The Muhammad-Joseph Smith Comparison: Subjective Metaphor or a Sociology of Prophethood?

Arnold H. Green, “The Muhammad–Joseph Smith Comparison: Subjective Metaphor or a Sociology of Prophethood?” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 111–33.

The Muhammad-Joseph Smith Comparison: Subjective Metaphor or a Sociology of Prophethood?

Arnold H. Green


At the time of the symposium, Arnold H. Green was associate professor of modern Near Easter history at American University in Cairo. A graduate of California State College, Los Angeles, in American studies, he received his M.A. in history from Brigham Young University and his Ph.D. in Near Eastern history from the University of California at Los Angeles. Professor Green’s scholarly work included Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and Syria, with doctoral and postdoctoral research on the Ulama and the state in Egypt and Tunisia.


The comparison of one individual to another can occur in a variety of literary or social contexts. It is in an essentially historical vein, for example, that a number of authors have attributed to Lafayette the aspiration to become the George Washington of France. By contrast, it reflected the rough and tumble (not to say the crudeness) of partisan politics when former Vice President Spiro Agnew referred to Senator Charles Goodell of New York, a conservative turned liberal, as “the Christine Jorgenson of the Republican Party.” Comparisons can also represent attempts at humor, as, for example, when Wilhelm Wyl, in an irreverent biography of Joseph Smith, entitled his chapter on the Illinois period “The Don Juan of Nauvoo.” Of course references of this sort are often superficial and are usually fleeting, although a few of them—like Lafayette as a George Washington—occasionally do manage to get passed on from one generation to the next. Rarely does a comparison receive the supreme tribute of being taken seriously, whereupon it is elevated from a rhetorical to an academic level and may even come to be regarded as the demonstration of a scientific principle. One of the few comparisons in this class is that which depicts Joseph Smith as an American Muhammad. What follows is an attempt to determine how and why this analogy developed and whether it belongs to the realm of metaphor or to that of science.

Metaphors and Polemics

The comparison of Joseph Smith to Muhammad—and of Mormonism to Islam—seems to have entered the literary record as an example of what psychologists call transference. In his lectures on Islam, the Dutch Calvinist scholar Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje mentioned a polemical tactic which he called “cryptomohammedanism.” “The Roman Catholics,” he explained, “often vilified Protestantism by comparing the Reformed doctrine to that of Mohammedanism.” [1] Having endured the accusation themselves for a century or two in Europe, the Protestants directed it in America against the Mormons. Thus Joseph Smith’s “extreme ignorance and apparent stupidity” were identified by the Reverend E. D. Howe in 1834 as well-worn cloaks in the “wardrobe of imposters. They were thrown upon the shoulders of the great prince of deceivers, Mohammed, in order to carry in his train the host of ignorant and superstitious of his time.” [2] Writing two decades later at the request of the Anglican Young Men’s Society, W. S. Simpson observed that Mormonism “bears in many respects a striking resemblance to Mahometanism, especially as to its sensual character, its founder, and its pretended revelations.” [3] By then, Joseph Smith had been identified in various Protestant publications as a “Yankee Mahomet” and as a “backwoods Mahomet.” [4]

The tactic became sufficiently common that ex-Mormons also employed it. In 1838 Thomas B. Marsh testified that he had overheard Joseph Smith boast that “he would yet tread down his enemies, and walk over their dead bodies; and if he was not let alone, he would be a second Mohammed to this generation, and that it would be one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean; that like Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was ‘the Alcoran or the sword,’ so should it be eventually with us, Joseph Smith or the sword.” [5] Similarly, in 1873 T. B. H. Stenhouse promised that “the student of Mormonism will be struck with the similarity of experience and claims of Joseph Smith and Mohammed.” [6] Also in the Protestant cryptomuhammadan tradition there appeared, after the turn of the century, Jennie Fowler Willing’s Mormonism: The Mohammedanism of the West (Louisville, Ky: Pickett Publishing Co., 1906) and Bruce Kinney’s Mormonism: The Islam of America (New York: Revell, 1912).

In the context of cryptomuhammadanism, the Muhammad–Joseph comparison functions essentially as a figure of speech in the rhetoric of sectarian polemics. Christianity had long regarded Muhammad’s claims to prophethood as fraudulent and his teachings as heretical. [7] A metaphor-loving cleric might consequently refer to someone claiming divine guidance for a departure from prevailing Christian norms as a Muhammad just as a politician might refer to an ex-supporter as a Benedict Arnold. Figurative references of this sort have less to do with objective historical realities than with subjective linguistic symbols. That is, a notorious person’s name is used in lieu of words denoting the qualities attributed to him by a certain group. Since another group might attribute different qualities to the same person, the connotations of his name are subjective or are associated with a particular state of mind. Benedict Arnold might imply a traitor to Americans but a loyalist to Englishmen, just as George Washington might stand for an opportunistic rebel in eighteenth-century England but a nation-founding hero in the United States.

