New Review: Kelsay on _A Muslim in Victorian America_



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BY KELLY BAKER

Since I am always promoting new reviews from H-Amstdy, here's another one. John Kelsay, Professor of Religion at Florida State University, examines Umar Abd-Allah's A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb. Webb was Anglo convert to the global faith, and Kelsay notes how American Muslims have claimed Webb to place themselves more firmly in the American religious narrative. Kelsay writes:

"The only biography of the first prominent American Muslim," reads the announcement on the Oxford University Press website. And, indeed, that may be the case. Umar F. Abd-Allah's study of Alexander Russell Webb, which began as a University of Chicago dissertation, takes the bits and pieces of a story related by others as a point of departure for this full-length exploration of the man who represented Islam at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions. Most of those bits and pieces, as it turns out, have been related by Muslim Americans interested in placing their faith in the mainstream of American religious history. For these individuals, the fact that a man like Webb identified himself as both Muslim and American as early as the 1890s provides an example to which contemporary Muslims may recur. Thus, Sulayman Nyang, a Ghanaian émigré teaching at Howard University, speaks of a "Webbian tradition" of American Islam. Especially after September 11, some Muslims seeking an American identity find in Webb a prototype of an integrated self.

Given this interest, the first word a reviewer should use to describe
Abd-Allah's scholarly study is "helpful." _A Muslim in Victorian America_ is the story of a descendant of Scots-Irish immigrants, who came to identify himself as a Muslim and founded a mission dedicated to the propagation of Islam in the United States. As noted, Webb served as the spokesperson for Islam at the 1893 World's Parliament. He established interesting, if troubling, connections with Muslims in India and in late Ottoman Turkey. On these and other points, Abd-Allah provides much useful information. Given our current lack of solid information about the place of Islam in American religious history, Abd-Allah's scholarly work is really quite valuable. If and when someone writes a really good history of American Islam, I am sure that the author of that work will have ample reason to cite _A Muslim in Victorian America_.

That said, the second judgment to be made about Abd-Allah's study is
that it leaves us with more questions than answers. We might profile Webb as follows: born and reared in upstate New York, from a family that was nominally Presbyterian. Webb's religious interests show the imprint of revivalism, in the sense that he was in search of an authentic religious experience, a conversion "from the heart." At the same time, Webb was influenced by transcendentalism and felt that "church-Christianity" (as he called it) was overly narrow. In short, Webb was a seeker, whose perspective suggests that each and every person ought to search out the truth for himself or herself, and follow whatever light is given. (For the rest of the review, click here.)

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