The world’s fastest growing religion is either Islam (if considering annual growth in total numbers) or Mormonism (if considering annual growth in percentage terms). These two rapidly expanding global faiths are certain to increase interactions with each other. Already, in the minds of some clergymen, the two faiths have become associated in several ways, including Mormonism’s being called “the Islam of America.” While Muslim leaders have so far paid little attention to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church’s General Authorities have expressed opinions about Islam. At first, they reacted negatively to being equated with it. Later, they formulated more positive views of Islam and also found opportunities to cooperate with it toward common goals.
Although no references to Islam exist in the canonized books of scripture peculiar to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many can be found in Mormon sermons and writings. The positions and tones embedded therein are not homogeneous—but represent sundry views expressed in a variety of circumstances over the Church’s 171-year life span. Several factors help explain the attitudinal variety. Mormonism arose within a North American culture emanating from European Christian civilization, which had nourished anti-Islamic attitudes that were redirected against Mormonism even while those same attitudes were embraced by some Latter-day Saint writers. Also, Mormon thinkers engaged in analogical reasoning, applying lessons drawn from the scriptures to nonbiblical groupings—they adapted policy and doctrine to deal with religious communities like Islam. Yet the adaptations varied according to the particular eras, issues, and officers. In short, enough different Mormon associations with Islam have occurred to warrant a critical investigation into them.
Genuine Mormon-Muslim interaction (for example, Latter-day Saint estimations of Islam or cooperative efforts) can be distinguished from associations occurring in the minds of outsiders (for example, the Joseph Smith–Muhammad comparison). After briefly treating the latter category, this essay suggests patterns in the former, including a three-part periodization schema. Based in the Midwest during the 1830s and 1840s, Mormons first echoed traditional European antipathy toward Islam (“Islamophobia”). Living mainly in western North America, in a second phase during the 1850s–1870s, they took a more benign view on grounds of scriptural precedents. Then, as the Church grew into a global faith, its posture toward Islam became even more positive and its interaction with it more multifaceted.
The Joseph Smith–Muhammad Comparison
The Joseph Smith–Muhammad analogy developed through three phases correlating with, respectively, anti-Mormon polemics, orientalism, and pseudosociology. The initial phase entailed Protestant clerics adapting, for their campaign against nascent Mormonism, a tactic that originated in Rome to malign embryonic Protestantism. Catholic spokesmen accused the Reformers of the vices attributed by medieval Christians to Muhammad, claiming that they were ignorant, devious, and violent impostors. That Luther and others were in such negative ways “like Muhammad” became known as the accusation of “cryptomohammedanism,” or being secret followers of Muhammad.1 Having been its target in Europe since the 1520s, Protestants redirected the charge of cryptomohammedanism against the Mormons in North America after the 1820s.
Anti-Mormon Polemics. The anti-Mormon subspecies of such allegations experienced substantive growth and geographic diffusion. In 1830, Palmyra Reflector editor Obadiah Dogberry referred to Joseph Smith’s scribe and counselor, Oliver Cowdery, as “this second Mahomet.”2 The next year he modified and fleshed out the analogy somewhat by specifying that “it is only in their [Joseph Smith and Muhammad’s] ignorance and impudence that a parallel can be found.”3 That basic tactic apparently diffused during 1831 to Alexander Campbell in West Virginia as well as to Pomeroy Tucker and James Gordon Bennett in Ohio.4 In 1834, Tucker’s editor, E. D. Howe, identified Joseph Smith’s “extreme ignorance and apparent stupidity” as well-worn cloaks in the “ward-robe of impostors. They were even thrown upon the shoulders of the great prince of deceivers, Muhammad.”5 In 1838 disgruntled ex-Mormon Thomas B. Marsh added the facet of violence when he testified of overhearing Joseph Smith boast, “Like Muhammad, whose motto in treating for peace was ‘the Alcoran or the Sword.’ So should it be eventually with us, ‘Joseph Smith or the Sword.’”6
As it spread through time and across space among anti-Mormon polemicists, the accusation of cryptomohammedanism acquired larger dimensions. Entire articles and pamphlets were devoted to it, including “The Yankee Mahomet” in American Whig Review (New York City, 1851) and Charles MacKay’s Mormons: The “American Mahomet” (London, 1851). The simile soon attracted book-length treatment. MacKay expanded his pamphlet into History of the Mormons, or Latter-day Saints. With Memoirs of . . . Joseph Smith, the American Mahomet (1853). Two later volumes—J. F. Willing’s Mohammedanism of the West (1906) and B. Kinney’s Mormonism: The Islam of America (1912)—widened the Joseph Smith–Muhammad simile to the whole scope of Mormonism and Islam. But this larger superstructure rested on the original foundation: like Muhammad, Joseph Smith was an ignorant, devious, violent impostor.7
Orientalism. From the realm of American religious polemics, the analogy meanwhile spilled over into that of “orientalism”: European scholarship about the Orient, including the Islamic religion. A few orientalists restated the comparison while undergirding it with fashionable academic concepts. Richard F. Burton (1821–1890), translator of 1001 Nights and surreptitious pilgrim to Mecca, published City of the Saints in 1861 after a visit to Utah the year before.8 Declaring that Joseph Smith had eclectically plagiarized Mormonism’s dogmas and rituals from older religions, Burton pointed out superficial parallels with Islam: belief in literal resurrection, polygamy, and female inferiority.
