Kevin recently spent a semester at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern studies. This series explores lessons to be learned from his encounters with those of other faiths. Part one described “What Mormons Can Learn from Jews.” (Photo Cred: Jordan Reading)
I have been back from the Holy Land for over a month now, and I have had some interesting conversations with others about my experience. Based on those conversations and common misconceptions that have arisen about Arabs, Muslims, and Islam in general, I would like dispel a few common myths before diving into why I have “holy envy” for the great faith of Muslims.
This post is not meant to be a political article, but one of spiritual appreciation, and it is my hope that I can explain my views surrounding political events without focusing on the politics. You may very well disagree with my appraisal of Islam on a political level, but these views are meant only to be a background for some important lessons regarding faith that I want to apply to my own worship. President Hinckley taught that we should “Be respectful of the opinions and feelings of other people. Recognize their virtues; don’t look for their faults. Look for their strengths and their virtues, and you will find strength and virtues that will be helpful in your own life.” He added that we can do so without “in any way. . . [compromising] our theology.”
Islam means “submission.” It means a submission to the will of Allah. Allah just means God in Arabic, and as such, Arab Christians use the same word in their own worship. Allah is the God of Abraham. The idea of submission to God is entirely compatible with Christianity, and is an idea that made up the very core of Christ’s mission on Earth. Islam, like Christianity, is a religion which is composed of a diverse body of sects, opinions, and interpretations; indeed, Muslims live around the world and have diverse nationalities and ethnicities . Politically, not all Muslims are Islamists (those who believe that Islam should be incorporated into government), and only a small fraction of Islamists promote their views with violence. It is therefore entirely simplistic to categorize all Muslims as one monolithic whole, especially when that perception is characterized by violence. It would be just as unfair as evaluating all Christians based on atrocities perpetuated by Crusaders. The fact is, there is little sympathy for groups such as al-Qaeda or IS among Muslims in Jerusalem.
As I mentioned in my previous article, we cannot compromise on issues regarding the divinity of Christ and the Restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith. It is my impression that many Christians are much more willing to see the similarities between their own religion and Judaism than than they are with Islam. As mentioned in the previous article, “We do not have a monopoly on goodness. There are God-fearing men and women in all nations who influence for good those with whom they associate,” and as such, there is a lot of good to be recognized in the faith of Muslims.
My first morning in Jerusalem, I awoke around 4 a.m. to the lilting sound of the call to prayer. While suffering from jet lag and a little inconvenienced by this unorthodox alarm clock, it was cool to finally hear something I had heard so much about. Five times a day, Muslims drop everything to pray, invited to do so by chants played over loudspeaker-affixed-minarets. In a class on Islam I took before going, we were required to pray (or meditate) for 10 minutes five times a day for four days. That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had as a student of religion at BYU. The first day I forgot until the end of the day and ended up praying for fifty minutes within an hour and a half. It was grueling but incredibly rewarding. It allowed me to reflect and re-prioritize my life. And while I was pretty fluid with the times I prayed each day, so many Muslims will immediately stop whatever they are doing to pause and commune with God. As a society, they have built a way to remember God throughout the day into their daily schedules. This remembrance is carried throughout their language, and quite a few of the basic phrases I learned in Arabic where vocal pronouncements and reminders of faith in God.
Yet Muslim prayers are mostly liturgical, prayers that are set and repeated, and as Mormons, this makes us a little uncomfortable. We are taught to pray from our hearts, and that one should “use not vain repetitions” (Matt. 6:7). However, there is nothing inherently bad in liturgy. Set prayers are included in some of the most sacred ordinances in our church, including the sacrament. A set prayer is meant to teach, to remind, to change the heart of he or she who repeats it. If indeed “the song of the righteous is a prayer unto [God]” (DC 25:12), then our hymns are also a form of prayer that we repeat. Christ never taught that we shouldn’t pray in set words, but only that we should always pray with real intent. If a verse of scripture captures the feelings of our heart, then using those words in a prayer can be very meaningful.
I myself have found a lot of strength in repeating the words of 2 Nephi 4 in times of spiritual need. It is written as a psalm, a type of chanted prayer or hymn. Reading Nephi’s words out loud as a prayer has helped me realign my heart, and allowed me to connect with a feeling that Nephi had as he sought to access the atonement. He writes:
16: Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.
17: Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
18: I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
19: And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.
I believe that the scriptures not only teach and testify of Christ, but teach us how to rely on Him. This is especially true of the Book of Mormon. Almost every time I have had a meaningful experience with the atonement, words from the Book of Mormon acted as the catalyst. Perhaps reciting meaningful passages as liturgy might help us better access the atonement. Try it with 2 Nephi 4:16-35.
I have learned from Muslims that prayer should be a higher priority in my life. “Family prayer should be a nonnegotiable priority in your daily life.” This counsel is just as important for those living away from home, and in relation to personal prayer. Are we guilty of missing morning or evening prayers because we didn’t make the time for it, or only thinking of our God on the Sabbath or when we are in need? Muslims also helped me realize that when it comes to prayer, it matters less what you say as it does how you say it. Sacred words are an important part of coming to know God and of the two-way communication with him.