Nineteenth-century Protestant writers’ Cryptomuhammadan references to Joseph Smith as a rule were pejorative and connoted the qualities—such as deceitfulness, sensuousness, and potential violence—that Christianity then attributed to Muhammad. Such metaphorical connotations can of course change as the group’s historical perception of the person becomes modified. Just as George Washington may now imply a nation-founder to many Englishmen, a Muhammad may convey positive rather than negative implications to certain Christians. In this regard, in 1842 the New York Herald editorialized that Joseph Smith “indicates as much talent, originality, and moral courage as Mahomet, Odin, or any of the great spirits that have hitherto produced the revolutions of the past ages.” [8]

Orientalism and the Study of Proxies

Well before the end of the nineteenth century, the Muhammad–Joseph Smith comparison was transplanted from the domain of American clergymen to that of European orientalists: specialists in the languages, history, and religions of the Orient. The first agent of this transplant possibly was Richard Francis Burton, who is well known for his attempts to discover the source of the Nile, for his translation of 1001 Nights, and for his visit to Mecca disguised as a Muslim notable. Burton traveled through Utah to California in 1860 and then published his The City of the Saints the following year. Having discovered the Muhammad–Joseph Smith comparison while reading up on Mormonism but familiar with Islam as none of the American clergymen were, Burton agreed that there were indeed a number of bona fide similarities. “Mormonism claims,” he observed, “like El Islam, to be a restoration by revelation of the pure and primaeval religion of the world.” He proceeded to suggest that, as an eclectic sect—a “spontaneous agglomeration of tenets”—Mormons “are Muslims” in their belief in a literal resurrection, in their practice of polygamy, and “in their views of the inferior status of womenkind.” Brigham Young’s title “Lion of the Lord,” he added, “was literally borrowed from El Islam.” [9]

Burton, who was inclined to show off his erudition by name-dropping exotic terms, went on to allege that other Mormon beliefs and practices were borrowed from other sources, including arianism and epicureanism. He thus hints, somewhat in accordance with the diffusionist methodology of the historian of ideas, that Joseph Smith had knowledge of many religions from which he indiscriminately plagiarized his dogmas and rituals. At least two researchers [10] subsequently followed up this suggestion but concluded that no direct link could be established between Joseph Smith’s limited education and any work containing specific information about Islam. For our purposes, therefore, Burton’s significance was in transplanting the Muhammad–Joseph Smith comparison from its native habitat of American religious polemics into the realm of European orientalism.

It was perhaps via Burton that the comparison came to the attention of a less adventurous, more bookish orientalist: D. S. Margoliouth of the University of London. In his widely read and much reprinted Mohammed and the Rise ofIslam (3d ed., London: Putnam’s, 1906), Margoliouth made two specific points of comparison: first, that Muhammad’s initial religious experience, like Joseph Smith’s, followed a period of perplexity engendered in part by observing the differences between rival sects; and second, that in each case revelations were given piecemeal as circumstances required divine guidance. Margoliouth did not take the comparison beyond these two points, however.

The orientalist who took it well beyond these points was the German historian of ancient Near Eastern religions, Eduard Meyer. Having published his celebrated Geschichte des Altertums (History of Antiquity), in 1911 Meyer visited Salt Lake City and the following year published his Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen (Origin and History of the Mormons). He found numerous specific points of comparison, and his work became the main source for virtually all those who subsequently became interested in the Muhammad–Joseph Smith comparison.

The many points of similarity Meyer itemized include: “Neither Joseph Smith nor Mohammed were towering personalities.” As they aspired to knowledge and experience of the Deity, both figures went through a phase of withdrawal and perplexity. In the initial divine manifestation, the visit of angels to Muhammad “is very similar to the first vision of Joseph Smith.” Why did God reveal books specifically to the Jews and the Christians while leaving the Arabs and the Americans without their own special scriptures? “The solution was the same in both cases. . . . Joseph Smith brought forth a Bible for America; a Bible for the Arabs is what Mohammed longed for and received bit by bit.” Both prophets received abrogating revelations yet remained essentially consistent: “As often as Smith—like Mohammed—was ready to reinterpret or set aside older revelations when circumstances were altered, there could none the less [sic] be no compromise for him (or the Arabian prophet) regarding the basic issues at stake.” Each, according to Meyer, experienced a decline and corruption of his revelatory powers: “One may follow in the case of both prophets a progressive degeneration, a transition from a stage of genuine vision to a later stage of purely fictional inspiration.” And in each case, according to Meyer, the failure to “recognize the distinction between truth and independent invention was ‘carried out unconsciously.” Also, “in the cases of both Mohammed and Joseph Smith, the sensuality of their lives grew continually stronger, and the means for satisfying it actually appeared as divine commands.” Both men sought first a national territorial base and then world domination: “Just as Arabia was to be the inheritance of the Moslems, so was America to become the inheritance of the Mormons, but later on the whole world as well.” Finally, with regard to revenue, “Like Mohammed he [Joseph Smith] demanded alms from the faithful?” [11]

Even if we disregard such negative and questionable points of Meyer’s comparison as the “later stage of purely fictional inspiration” and the notion of increasing sensuality, there remain a few intriguing aspects, including the structural parallels of a period of dissatisfaction and of searching, which led to a profound initial religious experience entailing the visit of divine messengers, which eventually resulted in a new book of scripture, and the acquisition and exercise of a political dimension to prophetic authority. It is perhaps understandable that henceforth Meyer became the main source of those inclined, for whatever reason, to pursue the comparison between Muhammad and Joseph Smith.

