Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas

By Miranda Martini
Cover image of the book "Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas" by Omar Mouallem. The cover is dark blue, with orange, red and blue text.

by Omar Mouallem, Simon & Schuster, 2021/$34.99/384 pp.

Twenty years later, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 feel as recent as ever—at least when it comes to the wave of Islamophobia they sparked. Recent years have seen mass shootings at mosques in Quebec City and Christchurch, and a dangerous spike in violence and hate directed at Muslims in Edmonton, especially hijabi women. At this historical crossroads, Omar Mouallem’s Praying to the West feels both inevitable and urgently needed, an antidote to and a record of the Islamophobia that Canadians, supposedly invested in a shared project of multiculturalism, seem reluctant to shake off.

The book is part travelogue, part anthropological study, part memoir. Over 13 chapters, Mouallem travels to 13-and-change mosques in the Western world to see how Islam has taken root and thrived across the globe, including in some unlikely corners.

Raised Muslim but alienated from his family’s faith since his teens, Mouallem wears the hats of both tourist and tour guide. Sometimes the subcultures we glimpse through his eyes are so sprawling and complex that they defy summary: I barely had time to grasp the political factions in Trinidad and Tobago’s increasingly radicalized Muslim community before I was whisked off to Chicago to learn about an obscure 20th-century sect at the root of the Nation of Islam. Despite this whiplash-inducing pace, the worlds revealed in Mouallem’s travels are fascinating, particularly those in my own backyard. For instance, it’s hard not to be affected by the story of the Midnight Sun Mosque in Inuvik, the so-called “little mosque on the tundra,” and the lengths—figurative and literal—to which the faithful in the far northern community went in order to worship together. “When the Prophet Muhammad redirected the qibla [the direction to which Muslims turn in prayer] from Jerusalem,” writes Mouallem of the Midnight Sun, “he never fathomed a civilization on the other side of the Earth, let alone one that would return his message to Mecca across the northern axis.”

The disparate chapters are woven together by Mouallem’s clear and compelling narrative voice. Leaning into the vulnerability of the subject matter, he invites the reader into his struggle to place himself within the Muslim diaspora, both culturally and spiritually. This personal journey occurring alongside the literal one is a large part of why the book works so well.

Praying to the West is a moving testament to the resiliency, dynamism and ingenuity of Islam and its adherents. For non-Muslim Canadians, I’d venture to call it an essential read—as an education in all the ways Muslims have informed and enriched the cultures on this continent, and also as a warning of the price our Muslim neighbours pay for our ignorance.

Miranda Martini is a writer, editor and musician in Calgary.

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