Thoughts on Islam

Omar Kader

Omar Kader, “Thoughts on Islam,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 105–9.

Omar Kader received his undergraduate education at Brigham Young University, did graduate work at the Middle East Center of the University of Utah, and received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Southern California in international relations. At the time of the symposium, he taught at BYU and has taught extensively courses on the U.S. and the Third World, with particular focus on the Middle East and the Muslim world. He had traveled in the Middle East, particularly the West Bank in Israel, studying conditions there. He was born in Provo, Utah, to Palestinian Muslim immigrant parents and is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Can we really make authentic comparisons, or are we only wishing to reach across our cultural barriers to find Mormons and Muslims similar? We both take prayer very seriously, but in the act of ablution the Muslim prepares for prayer quite differently than does the Mormon. Raised in Provo, Utah, as a Muslim, I wondered why the Mormon people were manifesting shame by bowing their heads during prayer and closing their eyes and folding their arms in a very defensive prenatal position. What were they hiding from? Both groups, of course, fast. Mormons fast a couple of meals each month. Muslims experience a month of daily fasting and self-control. Are these experiences really comparable?

Both conservative religions are experiencing some pain in adjusting to the modern society that we live in. Mormons are admonished to be in the world but not of the world, and at times we are confused in sorting the two out—especially with our fine graduate degrees in business, teaching us to measure our success in secular terms in contrast to our traditional value of measuring success in family terms.

There are other points of historical comparison between the two groups: polygamy, the transition from rural to urban, the impact of industrialization on family structure, and so on. Let me make some specific observations.

In thinking of Dr. Palmer’s comparisons, we should clarify one point. Although Islam is not only a creedal religion, it certainly has a creed: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” If you’ve been in any Muslim community more than five minutes, you’ve heard that creed. In regard to Orin Parker’s presentation, I would stress the difference between cultural and doctrinal comparisons. For example, often we view Islam as Arabic and assume that all Muslims are Arab. In fact, I think Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country. About 25 million Muslims live in Russia. Pakistan, before Bangladesh was created, had one of the largest Muslim populations of any country in the world. Naturally we tend to see the Muslim world in terms of current events: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the oil situation, and so forth. Yet Arabia is not the center of major Islamic populations. How much of Islam is culture, how much of it is custom, and how much of it is doctrine and folklore? We must make those critical observations before our generalizations will be valid.

A related mistake is perceiving Islam as a monolithic and threatening world power. Rather we need to think of it as a series of diverse interests manifested through nationalistic policies. Dr. Staab’s descriptions of the Islam community were most interesting. Hospitality is a major characteristic of Islam. (Of course, horsemanship at one time was also—one’s ability to translate his masculinity into some kind of stature in the community.) Dr. Staab’s mention of Ramadan reminded me of our family celebrations here in Provo. My father would go downtown and buy twenty or thirty sacks of flour, and then he’d say, “Okay, now distribute this to all the neighbors, a sack apiece,” even though all of our neighbors were quite well-to-do Mormons where we lived. We’d take a sack of flour up to a house and explain, “Dad said to drop this off.” “What’s it for? . . . We’re celebrating Ramadan.” “Well, that’s nice. But what’s Ramadan?” He always had us dropping fruit off at the police station and the fire station as well. It was his idea of giving to the poor.

The hajj, or pilgrimage, is an interesting parallel with Mormonism in the clothing and the covenants that are made. I think my mother is the only Utahn ever to make a pilgrimage to Mecca from Provo, Utah. She went last fall. And as she explains it to me, on a pilgrimage everyone dresses alike, rich or poor. We Mormons also have our own covenants in the temple that have similarities to the covenants made on the pilgrimage.

