The Continent's first Institute of Islamic Studies was established at McGill University in 1952 by Wilfred Cantwell Smith.
After obtaining, in 1939, his BA in Oriental Languages from the University of Toronto, Smith worked for seven years as a missionary in India teaching Indian and Islamic history. During that time in Lahore, he was ordained in the United Church of North India and published his first book, Modern Islam in India: A Social Analysis, which was banned in India due to its "communist" approach. Smith also witnessed the bloody partition of India and Pakistan, "and it was this consciousness that pervaded his outlook on the teaching and practice of religion," notes Sheila McDonough, a former student of Smith and retired professor of religion at Concordia University.
After obtaining his PhD from Princeton University in 1948, Smith was hired by the McGill Faculty of Divinity as the WM Birks Professor of Comparative Religion, where he pursued his interest in Islam and seized the opportunity to found the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies. Professor Smith placed great emphasis on religion since he was convinced that the history of the Muslim people could not be understood without recognizing that religion was the key, as well as the most important single force, in the formation and development of the Islamic civilisation.
Smith also believed that a long range study of the processes at work in the modern Muslim world could not be achieved by non-Muslims studying in a non-Muslim institution without the presence of Muslims. He therefore founded the Institute, including the library, in response to the dilemma of how to study these processes in way that would involve Muslims and non-Muslims alike and would use the best of contemporary scholarly methods to approach the data of the tumultuous Muslim world. Each day, Smith would organize a four o'clock tea in which East would meet West as all members of the Institute -- students, librarians and faculty -- would gather together for a time of discussion in order to foster mutual understanding.
One of Smith's greatest gifts to McGill is the creation of the Islamic Studies Library. Beginning with only 250 books, the library now holds more than 110,000 volumes, half of them in Islamic Languages, and a collection of periodicals not easily found elsewhere. Thanks to Professor Smith, the ISL is counted among the major North American collections in Islamic Studies.
Public Services Librarian, Retired
Islamic Studies Library