But although some of the substance of Meyer’s comparison is plausible, his purpose and method are questionable. Meyer was at once a German Hegelian historian and a nineteenth-century European orientalist; the weaknesses and follies of these two scholarly traditions manifest themselves clearly in his comparison of Mormonism with Islam. As a Hegelian, Meyer believed that the Zeitgeist (the spirit of the time) moved through history determining the course of events. When conditions were comparable, the Zeitgeist created comparable movements and institutions. As a “B.C. orientalist,” [12] Meyer became interested in Islam and the Arabs because Arabic was regarded as the purest of the Semitic languages although it was the last to emerge. The B.C. orientalists, who were interested mainly in the Old Testament but who felt that the study of Hebrew alone (because it was no longer a living language) was insufficient, studied Arabic to learn more about the language and culture of the Old Testament peoples. [13] Arabic and Islam were thus not studied for their own sake but as proxies for the language and religion of the Jews.

Eduard Meyer, whose primary interest was ancient Near Eastern religions, took this study of proxies a step further. Because the revealed religion of Islam was underdocumented, he would study Mormonism instead. Meyer’s purpose and method can be seen in the following passages from his introduction and from his “Excursion” on the origin of Islam:

Of the many new religious movements originating in our time, Mormonism very early awakened my interest, especially because of its surprising and close resemblance to the historical development of Islam. The basic impulses and forms under which it appeared gave reason to hope for important conclusions regarding the understanding of Muhammad and his religion.

This new religion grew up during the nineteenth century, so that we can pursue its origin and history by means of the rich contemporary tradition, handed down by adherents and foes, and a body of well-dated documents which have grown in number with every passing day. Therefore, that which is generally unavailable to students of other revealed religions, is directly and reliably documented. The origin and growth of Mormonism have become of great value to the religious historians; this value is further increased by the fact that among revealed religions, it is one of the most unsophisticated and least intellectual.

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 one through the other is indispensable. [14]

Given his Hegelian and orientalist assumptions, Meyer could not legitimize his generalizations without making Muhammad and Joseph Smith appear to be shaped by the Zeitgeist out of similar conditions. This is why he insisted that they were not “towering personalities,” thereby suggesting a sort of malleability, and that “for this very reason we are able to recognize more clearly the driving forces behind the prophet’s life.” [15] This, in turn, is why he intimated that nineteenth-century frontier America closely resembled seventh-century Arabia. “The historical development and the present condition of North America (1912) show the existence, side by side, of refinement, intellectual and ethical culture, [and] a downright primitive semi-barbarism,” he explained. Thus Mormonism’s origin “will be comprehensible only if the reader keeps in mind the picture of very primitive ways of thinking in the midst of a culture which is highly developed in many of its other forms.” [16] The academic stock of Meyer’s Hegelian assumptions (two weak-willed prophets were created by unseen “driving forces” out of identical primitive circumstances) and of his orientalist method (studying as a proxy a nineteenth-century religious movement to make generalizations about a seventh-century one whose origins are not well documented) declined sharply after World War I when Hegelianism and orientalism lost stock with the emergence of the modern disciplines. Consequently, although subsequent commentators acknowledge borrowing Meyer’s information, they tend to remain silent about or to disavow his methodology.

Sociology of Religion and the Nemesis of Ulterior Motives

Having been conceptualized by the end of the nineteenth century, the social sciences were identifying their specialized subject matters and developing their respective methodologies. A group of such historians as Montesquieu, de Tocqueville, Comte, and Marx—disgruntled at the tendency of traditional historians to narrate political-military or religious developments without providing adequate explanations as to why they happened as they did—had pioneered the new science of sociology. [17] The sociologists pledged themselves to the task of examining all significant social institutions and phenomena: society’s fundamental structures and processes which lay beneath the course of superficial events recorded by historians. They would accomplish this by using the method of observation and experiment with which Newton and Bacon had revolutionized the physical sciences and also by using the comparative method with which Lamarck and Darwin had revolutionized biology. Equipped with new interests and methods, the sociologists proceeded to explain various kinds of social phenomena by sorting them into categories and by suggesting cause-and-effect relationships between them.

Religion was a social phenomenon to which some first-generation theorists like Karl Marx gave little serious attention. Yet a few second-generation sociologists like Emile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, and Max Weber become particularly interested in religion and, in effect, pioneered the sociology of religion. These pioneers were careful to stipulate that the process whereby committed believers acquire information about and provide explanations for religious phenomena, a process involving unobservable inner feelings and credulous respect for authority, was different from the ideal method of the sociologists, who ought to remain emotionally detached in their efforts to document and to explain those religious institutions and developments the outward manifestations of which can be witnessed by impartial observers. One of the principal obstacles to this development lies in the fact that the sociology of religion is a field in which sociological thinking and religious thinking are not always distinguished clearly.

