Conference Explores the Islamic World Today

Grant Underwood

Grant Underwood ( ) is a professor of history and serves as the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding. This article describes the conference “The Islamic World Today: Issues and Perspectives” held at the BYU campus October 18–19, 2021.

Early in my service as Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding, a focus on Islam seemed both timely and important. My first endeavor in fall 2017 was to arrange for the Utah premiere of The Sultan and the Saint, the docudrama that tells of the story of a little-known but influential interfaith interaction between St. Francis of Assisi and Ayyubid Sultan Malik al-Kamil during one of the Crusades. The premiere of the docudrama was followed with an invitation to Jonathan Brown, Georgetown University’s Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization, who later spoke to a packed house on “Understandings and Misunderstandings” of Islam. In an interesting coincidence, as I was then considering taking this focus on Islam to the next level by organizing a conference, BYU administration contacted me with an invitation to do just that. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had reached out to BYU wondering if the university would be willing do a conference on Islam, and BYU asked if I would take the lead in such an endeavor. A committee was quickly formed, and by the end of fall semester 2017 a proposal for the conference had been formulated and a list of potential speakers identified. The proposal carried the same title that was eventually used in October 2021, “The Islamic World Today: Issues and Perspectives,” and it covered some of the same topics—women and Islam, the Qur’an and its historical origins, Islamophobia, and Shari’a law—hot-button topics all.

With generous funding secured from BYU and the proposal submitted up the line, we waited for an official green light. Several months later—fall 2018, in fact—we received news that some senior Church leaders felt it wasn’t yet the right time. BYU administrators checked back in with Salt Lake several times in 2019, but the appropriate time had not yet arrived. Then in January of 2020, the BYU administration let us know that the conference was back on. No sooner had we regained traction on the event than the pandemic hit. Thenceforth, all preparations were done via Zoom and email. This tended to slow things down but eventually we settled on the precise topics to be discussed and the fourteen scholars to discuss them. To be sure we landed the individuals we wanted, we issued the formal invitations a full year in advance of the conference. To add gravitas to the invitation, we had it issued on the letterhead of the associate international vice president, Jeffrey R. Ringer, who had been assigned as the university’s liaison to our committee. His was the primary signature with mine appended as program chair. Impressively, within three weeks, ten of the fourteen invitees had accepted the invitation. That says something about BYU’s reputation as a top-notch academic institution, as well as its hospitable social environment and stunning physical location.

To capitalize on the attractiveness of the Utah location, we built into the conference plan several excursions. On the first day of the conference, we concluded sessions midafternoon and took the group up Provo Canyon and capped off the outing with dinner at Sundance’s famous Tree Room Restaurant. For the day after the conference, we arranged a tour of Church sites in Salt Lake City that was very well received. That day concluded with a dinner hosted by the Utah Islamic Center at their new mosque on Ninetieth South, just west of the freeway. Beyond that we offered to assist our speakers in planning their own visits farther afield to Utah’s National Park wonders or other tourist attractions should they have time. All of this added to the enticement of the conference, and most quickly signed on. Fortunately, we emphasized that part of their commitment in accepting the invitation to participate in the conference (and we offered them a substantial honorarium for doing so) was to both stay for the two days of the conference and actively participate throughout. We didn’t want them to be either fly in at the last minute and fly out as soon as they gave their presentation or just show up to give their talk and then spend the rest of their time elsewhere. Full conference participation was facilitated by inviting different ones of the speakers to serve as interlocutors in the discussion period that followed the two main presentations in each session.

As the speakers contemplated participation in the conference, many remarked that they were impressed with the quality of their fellow presenters as well as the range and significance of topics to be addressed. This is part of the reason why we are working toward having a book come out of the conference. The other justification for publication is that from the beginning we emphasized to the speakers that they were to address their remarks to a general audience. Our mantra became “Think TED Talk, not Middle East Studies Association conference paper.” We said, “Keep in mind your neighbor down the street with whom you are good friends, who really wants to understand your faith and who is smart but not a trained academic. How would you talk to them?” The message seemed to get through, and as it turned out, nearly all the presentations were rich and informative and accessible. Audience comments included a student who remarked, “I got it. It wasn’t dull or boring. What I heard was fascinating, I understood it, and it didn’t seem dumbed down.”

After the conference, we wrote to the speakers, “Your presentations can benefit Americans in general, not just Latter-day Saints. They constitute a great two-day course in key aspects of Islam. Instead of hearing from pundits and podcasters, the audience learned from you, the experts, leaders in the field of Islamic studies. You distilled down for a general audience what you felt were the most important and salient points on the topic. That makes the proposed publication a volume that non-Muslims across the country could trust and rely on.” To be sure, we added, “There are numerous ‘Islam 101’ books produced by John Doe who does some research and writes it up, and it’s reasonable, but that’s very different than having scholars who have spent years immersed in the field and who are on its cutting edge produce the kind of top-notch yet accessible work that you have done.”

Response to the Conference

We wanted every Muslim in Utah to know about this conference and to feel warmly invited. To local clerics we said, “Help your people understand that presentations at this conference will be respectful, but they won’t follow all the protocols of a Friday sermon in the mosque.” They understood, and so did our many Muslim friends who attended. We invited numbers of them to be our VIP guests and sit up front and join us for meals. At the conference opening, we had our local Utah Valley imam, Talaat Al-Shuqairat, deliver a beautiful Qur’anic recitation in Arabic. We provided prayer space for our Muslim guests throughout the conference. In short, those who attended seemed delighted with the conference. One visiting imam remarked, “I have learned so much!” He was sitting close to me through much of the conference, and I noticed him taking detailed notes. Salman Masud, a doctor at Shriners Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake, attended the conference and later wrote, “This is a singular event in my 25 years here in Utah.”

