At my last temple visit, I felt inspired to study Islam and Muslims and to understand what it is they understand.
To preface my study, my philosophy is that there must be something good in a religion shared by over a billion people. There must be some reason why parents teach their kids and their kids teach their kids. Religions just don’t survive over a thousand plus years and spread out to so many people without there being something of value that compels people to push it forward.
I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, if you don’t know. However, I have learned that my faith doesn’t teach that there are members and non-members, but that we are all one. In fact, the reason I was in the temple in the first place was to perform essential saving ordinances for someone who wasn’t a mormon and for all I know could’ve hated the mormons. I anticipate, in fact, that I will see him in the Celestial Kingdom, along with all the other saints from my religion and others. That’s the heart of my faith — that we are all one, all brothers and sisters, and nothing divides us except the arbitrary lines we allow Satan to draw for us.
In our articles of faith, the last one, article 13, states eloquently “if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, we seek after these things.” Well, my cursory examination of Islams and Muslims shows that they have virtue, their artwork and architecture is lovely, and there are a lot of people who have good things to say about them and their faith, so I must seek after it.
In summary: I am studying Islam because I think there must be something good there, and my religion teaches me that there is no divide between us, and that I must, in fact, search after good wherever it is.
My journey is going to be difficult. I think there are a number of reasons for this. On the one hand, the history of Islam has some, shall we say, less savory components. There are people who claim the title of Muslim who do some horrible things. This is a stumbling block. I can’t say that Muslims are special — many people have done horrible things in the name of any religion. Still, it is difficult to find truth when thousands of voices are shouting anger . It is difficult to ignore these angry voices. After all, we’re all human and we’re all subject to the temptations of the devil. On the other hand, I get the feeling that Muslims are not as forthcoming with their religion. They try to represent their religion with their lives not their words, which is how members of my church are taught to do it too. While this is the right way to do things, it means reading a book or looking up articles on the internet simply will not do the topic justice.
However, I think I have gotten off to a good start. I know enough that in order to understand Muslims, I should not study Islam. This sounds like a contradiction, but it really isn’t. You aren’t going to learn much about what it means to be a mormon by studying the Book of Mormon or the Bible or the writings and teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. You really need to got to our church services, eat dinner with our families, and watch us as we live out our lives. There is no other way to understand or to communicate our essence. So it seems to be with Muslims and Islam.
Islam, by the way, literally means “Submission.” This sounds rather harsh to our Western ears, but perhaps if I re-translated it as “humility” it would make more sense. Our teachings state that the Lord demands a sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit, a sense that I think “submission” really covers. Those who submit to God (they call him Allah) are practicing Islam. Those who do not are not.
Islam is not terribly well-defined. After more than a thousand years and being spread throughout every culture and philosophy, it has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Nevertheless, there are some core truths that unite everyone who practices this faith. These are the “Five Pillars of Islam” and you can read about them pretty much anywhere. I wish to comment on them from my perspective.
First is the testimony. “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet”. In the Latter-day Saint faith, we start with testimony, or rather, what we call faith. Our faith is not directly in God, but in Christ. We also have faith that Christ calls prophets who can administer saving ordinances and teach the pure gospel. I am not fully convinced one way or the other that Mohammed was or was not a prophet. I will have to examine his teachings to see. I know enough, however, that I dare not question anyone who has claims of visions or visitation of angels or divine intervention. I know that God works through all people at all times, and is unchanging. It takes considerable evidence before I will throw out someone’s witness as unreliable. I know that God will guide me one way or the other, and I haven’t had him tell me that Mohammed is definitely not a prophet.
Mohammed a prophet? I think the idea causes many Christians, even Latter-day Saints, to worry. What about all the bad things people say about him? I won’t bother listing them all here, but suffice it to say if there is a crime, Mohammed is accused of committing it. Well, the same can be said of Christ and Joseph Smith, and pretty much any true prophet who walked the earth. It’s not hard to find examples of prophets who have been accused of evil.
The Latter-day Saint belief in prophets is not that prophets are perfect. Far from it! We jokingly say, “Catholics teach that the pope is perfect, but no catholic believes it. Mormons teach that the prophet is imperfect, but no mormon believes it.” I am told that Mohammed himself questioned whether he would make it to heaven. I think it should be safe to say that prophets are people, too, and they make mistakes and God chastises them for that.
