Muslim faith.
The Scarborough school and the Toronto District School Board originally had offered an accommodation – suggesting students could just clap their hands in place of playing instruments or listen to acapella versions of O Canada – but not a full exemption from the class.
After a bitter three-year fight, however, Mr. Dasu felt he had no other opton but to bring his kids home.
According to documents ob-tained by The Globe and Mail, some parents insist they cannot allow their children to be in the same room where musical instruments are being played. Mr. Dasu, a Koran teacher who sometimes leads prayers at Scarborough’s Jame Abu Bakr Siddique mosque, says he has led the fight on behalf of parents. He has consulted with national Islamic bodies, and requested a letter from the leader of his mosque.
“We here believe that music is haram [forbidden]. We can neither listen to it, nor can we play a role in it,” said the mosque’s imam, Kasim Ingar.
Conceding that Muslims have to adjust when they send their kids to public school, he suggested that some matters, such as teaching music, are beyond debate.
“We do not compromise with anyone on the clear-cut orders and principles conveyed by the Prophet,” said Mr. Ingar, who also leads the Scarborough Muslim Association.
Within Islam, the question of whether Muslims are banned from music is divisive and nuanced. Similar to questions about whether women should wear veils, there is no consensus on the issue.
But Ontario’s primary-school curriculum is unambiguous on music class: It must be taught, without exception, to all primary-school-aged children. Officials at the TDSB say they can only bend the rules to accommodate religious students, but not exempt them.
The Globe used freedom of information laws to access TDSB e-mails on how the issue evolved at Donwood Park, where it first surfaced in 2013.
The released records redact the names of students for privacy reasons, and very few families appear to have been adamant over pulling children from music classes. Early internal e-mails show administrators wanted to find “some common ground.”
But Mr. Dasu, who says he represents many of the parents at the school concerned about the issue, pushed for exclusion for his own children by invoking the prospect of litigation and the religious freedoms clause of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In response, school administrators pitched an array of potential compromises. Records show one idea was to have the children “research the role of nashid” – or the Islamic tradition of oral music. Another was to have the children clap out quarter notes, half notes and full notes.
“Your children will not be required to play a musical instrument or sing in their music class,” read a formal note to at least one family.
The records show that as the standoff at Donwood Park lingered, TDSB officials prepared a media plan and sought legal advice from eminent lawyers, including Eric Roher of Borden Ladner Gervais.
They do not make clear how the situation was dealt with. But during the 2014 school year, two requests for music exemptions were made. When school officials struggled again to suggest accommodations, they were presented with a “Petition for Accommodation of Religious Beliefs of Muslim Students” signed by more than 130 parents, initiated by Mr. Dasu.
Mr. Dasu says he proposed alternative arrangements for his own children, which were rejected by the vice-principal, the superintendent, and a trustee of the school board, after which he decided to take them out of school for the duration of music and drama class.
By the spring of 2015, an interest group known as the National Council of Canadian Muslims was prodded by some parents to intercede further. After meeting with Donwood Park administrators, an NCCM spokeswoman referred them to a guide it has created for Canadian teachers. “Opinion regarding the place of music varies among different Muslim countries,” it says. But, it adds, “it is important for the school to discuss reasonable accommodations with the parents or guardians and the students themselves.”
TDSB officials wouldn’t discuss particular cases, but insist that religious students cannot cut themselves out of music class. “As per the Education Act, we can’t exempt students from the curriculum. But what we do is accommodate,” said John Chasty, a TDSB superintendent of education.
The TDSB says it does not keep track of the number of students who seek accommodations or exemptions. But Mr. Chasty believes the issue will come up there again in the coming school year.
Mr. Dasu has since moved to a different neighbourhood nearby, and is planning to transfer his children to a new public school. He says he will take up the fight again.
“My kids cannot participate in music or drama, that’s for sure. Let them sit in a library to read, or in an office, or let them volunteer around the school during that time, that’s all okay. We’re flexible.”
With a report from Caroline AlphonsoReport Typo/Error