Comments on Common Ground

Spencer J. Palmer, “Comments on Common Ground,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 87–91.

Comments on Common Ground

Spencer J. Palmer

Spencer J. Palmer, now deceased, was director of world religions in the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University and the associate director of BYU’s David M. Kennedy Center for International and Area Studies. Professor Palmer graduated from Eastern Arizona Junior College, received his B.A. from Brigham Young University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of California at Berkeley in East Asian studies and history. His research and publications include numerous books and articles on history and comparative religion, as well as on Mormon subjects.

Today I have been thinking about my first visit to Saudi Arabia. It was in 1954. One evening at dusk, a rapidly moving caravan of brightly painted Chevrolet cars carne to a sudden stop at the side of a lonely road in the desert. A dozen young Arabs, dressed in the customary kafia, unrolled their prayer rugs, faced Mecca, then prostrated themselves in prayer. It was a quiet, orderly, and respectful exercise. And it seemed for a moment that all nature had paused, sharing that meaningful act of devotion. I was deeply touched.

Then last year I was privileged to be on holy ground in Jerusalem, between the Mosque of Omar and the al-Aksa Mosque, on Friday at noon. I had been invited to attend this special day of prayer where hundreds of men and boys faced al-Aksa Mosque, while a like number of women and girls faced the Dome of the Rock, to acknowledge the presence of Almighty God. My spirit was quickened; I was stirred by feelings of appreciation and love.

Now we are here at BYU to explore relationships between Mormonism and Islam. I cannot help but approach our meetings with positive and appreciative feelings, drawn by the belief that these two great faiths have much in common. Of course, I realize there are important differences, but I feel certain that many who are assembled here will be impressed by common ground.

The idea that resemblances between Mormonism and Islam deserve careful comparative study is not new. Numerous books and articles have been printed on the subject, but not always with a constructive purpose in mind. Eduard Meyer, the great German scholar, was more positive than most:

Of the many new religious movements originating in our time, Mormonism very early awakened my interest, especially because of its surprising and close resemblances to the historical development of Islam.

Without the least exaggeration, we may designate the Mormons as the Mohammedans of the New World according to their origins and their manner of thinking. There is hardly a historical parallel which is so instructive as this one; and through comparative analysis both receive so much light that a scientific study of the one through the other is indispensable.[1]

At the outset I want to say that although analogies in world religions can rather easily be drawn, we must be cautious in doing so. And we must be careful in our interpretations and conclusions. It is easy to oversimplify. Especially, we must resist the human tendency to force the faith and practice of others into ideological compartments or stereotypes familiar only to ourselves—or to compare the “best” within our religious traditions with what is least appealing in others. Now having said this, let me suggest a few rather obvious parallels between Mormonism and Islam.

1. Neither of them is merely a creedal faith. Rather, they represent ways of life. To belong to either community requires an almost total commitment in customs, values, and lifestyle. For both, religion is more than a recitation of creed or articles of faith; it includes prohibitions against the drinking of alcohol or the use of drugs, a commitment to fasting and prayer, modesty in dress, the payment of alms and tithing, emphasis on the family, obedience to parents, concern for the elderly, and the poor, and many other social concerns.

2. In both, obedience to a living God is at the core of all faith and practice. God is the supreme Deity, and He demands strict moral adherence to divine law, with retribution and judgment, for the sinner. In both Islam and Mormonism, God is a revelator, and He is revealed. Man’s opportunity and obligation is to testify of Him. But within the purview of this similarity there are differences: in Islam, God is not only absolutely unique and all-powerful, He is unapproachable. Neither Muhammad nor any man can withstand His immediate presence and live. Muhammad received God’s revelations at the hands of an angelic messenger, Gabriel, whereas Joseph Smith stood in the immediate presence of Almighty God just as Moses and others before him also claimed to have done. Joseph Smith not only reported receiving visitations from the angel Moroni, but he said he talked with God face to face as a man might communicate with his friend.

3. Closely tied to this belief in the omnipotence of a living God is the common belief in the physical resurrection of the dead. In a day when religious people in the world are increasingly skeptical about such things, Mormons and Muslims hold tenaciously to this belief, which originally may have appeared strange to some of the people of Mecca when it was first revealed to them. Muhammad argued that if a perfectly formed person can be created from a clot of blood, God can then also perform other miracles, such as restoring the dead and calling them to accountability for their acts.