One aspect of this obstacle is the problem of means and ends. According to the founding fathers of their discipline, sociologists ought to employ the comparative method as a means to the end of categorizing and explaining social phenomena. A religious partisan could employ it instead as a means to the end of, say, pinning a label of heresy on a rival sect. When sociology hived off from history, it thus did not leave behind it the problem of ulterior motives that had long plagued historical writing-a problem which is seen, for example, in Macaulay’s progress oriented essays on English history, which were written to promote the passage of the Reform Act, and in Carlyle’s glorification of Oliver Cromwell, the invader of Ireland, which reveals the historian’s virulent anti-Catholic bias. [18]

Following World War I, at least two scholars, Hans Thimme, a German, and Georges-Henri Bousquet, a Frenchman, pursued the Muhammad–Joseph Smith comparison from the fresh perspective of sociology of religion. Both relied extensively on Eduard Meyer for their information and neither contributed any substantially new points of comparison. Rather, according to them, their originality consisted of their sociological methodology and framework.

Writing in 1934, Thimme, an amateur sociologist who was mainly a Protestant clergyman, begins in a tone of scientific detachment by denying that his purpose is polemical or that he seeks to criticize Mormonism “from the point of view of Christian doctrine.” Rather, he reassures, “my purpose is that of comparative religion. I wish to describe this cult in so far as it shows parallels to another great religion of world history, Islam—parallels not only in its outward appearance but also in its inner essence.” He promises to discuss “the question of the system or type of religion; whether perhaps Mormonism and Islam belong together as one peculiar type.” [19]

Thimme’s application of the comparative method of the sociology of religion is rather disappointing, however. In his initial point of comparison, the visit of divine messengers to the two prophets, he relates that Joseph Smith experienced his first vision after he had “roamed about in the forests” and because, “on account of his low intellectual standard, he united the wildest superstitions with his Christian belief.” Afterwards, according to Thimme, Joseph Smith “continued his former life, dirty, shy and idle, as he is described by his neighbors, using his visual powers for seeking hidden treasures with a so-called ‘peep-stone.’” Thimme’s second point of comparison is that the subjective honesty of each prophet was accompanied by objective error: “That appears, for instance, in this, that both acknowledge the Old Testament and the New Testament as divine revelation, but they both, on account of their imperfect knowledge, alter the teaching of the Bible by subjective additions and arbitrary changes.” To explain how subjective honesty can coexist with objective error, Thimme quotes Meyer to the effect that primitives like Muhammad and Joseph Smith “do not make a clear distinction between reality and hallucination” and “have no real consciousness of the difference between truth and deception.” According to Thimme, “The most striking point of parallelism between Mormonism and Islam” consists of their political objectives and of their means of attaining them: “Their propaganda, therefore, has not only religious but political aims, and uses not only peaceful means of missionary preaching but also holy war.”

Thimme concludes that “both religions are representatives of the same type of religion” and that, “as representatives of the same principle, Mormonism and Islam belong together.” How does Thimme characterize this “theocratic-autocratic” type of religion? First, the founders were persuaded that “God needs human beings for carrying on His will and for helping to establish the kingdom” (read: “advocated works in addition to grace”). “This misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God,” he continues, “leads them to undervalue human sinfulness and divine sovereignty” (read: “leads them to deny original sin”). Thus, according to Thimme, “Mormonism and Islam both lack this message of the cross” (read: “are not genuinely Christian”). It is noteworthy that Thimme’s article appeared in the Moslem World, a journal published by a seminary then devoted in part to training missionaries for the conversion of Muslims to Protestant Christianity.

But, in any case, it has now become clear that it is Thimme’s partisan religious commitment rather than his impartial sociological observations which govern the formulation of his typologies and of his conclusions. That is, from Thimme’s own Protestant perspective, which emphasizes the utter hopelessness of man’s sinful nature and the absolute sufficiency of God’s grace, both Islam and Mormonism are Christian heresies. His purpose consequently appears to be polemical after all. Notwithstanding his opening disclaimer, he does indeed criticize from the point of view of a particular Christian doctrine. What he calls comparative religion is essentially nineteenth-century cryptomuhammadanism masquerading as twentieth-century sociology of religion. The problem of ulterior motives—essentially using sociological methods as a means to the end of waging sectarian polemics—thus frustrated Thimme’s effort to engage constructively in comparative religion.

Another sociologist of religion who took a keen interest in the Muhammad–Joseph Smith comparison, Georges-Henri Bousquet, appears to have been much better prepared for the task than Thimme was. He was a formally trained sociologist who congratulated himself on lacking a religious commitment. [20] The author of scores of works on Islam and on sociological theory and method, he also wrote at least three articles and one book on the Mormons. [21] While freely acknowledging his debt to Eduard Meyer (although not the extent to which he borrowed extensive passages verbatim from Meyer’s book), Bousquet characteristically begins each of his works on Mormonism with a profession of his impartiality and of his intent to consider his subject from the scientific perspective of sociology. [22] He suggests, for example, that Mormonism is of “sociological interest” because it “shows, before our very eyes so to speak, how a revealed religion is born and expands.” Thus, according to Bousquet, studying Mormonism may throw light on the emergence process not just of Islam but of all other revealed religions, although he does point out that “there are, in particular, remarkable analogies between Muhammad and Joseph Smith.” Yet, in contrast to Thimme, who at least attempted to establish a typology (albeit for purposes other than contributing new insights to the sociology of religion), Bousquet does not attempt to say what the comparison means in sociological terms. His treatment of the Muhammad–Joseph Smith comparison is therefore equally disappointing, although for different reasons.

