Spencer J. Palmer

Spencer J. Palmer, “Introduction,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer, rev. ed. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 1–9.

Nearly one out of every five people on earth today is a Muslim. They are found in almost every nation, in hundreds of racial groups, speaking dozens of languages. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population with 180 million, Pakistan has 137 million, the People’s Republic of China has 29 million, and Russia has 25 million. The largest Muslim ethnic group is the Arab people. And there are approximately 6 million Muslims in the United States.

Islam, the religion of the Muslim peoples, makes up the second largest religious group on earth, next to Christianity. Islam is known as a “biblical faith” in part because Muhammad (A.D. 570–632), the Arabian prophet of Islam, revered the teachings of Abraham and Moses and eighteen other major prophets of the Bible. But Islam makes a special revelatory claim for the teachings and narratives of the Qur’an, the sacred book of scripture of the Muslim world.

Although the largest concentrations of the world’s one billion Muslims today appear in developing nonindustrial countries that are not generally regarded as leaders in scientific, intellectual, economic, or even cultural development, they can lay claim to a brilliant history of achievement in these fields. “No people in the early Middle Ages,” Philip K. Hitti concludes, “contributed to human progress so much as did the Arabs, a term which in our usage would comprise all Arabic-speaking peoples, including the Arabians, that is, the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula. . . .For centuries in the Middle Ages Arabic was the language of learning, culture, and progress throughout the civilized world. Between the ninth and twelfth centuries more works—philosophical, medical, historical, religious, astronomical, geographical—were produced through the medium of Arabic than through any other tongue.” [1]

For five hundred years Islam dominated the world by its power, its learning, and its superior civilization. [2] Heir to the scientific and philosophical treasures of the Greeks, Islam passed on its treasure, after enriching it, to western Europe. Together with astronomy, mathematics was the science which the Arabs favored most. Many basic principles of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra were discovered by Muslim scholars. Western arithmetic still uses the numerals and methods of counting invented by the Arabs. The Muslims perfected the Chinese compass and made practical application of it in navigation.

Among their most beneficial inventions has been the manufacture of paper from cotton, linen, and rags. Upon this single invention depended the subsequent diffusion of affordable books and the popularization of learning, a social revolution previously bottlenecked by the expensive parchment of the ancient world and the silk paper of the Chinese. Furthermore, Arab doctors have played a decisive role in Western medical science, particularly in the field of surgery. As early as the eleventh century, Muslim physicians treated cataracts, practiced cauterization, knew about anesthetics—generally considered a modern discovery—and pioneered ophthalmology.

Although Muslims have excelled in many branches of science, some of their most significant and lasting contributions have been in the realms of language, literature, architecture, and the visual arts. The West is indebted to the Arabs for a heritage of scientific terms—alchemy, alcohol, algebra, borax, cipher, elixir, and zenith—and only the comparative isolation of the two cultures has hampered a fuller appreciation of Islam’s written aesthetics. An Arab proverb says, “God gave three great things to the world: the brain of the Frank, the hands of the Chinese, and the tongue of the Arab.” That distinctive union of intellectual qualities and powerful poetics may best be illustrated by the Qur’an itself, which was meant to be heard as it was recited, not analyzed for its historical and narrative values. Visually, its verses decorate mosques and sacred buildings throughout the world—not only in Mecca and Jerusalem. In a religion that prohibits religious images and icons, Arabic calligraphy has assumed the stature of artistic and religious expression, while Muslim architecture continues to be admired wherever Muslim culture has flourished. Examples today include the Mosque of Sultan Hasan in Cairo, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the Taj Mahal in India.

Latter-day Saint interest in the lands and peoples of the Near East is deep-seated. Mormons recognize that the Arabs are literal descendants of Abraham through his son Ishmael and are therefore entitled to the promises pronounced upon the seed of Abraham in the Bible. Like Muhammad and the Muslims, Mormons also regard their religion as a restoration of the covenant which father Abraham and the ancient patriarchs made with God. However, the intense historical Mormon involvement in the geographical region of Islam’s roots has sometimes emphasized certain traditions and regions at the expense of a more complete picture, and Mormons have not been immune from the general Western tendency to accept stereotypical pictures of Islamic faith and practice.

The pages which follow record the discussions, lectures, and papers of an October 1981 conference entitled “Islam: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations,” held on the campus of Brigham Young University under the sponsorship of BYU’s Religious Studies Center and in cooperation with the university’s Near Eastern Studies Program of the David M. Kennedy Center for International and Area Studies. The meetings included some of the ablest exponents and finest interpreters of Islam’s relationships with Christianity.