4. Both Mormons and Muslims, perhaps more than any other two peoples in the religious world today, greatly emphasize the importance of prophets. Twenty-eight prophets are mentioned in the Qur’an. Eighteen of these are prophets mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, all of whom are accepted as authoritative exponents of God’s mind and will by the Mormon people. Yet even in this basic similarity there is an important difference. In orthodox Islamic belief, Muhammad was the last of the prophets of God—”the seal” of the prophets; whereas in Mormon belief, not only was Joseph Smith, the historical founder of the faith, a legitimate prophet of God in a continuing line of Old and New Testament prophets, but his successors down to the present president of the Church are also bona fide messengers of God. But again, as Professor Ayoub explains in his discussion of the doctrine of the Mahdi in Islam, the discrepancy and difference on this latter point of doctrine are not as critical in some Islamic traditions as in others.

5. Both Muhammad and Joseph Smith are regarded as instruments in the hands of God in revealing new scriptures: the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon. Both men reported they were directed by angels in bringing forth these new volumes of scripture.

6. Both Joseph Smith and Muhammad believed they were divinely called to restore the patriarchal religion of Father Abraham; both taught not only that their disciples were literal blood descendants of Father Abraham (the Arabs are lineal descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son) but that the God of Abraham was also their God.

7. Both Mormonism and Islam are strongly opposed to idolatry and to the use of idols and images and mystical symbols in their daily prayers and in their places of worship. Simplicity of form in architecture, art, and worship characterize both. The Mormon view on this matter was first given in 1855 by one of the Apostles of the Church in a public discourse in Salt Lake City when he said, “Now this man [Muhammad] descended from Abraham and was no doubt raised up by God on purpose to scourge the world for their idolatry.”[2]

8. There are passages in the Qur’an that have special doctrinal interest to Mormons and that may not strike a responsive chord among others in such a meaningful way. For example, there is the incident of the fallen angel Iblis, who, according to the Qur’an (Sura 7:10–20; 38:65–88), refused to bow down and take instruction from Adam at the time of creation and thus was cast out of paradise for rebellion. This episode is well known in Mormon theology, wherein Satan rebelled in the premortal life and was cast out of heaven (see 2 Nephi 24:12–16, Abraham 3:27–28; Moses 4:1–4). I have just referred to the books of Abraham and Moses, two important texts not found in the Christian Bible but included in the scriptures of the Mormon people, having been translated from ancient papyrus by Joseph Smith. The Qur’an quotes from texts called the book of Abraham and the book of Moses in Suras 53 and 87, although there is no explanation in the text as to exactly what these books are.[3]

Muslim-Mormon comparisons are wide-ranging. The investigation of the subject by Mormons has just begun. I want to say frankly that this symposium is not a naive or misguided effort to establish sameness of some kind between Mormonism and Islam. That would be foolhardy. That would ignore obvious differences, such as the Mormon acceptance of Jesus as someone much more than a prophet, which Muslims would generally deny. But still, our meetings here mark a significant and meaningful milestone, a first effort by representatives of these two religious groups to join in a common endeavor to seek understanding.

We of the Religious Studies Center are grateful to have others on our campus, whether Mormon, Muslim, or belonging to neither group. We are impressed by the large and enthusiastic number of people in attendance today. For me, this is not only a positive sign of Mormon interest in the people of Islam but in reaching out to all peoples, nations, and religious communities heretofore largely neglected by us. All this bodes well for religious studies at Brigham Young University and perhaps also for the direction of the Church, which is its primary motivating force.

Notes


[1] Eduard Meyer, The Origin and History of the Mormons: With Reflections on the Beginnings of Islam and Christianity, trans. Heinz F. Rahde and Eugene Seaich (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1961), 1, 44.

[2] George A. Smith, in Journal of Discourses (Liverpool: B. James, 1856), 3:32

[3] In quotations from the Qur’an, I have relied on the translations and commentary of A. Yusef Ali, The Holy Qur’an (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1946), vols. 1–2, and N. J. Dawood, The Koran (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970).