A weakness of Bousquet that becomes immediately apparent is that he relies very heavily on Meyer and makes little effort to apply to his comparisons the methods and categories of sociology. Although he occasionally adds a clarification (the Doctrine and Covenants, not the Book of Mormon, is Mormonism’s functional equivalent of the Qur’an), [23] Bousquet is ordinarily content to repeat Meyer’s points of comparison while claiming that they are sociological phenomena but without associating them with any sociological terms or categories and without attributing to them any sociological significance. For example, he introduces his discussion of revelation in Mormonism by the observation that “it is most interesting to compare the role of revelation in Mormonism and in Islam from the sociological point of view.” But then he simply quotes Meyer’s account more or less verbatim. [24] Similarly, Bousquet broaches the question of the Book of Mormon’s origin by saying that “the genesis of the work can be explained, more or less, by psychological and sociological considerations.” But then he merely repeats Meyer’s allegation that neither Muhammad nor Joseph Smith could distinguish between truth and invention, and he concludes that “it is not any more astonishing that a young farmer from Vermont, steeped in biblical phraseology, believed himself chosen to promulgate the Book of Mormon than it was for an Arab caravaner [to believe himself] designated to reveal the Qur’an.” [25]

Bousquet’s failure to use all the tools of the sociology of religion may be explained in part by the orientations and prejudices of his teachers. As a Frenchman, Bousquet naturally came under the influence of Durkheim, whose school of sociology was essentially grounded in the theory of evolution. Durkheim’s sociology of religion thus postulated that complex religions merely possess complicated versions of institutions of which simple religions possess uncomplicated versions. The corollary is that a sociologist can understand the essence of religion per se by studying the simplest forms of it; Durkheim himself studied totemism among the Australian aborigines. Bousquet also came under the influence of the Italian-born, French-educated Vilfredo Pareto, who is the subject of Bousquet’s half-dozen books on sociological method. [26] According to Raymond Aron, Pareto was something of a cynic. In Pareto’s view, society is held together by feelings, especially religious ones, “which are not true but which are effective. If the sociologist shows people the wrong side of the embroidery or what goes on behind the scenes, he runs the risk of destroying indispensable illusions.” [27] Bousquet was aware of Max Weber, the third major pioneer of the sociology of religion, and even quotes from him occasionally. But compared to the French-born Durkheim and the French-educated Pareto, the German-born and -educated Weber seems to have had little influence on Bousquet. And yet the sociology of religion after World War I was essentially Weberian in its basic concepts and categories, the influences of Durkheim and Pareto having greatly declined.

But is this the most we can say of Bousquet: that, perhaps because of his teachers’ shortcomings, he failed to live up to sociology’s potential in his treatment of the Muhammad–Joseph Smith comparison? No, for Bousquet was French not only in the slant of his sociological training but also in his biases toward France’s colonial territories and subjects—particularly the Muslims of Algeria, where Bousquet taught sociology at the University of Algiers. In 1950 Edouard Bremond published his Berberes et Arabes: La Barbarie est un pays européen (Berbers and Arabs: Barbary is a European Country), which advocated France’s Berber policy: to treat Berber customs as the essential North African culture and, concomitantly, to treat Arabic and Islamic institutions as being foreign, superficially imposed, and inconsequential to facilitate France’s “conquête morale” (moral conquest) of North Africa and cultural supremacy there. [28] At about the same time Bousquet also published two books on the Berbers [29] via which he joined Bremond and other prominent French scholars of his generation in legitimizing and perpetuating the Berber policy. As a teacher in the French school system of Algeria, Bousquet was advised—and advised others—to tolerate Islam where it was entrenched but not to treat it as a “higher religion.” [30] For North Africa, where French civilization competed for primacy with Arabic-Islamic civilization, could become truly French only if the Arabic and Islamic character of the region could be undermined. Thus, according to Bousquet, knowledge of Islam is important “for we Frenchmen, who aspire, like Islam does, to make our civilization triumph here.” [31]

It thus appears that Bousquet, the student of Durkheim, pursues this anti-Islamic national objective by insisting on the archaic rudimentariness of Islam, which, he asserts, differs from Catholicism “principally by its extreme simplicity. The comparison evokes an impression of remarkable sterility.” [32] And Bousquet, the student of Pareto, delves into Islam’s most intimate matters—such as its rituals and its sexual mores [33]—perhaps deliberately to “show the other side of the embroidery” as a means of destroying the indispensable illusions of the competition. A number of passages could be excerpted from his many writings in order to illustrate Bousquet’s attitudes, but one will do. It is a crude passage; Bousquet apologizes for composing it, and I apologize for reproducing it here. Yet it is too appropriate in another sense not to do so. Explaining why Islam does not treat theology, law, and ethics as separate and distinct categories as Christianity does, he points out that “in mammals we find a urinary bladder, a vagina, [and] a rectum, whereas birds and reptiles have only a single, undifferentiated organ: the cloaca, which corresponds to an earlier stage of evolution. Similarly, Islamic law, the Shari’a, remained at a more primitive stage of evolution than did Christianity.” [34]

Bousquet’s crude metaphor is symbolic not only of the evolutionary framework which he inherited from Durkheim but also of his contemptuous attitude towards Islam, an attitude associated with French national policy in colonial North Africa. It was this ulterior motive, along with other factors, which prevented Bousquet from realizing the full potential of the sociology of religion and, consequently, from treating the Muhammad–Joseph Smith comparison in a meaningful and instructive way.