Burton’s memoir perhaps reached University of London historian D. S. Margoliouth (1858–1940), who wrote the influential Muhammad and the Rise of Islam (1905).9 Versus Burton’s concept of eclectic plagiarism, Margoliouth cast the similarities he observed as examples of phenomenology, the assumption that “related events” represent a common phenomenon and so merit comparative analysis. Focusing on the phenomenon of a prophet elaborating a new religion, Margoliouth noted that both Muhammad and Joseph Smith (a) had spiritual experiences after wrestling with sectarian rivalries and (b) obtained subsequent revelations piecemeal as situations required divine guidance.10
No doubt aware of Margoliouth’s book, Berlin University professor of ancient history Eduard Meyer (1855–1930) gave the comparison its most extensive treatment in his Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen (Origin and history of the Mormons; 1911). Meyer’s study drew many parallels between Joseph Smith and Muhammad: a phase of perplexity, angelic visitations, scriptures tailored for specific peoples, abrogative revelations, prophetic inspiration declining into “a later stage of purely fictional inspiration,” the unconscious blurring of “the distinction between truth and independent invention,” sensuality growing continually stronger, and seeking a national territorial base, then world domination.11 Meyer used a pair of now discredited approaches, including “proxy research.” Meyer and many other orientalists were Old Testament scholars who saw modern Arabs as constituting a living museum of ancient Semitic culture, a museum they visited mainly to learn about vanished Bible-era Hebrews. Meyer took proxy research a giant step further by examining Mormonism’s well-documented origins in lieu of Islam’s sparsely documented ones. “Through comparative analysis both [religions] receive so much light that a scientific study of one through the other is indispensable,” he wrote.12
Meyer also infused phenomenology with Hegel’s idea of the Zeitgeist. Berlin University philosopher Georg Hegel (1770–1831) taught that similar historical events manifest “the spirit of the time” (Zeitgeist). To bridge the great temporal and spatial distances between Muhammad’s milieu (seventh-century Arabia) and Joseph Smith’s, Meyer asserted that frontier America was a pocket of “primitive semi-barbarism.” Thus he explained that Mormonism’s origin “will be comprehensible only if the reader keeps in mind the picture of very primitive ways of thinking in the midst of a culture which is highly developed in many of its other forms.”13
Pseudosociology. After a stage of anti-Mormon polemics and another of orientalist conceptualizing, the pseudosociology stage represented a dialectical synthesis of the first two. In this century, two sociologists coated the analogy with a veneer of social science to disguise their respective polemical ends. Hans Thimme denied an intent “to criticize [Mormonism] from the point of view of Christian doctrine.” Rather, he assured, “my purpose is that of comparative religion. I wish to describe this cult in so far as it shows parallels to another great religion of world-history, Islam.”14 But Thimme, a Protestant cleric whose essay appeared in a journal sponsored by a seminary that trained Christian missionaries to Muslims, betrayed his dual bias by accusing Muhammad and Joseph Smith of sharing a “low intellectual standard,” espousing “the wildest superstitions,” failing to distinguish “between reality and hallucination,” preaching “holy war,” and tending to “under-value human sinfulness” (that is, to deny original sin).15 Thimme’s “sociology of religion” thus simply masked his allegation of cryptomohammedanism.16
While also professing an impartial “sociological interest,” Georges-Henri Bousquet pursued a hidden agenda differing from that of Thimme. In effect plagiarizing from Meyer for his comparative studies of Mormonism and Islam,17 Bousquet (who taught sociology at the University of Algiers) acknowledged that “we Frenchmen . . . aspire, like Islam does, to make our civilization triumph here [in North Africa].”18 Focusing on Meyer’s assessment of the two religions’ “barbarity” and pointing out that Islam fails to separate theology, law, and ethics as Christianity does, Bousquet used a crude biological evolutionary metaphor as “scientific proof” for Islam’s cultural evolutionary backwardness. “In mammals we find a urinary bladder, a vagina, [and] a rectum, whereas birds and reptiles have only a single, undifferentiated organ: the cloaca,” he stated. “Similarly, Islamic law, the Shari‘a, remained at a more primitive stage of evolution than did Christianity.”19 While Thimme’s tactic represented the stock accusation of cryptomohammedanism, Bousquet’s entailed anti-Islamic French imperial propaganda that borrowed from the Mormonism-Islam comparison primarily Meyer’s allegation of barbarity.