The part I have trouble with, however, is the idea that Mohammed is the best, ultimate, prophet. This doesn’t sit well with me because it teaches a changing God who called prophets in the past but says, “That’s it. No more!” I don’t believe this is how God operates. While Mohammed may be a prophet to the Arab people or to followers of Islam, that doesn’t necessarily imply that he is the prophet God called to preach his word to other people. Nevertheless, faithful followers must listen to what any prophet has to say and must live according to what the Spirit directs.
I thought about this idea for a while and I have a couple of thoughts. First, when you find something special, like a prophet, your first instinct should be, “There may be more!” For instance, let’s say I was walking along a river and found a beautiful diamond among the rocks. What would my reaction be? “There might be more!” I would scour the area looking for more diamonds. This is because there are very few, if any, truly unique things in the universe.
The second thought I had was that while having a unique thing makes it special, having lots of the same sort of thing makes it even more unique. This is kind of like the saying, “You are unique, just like the seven billion other people on this planet.” Truly, however, what makes me more unique is the fact that there are seven billion other people to compare me with. With so many people to compare with, you can see what makes me truly special compared to all others. Following the diamond example, diamonds are pretty cool to people who are barely acquainted with them, but to the diamond expert who has seen countless diamonds, each one is truly special. Each one has a unique set of characteristics that makes it truly one-of-a-kind in their eyes.
So it is with prophets. If you have one, you should look for more. And when you find more, the one you found first is truly even more special. As you may be aware, in our church we believe in continuing revelation. Not only can the president of our church receive revelation, but everybody can receive revelation. We sometimes talk about “our prophet”, the person who is the president right now. Sometimes we mean the person who was the president at the time we awoke to the gospel. My prophet is Gordon B. Hinckley. It’s also Thomas S. Monson. We’ve had lots of prophets, and we’ll have lots more. Each one is special and unique to us. If I were to come to believe that Mohammed was a prophet, then he would be special as well.
Nevertheless, I am distracted. The second pillar is prayer. Muslims pray five times a day. I do not understand enough about what prayer means to a Muslim but I know enough that even vain, repetitious Gentile prayers are heard by God. (Jesus condemned vain, repetitious prayers.) I would like to study further what Muslims understand about prayer. I am sure there is something more to learn. Let me state that to the Latter-day Saints, prayer is at the heart of all we do. It is the first and last act, the most important of all things. We should carry a prayer in our hearts at all times.
The third pillar is alms-giving. Remarkably, the teachings on alms-giving are remarkably similar to our teachings. This leads me to believe that Mohammed was likely a prophet, because there is no way any mortal man can stumble upon such a system. It can only come from God. I want to point out that voluntary alms-giving is the essential element to inner peace and prosperity. No one can deny that this is a beautiful element of the Muslim faith.
The fourth pillar is fasting for the month of Ramadan. Muslims fast by not drinking water or eating food from sunup to sundown for the month of Ramadan. We also believe in fasting. We fast once a month for 24-hours by skipping two meals and avoiding food or drink. I know for a fact that this is a teaching that we mutually appreciate. I respect the Muslim fast and I know that they respect ours. Fasting is an essential element to prayer.
The fifth pillar is the Hajj, a trip to Mecca where Muslims participate in a variety of activities. I thought about this trip and what it symbolizes and I am left to conclude that it is comparable with our temple worship. Every member of our church should go to the temple at least once and participate in the temple ceremonies there. I will not cover the details here for brevity’s sake. Suffice it to say, the individual makes covenants to serve God and build up his kingdom on the earth through righteous actions. From what I can tell of the Hajj, there are a lot of similarities.
I do not understand much of Islam or how Muslims live their lives, but I know enough that there is good in there, and that I need to study it. My next step will be to visit with local Muslims to get to know their faith and appreciate what they believe and how they live their lives.
There are some questions I have, important questions that all people everywhere deal with. Namely, the problem of sin. How does one escape the consequences of sin? Also, the concept of perfection. How does one live a perfect life? What sort of blessings are promised to those who do? These are a topic I will address for another time. Suffice it to say, I think I know who Mohammed really was (yes, I think he was a prophet) and how to fit it in to our faith and religion. Understanding this will help us understand the Muslims and truly join with them in sincere brotherhood.