A Sociology of Prophethood

This intriguing comparison, which has existed in the literature for nearly 150 years, has thus been pursued for questionable reasons and with questionable methods: to discredit Mormonism by equating its founder with Muhammad, who was presumed to be a fraud and a heretic; to study one religion as a proxy to reach fundamental conclusions about another; or to pay lip service to sociology as a means of attaining the ends of sectarianism or of colonialism Seemingly paid the tribute of being taken seriously and of being elevated from a rhetorical to an academic level, it instead has been used cynically and has received the insult of continuing to be employed rhetorically to realize partisan objectives.

But if no one has thus far pursued the comparison with impartiality, genuinely using sociological concepts and methods, does that mean that it cannot be done or that it is not worth doing? Could we do it ourselves if we wanted to? There are, on the one hand, hopes of possibilities that such a task could be done properly. We should first have to select an appropriate conceptual framework, preferably one derived from Weber rather than from Durkheim or Pareto, and then proceed to reexamine the comparison in its light. An example of an appropriate conceptual framework might be the section on prophets in The Sociology of Religion by Joachim Wach, a leading Weberian sociologist of religion. [35]

In the tradition of Weber, who distinguished between the functions of founders of religion, prophets, and priests, Wach conceptualized a number of types of religious figures, including founder, reformer, prophet, seer, magician, diviner, saint, and priest, each category typified by a few distinctive characteristics. In his section on prophets, Wach explicitly disagrees with certain earlier writers who deny the title of prophet to all but the Hebrew personalities of the Old Testament. For example, in his article on prophecy for Hastings’ 1925 Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, E. Konig argued that the Hebrew figures of the Old Testament were the only genuine prophets. Rejecting the suggestion that personalities like Muhammad be included in the same category, Konig pointed out that Muhammad “falls far below the true Hebrew prophets” and that, “when compared with Muhammad, the prophets of Israel still maintain their distinctive place in the history of religion.” Konig does not mention Joseph Smith. [36] In his category of prophets, by contrast, Wach includes Zoroaster, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, and other nonbiblical religious figures. He then proceeds to discuss the observable characteristics of typical prophets.

Most notably, according to Wach, a prophet is charismatic (charisma being a concept which Weber borrowed from the New Testament account of Peter being filled with the Holy Ghost). That is, as the recipient of a distinct religious “call,” the prophet enjoys direct communication with Deity and is conscious of being the instrument or spokesman of the divine will. As in the case of the founder (whose tendency to become the object of worship distinguishes him from the prophet, whom he otherwise resembles), most of the prophet’s other traits are related to or derived from his charisma. In his precall phase, the prophet is typically of humble origins rather than from among the elite or the learned yet is spiritually sensitive and has a natural disposition to receive and to interpret divine manifestations. As a rule, these manifestations are not induced, as in the case of the diviner or medium. Like the founder, the prophet enjoys a number of charismatic gifts or tendencies: he is a renewer of contacts with supernatural forces; he possesses extraordinary powers and performs miracles; he is the recipient and dispenser of vital, God-given knowledge; he feels the obligation to make universal the message of Deity among all men; and he is concerned with a special liturgy or with holy ordinances, often in connection with a sacred place.

The prophet shares at least two qualities with the seer. Frequently he possesses the ability to transcend limitations of time, thereby to illuminate the past and to foretell the future—or to prophesy. He is also eschatological, perceiving the conditions and developments of the world in the light of its ultimate destiny. In a final set of traits, the prophet resembles the reformer: he is given to blunt expressions of moral judgment, he is uncompromising in his insistence on basic principles, he tends to make vigorous declarations that are sometimes cryptic and often innovative, he displays a critical or “protestant” attitude toward prevailing beliefs and forms of worship as falsified or otherwise illegitimate (an attitude which typically results in conflict with established religious institutions and leaders), and these criticisms result in a general reintegration of principles under the prophet or his successors and the formation of an independent cultic unit. He sometimes goes beyond his role as the community’s conscience to become a political-military leader and social reformer with the task of establishing a new political and socioeconomic order.

Someone pursuing the Muhammad–Joseph Smith comparison in accordance with this or another framework might then proceed to discover that Muhammad and Joseph Smith shared many of these prophetic characteristics. Most notably, each was of humble birth, each displayed a predisposition to spirituality, each had a profound initial religious experience involving heavenly messengers, each articulated the concept of restoring a primeval religion, each founded a religion without becoming an object of its worship, each was a medium for the issuing of new scriptures, each established new rituals, each directed a community of believers continuously via revelation, and each extended prophetic authority into the political realm.

