Abd-Allah, chair of the Chicago-based Nawawi Foundation, an organization promoting education about Islam, explores the life of Alexander Russell Webb (1846-1916), a convert to Islam who started some of the earliest U.S. Muslim periodicals.
Abd-Allah traces Webb's early life to look for his inspirations for his subsequent conversion. He grew up in upstate New York at the time of the Second Great Awakening, exposing him to an active theological discourse. The Civil War dominated his teenage years. Abd-Allah blames the religious establishment for "beat[ing] the drums" of war and suggests that the destruction wrought might have turned Webb against traditional religion. He also grew disillusioned with post-Civil War materialism and sought solace in other spiritual movements, opening the door to his eventual conversion to Islam. After years of activity in Missouri journalism and support for the Democratic Party, Webb received a presidential appointment to be consul in Manila.
While the Catholic church dominated the Philippines, Webb learned about Islam through Indian merchants and the writing of Indian Muslim intellectuals. It was not long before he converted to Islam. In 1891, he entered into correspondence with prominent Indian scholars and, the next year, resigned his post to travel around India to study and raise money to support a proselytizing mission in the United States. In 1893, he returned to the United States and established a mission and publishing center funded first by Indian and later Ottoman patrons. In 1901, he became the honorary Ottoman consul in New York.
Webb submerged himself in his new faith and wrote that, among Indian Muslims, he had found a society superior to Western civilization. Upon his return, he did not shy away from public lectures but found that study circles and especially publishing provided a better investment of time. Eventually, though, neither Indian nor Ottoman patronage could keep Webb solvent. His missions collapsed under a mountain of debt.
Webb's story may have resonance with Abd-Allah, who converted to Islam after reading the biography of Malcolm X. Abd-Allah subsequently drifted from the Nation of Islam to radical Saudi interpretations of religion; for more than fifteen years he taught at King Abdul-Aziz University in Saudi Arabia. Like Webb, he is an American convert to Islam who seeks to propagate its spread.
While Abd-Allah produces a well-researched work, making full advantage of Webb's myriad papers and publications (but not State Department or presidential archives mentioning Webb's mission), his sympathy may lead him to avoid critical questions. What does Webb's abandonment of his diplomatic post say about the compatibility of Islam and U.S. government service, especially after his acceptance of work for a foreign government? Is propagation of Islam dependent upon foreign subsidy? How does Webb compare to those today who drift from liberalism to "spiritualism" and, then, immerse themselves in Islam? For this, the reader will have to wait for another author to examine Webb. For those following Abd-Allah's path, though, the narrative will provide solace.