Personal Reflections

Orin D. Parker

Orin D. Parker, “Personal Reflections,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 93–97.

At the time of the symposium, Orin D. Parker was president of America-Mideast Educational and Training Services, Inc. (AMIDEAST). He received his BA from Brigham Young University and did graduate work at Stanford University, American University in Cairo, and the University of Baghdad in Iraq. Associated with AMIDEAST for twenty years, Mr. Parker has served as director of programs in Iraq, and Vice-President of Overseas Operations in Beirut from 1971–1979. His publications include a study of the educational system of Iraq and cultural aspects of Middle Eastern students.

For fourteen of the past twenty-three years, my wife, Rita, and I and our five children have lived and worked in Muslim communities of the Middle East, developing close and lasting friendships among these sensitive and loving people. We have found that we have much in common with them and a great deal indeed to learn from them. I’ve read Islamic philosophy and some Islamic history and, of course, the Qur’an, But it is really in studying the Muslim himself that we learn about this remarkable faith.

We have found our Muslim friends especially interested in the Mormon concept of family and family government and the codes of conduct and rules of diet and health similar to their own. We, in turn, have been extremely interested in their customs, particularly those pertaining to the family. We’re impressed by their use of religious language in all of their greetings. We’re impressed by the way in which Muslim families ask God to bless them as they go about their daily business. Meetings that we attended in Iraq, gatherings such as this, also would be opened with a prayer: “In the name of God, the munificent and merciful.” This prayer is also said before a Muslim family sits down to eat, as well as on many other occasions. It is even inscribed at the top of government stationery and included in the formalities of government, at least in those countries with which I am familiar.

Many of their greetings invoke Allah, and their thanks are always expressed to Allah. Though it is an unstructured religion in the Western sense, Islam is a living religion, an all-pervasive way of life. Its philosophy guides the thought and action of the true Muslim at all times. The true Muslim lives face to face with God. His house of God is wherever he may spread his prayer rug. It is a wonderful experience in the Middle East to see, five times during the day’s business, all activity stop and people spread their rugs and address themselves to their God. It is a marvelous experience to visit Muslim friends in their homes at the time of prayer and watch as they excuse themselves and withdraw to another room to pray. I was highly complimented once when a Muslim neighbor asked me if I would care to join him.

The Muslim thanks God for everything because he believes that God provides everything; when God does not provide, we must accept doing without. When you give a devout Muslim a gift, he will thank not you but God, because it was God who moved you to be kind and generous.

Islam has developed as a paternalistic society. Within the family the parents’ word is final. Great respect for parents and elders is expected, and it is given. In the Arab World Today, Morroe Berger compares the reaction of Muslims and Christians to the parable in Matthew 21:28–30. In this parable, you’ll remember, a man asks his two sons to work in the vineyard. The one says, “Yes, father,” but then does not. The other says, “No, father, I cannot,” but later relents and works. Now, in the Western mind and in the interpretation as given by Christ, the one who actually did the work is the one we should emulate. But the Muslim would follow the one who said “Yes, father,” thereby showing respect to his father.

This paternalistic family pattern extends through the society to create a generally authoritarian structure. In my field, education, we find that students learn primarily through memorization and imitation rather than independent research or original work. Moreover, the individual student’s academic field of study often reflects his father’s or his family’s desires more than his own wishes or capabilities. This, again, is an indication of how much the family dominates, and the respect the individual Muslim feels for his family. The family comes first. We have sometimes invited Muslim friends to our home for a special occasion, and then, at the last minute, they have not been able to come because a brother who lived down the street had come for a visit.

Education is as highly revered by Muslims as it is by Mormons. Muhammad said, “The pursuit of knowledge is an act of worship,” and enjoined Muslims to “seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.” Another time, in a more humorous vein, he said, “Seek knowledge even if it be in China.” Many of you may believe the oil-rich states of the Middle East provide unlimited education for their subjects as part of a modern welfare-state concept. In fact, education has been free throughout Islamic history.

The Muslims have a very deep faith which is sometimes misconstrued in the West as fatalism. I had a memorable experience with this kind of faith soon after first arriving in the Middle East. I was sent to Baghdad to take over an office which had been somewhat neglected for a couple of years. A young American, I was determined to go in there and get the office operating efficiently. As I proceeded to give the necessary directions and orders to my Muslim staff, I found that I was constantly receiving the answer, “In sha’ Allah,” which means, “God willing.” I tended to interpret it as meaning something like “mañana,” or “maybe,” or “if I get around to it.” So I decided one day that I’d had enough of “In sha’ Allah” and called the farrash, Zeydan, into my office. (A farrash is a combination messenger/janitor/concierge.)

Zeydan taught me something that day that I will never forget. First I gave him a little lecture on the necessity in an office for the boss to know that when something needed to be done, it would in fact be done. When I had finished talking to him in my best Arabic, he then proceeded to lecture me on faith. He explained to me that all that is done must be in accordance with the will of God, that nothing is done without or in spite of that will, and that I should always expect him to answer “In sha’ Allah,” because it would be wrong for him to say that he could do something on his own. He was not expressing unwillingness to work but his realistic humility that the results lay in God’s hands. I finally understood.

This kind of faith was exemplified as well, I believe, by the late President Anwar Sadat. He had said several times that he knew he would live until the very day that God had planned for him to be finished with his work on earth. I do believe that his faith was unfeigned.

Muslims share with Mormons a strong belief in salvation and the hereafter. Muhammad said, “Life is a bridge. Pass over it to paradise, but do not build your houses upon it.” We had a visit in Washington recently from a family that lived across from us in Beirut during the difficult times and who had constantly offered help and hospitality to me after I had sent my wife and children back to the States for safety. Hajj Abdullah, the head of this family, often told me things which seemed to come directly out of the Doctrine and Covenants, such as, “He who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come” (59:23).

As someone who has received Muslim hospitality with gratitude, I have noticed with sadness that the Muslim coming into Western society is always surprised and disappointed at the ignorance of Islam which he finds around him, especially when he finds himself considered an unbeliever. The religion of Islam has dominated the Eastern world for centuries and continues to do so today. Any attempt to define culture in that area must recognize Islam as its foundation. And even those who no longer observe all its tenets remain loyal to its basic concepts and give Islam its proper respect. Within Islam, Christians and Jews have held from the beginning a special place of respect as “people of the book,” the Old Testament. The term in Arabic is “ahl al-kitab,” which can also be interpreted as “family of the book.” In the view of Islam, Jews, Christians, and Muslims share the same God and the same early religious heritage. Muslims see their religion as the culmination of a process stretching from Judaism to Christianity in Islam. Prophets of the Old Testament are recognized as second only to Muhammad. Thus, it is surprising and culturally disturbing for a Middle Eastern Muslim to find himself considered outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. I make an appeal to the Church and to its members: if we seek to know and to interact with Muslims, we must understand and appreciate their belief, their philosophy, and their culture. We must know them before we can successfully reach their hearts.