The discussions of this conference provided a diversified, realistic, and appreciative view. The analogies and associations between Christianity and Islam became vividly apparent through contrasts in the development of Islam in different cultural settings. For example, Islam in Indonesia’s peasant society has been conditioned by its productive rice cultivation, inwardness, patience, and self-effacement, while in Morocco it has assumed some of the restless, aggressive, extroverted tribal qualities of that society. Theological distinctions between the larger Sunni community and the smaller but sometimes highly vocal Shi’ites, with their interpretations of the Mahdi (the Directed One), a redemptive figure to come, provided an image of active theological diversity to replace the monolithic stereotype sometimes held. Mormons in attendance expressed keen interest in several cultural and historical points of contact—a view of a theology of responsibility, of judgment, and a cultural matrix which produced pre-Islamic prophets. A keener curiosity and a greater sense of maturing commitment to fellowship with the people of Islam were fully realized hopes of the symposium. A unique dimension developed as participants focused on parallels, similarities, and contrasts with Mormonism in its emergence as a world faith. An underlying theme of the conference was that authentic interchange and deepening understanding are prerequisite for “crossing the divides” between Mormons and Muslims in today’s world.

One aspect of that hope is expressed in the visual symbol of the conference program, the design which appears on the dust jacket of this book..It is an excerpt from “Thunder,” a sura, or chapter, of the Qur’an, in the original Maghribi script, a script developed in Spain and North Africa in Western Islam in the Middle Ages. Its translation runs, “And those who ward off evil with good, these shall have a blissful end. They shall enter the gardens of Eden together with the righteous among their fathers.”

We at Brigham Young University were gratified by the cordiality and friendship that mutually prevailed. Attendance at the sessions of the symposium was large, interested, and respectful. A considerable number of Muslim students who attended from Logan and Salt Lake City joined with other conference visitors at the customary afternoon hour of prayer in a private room. The schedule was arranged to accommodate this ceremony. Speakers frequently expressed appreciation for the opportunity to explain and amplify aspects of their own scholarly interests but which also touched closely upon matters of their personal faith.

Elder Carlos E. Asay of the presidency of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not only brought the personal greetings of the leadership of the Church to the conference but also shared his own experiences during his years in Lebanon and Syria. He reported that his life among the Muslims had a sanctifying influence and stimulated a spiritual renewal. He emphasized ways in which Mormon consideration of Islam must acknowledge the hand of God. In these remarks, he echoed the welcoming tone that had been provided on behalf of Brigham Young University president Jeffrey R. Holland by Noel B. Reynolds, associate academic vice president for religious instruction. Reynolds told the Muslims in attendance that “there are many important elements of Mormon thought in which we would feel closer to the followers of Muhammad than to the contemporary Christian culture in which we have been located since our beginnings.”

David M. Kennedy, former secretary of the treasury of the United States and currently special representative for the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recounted his experiences in Indonesia and his personal acquaintance with Haji Alamsjah, the minister of religion of that country. Minister Alamsjah’s keynote message, read by Haji Anton Timur Djaelani, director general for Islamic Institutional Development in the Ministry of Religion, explained pancasila, the five principles of state philosophy that have governed Indonesia’s transformation into an actively religious country without a state religion. He explained that the overwhelming majority of Indonesians are Muslims and that Indonesia has been energetically developing and expanding a progressive strain of Islamic thought that deals with the modern world, not by capitulating to it or by withdrawing from it but by finding acceptable theological and cultural ways of acquiring and enjoying its fruits in a context of Islamic values.

A panel on “Mormons and Muslims: Values, Lifestyles, and Faith” was carried out by people with wide experience in both religion and academics-scholars who have studied Islam and found it not entirely foreign. David C. Montgomery, professor of history and coordinator of Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University, moderated the discussions. I attempted to point out some of the teachings and beliefs that make for common ground between Mormons and Muslims, even while acknowledging significant differences that exist.

Orin D. Parker, president of AMIDEAST based in Washington, D.C., commented on observations of family closeness and reverence for God that had particularly struck him during his many years of living among the peoples of the Near East. Robert L. Staab, assistant director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah, who spent two years in a Turkish village, described his detailed observation of how the “five pillars of Islam”—the creedal belief in God and the prophet Muhammad, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage—affected village and individual life day by day.

Omar Kader, assistant to the dean of the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences at Brigham Young University, had grown up Muslim in a very Mormon Provo, Utah, and remembers his father’s insistence on sharing Muslim holidays with gifts of food to their neighbors during the feast following Ramadan. He reminded the audience of a point that was becoming clearer—one cultural image is inadequate to express the extensity of Islam. Kader discussed both realities and misperceptions of Islam among Americans in general as well as Mormons.