Our speakers, too, expressed their appreciation for being able to participate in the conference, some rather effusively. Here is an example:

“I cannot even begin to express what an incredible experience this conference was. So much more than a conference, it was truly an experience in interreligious living and learning and is a highlight of my entire career. I’ve already begun incorporating what I learned about the LDS today in my lecture on ‘Martyrs, Saints, and Mystics.’ What a joy to have lived for a few days in the community of Saints and to have witnessed with my own eyes what is possible when people of good faith and goodwill come together with determination. What a spiritual recharge I experienced in the presence of not only outstanding scholars, but outstanding people who live their faith rather than just talking or intellectualizing about it. What memories have been created, and what thoughts have been provoked through an experience of love, community, hospitality, friendship. As I said in class today, I experienced a different reality of hope, of what is possible, and what a strong-knit community looks and feels like. It reverberates beyond what I can articulate in words.”

What’s so nice about this note is that says that our speakers were impressed with BYU, with Utah’s good people, as a community. In this way, everyone contributed to the conference. It wasn’t just scholars; it was our community. Our speakers were impressed with the harmony and friendship between Latter-day Saints and Muslims here in Utah. Our BYU Muslim students who came felt a sense of pride and joy that they were being respected and honored by such a significant gathering. These were among the most gratifying results of the conference. Yes, the scholarship was there, and the conference was an educational feast. But it was more than that. The conference was also a spiritual experience, a bonding experience, one enjoyed by Latter-day Saint and Muslim alike. One of the scholars who verbalized this was visibly moved and a little teary-eyed when making her expression of appreciation. Scholars don’t get teary-eyed over a conference very often.

Church Involvement

Early on, the Church assigned its Outreach Committee, headed by Elder Anthony D. Perkins, who oversees the Middle East/North Africa Area, to be our conference advisers. They informed us that in conjunction with the conference, the Church wanted to hold a special session addressed particularly to Church members in which senior Church leaders would speak and express the importance of friendshipping Muslims and valuing Islam. We also learned that the Church had been working for five or six years on a pamphlet that would help Latter-day Saints understand their Muslim neighbors and the religion of Islam generally. The pamphlet was to be introduced during the special session. Elders David A. Bednar and Gerrit W. Gong received the assignment to speak at the special session, and they delivered a memorable message that was posted on the Church website in 2022. The pamphlet is also available. Elder Gary E. Stevenson, newly assigned to assist in overseeing the Middle East Area, was also in attendance and spoke at the banquet preceding the session. The session drew a capacity crowd in the Joseph Smith Building auditorium and elicited comments of appreciation from the conference speakers who attended.

Takeaways from the Conference

The friendly and respectful engagement between Muslims and Latter-day Saints, both scholars and nonacademics alike was particularly memorable. That is something we Latter-day Saints do very well. Our students and Latter-day Saints generally have been conditioned to be outward facing and loving and interested in other human beings. Of course, we can do much better. But in comparison with society at large, I think Latter-day Saints do a good job of trying to see others as we believe they literally are—our brothers and sisters. To our speakers, we had said in advance, “Your Latter-day Saint audience here will feel to you much like your Muslim family and friends. In our experience, two words come readily to mind as characteristics of both Muslims and Latter-day Saints—humility and hospitality. You will not come here and find students standing up and yelling or getting in your face over things said. They’re respectful. There’s a certain humility about them. Islam is all about submission, and Latter-day Saints learn a discipleship that is also about submission to the Lord and finding out what is the Lord’s will.” We told them that from our vantage point, there is a shared cultural conditioning toward respecting what one believes God wants them to do. We find that hospitality and concern for others is built into Islam. So, too, for the faith of the Latter-day Saints. Just as one of the Five Pillars of Islam is almsgiving, so Latter-day Saints willingly contribute what they call “tithes and offerings.” And both groups have a variety of other ways in which they manifest their concern for those around them (or far away). These efforts lead to a graciousness and, in the most positive sense of the word, a sweetness among Latter-day Saints and Muslims. Such sentiments were clearly on display throughout the conference. Our speakers and our Muslim guests quickly felt like old friends, and we genuinely enjoyed each other’s presence.

Toward More Mutual Understanding

The editors of the Review ask, “What can Latter-day Saints do to better understand Islam?” The short answer is to read the Church’s Muslims and Latter-day Saints pamphlet and listen to the sessions of the “Islamic World Today” conference. They were all recorded and are viewable on the conference website— Latter-day Saints will discover we have much in common with our Muslim neighbors. Both groups love the Bible and prophets. Both cherish additional scripture. Thinking of the Five Pillars of Islam, adherents of both faiths acknowledge God as supreme and desire to be devoted to him above all else. And one can continue the comparison right on through the Five Pillars to salat (prayer), zakat (alms giving), sawm (fasting), and hajj (pilgrimage). Muslims pray; Latter-day Saints pray. They give alms; we give alms. They fast; we fast. They make a pilgrimage to Mecca; we make a pilgrimage to our holy site—the temple. Latter-day Saints approach the temple with the same kind of reverence with which Muslims approach Mecca. Other similarities could be multiplied. In sum, our Muslim brothers and sisters can and should be natural and easy friends for Latter-day Saints. In many ways, the friendship flows more readily than it does with some Christians. The essential and concluding takeaway from the “Islamic World Today” conference is this: “Let us reach out and embrace our Muslim neighbors. After all, we’re not only in the same Abrahamic family; we’re in the same eternal family.”