For 19 years, my wife, Rita, and I and our five children lived and worked in Muslim communities of the Middle East, developing close and lasting friendships with these sensitive and loving people. We found that we had much in common with them and a great deal indeed to learn from them. I’ve read Islamic poetry and some Islamic history and, of course, the Koran. But it is really in studying the people themselves that we learned about this remarkable faith.
We found our Muslim friends especially interested in the Latter-day Saint concept of family and family government and the codes of conduct and rules of diet and health similar to their own. We, in turn, were extremely interested in their customs, particularly those pertaining to the family. We were impressed by their use of religious language in all of their greetings. We were impressed by the way in which Muslim families ask God to bless them as they go about their daily business. Public meetings we attended also opened with a prayer: “In the name of God, the munificent and merciful.” This prayer is also said before a Muslim family sits down to eat, as well as on many other occasions. It is even inscribed at the top of government stationery and included in the formalities of government, education, and culture, at least in those countries with which I am familiar. Many of their informal greetings also invoke Allah, the name of God, and their thanks are always expressed to Allah.
Though it is an unstructured religion in the Western sense, Islam is a living religion, an all-pervasive way of life. Its philosophy guides the thought and action of the true Muslim at all times. Muslims strive to live face-to-face with God. Their house of God is wherever they may spread their prayer rug. It is a wonderful experience in the Middle East to see, five times during the day’s business, all activity stop and people spread their rugs and address themselves to God. It’s a marvelous experience to visit Muslim friends in their homes at the time of prayer and watch as they excuse themselves and withdraw to another room to pray. I was highly complimented once when a Muslim neighbor asked me if I would care to join him.
Muslims thank God for everything because they believe that God provides everything; when God does not provide, we must accept doing without. When you give devout Muslims a gift, they will thank not you but God, because it was God who moved you to be kind and generous.
Islam has developed as a paternalistic society. Within the family, the parents’ word is final. Great respect for parents and elders is expected, and it is given. In The Arab World Today,1 Morroe Berger compares the reaction of Muslims and Christians to the parable in Matthew 21:28–30. In this parable a man asks his two sons to work in the vineyard. The one says, “Yes, father,” but then does not. The other says, “No, father, I cannot,” but later relents and works. Now, in the Western mind and in the interpretation as given by Christ, the one who actually did the work is the one we should emulate. But the Muslim, Berger says, would follow the one who said “Yes, father,” thereby showing respect to his father.
This paternalistic family pattern extends through the society to create a generally authoritarian structure. In my field, education, we found that Muslim students learn primarily through memorization and imitation rather than independent research or original work. Moreover, the individual student’s academic field of study often reflects his father’s or his family’s desires more than his own wishes or capabilities. This, again, is an indication of how much the family dominates and of the respect the individual Muslim feels for his family. The family comes first. We have sometimes invited Muslim friends to our home for a special occasion, and then, at the last minute, been surprised they couldn’t come because a brother or sister had come to visit them, often from a nearby house.
Education is highly revered by Muslims. Muhammad said, “The pursuit of knowledge is an act of worship,” and he enjoined Muslims to “seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.” Another time, in a more humorous vein, he said, “Seek knowledge even if it be in China.” Many of the oil-rich states of the Middle East provide unlimited education for their subjects. In fact, education has been free throughout Islamic history.
The Muslims have a very deep faith which is sometimes misconstrued in the West as fatalism, the belief that events are fixed in advance and that we are powerless to change them. I had a memorable experience with this aspect of the Muslim faith soon after arriving in the Middle East. I was sent to Baghdad, Iraq, to take over an office which had been somewhat neglected for a couple of years. As a young American, I was determined to go there and get the office operating efficiently. When I gave the necessary directions and orders to my Muslim staff, I found that I was constantly receiving the answer, “Insha’ Allah,” which means “God willing.” I tended to interpret this response as meaning something like “mañana,” or “maybe,” or “if I get around to it.” So I decided one day that I’d had enough of “Insha’ Allah,” and called my farrash, Zeydan, into my office. (A farrash is a combination messenger, janitor, and concierge.)
Zeydan taught me something that day I will never forget. First I gave him a little lecture on the necessity in an office for the boss to know that when something needs to be done, it would in fact be done. When I had finished talking to him in my best Arabic, he proceeded to lecture me about his faith. He explained to me that all that is done must be in accordance with the will of God, that nothing is done without or in spite of that will, and that I should always expect him to answer “Insha’ Allah,” because it would be wrong for him to say that he could do something on his own. He was not expressing an unwillingness to work but rather a realistic humility and acknowledgment that the results lay in God’s hands. I finally understood.
Muslims share with Latter-day Saints a strong belief in salvation and the hereafter. Muhammad said, “Life is a bridge. Pass over it to paradise, but do not build your houses upon it.” We were visited in Washington, D.C., one time by a family that had lived across from us in Beirut during the war years. They had constantly offered help to me after I sent my wife and children back to the United States for safety. Hajj Abdullah, the head of this family, often told me things that seemed to me to come directly out of the Doctrine and Covenants. On this occasion he told us something very similar to “he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come” (D&C 59:23).
As someone who has received Muslim hospitality, I have noticed with sadness that Muslims coming into Western society are often surprised at the ignorance of Islam around them. They are especially disappointed when they are considered unbelievers. The Islamic faith has dominated the Eastern world for centuries and continues to do so today. Any attempt to define culture in that area of the world must recognize Islam as its foundation. And even those who no longer observe all its tenets remain loyal to its basic concepts and give Islam its proper respect.
Within Islam, Christians and Jews have been held from the beginning in a special place of respect as “people of the book,” the Old Testament. The term in Arabic is ahl al-kitab, which can also be interpreted as “family of the book.” In the Islamic view, Jews, Christians, and Muslims share the same God and the same early religious heritage. Muslims see their religion as the culmination of a process stretching from Judaism to Christianity to Islam. Prophets of the Old Testament are recognized as such, and Christ is revered as a prophet, teacher, and the most perfect man. Thus it is surprising and culturally disturbing for Middle Eastern Muslims to find they are viewed as being outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.
It has been my experience that if we want to interact with Muslims as mutually respectful neighbors, we must understand and appreciate their beliefs, their philosophy, and their culture. We must come to know and love them if we hope and expect them to do the same for us.