Muslims in the Americas—a review of “Praying to the West”

19 September, 2022
Retired elec­tri­cian Richard Omar at the gate of the old­est mosque in the Unit­ed States, near Ross, North Dako­ta (pho­to Jer­ry Ander­son, cour­tesy New York Times).

 

Pray­ing to the West: How Mus­lims Shaped the Amer­i­c­as by Omar Mouallem
Simon & Schus­ter, 2021
ISBN 9781501199141

 

Francisco Letelier

 

Most under­stand that the sto­ry of the Amer­i­c­as has miss­ing pieces. With Pray­ing to the West, I learned more about the lives and influ­ence of those often dis­missed or rel­e­gat­ed to the sidelines.

The author takes us on a decid­ed­ly dizzy­ing jour­ney that begins in Jerusalem and trav­els from his home­town of Edmon­ton, Cana­da then into Que­bec and Ontario, and on to Chi­a­pas, Mex­i­co, Bahia, Brazil and Trinidad and Toba­go. Spin­ning us through Michi­gan, North Dako­ta, Texas, the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries and Tur­tle Island, we are giv­en a glimpse of the impact and reach of Mus­lims through­out the Americas.

 

Pray­ing to the West is pub­lished by Simon & Shus­ter.

Amidst the nation­al­i­ties, lan­guages, forms and branch­es of wor­ship, it is easy to get lost in infor­ma­tion. There is much atten­tion giv­en to details of Mus­lim life, and these often seem to lead away from how Mus­lims shaped the Amer­i­c­as.  Through­out the author’s jour­ney, how­ev­er, I was remind­ed of how dif­fi­cult this kind of jour­nal­ism can be, demand­ing adap­ta­tion and diplo­ma­cy as he met with rep­re­sen­ta­tives and adher­ents wher­ev­er he went. The dis­tances of lan­guage and cul­ture are keen­ly felt when the author moves from North to South. In Latin Amer­i­ca, faith makes its com­pro­mise with lan­guage and cul­ture just as it does in North Amer­i­ca. As a South Amer­i­can myself, I sensed the bar­ri­ers the North Amer­i­can author con­front­ed in his trav­els.  It takes more than a Mus­lim back­ground to pierce the skin of a new con­ti­nent.  The writer is often so focused on local Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties, that he fails to ade­quate­ly include the geog­ra­phy, cul­tures and lan­guages that sur­round Mus­lim communities.

It took char­ac­ter, courage and deter­mi­na­tion for the author’s ances­tors to seek a new home in the Amer­i­c­as. Read­ers learn that 60% of the 95,000 peo­ple pop­u­lat­ing Dear­born, Michi­gan claim Mid­dle East­ern ances­try. The Arab Amer­i­can Muse­um in Dear­born begins the sto­ry of Arab Amer­i­cans with Mustafa Azem­mouri, an enslaved explor­er who left an imprint in Meso-Amer­i­ca. The muse­um then skips cen­turies, arriv­ing at the first wave of immi­grants form­ing “lit­tle Syr­ias” in boom­ing cities across North and South Amer­i­ca. Three of the author’s grand­fa­thers rode that wave, includ­ing one that worked at Hen­ry Ford’s first auto plant with hun­dreds of oth­er Lebanese (dur­ing the Ottoman era, Lebanon was part of what was known as Greater Syr­ia, only form­ing its own iden­ti­ty in 1920).

Today in Dear­born, close to 30% of the pop­u­la­tion iden­ti­fies as Mus­lim or affil­i­at­ed. The vast major­i­ty are Shia, but in the Unit­ed States and the world, the vast major­i­ty are Sunni.

Immi­grants on the fron­tier of Amer­i­ca, Mus­lim or oth­er­wise, are vital to the sto­ry of the nation we call the Unit­ed States. Mid­dle East­ern work­ers joined Blacks, Jews, Irish and oth­ers in build­ing not only cars but also the mid­dle-class dream that today is still out of reach for so many. They real­ly were shap­ing Amer­i­ca. In the Amer­i­can psy­che, arguably, even today there is noth­ing quite as “Amer­i­can” as a Ford.

