The new Edmonton Islamic Academy

The new Edmonton Islamic Academy building is the culmination of a remarkable journey for the city’s vibrant and growing Muslim community. Edmonton’s first dedicated Islamic school opened in the basement of the Al-Rashid mosque in 1988. The first year, enrolment in the elementary grades reached 21 students.

Now, Edmonton’s Muslim population has swelled to more than 30,000 and the academy teaches 675 students in kindergarten through grade nine. With the much needed room in the new facility, the plan calls for high school grades to be phased in over the next three years.

Incorporating traditional Muslim design influences within a modern North American context, the Academy is the largest standalone Muslim academic school in North America. The 12,500 square meter educational facility was built for $23 million on a five-hectare site at 14525 127 Street in north Edmonton,

While the Academy is a faith-focused building, it is also a modern functional structure, designed to meet the contemporary education needs of up to 1,000 students. The Academy wanted the design to “reflect an Islamic spirit, but not in the way of a 13th-century Middle Eastern mosque,” says Stephen Barr, lead architect, Barr Ryder Architects & Planners.

Working in conjunction with renowned Islamic architectural specialist Gulzar Haider and his Gulzar Haider Design Group of Ottawa, the design was developed with respect to Islamic traditions and functional needs. “We wanted a building that architecturally would provide a bridge between Canadian and Muslim cultures,” says Khalid Tarrabain, president of the Canadian Islamic Centre and vice-chairman of the Edmonton Islamic Academy’s board of trustees.

The core of Islamic design lies around the protective shell creating an open court in the interior, Barr explains. A skylight courtyard, reminiscent of a Middle Eastern market, introduces diffused natural light into the heart of the facility.

The atrium flows into a prayer area, where students pray, facing Mecca, each afternoon. It is a space that encourages students, their parents, staff members and visitors to gather and reflect.

Flowing out from the mosque area is the “Wall of History,” which wraps around the atrium and faces towards Mecca in one direction and out onto the site in the other. “This two-storey space has the history of Islamic intellectual thought from some of the great scholars embossed onto the face of the wall, reminding the students and the public of the importance of Islamic thought in day-to-day life,” Barr says.

The gymnasium also serves as a social heart of the school, with enough room for substantial congregations of students and the public. Rising like a mosque’s minaret, a seven-meter tower soars above the two-storey building’s concrete block and glass facade.

Above the main entrance, sunlight streams through translucent blue and white panels arranged to spell "In the name of God" in Arabic. Translucent panels are used throughout the school and, in each classroom; they enhance natural light without increasing energy cost or decreasing energy efficiency.

The panels are just one of the design details that evolved out of the design team’s quest for visual expression of Arabic styling elements. “Islamic architecture comes largely from hotter climates and favours the use of natural materials leaning towards a masonry skin and with a white or off-white colour that reflects light,” Barr says. “That wasn’t going to work in construction suitable for our northern climate, and so we needed to tell the story architecturally in other ways.”

Elementary classrooms are situated in the south-facing wing of the school, and wrap around their own library area, reflecting the importance of the library in Islamic teaching. The north wing of the school provides junior and senior high classrooms on the main and second levels. Washrooms are equipped with special faucets so students can wash their faces, arms and feet before prayers.

Tarrabain says the project has been a longtime dream of the community, and a rallying force for the last five years. “Its completion comes as a testament to the efforts of people who wouldn’t give up, even when many others said it was too elaborate and unachievable. Our school represents an identity, and is a place of pride. The support we have had and continue to have from the community is truly remarkable.”

Local Muslim families and individuals and corporate donors have contributed more than $10 million towards the project in a fundraising campaign led by former Alberta Liberal MLA Sine Chadi. Contributions continue to pour in, and the private school is hopeful it will pay off its mortgage within the decade.

A survey of Muslim families in Edmonton more than two years ago found that about roughly 8,000 Muslim students were attending Edmonton public schools, and another 250 were in Catholic schools, Tarrabain says. Islamic studies are not part of the curriculum in Edmonton public schools and interest is building in the possibility of establishing the school as an alternative program within the Edmonton public school system.