Neither disputation can pass as impartial “sociology of religion.” Indeed, the Joseph Smith–Muhammad simile—throughout its cryptomohammedan, orientalist,20 and pseudosociological phases—served mainly as a historical weathervane of Western anti-Muslim and anti-Mormon attitudes. Since Bousquet’s time, the ebbing of the tide of references to the comparison suggests that these attitudes have begun to change.21
Latter-day Saint–Muslim Interaction
Genuine interchange between Mormonism and Islam has included the former’s changing attitudes toward the latter, which can be sorted into three phases. In each chronological phase, the Church had a particular geographical reach, and its leaders emphasized certain scriptures when referring to Islam. Early nineteenth-century “Midwest Mormonism” reflected Christianity’s tendency to regard Islam as the pagan religion of a false prophet. Late nineteenth-century “Utah Mormonism” adapted the scriptural idea of judgment to define for Islam a purgative scriptural function. Twentieth-century “global Mormonism” has scripted for Islam more positive roles by extending the concept of dispensations and by appreciating the need for interfaith cooperation on certain issues.
Midwest Mormonism’s Reflected Islamophobia. Based in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois during the 1830s and 1840s, Mormonism echoed European Islamophobia. The Mormons obtained their knowledge of and attitudes toward Islam from traditional Christianity, despite—and because of—being a target of its polemical charge of cryptomohammedanism. That is, ironically, the Protestant ministers’ allegation that Mormons were cryptomohammedans first brought Islam to the attention of the Latter-day Saints and shaped their initial attitudes toward it. A Times and Seasons article explained, “That our Elders and readers may understand a little about Turkish religion, we extract the following sketch from the ‘Universal Traveler.’” The Times and Seasons article quotes the “Universal Traveler” as saying that Muhammad “‘began to promulgate his religion, which, partaking somewhat of Judaism and Christianity, has been called a ‘Christian heresy.’ In successive years, he published portions of the Koran, as suited his convenience, accommodating his revelations to exigencies as they occurred.’”22
Probably the most influential scriptures of this era and this posture were those warning of “false prophets.”23 Such passages were no doubt the reference of an April 1844 Times and Seasons article entitled “The Last Hour of the False Prophet” that applauded the Ottoman Empire’s decline under pressure from European imperial expansion. That historical development was heralded by the article as an omen signaling “the speedy fulfillment of the predictions against Muhammadanism,”24 although the article did not specify who made what predictions.
A year earlier, responding to James Arlington Bennett’s mentioning him disparagingly in connection with Muhammad, Joseph Smith himself made two references regarding Islam’s prophet, seemingly based on Matthew 7:15–20 (“Beware of false prophets. . . . [B]y their fruits ye shall know them”). He first cited “Nimrod, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, Mahomet, Bonaparte, or other great sounding heroes that dazzled forth with a trail of pomp and circumstances for a little season, like a comet, and then disappeared, leaving a wide waste.”25 Later in his reply to Bennett, Joseph Smith lamented that “the world at large, is ever ready to credit the writings of Homer, Hesiod, . . . Mahomet, and a hundred others, but where, tell me where, have they left a line, a simple method of solving the truth of the plan of eternal life?”26 Yet, in his “Ordinance on Religious Liberty in Nauvoo” (March 1841), Joseph Smith did provide that “Catholics, Presbyterians, . . . Unitarians, Muhammadans, and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges, in this city.”27
In this initial phase, Latter-day Saints responded to allegations of cryptomohammedanism—whereby Protestant clerics tried to tar them with the same “false prophet” brush long used by Catholics against Muslims and then Protestants—by distinguishing Joseph Smith from Muhammad. In other words, Mormonism rejected the half of the polemic pertaining to itself but embraced the other half pertaining to Islam.