But this book is inward look­ing, giv­ing tan­ta­liz­ing but cur­so­ry nods, rather than mak­ing grand claims con­cern­ing the shap­ing of broad­er swaths of Amer­i­can cul­ture. In Chica­go at a branch of the Nation of Islam, Mouallem writes:

Imam Agim Muhammed gave me goose bumps with his recita­tion of al-Fati­ha. I’d heard it ten thou­sand times, but had nev­er heard the Quran’s open­ing sal­vo sound like blues…Numerous schol­ars have argued a link between the Amer­i­can music and Islam­ic hymnody. I was skep­ti­cal until hear­ing Imam Agim bend, blend, and stretch each note as if cov­er­ing Mud­dy Waters in a for­eign language.

The blues con­tin­ues to per­me­ate and shape the Amer­i­c­as, but that is all we get from author Omar Mouallen on the life-chang­ing pow­er of this quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can music genre.

When he is clos­est to home, read­ers are teased, first with details about the Lebanese ped­dlers that once roamed the prairies of Cana­da and the Dako­tas, then exam­ples of their mod­ern equiv­a­lents. Although it may be true that the vast major­i­ty of Arabs on the Amer­i­can fron­tier were farm­ers, it’s also true that the trav­el­ling sales­man, the trad­er and ped­dler are pow­er­ful icons that con­tin­ue to shape the myths of nations.

In North Dako­ta, at the site of one of the old­est still exist­ing mosques in the Unit­ed States, a mosque sur­round­ed by wheat fields, we gain insight into the wor­ship of Mus­lim pio­neers. On the periph­ery of Ross, a town of 100 peo­ple 60 miles south of the Cana­di­an bor­der, Syr­i­an and Lebanese immi­grants held ser­vices with a coal stove, bench­es, and prayer rugs in a small 1929 sub base­ment building:

Omar Mouallem is an author, film­mak­er, and edu­ca­tor. His jour­nal­ism has appeared in The Guardian, WIRED, and The New York­er. His book Pray­ing to the West: How Mus­lims Shaped the Amer­i­c­as won the 2022 Wil­fred Eggle­ston Award for Non­fic­tion and was named one of The Globe and Mail’s 100 Best Books of 2021. His short doc­u­men­tary The Last Baron, about the unlike­ly link between a Cana­di­an fast-food insti­tu­tion and the Lebanese civ­il war, is cur­rent­ly being expand­ed into a fea­ture film. Omar is also the “fake dean” of Pan­dem­ic Uni­ver­si­ty, a vir­tu­al school he found­ed in sup­port of writ­ers affect­ed by the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. He lives in Edmon­ton, Alber­ta, and tweets @OmarMouallem.

A small Chipewyan Lebanese group emerged in Tur­tle Moun­tain, North Dako­ta, but most, like Awid’s father, Ahmed, sought courtship from East­ern Euro­peans. (Eng­lish and French women gave the men as lit­tle atten­tion as the men gave Indige­nous women.) How­ev­er, as home­stead­ers arrived in droves, estab­lish­ing pock­ets of Ara­bia amid wheat and mus­tard fields, mixed fam­i­lies became infre­quent. By the 1920s, about three thou­sand Syr­i­ans lived in the Dako­tas, of whom one-third were Mus­lim. They viewed the thou­sands of kilo­me­ters and bor­ders between them almost as they would the next town over in Lebanon’s Bekaa Val­ley. The same Saskatchewan shaykh, an autho­rized faith leader, over­saw mar­riages and funer­als in Alber­ta, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.

Today, the Chipewa Nation rec­og­nizes those Syr­i­an and Lebanese names and lin­eages. Just­ly, the nar­ra­tive of how Mus­lims shaped the Amer­i­c­as would have been bet­ter craft­ed had the author sought to also describe the expe­ri­ence of Native Amer­i­cans with Muslims.

In a vast indige­nous land pop­u­lat­ed by oth­er com­mu­ni­ties, it seems impor­tant to trace where con­nec­tions and com­mon ground occur.

We are more than our prayers; we must dwell, also, in the places our prayers take us.

