Muslim-Mormon Dialogue at Georgetown: The Perks of Being Peculiar

I recently had the opportunity to engage in a brief but very warm interreligious dialogue on Georgetown’s campus. [1] I’m absolutely horrified by the news of the mass murder that just took place in New Zealand. As part of my mourning with those that mourn, I wanted to share my love of Islam by sharing my remarks from that evening. I spoke somewhat spontaneously, using only a skeletal outline; but the following is my best attempt at a faithful transcription of those remarks:

I’m going to begin with a few points to set the stage, before moving on to address the theme of tonight’s event, discussing briefly some of the difficulties as well as the perks of being peculiar in the way that our two faiths are peculiar, and end with a discussion of the opportunities that I think our particular set of peculiarities offers us.

I was just listening to the scholar and practitioner of interreligious dialogue, Catherine Cornille. [2] She noted, perhaps counter-intuitively, that in order to engage in genuine interreligious dialogue, then among other things one must have definite religious convictions and commitments, and one must be willing to not only learn facts and details of others’ religious experience but also be empathetic and try to understand something of that experience. Without definite religious commitments, then the dialogue one engages in is not specifically religious in nature. And without empathy, one’s engagement won’t be specifically interreligious (and may not be much of a dialogue).

Alwi Shihab—a former professor of Islamic studies at Harvard and former Prime Minister of Indonesia who serves now as that country’s special envoy to the Middle East—said something similar:

Tolerance does not always lead to true social peace and harmony. To tolerate something is to learn to live with it, even when you think it is wrong and downright evil. Often tolerance is a tolerance of indifference, which is at best a grudging willingness to put up with something or someone you hate and wish would go away. We must go, I believe, beyond tolerance if we are to achieve harmony in our world. We must move the adherents of different faiths from a position of strife and tension to one of harmony and understanding by promoting a multi-faith and pluralistic society. We must strive for acceptance of the other based on understanding and respect. Nor should we stop even at mere acceptance of the other; rather, we must accept the other as one of us in humanity and, above all, in dignity. [3]

I hope I’m faithful to both of these, and I very much look forward to hearing from you tonight.

Tonight’s theme is “The perks of being peculiar.” If we’re honest, however, the results being peculiar aren’t always a perk. And historically, both of our religions have borne a great deal of persecution—at times this persecution has been motivated by the peculiarities that we have in common. Mormons are the only religious minority against whom this country has issued an actual extermination order. Early in our history we were driven out of the United States altogether, settling in what was then northern Mexico. A few years later the US sent an army out to put down the so-called Mormon rebellion. The US at that time was—and unfortunately sometimes is today—far from being a land of religious liberty.

During this time of persecution, Mormons were frequently called the “American Mohommetans,” and the founder of our religion, Joseph Smith, was frequently compared to Mohammad. While today this sounds quite complimentary, those who said such things in mid-19th century America meant them as anything but. One historian of our faith notes:

As anti-Mormons took up the queston of Mormonism’s Americanness in earnest in the 1840s, Islam figured more prominently than ever as the archetypal example of political tyranny cloaking its designs behind a veneer of religious piety. The Smith-Muhammad comparison…proved elastic and endurable. [4]

Fortunately we’ve come a long way since the 19th century, and I’ve no worries that my neighbors are going to violently eject me from the country. But we both know that persecution and hostility toward religious minors still takes place in our country, and unfortunately it sometimes shows up here at Georgetown. While this in itself isn’t a “perk,” nevertheless our two faiths bring something of a shared experience and an ability to relate to one another on account of our minority status and history of persecution. The empathy and solidarity that grows out of such shared experience—and the genuine friendships that can blossom in its wake—are certainly a perk.

This brings me to the second perk I wanted to mention tonight. We share much more than our status as minorities and our history of persecution. Our faiths have profound theological parallels, well beyond what 19th century detractors noticed. This means we have an opportunity to see one another more clearly and support one another in our lives of faith on the basis of recognition, respect, and admiration.

Religious scholars sometimes differentiate between orthodoxic religions, or those that emphasis correctness in doctrine, and orthopraxic religions, which emphasize correct living. While most religions blend belief and practice to various degrees, it’s easy to see that some fall more toward the pole of orthodoxy and others more toward orthopraxy. Islam, with its emphasis on living a righteous life is often used as a prime example of orthopraxy, and scholars have looked at my own faith tradition as something of an exception to Christian orthodoxy. That is, many think that Mormonism is firmly in the orthopraxic camp—and I agree.

