Mormons and Muslims building bridges of understanding
The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religions Scholarship seeks to build bridges of understanding among people of all faiths. One of the most important ways we have been fulfilling that mandate since the Institute’s founding is through the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI). I have had the honor of being a part of this project since its very first publications nearly twenty years ago and now I serve as its director.
One of the great pleasures of my work with METI is the periodic invitations I receive to meet with Muslim visitors to BYU from around the world. We meet and have a meal together. We talk about our families, the work we are doing, and the challenges that we are each facing in our own particular circumstances. Over the years, I have attended dozens of these events and met hundreds of wonderful people: Muslims from China, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, Turkey, and other places beside.
Today should have been no different.BYU hosted a delegation of Muslim leaders from Sudan. Nearly all of them are heads of Sufi orders in various parts of that troubled country.[i] It was, as always, a pleasure to meet them, share a meal, take a photograph, and give them a gift of one of METI’s titles. Today I chose al-Ghazali’s Niche of Lights (trans. David Buchman), because it is a meditation on two passages—one from the Quran and one from the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad—that have deep significance for Sufi adherents. It’s a routine we have followed for many years here.
And yet something was different about today.
What was different was not that there had been recent headlines about war in the Islamic world or a recent terrorist attack in the West. Unfortunately, those have been features of the political climate in which we have met with our guests for years. What was different today was that several of my guests, as soon as we had greeted each other, immediately wanted to assure me that they represented a religion of peace. That they deplore terrorism. That they love all people, as their understanding of the Quran enjoins them to do. It was painful to me to have to hear these apologies. Why are such self-conscious declarations of good-will necessary on the part of guests who have always been welcome at BYU? I’m afraid that what was different today was that in the past twenty-four hours the anti-Islamic political rhetoric here in the United States had reached levels so offensive to the pluralistic ideals upon which America was founded that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors BYU, felt it necessary to issue a statement on the matter. It reads simply:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns. However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom. The following statements by Joseph Smith from 1841 and 1843 are consistent with the Church’s position today:
If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a “Mormon,” I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves. It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul — civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.
—Joseph Smith, 1843
Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Nauvoo, that the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Episcopals, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans [Muslims], and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges in this city …
—Ordinance in Relation to Religious Societies, City of Nauvoo, [Illinois] headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, March 1, 1841
One of our visitors today, Mohamed Elmogadad Elhassan Elidrisi, of the Idrisiyya Sufi Sect in Omdurman, had also prepared a written statement that he asked to be distributed to all of us. When bad things happen in the news involving extremist Muslims, it is not uncommon to see people on social media or elsewhere wondering, if Islam is a religion of peace, why don’t more ordinary Muslims speak out in condemnation of extremist violence. Well, here is one. I hope to magnify his voice by sharing it here with a few slight mechanical adjustments.
Brother Elidrisi writes that “Islam, with which the Prophet Muhammed was sent, from the start is a call for love, peace, equality, justice, and brotherhood. Thus it should by no means be a call for hatred, fanaticism, extremism, racism or violation of the rights of Muslims or non-Muslims.” He affirms that Islam values moderation and that Sufism is a call to live “in a way closest to that taught and practiced by Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him).” After expressing hope that Sudan and America will be able “to build strong and sustainable brotherly relations,” he concludes saying, “I have to express my denial, condemnation and despising of all sorts of terrorism in all parts of the world…. Islam wants peace, fraternity and security to prevail all through the world. We do hate all those who adopt the behavior of terrorism to attain their evil desires. Those who adopt this behavior and this policy are giving a dark and gloomy picture of their Islam; and true Islam is innocent of them. They are not true Muslims at all. They [go] against Islam.”
I know that other Muslims are also speaking out—as groups, as individuals, and as communities. We need to listen to them. We are at a moment of great vulnerability. Muslims in the United States today and across the world are feeling uncertain of their personal safety. This is heartbreaking to me. Children of every religions persuasion should feel secure at home and confident at school. Their fathers and mothers should likewise be treated with dignity and human kindness in public, in private, and online.
Here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship we will continue to produce the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative as a sign of our high esteem for the rich contributions to humanity of Islamicate civilization. But as disciple-scholars who follow the pattern of our namesake, Elder Maxwell, it behooves us also to speak out at times like these in defense of the faith—in this instance the faith of the Latter-day Saints who have known much of political persecution themselves, and, especially today, the faith of our Muslim sisters and brothers who desire only to live their lives as we all do, in peace with their neighbors and friends.
If you are a non-Muslim and find yourself uncertain how to feel about Muslims or their faith, I urge you to do something to quell your misgivings. Get to know some of the Muslims in your community. Look up the local mosque and visit with the Imam. Ask him your questions. Ask him to introduce you to other Muslims in the area of whom you can also ask your questions. Look for people of your gender and age with whom you might find things in common to talk about. Read the Quran for yourself. Lacking time, you might listen to this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast which features two scholars who worked on the newly-published Study Quran. Go to sources that represent Islam as Muslims themselves want to be represented. Listen. Read. And actively cultivate faith in the basic goodness of humanity. Share this post with your friends and family. Be willing to stand as a witness of peace and understanding when you encounter those who spread discord and fear. If you already know Muslims personally, reach out to them, especially now. Ask how they’re feeling. Reassure them that you care about them.
It is time for people of good faith to come together, especially now.
[i] Sufis are inducted into orders and are schooled in the particular spiritual disciplines of their order by a master who has in turn learned his discipline from the teacher above him, and so on back to a founding figure. There are outward practices (one of the most well-known is the whirling that is particular to the Mevlevi dervish order in Turkey), but just as much or greater emphasis is placed on the inner practice of meditation (dhikr) upon the beautiful names of God, one’s own mortality, the surety of resurrection and judgment, and the unity of all existence as an expression of God’s ultimate reality. These practices, though pursued within the brotherhood or sisterhood of an order, are deeply personal, contemplative, and pacific. Many thinkers view Sufism as one of the most plausible antidotes to the extremist ideologies that infect small pockets of Islam today. It is native to Islamic civilization, is found among both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and is not blind to the travails of the world that sometimes lead to feelings of desperation and hopelessness. The Sufi’s response to such challenges, though, rather than turning to radicalism and violence, is to turn inward and master the self through meditation—healing rather than hating—and then working together within the community of one’s order to improve conditions on the ground.
D. Morgan Davis has been affiliated with the Maxwell Institute’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative since its launch in 1993 and became the project’s director in 2010. He holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Brigham Young University, an MA in history from the University of Texas at Austin, and a PhD (2005) in Arabic and Islamic studies from the University of Utah.