A remarkable journey
Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam arrived in Melbourne in 1951 as a 23-year-old from Tripoli in northern Lebanon. The former theology student suddenly found himself in another world.
The Imam of the Islamic Society of Victoria, Sheikh Fehmi Al-Imam, stamps Halal-killed meat. Beside him stands the butcher, Mehammad Iqbal Kazi.
NAA: B4498, 74C1
There were no mosques in Melbourne then, and few Islamic institutions. Following Islam was a private matter carried out in one's own house. Families gathered together at home to celebrate festivals. If necessary, a community hall might be rented for the evening. In Perth and Adelaide the mosque was always the centre of prayers and celebrations, but there was nothing comparable in Melbourne. Mosques were eventually built, but only after legal and political struggles with local authorities – struggles that were often bitter, expensive and prolonged. Today there are approximately 36 mosques and Islamic institutions in Victoria.
Sheikh Fehmi recalls of his early days in Melbourne that the spirit of White Australia was still strong. If you sat in a tram or bus and spoke in your own language to a fellow Lebanese, you were likely to be reminded, 'You're in Australia now! Speak English!'
Sheikh Fehmi has borne witness to a remarkable transformation. Victorian Muslims now have a strong presence in their state, as the number of mosques, schools and religious organisations testify. He led the way with others like Ibrahim Dellal and Pakistani-born Dr Aziz Kazi, who taught for many years at Melbourne University. Such men fought to ensure an equitable and just existence for all Muslims, regardless of ethnicity.
In 1957 Sheikh Fehmi and a small group formed the first postwar Islamic Society in Victoria (ISV). Later, in 1976, he became the organisation's full-time imam, and began the ambitious project of building a large Islamic centre in Preston. Like the first generation of Muslims in the early 20th century, Sheikh Fehmi and his friends set about raising funds. The Preston Mosque was completed with donations from the Saudi government.
Members of the Australian Federation of Islamic Societies (AFIS), 1962
Courtesy of Ibrahim Dellal
Sometimes conflicts over cultural practices could be solved by discussion and compromise. After a number of court cases, an agreement was reached between imams and health authorities in most states, allowing Muslim dead to be buried in a shroud without a coffin. In the mid-1970s the Preston Mosque became one of the first mosques to build its own mortuary.
The issue of marriage also caused problems. Islam was not originally recognised under the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961, forcing Muslim couples to undergo two ceremonies – one legal, one religious. This was apparently due to government concerns about the possibility of polygamy.
Ibrahim Dellal was ISV President at the time and Sheikh Fehmi the General Secretary. The ISV committee successfully mounted a campaign for change, so that imams like the sheikh could marry Muslim couples in religious ceremonies that would be recognised legally under Australian law. Sheikh Fehmi became the first registered Islamic marriage celebrant in Victoria, and performed the first Islamic wedding under the new arrangements in 1967. Ibrahim Dellal acted as the witness and interpreter for the Turkish couple.
Turkish wedding at Islamic Centre, Preston, 1971
NAA: A12111, 1/1971/13/19
Today Sheikh Fehmi is Australia's longest serving imam, and is recognised as one of Australia's most influential religious leaders. In 2001 he received the Order of Australia for his services to multiculturalism. Preston Mosque, where he acts as imam, attracts thousands of mainly Lebanese Muslims each Friday for the Jumma service, which is always followed by a sermon. The sheikh continues to sit on the Board of Imams as its secretary, and in 2007 was appointed Mufti of Australia.
Bilal Cleland, Muslims in Australia: a brief history, www.icv.org.au