Utah Mormonism and God’s “Spoilers.” These early, borrowed, negative Latter-day Saint views of Islam were at times reiterated by some voices during the Utah period. For example, arguing in 1858 that “the history of the world from the time of its commencement to the present is a scene of war, carnage, and desolation,” Elder John Taylor cited Near Eastern cases: “Histories of the Crusades furnish another example, together with the power, prowess, and bloodshed introduced by Mahomet in his day.”28 Twenty-four years later, President John Taylor expressed a cognate view: “We are not placed here to use any improper influence over the minds or consciences of men. It is not for us to attempt to do what Mahomet did—to say that there was but one God, and Mahomet was his prophet, and by force compel all others to acknowledge it.”29
But a pair of sermons in September 1855 by George A. Smith and Parley P. Pratt, together with reports by Elder Smith’s fellow “Palestine tourists” (including Lorenzo Snow and Eliza R. Snow), inaugurated a fresh Latter-day Saint posture toward Islam. This new stance entailed three departures from the earlier false prophet theme. First, Mormons acknowledged the bias and distortion in traditional Christian accounts of Islam. Elder Pratt owned that “we, as Europeans, and Americans . . . have looked upon the history of Mahomet . . . [as] a kind of heathenism, or something dreadful.”30 Elder Smith added, “All the Christian translations of Mahometan history, as well as of the Koran, should be received with a great deal of allowance.”31 This acknowledgment’s implication was that Latter-day Saints could and should acquire a better understanding of Islam by making their own direct contacts. Thus, Lorenzo Snow, one of the Latter-day Saint visitors to the Holy Land in 1872, reported some positive impressions: “In visiting the Turkish mosques, we observed that there were no pictures, images, statues or altars, which universally decorate the cathedrals in Christian countries.”32 His sister Eliza added, “Considering the outside appearance of the den-like houses of the Arab Mahommedans, it is very surprising to see how neat they look . . . their religion enjoins cleanliness.” She also commented on the rivalry between Christian denominations over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “which the Mussulman very reasonably considers uncomplimentary to the Christian religion.”33
In a second departure, Latter-day Saints moved away from viewing Islam as a variety of paganism toward situating it within the Abrahamic legacy. Typical of the late nineteenth century, that acknowledgment was often expressed in genealogical terms. According to George A. Smith, “Mahomet descended from one of the most noble families of the Koreish [tribe of Mecca]; he came direct in descent from Ishmael, the son of Abraham.” Parley P. Pratt noted the same lineage and remembered that “Ishmael and his descendants were blessed by the Lord,” citing scriptural promises, such as, “I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 17:20).34 Lorenzo Snow also connected Islam to the Judeo-Christian heritage by observing that, to Muslims, “Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ were all God’s servants in their various ages, but the greatest and best is Mahomet.”35
The third departure entailed abandoning references to Islam as issuing from a false prophet while defining for it a historical role adapted from the scriptural principle of “judgment”—the idea that the Lord punishes his wayward covenant people by stirring up against them gentile nations (Hebrew goyim). Old Testament examples include Assyria’s conquest of Israel and Babylon’s destruction of Judah. Regarding the former, “therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight. . . . And the Lord rejected all the seed of Israel, and afflicted them, and delivered them into the hand of spoilers” (2 Kgs. 17:18, 20). As for the latter, “Jehoiakim . . . did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord. . . . And the Lord sent against him bands of the Chaldees [Babylonians]. . . and sent them against Judah to destroy it” (2 Kgs. 23:36–24:2).
Elders Smith and Pratt adapted the Assyrian-Babylonian “spoilers” role in the judgment process to explain the rise of Islam. Elder Smith assured his audience that Muhammad “was no doubt raised up by God on purpose to scourge the world for their idolatry.”36 Elder Pratt noted that, whereas Muslims were strict monotheists, “the Greek and Roman Churches, which have been called Christian, and which take the name of Christians as a cloak, have worshipped innumerable idols.” Therefore, he continued, “Mahometan history and Mahometan doctrine was a standard raised against the most corrupt and abominable idolatry that ever perverted our earth, found in the creeds and worship of Christians, falsely so named.”37 Using biblical precedents, George A. Smith and Parley P. Pratt thus cast Islam in the role of God’s “spoilers” raised up to “scourge” apostate Eastern and Roman Christianity. Of course—as Isaiah made it clear in the case of Assyria and Babylon, who, while they were God’s agents, were not his covenant people38—being “spoilers” constituted a limited scriptural role for Islam.
In sum, along with making some direct contact with Muslims, Latter-day Saints departed after 1855 from an earlier set of attitudes that reflected traditional European Islamophobia and were based on New Testament warnings against false prophets. The emerging set of postures included becoming wary of biased Western accounts of Islam, regarding Muhammad as a descendant of Abraham and Islam as an Abrahamic faith, and adapting the scriptural idea of judgment to depict Islam as a divinely instigated scourge against apostate Christianity.