We don’t have time for an extensive comparison, but let’s look at some of the more conspicuous and important similarities between our faiths. Perhaps most obvious, both of our religions were founded by prophets who claimed direct revelation from God and who then produced new books of scripture. In addition to striking parallels in our founding, however, there are profound parallels in how we practice our faiths, as we can see if we take a look at the five pillars of Islam:

  1. Witness: Islam doesn’t just believe in Allah and in Mohammad as the servant of Allah; rather it’s important that every Muslim bear witness to this truth. Similarly, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints show their faith by what we call “bearing testimony,” or witnessing the truth of our belief in God and God’s prophets to others. In fact, one of the things we are best known for is the way our college-aged and retired members serve missions of 1-2 years. The point of these missions is primarily to witness our beliefs.
  2. Prayer: We similarly take prayer very seriously. As with Islam, we have important prayers whose words never vary and which we offer at particular times and in particular places. Likewise, we frequently prayer in a spontaneous manner, saying the words we feel in our hearts. Mormons pray when they first wake up and as their final act before going to bed, and we likewise say a prayer before each meal. Perhaps coincidentally, that’s five times a day! Let me take a quick moment to digress, however, and mention one other veteran of interreligious dialogue. Krister Stendahl is the former professor of theology at Harvard’s Divinity School. He often noted that when engaging in interreligious dialogue, we each need to leave room for what he called “holy envy,” or an ability to recognize something admirable in other’s faith that one wishes were more a part of their own. For me, when I think about Islam, I feel holy envy with regard to prayer. Despite the parallels I’ve just mentioned, I feel holy envy for the irrevocably embodied nature of Muslim prayer and for the way that the day is temporally structured around the times of prayer. I find this to be incredibly beautiful and inspiring and something I wish we as Latter-day Saints did better.
  3. Fasting: Muslims are world-class fasters with their month of Ramadan. We are likewise devoted to the practice, though in a different form. On the first Sunday of each month we go without food or drink for two meals or 24 hours in order to draw closer to God and petition the heavens for assistance. Which brings us to the next pillar.
  4. Zakat: As part of our fasting, we give the money we would have spent on food together with whatever additional generosity we can and donate it to the poor. This donation is separate from the ten percent tithe that we give to the Church.
  5. Hajj: Just as it is incumbent upon all Muslims who are able to travel to Mecca in order to participate in the holy rituals associated with the Hajj at least once in their lives (and more often if they are able), so we believe it is incumbent upon all members of our Church to make a pilgrimage to one of our Holy Temples if we are able at least once in our lives. If I had more time, I would go into further detail, but I believe that the rituals performed in the Hajj and those performed in our temples are very close cousins.

There are of course dissimilarities and unique aspects to both of our traditions, but I’m convinced that these similarities are profound and allow for a deep kinship.

My last perk, built on the others, is the opportunity that we have to build bridges to better serve humanity and uplift one another. Earlier I quoted Alwi Shihab. This scholar-disciple of Islam forged a friendship with one of the former leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a man named Boyd Packer. Here is what Packer had to say about the potential connection between our faiths:

“Several years ago, I was invited to speak at a convention of insurance executives in Vail, Colorado. On the way, we crossed the Colorado River. We could see a new bridge in process of construction. It was an engineering marvel. Anchored to the sheer stone walls on both sides was an abutment for the bridge. Launching out into space from that abutment, reaching out for the other side, were sections of steel girders. When they met and were locked together in the middle 1,000 feet above the Colorado River, each would give strength to the other, and that bridge would be locked together over which traffic of all kinds could flow back and forth safely and conveniently. Alwi, a devout Muslim of Arabic ancestry, and I, a Christian and devout Mormon, have agreed to symbolically walk arm in arm into the future. Together we hope to build a bridge. Except what that symbolizes is accomplished, all of us face a very dark and very dangerous future.” [5]

Perhaps the most significant way we can fulfill this vision and build bridges together is by partnering on humanitarian aid. Our church was the first interfaith partner with Islamic Relief USA. We partnered together in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami and again after the 2006 earthquake that struck Indonesia and surrounding areas. We again partnered for a major effort in Haiti following a devastating earthquake in 2010. And LDS Charities—the humanitarian wing of our church—organized a 2017 event for the UN’s Focus on Faith series that highlighted the work of Islamic Relief USA.

But we don’t have to wait for major disasters before partnering. Another way is to visibly support each other in our communities and cultural engagements. I’m personally very fond of the story of a prominent LDS couple in the Los Angeles area, the Gillilands. In 2015 they fasted for the month of Ramadan and then invited all of their Muslim friends to “Mormon Night” at a LA Dodgers baseball game. This is the kind of community support I hope we are fostering here tonight and will continue to foster.

I’m personally grateful for the support of Imam Hendi and his gracious friendship. I know that I am a better Mormon on account of Muslim friends and hope that they will be able to say the same of me.