The Amer­i­c­as as a whole are a land in which we rec­on­cile cul­ture and mem­o­ry with the spir­i­tu­al beliefs and prac­tices of ances­tors. The diver­si­ty of Mus­lim belief, cul­ture and prayer is over­whelm­ing and per­haps the author offers more expla­na­tion than nec­es­sary about accep­tance in Amer­i­ca. Like many read­ers, I do not believe that I must jus­ti­fy myself or oth­ers in order to be per­ceived as a mem­ber of a “good com­mu­ni­ty.” It is dif­fi­cult to wit­ness the writer engaged in doing so. Nonethe­less, the racism and stereo­typ­ing of Mus­lims and Mid­dle East­ern com­mu­ni­ties is a real­i­ty that can­not be ignored. Under­ly­ing the author’s nar­ra­tive are lessons on how alliances with broad­er com­mu­ni­ties and faiths can pro­vide insight and strength for Muslims. 

Pray­ing to the West con­tains beau­ti­ful moments as the author tests and explores his iden­ti­ty as a Mus­lim man, acknowl­edg­ing the pow­er­ful threads woven into his dai­ly life. While slow to get there, it is uplift­ing to find the author dis­cov­er­ing sec­u­lar cul­ture, but by the time the gates open to these ideas, the book is ending:

There was once a spir­it­ed tra­di­tion of Mus­lim elites pub­lish­ing works that ques­tioned dog­ma, prophet­hood, and only stopped short of try­ing to dis­prove God. Ded­i­cat­ed to val­ues we might now call human­ist — rea­son, empiri­cism, and free thought — these philoso­pher-sci­en­tists thrived dur­ing the medieval peri­od known as the Islam­ic Gold­en Age. They’ve always exist­ed, even if mod­ern Mus­lim elites ignored or erased them by favor­ing con­ser­v­a­tive com­men­taries, a cov­er-up becom­ing hard­er to sus­tain in our Age of Information.

“So where does the Mus­lim start?” I asked Khaki.

Kha­ki said I was ask­ing the wrong ques­tion. “It’s ‘Where does it end?’”

Hav­ing a Mus­lim back­ground — based not in spir­i­tu­al­i­ty but his­to­ry, pol­i­tics, cul­ture, fam­i­ly — was legit­i­mate enough for Mus­lim iden­ti­ty. With this, I believed I had a place in the ummah.

The Amer­i­c­as are inhab­it­ed by oth­er silent and buried his­to­ries; we walk next to one anoth­er, across geo­gra­phies that our grand­moth­ers made home. Our spir­i­tu­al prac­tices and beliefs live with­in the cul­tures we car­ry and it remains impor­tant to have glob­al out­looks that can embrace our grow­ing com­mu­ni­ties and nations. I was not dis­ap­point­ed when the book end­ed with a call to reach out towards places that need atten­tion and human rights. If the book reveals a major weak­ness, it is that Mouallem spent per­haps too much time inter­view­ing high­ly placed reli­gious lead­ers in order to under­stand or give mean­ing to the Islam­ic expe­ri­ence in the Amer­i­c­as. It was as if he were dis­em­pow­ered to grant him­self any spir­i­tu­al agency — imag­ine if a Catholic want­ed to explore the mean­ing of Catholi­cism, but set about talk­ing main­ly to priests, bish­ops, car­di­nals and the Pope, giv­ing lit­tle impor­tance to her/his fel­low worshippers.

Nonethe­less, the book’s bib­li­og­ra­phy is a gem and serves to point out areas of need­ed research. His­to­ry is a liv­ing thing, a book that is con­stant­ly re-writ­ten. As research into Mus­lim cul­ture in the Amer­i­c­as moves for­ward, new under­stand­ings will be revealed.  This read­er’s hope is that Pray­ing to the West is only a beginning.

 

IslamMuslim AmericaShiaSunni

Chilean American artist Francisco Letelier creates art that crosses disciplines and cultures. Integrating narratives that explore cultural memory and identity, his projects offer opportunities for cultural exchange and education. He has worked on projects throughout the Americas, Europe, India and the West Bank of Palestine. Follow him on Twitter @franlete.

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