Global Mormonism and “a Portion of God’s Light.” In the last century, as it has become a world religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has continued to develop with respect to its interaction with Islam. By extending the concept of dispensations, Mormons have defined increasingly positive historical roles for Muhammad and Islam. Interaction has also moved beyond merely expressing attitudes. While not embracing theological ecumenism, Latter-day Saints have seen value in cooperating with Islam and other faiths to defend and to promote traditional moral values and the institution of the family. Also, the Church and Brigham Young University have devoted their resources to help preserve and to make better known Islam’s rich heritage of theological and philosophical texts. Yet, while the dominant trends have been positive, some problematic issues exist.
At the very end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, some Latter-day Saint leaders—especially George Q. Cannon, B. H. Roberts, and Orson F. Whitney—extended the concept of dispensations in order to find a place in sacred history for influential ancient philosophers and for nonbiblical religious leaders. They thus articulated an idea that may be styled “dispensations of partial truth.” In 1877, Elder Cannon noted that “there have been many faithful men in all nations and among all people unto whom God has given great light and knowledge,” mentioning by name Luther, Calvin, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell, Confucius, Socrates, and Plato. “Great moral truths were communicated unto them and they taught them,” he declared. Elder Cannon proceeded to apply that formula to Islam. “So with Mahomet, he taught many grand truths,” he affirmed.
I believe myself that Mahomet, whom the Christians deride and call a false prophet and stigmatize with a great many epithets, was a man raised up by the Almighty and inspired to a certain extent by Him to effect the reforms which he did in his land and in the nations surrounding. He attacked idolatry and restored the great and crowning idea that there is but one God. He taught that idea to his people and reclaimed them from polytheism and from the heathenish practices into which they had fallen.”39
Under the subtopic “The Gospel Embraces All Truth,” B. H. Roberts registered his agreement in an 1892 discourse entitled “Comprehensiveness of the Gospel.” He said, “We look upon the teachings of Mahomet, a mixture of good and of evil, but with more good in them, perhaps, than men are generally inclined to admit. The faith of Mahomet has done much toward redeeming a portion of our Father’s children from darkness.”40 Two and a half years later, Elder Roberts reiterated this idea in stronger terms. After quoting Abraham 3:22 (“among all these [intelligences] there were many of the noble and great ones”), he explained that “God took these noble spirits and from time to time, in different ages of the world, has given them to a nation or race of men to bless them.” After mentioning Enoch, Noah, and Abraham, Elder Roberts then remarked that
[God] also remembered that branch of Abraham’s family, the Arabians, the descendants of Abraham by Hagar—He raised up to them a Mahomet.
And if these men [Confucius, Plato, Socrates, Muhammad] did not teach the fulness of the Gospel of Christ, they did at least teach that measure of truth that the people could receive, and it has been a benefit to them.41
Later, in 1910 in his Seventy’s Course in Theology, B. H. Roberts quoted Edward Gibbon: “The Koran is a glorious testimony to the unity of God[;] . . . the liberality of Mahomet allowed to his predecessors the same credit which he claimed for himself; and the chain of inspiration was prolonged from the fall of Adam to the promulgation of the Koran.”42
Orson F. Whitney made explicit Islam’s inclusion within the concept of dispensations by discussing it in 1917 under the subheading “Many Gospel Dispensations.” He observed that “if some of God’s children are not worthy of the fullness of Truth, and would not make a wise use of it were it sent to them, that is no reason why they should not be given as much truth as they can wisely use.” He then cited Thomas Carlyle’s “vivid portrayal of the coming of Mahomet to the Arabs, who were thus converted from idolatry, the worship of ‘sticks and stones,’ to the worship of one god—Allah, with Mahomet as his prophet.”43
Elders Cannon and Roberts qualified their styling Islam a “dispensation.” The former cautioned:
Confucius, Socrates, Mahomet, Plato and the noted men of antiquity, as well as those who had live[d] in modern days, who taught truth, had not the keys of the Holy Priesthood nor the power and authority thereof to guide them in their teachings. . . . The truth which they had was not unmixed with error.44
Roberts added, “Still[,] Mohometanism cannot take the place of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”45 Nevertheless, while Elders Pratt and Smith had raised Islam’s status from a false prophet’s pagan heresy to God’s “spoilers,” Elders Cannon, Roberts, and Whitney in effect raised it further from “spoilers” to a dispensation of partial truth.