Arnold H. Green, associate professor of modern Near Eastern history at American University in Cairo presented a paper of special interest to Latter-day Saints. He traced historic and literary comparisons between Joseph Smith and Muhammad that began in Joseph Smith’s lifetime. He concluded that no serious attempt had yet been made to examine the comparison in the context of the sociology of religions and posing the intriguing possibilities of what might happen if the differences and similarities could thus be examined. Green observed that the comparison has sometimes been pursued for questionable reasons and with questionable methods, but Mormons at least should use it as a metaphor to help them view 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.”

William Hamblin, a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern studies at the University of Michigan, also dealt with prophets and prophethood in the Islamic tradition. With the use of slides, he examined two of six nonbiblical prophets described in the Qur’an, focusing particularly on one called Hud in the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. Although he warned that no causal link can be established between Hud and the pre-Islamic Book of Mormon Lehi, who traveled in Arabia, the parallels are at least intriguing. His research confirms Qur’anic assertion that God has inspired not only Hebrew and Christian prophets but nonbiblical prophets as well.

Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub, associate professor in the Centre for Religious Studies at the University of Toronto, delivered a lecture on the idea of redemption in Islam. He observed that to understand it one must first understand Western Christianity’s idea of redemption through suffering and death and the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) idea of redemption through the victorious conquering of death. Though Islam has its martyrs and the role of Muhammad as mediator is central, it draws primarily on the rich Eastern image of the cross as a throne of glory, one that grows out of the Muslim concept of man’s nature as essentially good, not burdened by original sin. Ayoub concludes that in the idea of the Mahdi, Islam and Christianity meet. Jesus will come to restore the world to its purity, but Muslim piety affirms that Jesus and the Mahdi will work together.

In the panel “Women and Worship: Islam in the Mosque and in the Home,” four scholars who lived among and studied women in Muslim societies examined the responses of Muslim women to discriminatory Qur’anic injunctions and authoritative male practices. Jane I. Smith, associate dean for academic affairs and lecturer in comparative religion at Harvard, described how Egyptian women, when faced with impersonal rites in a mosque-where women are physically separated from the service-tend to meet their religious needs in a creative variety of informal ways and particularly through participation in quasi-healing rituals that have remained the province of women. In so doing, Smith concludes, Muslim women in Egypt have found ways to establish and exercise power separately from designated male authority.

Anne H. Betteridge, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, presented some of the results of her research on the “informal” aspects of women’s religion, particularly on their visits to local shrines in Iran. Betteridge explained that the formalized, structured activities of the mosque are more often for men; women are kept in the role of spectators and on the ceremonial sidelines. But women frequent local shrines dedicated to Muslim saints which seem particularly suited to expressing the feminine side of human nature with its spontaneous life-giving elements.

Donna Lee Bowen, assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, has done extensive surveys on family planning among Moroccan women. Her data showed that although Islam thoroughly safeguarded the welfare of the family, no dogma existed on family planning; instead, whatever would be best for the family at a given time period was considered to be Islamically correct. In Bowen’s view, seemingly discriminatory laws and practices in Islam are logical when understood within the total social context.

Frederick M. Denny, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, challenged the stereotype of Muslim women—that of the veil and the cloister—by explaining that Indonesia not only fosters progressive education for its women, including specific instruction in the Qur’an, but it is also the home of a proudly matrilineal and matrilocal Islamic ethnic group.

Umar F. Abd-Allah, chairman of the Islamic studies division of the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, followed the twin concepts of the perceptible and the unseen through the Qur’an and into the beliefs and practices of Islam. He contrasted them with the practices of pre-Islamic and polytheistic Arabs and expanded almost poetically upon their role in developing a sense of God’s greatness, man’s moral responsibility, and man’s innately good nature. He argued that to fully appreciate Islam one must see it as a courageous redefinition of prophethood, that unlike the shamans, diviners, spirits, and oracular figures of the folk religion of pre-Islamic Arabia, a prophet in the Islamic view has no independent knowledge of the unseen. He has true knowledge only through the revelation of God, which he must obey. In the Muslim view, prophetic revelation is man’s only means of gaining explicit and definite knowledge of the great realities of the unseen that affect his destiny.

In addition to the information provided by the participants at this symposium, another message was given: in an atmosphere of goodwill in an educational setting, the old magic of human sympathy was working. For those who may have thought that Islam was imponderable and distant, this was an experience among Mormons, Muslims, and others that was both enlightening and reassuring.


[1] Philip K. Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968), 2, 5.

[2] For a more detailed survey see Haidar Bammate, Muslim Contributions to Civilization (Takoma Park, MD.; Crescent Publications, 1962).