On the other hand, there are at least two reasons for suggesting caution to someone inclined to pursue the comparison beyond this point. The first of these is that, alongside the similarities, there exist a number of significant differences between Muhammad and Joseph Smith. Even those who pursued the comparison most zealously acknowledged some important dissimilarities. For example, Burton observed that Joseph Smith endowed Mormonism with a hieratic priesthood, whereas Muhammad left Islam without any priesthood at all; and Bousquet pointed out that, in Islam, revelation ended with Muhammad, whereas it continued in Mormonism after the death of Joseph Smith. [37] Other significant differences could also be mentioned. For example, Muhammad transformed an essentially pagan and polytheistic community into a strictly monotheistic one, whereas Joseph Smith introduced among Christians a “restored” version of Christianity having pluralistic tendencies. Also, in a sociological sense Muhammad was vastly more successful than Joseph Smith in both the religious and the political roles. Within Muhammad’s own lifetime virtually all the Arabs were reconstituted into an Islamic state under his leadership, whereas Joseph Smith, at the time of his death, had merely created a comparatively small religious movement ignored or despised by most Americans, and although he aspired to national political leadership he died as mayor of Nauvoo.

Thus, as Bousquet put it, “Mormonism differs from Islam, because the latter appeared in a land where the state was unknown and therefore rapidly transformed itself into a theocratic state [whereas] sixty years after its appearance, Mormonism had already been vanquished by the state.” [38] Meyer’s allegation notwithstanding, nineteenth-century America appears to have been rather dissimilar from seventh-century Arabia after all, and the role of a prophet in the one time and place consequently differed considerably from the role of a prophet in the other. That is, the two prophets’ similarities lay in their having performed prophetic roles as other prophets did, while their differences lay in their distinctive environments and in their distinctive personalities. By and large, the same could be said for all prophets. Second, once a sociological category of prophets is conceptualized in Wach’s framework and Muhammad and Joseph Smith are included in it along with the others who shared the same general characteristics, are there grounds for insisting that one particular prophet resembles another any more than he resembles all the others? If so, do we need to conceptualize subcategories of prophets, and do Muhammad and Joseph Smith belong in a special subcategory of their own that is separate and distinct from, say, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Lehi, and Brigham Young? If so, what does it mean? What cause-and-effect relationships can we discover to explain the conditions and factors which produce prophets of this particular subcategory? And if we regard certain types of prophets as being mere effects of certain environmental causes, shall we fall into the deterministic trap of treating religion as being no more than a particular kind of response to socioeconomic stimuli and not a stimulus in its own right? In other words, it might be more reasonable to say that Muhammad and Joseph Smith both belong in the larger category of prophets and let the matter rest there.


Having questioned the motives and methods of the American Protestants, the European orientalists, and the sociologists of religion in their use of the Muhammad-Joseph Smith comparison, it might be interesting and appropriate, by way of a conclusion, to wonder why we are interested in it. It does make a nice bibliographic essay to trace the development of this alleged parallelism from E. D. Howe to Bousquet and beyond, much as scholars have traced the history of such issues as Max Weber’s Protestant ethic thesis. [39] That is, it makes for an intriguing conference paper and for fascinating reading. But our interest, at this conference and at this university, surely goes deeper than that.

If we do pursue the analogy further, we shall have to establish a good working relationship with the department of sociology. For, in addition to demonstrating that the similarities outweigh the differences (rather a formidable task in itself), we shall need assistance in working out the characteristics of the subgroup inhabited by Muhammad and Joseph Smith to the exclusion of all other prophets; and we shall need assistance in seeking to discover and to isolate the cause-and-effect relationships which produced the two prophets of that particular little subgroup. Moreover, we shall need support and critical collegial scrutiny lest we imitate those we have criticized for pursuing the comparison simply as a means to the end of vindicating their own theological tenets and advancing their own ulterior motives.

It may be, coming full circle, that the Muhammad–Joseph Smith comparison can be no more than a subjective metaphor for us. If so, let it be a constructive one, used for the purpose of communicating to our own people and to others that Latter-day Saints, unlike most Christians of the nineteenth century and before and since, regard Muhammad not as a fraud and a heretic but rather as a great and good man who was instrumental in the establishment of an important world religion belonging to the Judeo-Christian tradition. And let it be used not to promote polemics of one sort or another but rather to promote understanding and friendship. Although we may not consider the analogy to be the demonstration of a scientific principle, we are able—and we ought—to consider it in its most positive metaphorical light.


[1] Mohammedanism: Lectures on Its Origin, Its Religious and Political Growth, and Its Present State (New York: Putnam’s, 1916), 18. Snouck Hurgronje was a Calvinist in the sense that his father served as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and that he himself also studied for the ministry. Ultimately, however, Snouck Hurgronje, who masqueraded as a Muslim for a long period of study in Mecca, came to consider himself agnostic. See Georges-Henri Bousquet, “C. Snouck Hurgronje (1857–1936),” Revue algérienne 1:183–85.

[2] E. D. Howe, History of Mormonism (Painesville, New York: published by the author, 1834), 12.

[3] William Sparrow Simpson, Mormonism: Its History, Doctrines and Practices (London: A. M. Pigott, 1853), 57.

[4] “The Yankee Mahomet,” American Whig Review 13 (1851): 554–64.

[5] Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News Press, 1948), 3:167n.

[6] T. B. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints (New York: Appleton 1873), 2–3.

[7] See Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 1960); P.M. Hold, “The Treatment of Arab History by Prideaux, Ockley and Sale,” in B. Lewis and P. M. Hold, eds., Historians of the Middle East (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 290–302; Jacques Waardenburg, L’Islam dans le miroir de l’Occident (The Hague: Mouton, 1963); James Kritzeck, Peter the Venerable and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964); W. Montgomery Watt, “Muhammad in the Eyes of the West,” Boston University Journal 22 (1974): 61–69.