The formulations by Elders Cannon, Roberts, and Whitney subsequently both contributed to and were confirmed by the more authoritative declaration of the First Presidency in its February 1978 “Easter Message”:
The great religious leaders of the world such as Muhammad, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.46
This statement, in which the phrase “portion of God’s light” conveys the concept of a dispensation of partial truth, was issued at a high level of ecclesiastical authority and contains no qualifiers about truth being “mixed with error” or about priesthood authority being absent. Of course, Latter-day Saint readers might infer such caveats from the words “portion” and “moral,” which perhaps function as a mechanism to explain why, for example, the Qur’an denies Christ’s divinity.47
Mormonism’s elaboration of a perception of Islam as a dispensation of truth “not unmixed with error” roughly corresponds to Islam’s depiction of Judaism and Christianity as “people of the book” (Arabic ahl al-kitab). Containing its own “dispensation theology,” the Qur’an treats Judaism and Christianity as monotheistic religions possessing divinely revealed—but subsequently corrupted—scriptures. It characterizes Islam as the ultimate dispensation of truth by which the previous two ought to be judged. Thus the Qur’an states:
It was We [Allah/God] who revealed The Law (to Moses): therein was guidance and light. . . . And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming The Law that had come before him: We sent him The Gospel: therein was guidance and light, . . . To thee [Muhammad, Muslims] We sent the Scripture [Qur’an] in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires [Jewish Bible, New Testament], diverging from the truth that hath come to thee. . . . [B]ut beware of them lest they beguile thee from any of that [Qur’an] (teaching) which Allah hath sent down to thee. (5:44–49)
In this regard, Muslims see their revelation as the final one—Muhammad was khatim al-nabiyin (seal, last of the prophets)—so they tend to reject any and all religious figures after Muhammad, Muslim or non-Muslim, who claim prophetic experience or authority. For that reason, few if any Muslims would reciprocate Mormonism’s deeming Islam a separate, new “dispensation.”
“As a Church We Do Not Take Sides”
Sympathy for Islam and Muslims or Arabs seems to correlate with the efforts by some Church leaders to provide balance to traditions of “Mormon Zionism”48 and to the traditions of explaining “gathering” largely in terms of Israelite lineage.49 In 1933, Elder John A. Widtsoe visited Palestine, where he befriended a Muslim leader, Shaykh Ya’qub al-Bukhari, who “gave us the Arab view of the colonization of Palestine.” Elder Widtsoe cautioned that immigration into the Holy Land by secular Jewish nationalists (Zionists) did not conform to the spiritual meaning of “gathering,” which entails embracing the restored gospel. “It is my personal belief that the Jews will succeed in taking over Palestine fully only when they accept Christ,” he said. “Until that time, bloody conflict, hate, jealousy, and fear will accompany the Jewish efforts to colonize Palestine.”50 Echoing Paul (for example, Gal. 3:24–29), Elder Widtsoe subsequently defined “the children of Abraham” strictly in nonlineage terms: “All who accept God’s plan for his children on earth and who live it are the children of Abraham. Those who reject the gospel, . . . forfeit the promises made to Abraham and are not the children of Abraham.”51 Spencer J. Palmer, who later edited a book entitled Mormons and Muslims (1983, 2002), echoed and strengthened Elder Widtsoe’s nonlineage definitions of gathering and of Abraham’s seed in his Expanding Church (1979). “Bloodline guarantees nothing. The only criterion for receiving God’s blessings is obedience to his laws,” he observed. Paraphrasing Elder Bruce R. McConkie, Palmer added, “Since there is no special race or family through which all generations will attain exaltation, the great patriarchal chain is a lineage of the faithful and the righteous.” 52
In a chapter of Spencer J. Palmer’s The Expanding Church, David M. Kennedy criticized “some Latter-day Saint members, tourists, students, editors, and teachers who speak out irresponsibly in favor of the political aims and activities of the state of Israel in opposition to the Arab countries.” Like Widtsoe, Kennedy defined “covenant people” as those who live the gospel rather than as those claiming descent from biblical patriarchs: “What we want is righteousness. We want it among the Arabs and we want it among the Jews.”53 Similarly, in a discourse entitled “All Are Alike unto God,” Elder Howard W. Hunter, an admirer of Palestinian leader Musa al-‘Alami,54 counseled Brigham Young University students:
We have members of the Church in the Muslim world. . . . Sometimes they are offended by [some] members of the Church who give the impression that we favor only the aims of the Jews. . . . Both the Jews and the Arabs are children of our Father. They are both children of promise, and as a church we do not take sides. . . . As our Father loves all his children, we must love all people—of every race, culture and nationality—and teach them the principles of the gospel. . . . Only they are favored who keep his commandments.55
The Issues of Conversions and Proselytizing. According to Widtsoe, Palmer, Kennedy, Hunter, and others, Muslims are potential heirs of the Abrahamic covenant who—along with all gentiles and all other descendants of Abraham—can enter active covenant status only through embracing the restored gospel. That potential-actual distinction applies in another way to the idea of Muslims becoming Latter-day Saints; in theory all are welcome to join, but in practice very few have done so. In that regard, Latter-day Saint missionaries who have conversed with Muslims have tended to validate the earlier experiences of Catholic and Protestant missionaries such as Cardinal Charles Lavigerie (1825–1892) and the Rev. Samuel Zwemer (1867–1952).56 Although Zwemer explained the paucity of Muslim converts to Christianity largely in terms of the provision in Islamic law threatening apostates with death, several other factors have operated. These include still-powerful extended family structures, Islam’s societal role as a comprehensive way of life (versus the modern Western concept of religion being a matter of individual conscience), and Middle Eastern educational curricula that socialize students towards a wary knowledge of Western Christianity’s collusion in European imperialism’s domination of Islamic societies.
