Discussions about the Muslim world often encourage a narrow definition of the region, focusing on the Muslim-majority countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. A number of regional powers in the Middle East—the birthplace of Islam—have attempted to claim the mantle of the faith’s chief defender and promoter.
Muslim communities outside the Old World, which boast their own rich histories, rarely appear in conversations about Islam. Now, though, a riveting new book intends to rebalance Western understandings of the religion.
Islam has had a profound but rarely acknowledged impact on the region.
Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, by Omar Mouallem, dedicates itself to the little-discussed topic of Muslims’ lives in the Western Hemisphere. Framed as an exercise in travel writing of sorts, the book pulls examples of Muslim contributions to societies across the Americas to make the case that Islam has had a profound but rarely acknowledged impact on the region. Mouallem’s retelling of his visits to cities and towns throughout North and South America, in turn, weaves this argument together.
Mouallem’s personal and professional background makes him an appropriate narrator for this story. A Canadian writer born to a Muslim family, Mouallem spent much of his life questioning his relationship with Islam and its role in his identity. In recent years, he has worked as a journalist, writing articles for Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and Wired. Mouallem also co-authored an earlier book, Inside the Inferno: A Firefighter’s Story of the Brotherhood that Saved Fort McMurray, and co-directed the documentary Digging in the Dirt.
Praying to the West opens with Mouallem’s reflections on his past. “Until recently, Muslim identity was imposed on me,” he wrote. “But I feel differently about my religious heritage in the era of ISIS and Trumpism, Rohingya and Uighur genocides, ethnonationalism and misinformation. I’m compelled to reclaim the thing that makes me a target. I’ve begun to examine Islam closely with an eye for how it has shaped my values, politics, and connection to my roots.”
“I’ve begun to examine Islam closely with an eye for how it has shaped my values, politics, and connection to my roots.”
To gain a better sense of his own identity and Islam’s history in the Americas, Mouallem planned a journey to “dozens of mosques from the edges of the Amazon to the Arctic Circle, capturing the multiplicity of practices and beliefs inside.” Praying to the West observes that Muslims in the Americas, “isolated from Islamic scholarship by an entire hemisphere,” had the opportunity to develop religious customs particular to them. Given many academics and journalists’ lack of interest in these communities, Mouallem is filling a major gap in knowledge.
As Praying to the West recounts Mouallem’s travels, it seeds the narrative with factual tidbits that ground the author’s visits in the rich past of Islam in the Americas. In the chapter discussing Mouallem’s trip to the Brazilian city of Salvador, he wrote, “Muslims were more than a visible minority when Brazil’s first constitution was drafted in 1824. They were an influential group of free and enslaved teachers, preachers, and freedom fighters.”
The book details how Muslims organized a major slave rebellion in Salvador in 1835, one of the most significant in the history of the Americas. Many of the slaves living in Brazil in the nineteenth century, abducted from Muslim-majority regions of Africa, continued to practice their religion in their new place of residence while incorporating new customs. Dubbed Malê, Brazil’s budding population of Muslims grew into a thriving community and began to organize. In Salvador, 600 Malê revolted against their oppressive conditions in a bloody push for equality.
Praying to the West makes a compelling argument that its readers can hardly underestimate the importance of this event: “The so-called Malê leveraged Islam for a unified resistance fifty years before pan-Islamism emerged as a coherent anticolonial idea abroad and more than a century before the movement had sway. Though police deftly put down the Malê revolt, it forced whites to admit that they were on borrowed time and accelerated abolition.”
Throughout Mouallem’s journey to improve his own understanding of Islam in the Americas, Praying to the West strives to correct misconceptions about the religion and the region. “When foreign journalists travel to Trinidad and Tobago for a story about the Caribbean nation’s Muslims, it’s usually with one question in mind: how did an island of barely a million people become a bigger exporter of ISIS loyalists than possibly the United States and Canada combined?” observed Mouallem. The rest of the island’s Muslims receive little attention from the news media.
The chapter on Trinidad and Tobago explains how Indian laborers sent to the Caribbean by the British Empire in the nineteenth century “aggregated Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Sikh, and Hindu thought into a unique Muslim culture,” laying the groundwork for the island country’s unique strand of Islam. At the time of Mouallem’s visit, Trinidad and Tobago housed “one hundred and forty mosques, two Muslim television stations, and a satellite campus of Darul Uloom.”
Praying to the West emphasizes how this Islamic influence has contributed to Trinidad and Tobago’s status as a trendsetter for multiculturalism in the Western Hemisphere: Noor Hassanali served as the first Muslim head of state in the region during his time as Trinidadian and Toboggan President from 1987 to 1997, and the island nation became “the first Western country to declare a public holiday for Eid al-Fitr.” From Brazil to Trinidad and Tobago, the book’s title proves true: Muslims have reshaped the Americas.
Praying to the West repaints the image of Islam in the Western world.
Despite Praying to the West’s ostensible focus on Mouallem’s travels to mosques across the Western Hemisphere, his trips in fact serve as a vehicle to educate his audience on the history of Muslims in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, and other countries in the Americas with sizable Muslim communities. Later chapters analyze Islam in Canada, Mexico, and five corners of the United States—California, Illinois, Michigan, North Dakota, and Texas. Through this eclectic mix of countries and cultures, Praying to the West repaints the image of Islam in the Western world.
In the early twentieth century, Muslims from the Middle East immigrated to the Northwest Territories, one of Canada’s most isolated regions, to seek employment and in the process built the Western Hemisphere’s northernmost mosque. In the United States, the Lebanese-born Shia cleric Mohamad Jawad Chirri advised a pair of presidents as well as Muhammad Ali. These anecdotes, scattered throughout Praying to the West, reinforce the book’s central message: while often unrecognized, Muslims have played a central role in the history of the Americas.
One of the book’s most crucial elements comes from Mouallem’s accessible writing style and sometimes-humorous asides, which keep the narrative moving forward. “Zigzagging my way through US Customs in the Calgary airport, I studied the agents carefully,” he recalled in one chapter. “I hoped for the jovial young Latino or chatty white lady, someone who would grant me a hassle-free trip to Los Angeles, and not the dour guy who looked deprived of sleep and, probably, childhood birthday parties.”
Praying to the West manages to cover hundreds of years of Islamic and pan-American history without falling prey to boring digressions or sweeping cliches, an impressive feat for a book that stretches to almost 400 pages. In this quasi-memoir, Mouallem’s readers will also see a more positive, nuanced portrait of Islam than they might find in much of the news media or popular culture. The more Islamophobia proliferates, the more necessary books like Mouallem’s become.
“There’s no hatred that can’t be healed, no anger that can’t be reconciled, no act that can’t be forgiven.”
In June, a man used a pickup truck to kill four members of a Muslim family in Ontario in what Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called “a terrorist attack, motivated by hatred, in the heart of one of our communities.” Mouallem has made a crucial contribution to combating this type of Islamophobia with Praying to the West. His book highlights how multiculturalism withstood nativist sentiments and managed to thrive in every corner of the Western Hemisphere, including Canada. One chapter of his book even explores Islam in Ontario.
Praying to the West’s final pages feature Mouallem’s ultimate conclusion about “the message of Islam”: “that there’s no hatred that can’t be healed, no anger that can’t be reconciled, no act that can’t be forgiven, when you submit to something bigger than yourselves. Islam was my framework for the radical forgiveness required of me.” Whether Muslim or non-Muslim, Praying to the West’s readers will gain a new appreciation for Islam and the Americas from this book.