[8] Smith, History of the Church, 4:477–78. Upon reading this editorial to the Nauvoo City Council, Joseph Smith proposed “that we recommend our fellow citizens to subscribe for the New York Weekly Herald.”

[9] Richard Francis Burton, The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (1861; reprint ed. by Fawn M. Brodie, New York: Knopf, 1963), 428.

[10] Hans Thimme, “Mormonism and Islam,” Moslem World 24 (1934):166; Georges-Henri Bousquet, “L’église mormonne et ses livres sacrés,” Revue de l’histoiredes religions 130 (1936): 219.

[11] Eduard Meyer, Ursprung and Geschichte der Mormonen (Halle: Verlag von Max Niemeyer, 1912); the discussion which follows is drawn from its English translation by H. F. Rahde and E. Seaich, The Origin and History of the Mormons, with Reflections on the Beginnings of Islam and Christianity (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1961), i, 1, 31, 37, 44–48, 52, 56, 61, 100.

[12] According to Harry Elder Barnes, A History of Historical Writing (New York: Dover Publications, 1962), 249, “By far the greatest orientalist who has ever lived was Eduard Meyer, who dealt in magisterial fashion with the history of antiquity from the Stone Age to the rise of Christianity.”

[13] See William R. Polk, “Sir Hamilton Gibb between Orientalism and History,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 6 (1975): 132.

[14] Meyer, Origin and History of the Mormons, i, 44.

[15] Ibid, ii.

[16] Ibid, v.

[17] See Raymond Aron, Main Currents of Sociological Thought, vol 1: Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville (New York: Anchor Books, 1965).

[18] See Pieter Geyl, Debates with Historians (Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Co., 1958), 30–69; W. H. Walsh, “Can History Be Objective?” in Hans Meyerhoff, ed., The Philosophy of History in Our Time (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1959), 216–24; Morton White, “Can History Be Objective?” in Meyerhoff, Philosophy of History, 188–202.

[19] Thimme, “Mormonism and Islam,” 155; the discussion following is drawn from pp. 156–57, 161, 163–64, 166–67.

[20] Georges-Henri Bousquet, Les Mormons: histoire et institutions (Paris: Presses universitaires de France), 5.

[21] His Mormon works, besides the book cited in n. 20, are “Le Mormonisme contemporain,” Outre-mer 7 (1935): 150–71; “Une theocratic economique,” Revue d’économie politique 50 (1936): 145–66; “Leglise mormonne et ses livres sacrés,” cited n. 10.

[22] Bousquet, LesMormons: histoireet institutions, op. cit.

[23] Bousquet, “L’églisemormonne et ses livres sacrés,” 232.

[24] Ibid., 24–25.

[25] Ibid., 16.

[26] Georges-Henri Bousquet, Vilfredo Pareto: le developpemeniet la signification de son oeuvre, 2 vols. (Paris: Riviere, 1924); Précis de sociologie d’après Vilfredo Pareto (Paris: Payot, 1925); Introduction aux systèmes socialistes de Vilfredo Pareto (Paris: Giard, 1926); Essai sur l’évolution de la pensée économique (Paris: Giard, 1927); Introduction al’etude du manuel de V. Pareto (Paris: Giard, 1927); Bibliographie méthodique des écrits de Vilfredo Pareto connus à ce jour (Genoa: Universita degli Studi di Genova, 1959); Pareto (1848–1923): le savant et l’homme (Lausanne: Librarie de l’Université (1960); Vilfredo Pareto: oeuvres complètes (Geneva: Droz, 1964).

[27] Raymond Aron, Main Currents of Sociological Thought, vol. 2: Durkheim, Pareto, Weber (New York: Penguin Books, 1967), 13.

[28] See Robert Ageron, “La France a-t-elle eu une politique Kabyle?” Revue historique 223 (1960): 311–52; “La politique berbere du protectorat marocain de 1913 à 1934,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 18 (1971); 50–90.

[29] Georges-Henri Bousquet, Justice Francaise et coutumes kabyles (Algiers: Imprimerie Nord-africaine, 1950); Les Berberes: histoire et institutions (Paris: Pressesuniversitaires de France, 1957).

[30] Robin Bidwell, Morocco under Colonial Rule (London: Frank Cass, 1973), 237–57.

[31] Georges-Henri Bousquet, L’Islam maghrebin: introduction à l’étude générale de I’Islam (Algiers: Maison des livres, 1941), 19.

[32] Bousquet, L’Islam Maghrébin, 204.

[33] Georges-Henri Bousquet, Les grandes pratiques rituelles de l’Islam (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1949); La morale de l’Islam et son éthique sexuelle (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1953).

[34] Bousquet, La moraled’Islam, 12.

[35] Joachim Wach, Sociology of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944), 346–51.

[36] E. Konig, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 1925, s.v. “Prophecy.”

[37] Burton, City of the Saints, 445.

[38] Bousquet, Les Mormons: histoire et institutions, 25.

[39] See S. N. Eisenstadt, “The Protestant Ethic Thesis,” in Roland Robertson, ed., Sociology of Religion (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1969), 297–317.