So the Church’s policy not to target them in its proselytizing efforts does not alone account for the fact that so few Muslims have embraced the restored gospel. There are patterns with respect to these few, however. First, they tend to be students or workers living in Europe or North America. Second, they are apt to follow one of four postbaptismal scenarios. One, the converts remain in the West, where, in part because local, ethnically and culturally homogenous congregations regard them as foreigners, they fall into inactivity. Two, the converts return to their homelands, where, owing largely to familial and societal pressures, they become inactive. Three, the converts stay in Europe or North America, where, in part because sensitive members befriend and nurture them, they remain active. Four, the converts return to their homelands, where they manage to stay active. In my experience, scenarios one and two are likelier than scenarios three or (especially) four. Nevertheless, there has materialized a sufficient corpus of Arabic-speaking Latter-day Saints (a majority from Christian Arab backgrounds), however, to warrant translating into Arabic the standard works, the temple ceremony, and some instructional materials.
Another pattern entails Muslims (usually male) acquiring Latter-day Saint spouses while studying or working in the West. Such a marriage often is prefaced by the husband’s pledge (consistent with Islamic law) to respect his wife’s religion—perhaps even (contrary to Islamic law) to let her raise their children in it. Survey research might confirm my impression that such vows are likelier to be implemented if the couple remains abroad. If they return to the husband’s homeland, familial, social, and legal pressures come to bear on the wife and her children. Perhaps also in order to acquire inheritance and/or child custody rights (against the eventuality of divorce), several Latter-day Saint women living in Islamic countries have decided to convert to Islam. In effect, Mormonism and Islam have exchanged a few converts.57
The issue of conversion has links to that of proselytizing, about which Mormons and Muslims tend to hold different attitudes. Although the United States’s constitutional framework has not always shielded them from persecution, Latter-day Saints have retained confidence in that framework, within which the Church has flourished. Consequently, Mormons are apt to make strong connections between missionary activity and First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech. In public fora, Muslim leaders in Western societies emphasize such human rights issues as anti-Muslim violence (including police brutality), racial profiling, bias in educational and employment opportunities, and negative stereotypes promoted through the media.58 Yet, while not placing the need to safeguard freedom of speech laws high on their own public agenda, Muslims in the West operate under these laws to proselytize. Their efforts have been particularly effective among African Americans, many of whom view Islam as a theology of liberation from their status as a minority disrespected and ill-treated by Christians of European descent.59
Meanwhile, inside Asian or African countries where Islam is the state religion, there are human rights advocates who promote Qur’an-based guarantees of freedom of conscience and of worship.60 However, linking Christian missionaries with European imperialists, even such advocates tend to regard Western proselytizing as a form of alien aggression rather than of freedom of speech. The “Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights” includes an article calling for the protection of the “Right to Freedom of Belief, Thought and Speech.” But it contains provisos (“There shall be no bar on the dissemination of information provided it does not endanger the security of the society or the state and is confined within the limits imposed by the Law”) that vindicate the laws of many Islamic nations against proselytizing, which they are inclined to see as endangering their cultural security.61
Islamic Translation Series. Differing attitudes toward proselytizing constitute only part of the chasm separating Muslims from most Westerners, including Mormons. To help bridge that chasm, BYU recently launched the Islamic Translation Series, edited by BYU professor Daniel C. Peterson in cooperation with SUNY–Binghamton professor Parviz Morewedge and printed at the BYU Press but distributed by the University of Chicago Press. The series’ maiden publication was the Arabic text and English translation, by the University of Toronto’s Michael Marmura, of Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers.62 Forthcoming volumes involve other respected scholars and universities in the project, which is therefore attracting attention.63