One other matter that interests me is the umma, the community, the believers. I’m not convinced that we can see all of Islam as one monolithic community. Often we tend to see the Islamic world as involved in a jihad, a holy war, against Western modernization. I think it is a false conception of the Islamic community to see it as one gigantic threat to modern society. During the Iranian hostage situation we were beginning to hear commentators make observations like, “This is the beginning of the assault on the West. . . . This world is too small for these two guns in this little town. They’ve got to go or we’ve got to go.” Many times we talk in such terms because we’re spectator-analysts. We have to have winners and losers, good guys and bad guys. There isn’t very much gray in the community we live in, and that stems primarily from our own belief that we are absolutely right. If this is the true church, others are not only a little wrong but totally wrong. This attitude makes our ability to tolerate others probably less than Joseph Smith himself had advocated or hoped for.

I’m a social scientist. By training I make observations about the things around me and then begin to try to explain those things, check them out further, and find out how accurate I am.

To begin with, the realities of Islam are not well known. Americans know more myth than truth regarding this religion. We understand Islam so very little in the United States. We think about its uniqueness—its role in the lives of its adherents, and the policies that direct its governments—but seldom do we think what it may mean to us in our small world. We tend to think of Islam as so large there is no real way to understand it.

A common misperception of Islam held in the West is that it’s impossible for less-developed Islamic countries to move out of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century patterns into a twentieth- or twenty-first-century modern world. Maxim Rodinson, a French scholar on Islam, has challenged the traditional view which also assumes that religion in general somehow retards economic, political, and social progress. Rodinson suggests instead that Islam serves as an instrument in the hands of economists and politicians whose successes or failures are ascribed to Islam, not to themselves. It is interesting to realize that almost every third world country is headed by Western-educated individuals. What may be said about policies in Islamic nations which are being implemented by leaders educated in Western institutions? What may be said about the successes and failures of those policies? Is failure a function of Islam? Are Western notions possibly preventing leaders from translating progress into terms that are harmonious with the culture within each country?

Westerners in general are products of an empirical tradition: computers, calculators, bottom lines, bookkeeping. The good society is measured in GNP, per-capita income, acres of cultivation, miles of roads, doctors per thousand, and so forth. The number of miles per GNP equals a country’s development. Or will it? This is hardly a soul-searching method. It does not talk about the value of that road. Materialism, secularism, and behaviorism, by necessity of method, relegate the good, the bad, the ought, the ought not, and the ethical to another realm, the realm of the irrelevant, the domestic—or worse, the mystic—religionist. In almost every major textbook in America on development, religion is seen as an obstacle, a retardant. It’s no wonder that Americans specifically and westerners generally have a difficult time imagining religion as aiding progress. Ataturk in the twenties had to eliminate the religious leaders, move them out of his system. An areligious model for development was his plan. And should we be glad or sorry that he failed?

Is the current return to Islamic fundamentalism a return to cultural authenticity more than it is a rejection of the modern West? We have decided that it is a threat to the West and treat it as a threat to progress rather than a return to authentic values. Yet the view of the West in most Muslim countries derives from the first representatives of the West in their countries—from the construction crews. And what do construction crews bring with them? Chaplains? Chapels? Rituals? No, they bring beer, brothels, and bars—some of the finest examples of decadence that the West has to offer. What do Muslims believe we stand for?

Now our task in this conference is to reduce spots of ignorance within our own thinking. BYU campus is a good place to start because we hold a fairly typical range of American ideas, but have the advantage of being a bit more sensitive here about religion. Where do we begin? How do we tear down barriers? How do we expand the contacts? Is it through cultural exchange, visitors, residence tours, interesting exchanges such as this symposium?

Let me tell you what I think might help. The image of Islam in this country is completely dependent on our access to indigenous Islamic culture. An open exchange will reduce the crude inaccuracies and the crude images in the West of Muslim people and of nations. And the same is true of Mormons reaching out. BYU as a major institution of higher learning can invite students from all over the world to come here for a valid spiritual education and a valuable secular education. They can go back having preserved their traditions and their values, maintaining their sense of the sacred but having expanded it to include an understanding of Mormonism as well. They can return home and say, “Look what America did for me.” That’s our unique role. And of course, we will be gracious guests as well as hospitable hosts on our own campus. But to complete the process, we must have access to Muslim communities—and through them to the values of Islam. Part of the burden is on the shoulders of Muslim leaders throughout the world. They need us as much as we need them if we are to reach a common understanding.