Even more than a historical traipse through the Muslim faith, Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas by local author Omar Mouallem is a cultural and political exploration. Mouallem bares his journey of discovery, along with his transitions from rebellious agnosticism to reluctant faith, all on the page. 

Memoirs or personal stories can sometimes have too much navel-gazing, but not this one. From somersaulting between the prayer rugs with his cousins in a Slave Lake, Alberta mosque to the far reaches of Inuvik, Turtle Island, Mouallem explores mosques found across Canada, the United States, Mexico, and further. 

Part memoir, part historical study and cultural critique, this is personal writing that digs deep into what shaped the author.The perceived world around him creates a piece of literature with a broad-spectrum appeal. Mouallem’s intention with the book is to “demystify and normalize the Muslim presence in the west.” Along his journey, he also uncovers and portrays different perspectives and the fascinating role Islam has played in politics and even industrialization.

In the book, Mouallem writes about how the cousins somersaulted and fooled around until one of the uncles would lift his eyes from meditation to glower at their rambunctious antics. Mouallem grew to appreciate the poetry of movement in the prayer sequences, seeking to imitate and “syncretize each movement” from hand over the belly, the kneeling, standing, prostrating, repeating… “each pose of Islamic prayer is a stanza unto itself.” 

Islam translated means “submission to the will of God.” The problem of that is the same as with the Christian Bible: who is doing or leading the interpretations? This is shown in the debate between the author and Haaq, a young Trinidadian man who, after some prison time, launched a mission to reform gang youth with scripture. The author and Haaq hold different views and the reader is privy to the difficult questions they debate.

Much later in the book, in a Mexican Muslim community before the Midnight Sun Mosque discovery, Mouallem observes a father/son relationship that mirrors his own relationship with his father. Both sons were stubborn, exhibiting religious differences. Mouallem’s father may have been tough on him but discipline was never meted out for religious differences, only when an incident resulted “from a failure of judgment and character.”  

Mouallem consistently tours the reader through the history of the mosques and Islam faith across the Americas, demonstrating for the reader the placement and origins of the Muslim peoples and faith in the Americas, one mosque at a time. 

Mouallem says it best: “Wherever there is a Muslim community, there is a difference of opinion, practice and beliefs. While Islam has the power to heal wounds and bring people together; it can also do the opposite.” The same can be said of Christianity. If everyone interpreted the will of God as John Lennon did, and lived as if love was the only law that mattered, one might see the world differently and believe holy wars can indeed disappear.

One of the big, many “aha” moments in this book takes place on Turtle Island, in the final chapter. El-Farouk, a queer Muslim, shares how no one can know what Islam looks like “because spirituality has no set form. Those who disagree stagnate a religion by looking to the past rather than the future…”

As an author, Mouallem enlightens the reader on the true meaning and message of Islam. “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.” 

That is a future many readers can and need to embrace from family disputes right to international conflicts. On Sept. 21 the book will be available at all major book retailers, including Glass Bookshop and Audreys in Edmonton, as well as Indigo and Amazon.ca. The suggested retail price is $34.99. More info: simonandschuster.ca/books/Praying-to-the-West.