Review – A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb

Joe Bradford

| 08/27/2010

A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell WebbA Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb by Umar F. Abd-Allah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“In this timely and engaging book, Umar Abd-Allah brings to life an important, but little-known figure in Victorian America. In an illuminating story of Alexander Webb, Abd-Allah shows how he navigated life as a prominent Muslim and an American with relative ease and without resistance from mainstream society. This work is an important lesson, not only for history buffs but for anyone interested in understanding contemporary times.” –Geneive Abdo, author of Mecca and Main (more…)

This is an extremely intriguing book, not just for its coverage of a highly unknown figure in American history, but for the sheer magnitude of research that went in to making this book a reality. The number of sources is amazing, and the level at which Webb’s life is covered is detailed. There are a few areas of the book that could have been stronger or explored in more detail, however those areas in general do not deal directly with Webb’s life.

This book is an easy read, and the information therein is easily digestible.  Alexander Webb was an American diplomat, a journalist, and Muslim; none of these conflicting with the other. Having established the first documented Islamic institution at 485 W 20th in Manhattan (just a little less than 3 miles away from Ground Zero) and the “first Muslim House of Worship” at the same location may be close enough to make some say we should “refudiate” it.

But Webb was hardly apologetic for two things: his Islam and his Americanism. One thing that stands out in the life of Webb was his insistence on the moral goodness and intellect of the American people, something that he insisted would lead Americans to learn more about Islam, if not embrace it. He would go on to produce several tracts seeking to introduce Americans to Islam. He represented Muslims at the First Parliament of World Religions (a branch of the Chicago World’s Fair) running from Sept. 10-27, 1893.

The author meticulously researched this monograph and draws from a number of sources to accomplish a very detailed vision of Webb’s life. At times though I fear that an ideological slant seems to skew things in a certain way, especially when dealing with Webb’s travels in India and his visiting of saints. Had the full passage as found in Webb’s diary been provided for us to read (at least in the endnotes) we would have a clearer picture of how Webb dealt with the topic.

Not enough background is given on the other Muslims that Webb interacted with the US, especially those that converted, except at times to cast them in a negative light. Had the some of the day to day with these people and the reasons for them abandoning Webb’s mission been given, we would no doubt have a more complete picture of Webb as a not only a Muslim and his approach to Islamic call (Dawah), but where he stood on class in Victorian America. Many passages point to his having a somewhat condescending view of the poor and uneducated, to the extent that Islam is not even presented to them nor any attempt made to do so in the least. Could what can almost be called elitism be the reason for some of his followers to forsake him?

Had the author presented Webb’s life as-is instead of trying to use it to make a supporting statement for his own vision of what Muslims and America should, I think the intended effect would have been greater.

This monograph opens a window to an unknown period of Islam in American history, one that sadly ended all too quickly. It would not be until the early nineteen hundreds that we see even Pseudo-Islamic movements arise with any prominence in America.

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