"Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas," Reviewed by Billy Lay
We all know that the world is a diverse place. There are myriad religions, nationalities, cultures, and traditions (to name just a few things!) that all work together to create the great tapestry of human existence. Despite this, how often do we take the time to truly engage with another culture? In his book, Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, author and journalist Omar Mouallem gives us a personal insight into the lives of Muslims throughout the two continents that we call the Americas and his own personal journey with the Islamic faith.
The book begins by giving us insight into Mouallem’s personal life; raised in a devout Muslim household, he has since grown away from the faith. He also recognizes the immense difficulty of leaving the cultural traditions and perceptions of being Muslim--especially when the outside world often views him as such, despite what his own personal beliefs are. In an attempt to find where he fits into Islamic cultures, Mouallem travels throughout the Americas, visiting places from Brazil to Canada with plenty of stops in-between. Although the locations and cultures vary, the mission stays the same: to speak to local Muslims about how they practice Islam.
The great strength of the book is Mouallem’s ability to portray the vastly different practices that people hold throughout these continents. Through a combination of interviews, visits to Mosques, and historical context, Mouallem is able to portray a religion that at times seems unified in name only. He hits upon the differences that have developed between many sects of Islam without attempting to gloss over or unify these distinctions. Instead he emphasizes that Islam is, in reality, a house of many rooms. The book emphasizes that there is not one “true” tradition of Islam, but rather that it often grows in conjunction with the history and culture of the land within which it is set. This diversity allows a non-Muslim reader, such as myself, to gain a deep insight into the realities of contemporary Islam by hearing directly from those who practice it.
Mouallem has done the difficult work of exploring the historical pasts and present realities of the different Muslim communities that he visits, and he graciously shares this background with the reader. However, no matter how gifted the author, it can be difficult to summarize centuries of political and religious history in just a chapter or two, and the reader needs to be able to follow and keep track of numerous names, movements, and historical events in order to fully appreciate the stories that Mouallem is telling.
This effort is well worth the reward, for Mouallem gives us a great opportunity: to learn the often unsung history of how Muslims have influenced our continent throughout its history. Anyone seeking to learn more about Muslim history, religion, or practices should certainly read this book. It elegantly combines academic research with personal stories and narratives, allowing the reader to engage with a contemporary Muslim community that might otherwise be closed to them. Mouallem sets out to discover what it meant to be Muslim and, by taking us along, asks us to challenge and reimagine just what we think it means to be Muslim in the Americas, a worthwhile journey for all of us to take.
Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the America
Simon & Schuster
Billy Lay is an avid reader who also happens to be a senior at Villanova University, where he studies Political Science and the Humanities. In his spare time, he enjoys playing trombone in the Villanova Band, trying to cook, and going on walks around campus.