 

* * * *

  1. My thanks to Diana Brown, a fellow member of the Church working in Georgetown’s Office of Mission and Ministry, who organized and conducted the event. Additionally, Carolyn Homer, a member of our Church who works as a lawyer for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, gave an impassioned and inspiring talk. Most of all, however, I’m grateful for the small but intrepid number students from our Church who were there—who’s fortitude, enthusiasm, and articulateness put us all in the best light.
  2. See https://mi.byu.edu/mip-88-cornille/
  3. See https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/alwi-shihab_building-bridges-harmony-understanding/
  4. J. Spencer Fluhman, A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America, Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press (2012): 38; see all of Chapter 1 for extensive comparisons.
  5. See https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/building-bridges-understanding-church-and-world-islam-introduction-dr-alwi-shihab

 

8 comments for “Muslim-Mormon Dialogue at Georgetown: The Perks of Being Peculiar

  1. John W
    March 16, 2019 at 11:32 pm

    Thanks for the post. I studied Islam and the Middle East while at BYU. Lots of good memories and lots of good Muslim friends. The Muslims I knew art BYU had deep redirect for Mormons and Mormon culture. The orthopraxy thing is definitely something that stands out as a comparison. Also the Quran is somewhat like D&C, in that it is considered a series of revelations given at different times.

    I still think that the religions have some stark differences but I have found that Muslims and Mormons tend to bond quite well both coming from stricter religions. Problem in Utah is that so many Mormons are deeply influenced by the current Republican narrative and consequently are a bit Islamophibic. It shouldn’t be that way. Lots of good Muslim folks who see Islam as the diverse and deep culture that it is. Too many folks know nothing about Islam besides the radicalism that they see featured on the news.

  2. Basil O Smith
    March 17, 2019 at 12:42 am

    Bro Olsen while I concur with and commend the objective(s) of your article, having had the opportunity to associate both professionally and socially with members of the Muslim faith over many years, confirms that they are and remain elitist favouring exclusivity and insularity. One is (judged) regarded and treated either as an infidel or as a Muslim. That attitudinal line is indelibly drawn in the hearts and minds and behaviours of the followers of Islam.
    Islamic orthodoxy trumps Islamic orthopraxy. Friendship, trust, acceptance, love etc stop sharply where (Koranic) “doctrine” or the interpretation of such by the Imam, starts.

    The sentiments directed by the Saviour towards the Scribes & Pharisees when he referred to their toxic, orthodoxic compliance with the Mosaic law are equally relevant today. Islam demands (under threat of death and eternal retribution) belief in Allah AND Mohammed. The divinity of the Saviour, as the Son of God is expressly rejected.
    Agency in Islam appears to be effectively forbidden and compliance is enforced.
    IMO your “holy envy” is misplaced. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we can/should “pray always” as evidenced by the way in which we should conduct ourselves 24/7.
    One would hope that Islam in fact looks to us with “holy envy” at what the BoM teaches about prayer.

    I agree that cooperation in some areas of shared values is positive and may contribute towards relationship building and should be heartily encouraged. Starting (as you have) with the areas of consensus and agreement (aid and relief) is good but given the urgency of the hour, should it not be the “weightier” matters of the law/Gospel that ought to be our focus of attention in fostering a deeper relationship with Islam, starting with the FIRST principle of the Gospel, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?
    Ideologically/doctrinally/fundamentally, Islam and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are more disparate in their core principles than similar and something will need to “give” in order for the “bridge” to be constructed.

    I do not have the proverbial silver bullet but anticipate and hope that sooner than later, in the course of all our cooperative endeavours and projects, that we will testify more strongly to Islam (and Judah) their need to repent and bow the knee and Come unto Christ.

  3. keepapitchinin
    March 17, 2019 at 11:55 am

    Basil O. Smith, with only the slightest of substitutions (replace “Mohammed” with “Joseph Smith,” for example, or “infidel” with “cultist”), your comment could have come from the keyboard of Robert Jeffress or Mike Huckabee or any of the other evangelical opponents and detractors of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There isn’t a Latter-day Saint reading this post who wouldn’t recognize the misunderstanding and exaggeration and misrepresentation of our faith in such a summary.

    I have no doubt that we (Mormons, Muslims, evangelicals, all) would be much better served by recognizing the good in each other, and not being in such haste to reassure ourselves that we’re going to heaven and everybody else is going to hell.

  4. James Olsen
    March 17, 2019 at 1:30 pm

    Basil, I think keepapitchinin is exactly right here. Sometimes it’s the case that our own unfair treatment opens our eyes and hearts, making us sensitive to the unfair treatment of others. Sometimes, it leads us to a more narcissistic conviction of our own righteousness vis-a-vis others. The latter leads us to perpetuate rather than try to interrupt the unfair treatment.

  5. March 17, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    This seems like a good time and place to say that my Muslim friends, neighbors, and acquaintances are good people. I’m glad they’re here, My community is a lot better off because of them.

  6. March 17, 2019 at 8:06 pm

    I would also like to echo keepapitchinin’s sentiments. Those accusations you’ve thrown at Muslims have applied to us as well.

  7. M Buxton
    March 18, 2019 at 7:30 am

    As a Georgetown graduate with an interfaith calling and who lives in the DC metro area, I’m sad that I didn’t hear about this event. It sounds like it was great. Are there follow-ups planned?

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