(RNS) – Research on the earliest Muslim communities in America has long attracted writers interested in how Muslims developed a sense of identity on this continent.
In the 1990s, Abdullah Hakim Quick, a Canadian writer, wrote âDeeper Roots: Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean Before Columbus,â which has become a staple of many Islamic bookstores.
A new book, âPraying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas,â by Omar Mouallem, could meet the needs of a new generation of Muslims. Like Quick, Mouallem is Canadian, but his approach is totally different. “Praying for the West” is part travelogue, part investigative journalism. The book examines 13 mosques across North and South America, from the top of the Arctic Circle to tropical Trinidad and Tobago.
While the book primarily includes coverage of contemporary Muslim communities or historical communities from the 20th century, earlier Muslim communities are part of the author’s story. The opening chapter visits a Brazilian city, site of a major Muslim slave revolt in the 19th century. Up to a third of all Africans brought to the New World as slaves were Muslims.
RELATED: UFOs and Science Fiction in Muslim Culture Go Far Beyond “Dune”
Born to Lebanese parents in western Canada, Mouallem attended a mosque as a child, but was not always secure in his faith. The book also reflects his own spiritual journey as he draws closer to Islam.
âUntil recently, the Muslim identity was imposed on me,â he writes in the book. “But I feel different from my religious heritage in the era of ISIS and Trumpism, the Rohingya and Uyghur genocides, ethnonationalism and disinformation.”
His book recalls that a myriad of Muslim communities have existed in the Americas for centuries.
Mouallem is an award-winning journalist who has written for Wired, The Guardian, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. He spoke to Religion News Service about the past, present and future of Islamic communities in North and South America. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RELATED: New biography offers new take on Muhammad’s life
What was the impetus to write this book now and report during Donald Trump’s presidency?
I wanted to enlighten people and myself on the lost history of Islam in the West. It is not a new phenomenon, and it has always had a cultural influence and has mixed with Christian societies over the centuries and in many different places.
One of the main historical questions for the American Muslim community is which institution deserves to be considered the very first place of Islamic worship in America. How did you approach this question?
In the book, I talk about my visit to Ross, North Dakota (founded 1929). I did an interview recently where it was called the First Mosque, and I haven’t corrected that. In fact, in my book I also use the term âthe first mosqueâ. Yet this is an open question. I also point out the Highland Park Mosque in Detroit in 1921, which collapsed a year later.
There was a group of Albanian Muslims who worked in the lumber industry in 1915 in Maine and who some believe formed the first mosque. There is also a group of Polish Muslims of Tatar descent who founded the American Mohammedan Society in 1907, and this community which has used a number of prayer spaces over the years still exists today.
Yes, this Albanian group used an accounting office for community prayers. You know it’s a similar situation in Canada as well. In my book, I look at the first mosque in Canada, which is located in Edmonton (the Al Rashid Mosque founded in 1938). But there was actually an Albanian Muslim community in Toronto before that. Of course, America’s first mosque was almost certainly in the South a century earlier due to the legacy of the era of slavery – or at least a place where common prayer was held by Muslims. . I hope that with research into African American history and other documents that have come to light through historical research, we will one day discover an important Islamic site from that period of Islamic history where Muslims were. enslaved in the Americas and the Western Hemisphere. This is an open question.
One of the book’s strengths is its investigation of schisms and mosque politics – something the authors have avoided in the past. Why did you think it was important to discuss these issues?
I don’t think anyone appreciates how the modern and diverse Muslim community we know today has been shaped by schism. I was in Trinidad and visited a mosque which in many ways was rooted in another mosque and felt it couldn’t afford to part with it completely. You can also, for example, see the Nation of Islam as an escape from the temple of Moorish science.
RELATED: Muslims win U.S. municipal elections in 2021
You approached this subject with a lot of basic knowledge. What was the most surprising discovery you found while writing this book?
You tend to think that over time the practices have become less liberal, but that is not what I have found. I think if you look at the services in early 20th century mosques in Edmonton, Canada, or Dearborn, Michigan, those services looked a lot more like Protestant churches. In a way, the practices of these communities about a hundred years ago were more uniquely Western in their traditions and festivities. â¦ In the long run, we may see a kind of reversion to some of those past practices. Especially since American Muslims of Generation Y and Generation Z are looking for a spiritual home more in line with their political and social values.