Mormon spokesmen mention potential benefits to Latter-day Saint–Muslim relations in particular as well as to Christian-Muslim relations in general. For example, Elder Alexander B. Morrison “hopes that the series, and other projects like it, will help to better relations between the Muslim world and the West. Not only will the series deepen Western knowledge and understanding of the rich civilization of Islam, it will send a message of respect from the Latter-day Saints to the worldwide Islamic community.”64 Elder Neal Maxwell adds, “We live in a world in which there is a lot of stereotyping. Muslims know what it is to be stereotyped. Mormons know what it is to be stereotyped. We are genuinely interested in bridge building, and in this case the bridge consists in part of books.”65 Also, by disseminating the whole texts of “classical-normative” Islam (many of whose cultured authors in the main enjoined tolerance and condoned religious pluralism), such projects may subtly strengthen that tolerant-pluralistic tradition, from which depart the often angry leaders of a few contemporary “popular-political” Islamic movements. Such leaders tend to read their classical works selectively.66 At any rate, the Islamic Translation Series represents a deliberate effort by the Church to cooperate with Islam in promoting the latter’s rich heritage of philosophical and theological literature.67
Safeguarding the Natural Family. Another example of Latter-day Saint–Muslim cooperation consists of an effort to protect traditional moral values, including the structure of the family, in United Nations agencies and other global fora. A leader in this endeavor has been BYU law professor Richard G. Wilkins. He recalls attending a UN conference which struck him as being dominated by antifamily voices. “There was little advocacy on behalf of the natural family,” the Salt Lake Tribune quotes him as saying.68 Professor Wilkins proceeded to found NGO Family Voice, later renamed the World Family Policy Forum (WFPF), to coordinate a worldwide effort to safeguard and to promote traditional family values (fig. 1). As it pursued this objective, the WFPF cultivated a formal alliance nationally with the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society (Rockford, Illinois) and an informal alliance globally with UN representatives from Islamic countries. The WFPF, the Howard Center, and the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints co-sponsored the World Congress of Families II held in Geneva in November 1999. A large contingent from the Organization of Islamic Conferences attended the congress, and Egyptian Muslim Jehan Sadat was a featured speaker.69 The Relief Society general president was—along with Professor Wilkins—a member of the planning committee of that congress. So it might have been an appropriate forum to consider that, besides needing protection from a variety of moral dangers, the natural family can be strengthened and children benefited from efforts like those of the Relief Society to eradicate illiteracy among women in developing countries.
Summary and Conclusions
Mormonism was associated with Islam in a campaign by some Protestant clergymen to redirect medieval European Islamophobia away from themselves and onto the Latter-day Saints. Originating with these charges of cryptomohammedanism, the Mormonism-Islam comparison subsequently experienced orientalist and pseudosociological phases. Ironically, the allegation that Mormons were cryptomohammedans became a main source of information about and of attitudes toward Islam among early nineteenth-century Midwest Latter-day Saints, who justified deeming Islam a pagan heresy by citing New Testament warnings against false prophets. During the 1850s–1870s, however, Utah-based Mormons began to make direct contacts with Islam and to formulate a new stance toward it. This entailed recognizing bias in Western accounts of Islam, situating Islam within the Abrahamic legacy, and explaining Islam’s rise in terms of the scriptural idea of “judgment”—that is, characterizing it as divinely raised up to scourge apostate Christianity. As Mormonism became a global religion, subsequent generations of Church leaders further upgraded Islam’s status by extending the concept of dispensations; Muhammad was described as having, in the First Presidency’s words, received “a portion of God’s light” and “moral truths.” The qualifying words “portion” and “moral” may provide to Mormons an explanation of why the Qur’an, if in general divinely inspired, denies such a cornerstone of Latter-day Saint theology as the divinity of Christ.
Dissimilar historical experiences with European imperialism and with constitutional systems have shaped Mormons and Muslims to think differently about issues like proselytizing. While Latter-day Saints may agree with Muslims (as with several other faiths) to disagree about doctrinal matters, the rising tides of secularism and of hedonistic trends inimical to traditional moral values have induced Church leaders to cooperate with Muslims in such ventures as disseminating worthy Islamic texts and safeguarding the natural family. Once compared negatively for polemical reasons by outsiders, Mormons and Muslims can now respect each another’s beliefs and practices while working together toward worthwhile common goals.