11 May 2005

Arab and Mormon Converts

I started to browse through Beyond Belief by V.S. Naipaul this afternoon and came across this interesting statement in the introduction:

Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private
belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert's worldview alters. His holy places
are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He
rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, part of the Arab story.
The convert has to turn away from everything that is his.

I think some of the claims here go a bit far (can a Muslim in Kyrgyzstan who is descended from many generations of Muslims be considered a convert?) but the overall idea is interesting since it is one that gets brought up often in the LDS Church. Certainly the comparison isn't exact. The Book of Mormon has been officially translated into more than 100 languages, unlike the Qur'an, which is referred to as an interpretation if it's not in Arabic. Muslims pray in Arabic; Mormons pray in whatever language we like. Muslims travel to the heartland of Arabia to perform the Hajj; Mormons have over 100 temples around the world all operating in a variety of languages. But the LDS Church has a central authority that has no parallel in Islam.

If this is something that is still apparent in Islam after 1400 years, how can we criticize the LDS Church for exporting culture along with religion after less than 200 years of existence? This is not to justify it- I wish that there was much less "Mormon culture" sent out with the missionaries. I hope that our family is successful at separating tradition and culture from the gospel while we're in Kyrgyzstan. Since there are only a few new members there, I don't want to give the impression that those cultural things are required. I have been much more aware of this for the last 10 years and I hope that I've improved.

Of course, I'm a native Utah Mormon and have lived in Idaho for the last 6 years, so I don't know how much I can do about it. ;)


  1. Whoa, that is an dramatic stand to take about Islam, and not one I would think American Muslims would agree to. I'm tempted to be catty and think of Naipaul's own immigrant status and lack of roots when I read such things. And in India, where he did work as a journalist as an adult, being Muslim is the occasion for wanting a Muslim political state, with Pakistan and its partition from India right there.

    I would compare the Muslim adoption of Arabic and Mecca to Jews worldwide who learn Hebrew and connect to Israel. Being Muslim doesn't have that ethnic/country identity. After 1400 years, the cultural identity for a Muslim strikes me as local, usually to received local practices on jurisprudence and practice. The Hajj seems more like a Muslim-only United Nations experience. Malcolm X came out of his Hajj feeling more connected to humans and Muslims everywhere, not identified with Saudi Arabia.


    I think you can do quite a lot in Kyrgyzstan to acknowledge the legitimacy of the gospel roots there, things you would probably do naturally anyhow. Like not try to change the program to make it more like what you knew back home. Turn aside efforts to defer to you as the Intermountain Mormon in-the-know. Being a sister in Christ, and not an authority of yourself--because some will try to make you one--is the most powerful and balancing witness of all.

    "Only a few new members"--does this mean you get to attend a local branch in local language? Woo-hooo!

  2. We're hoping that they'll be able to form a branch while we're there, but for now, we'll have to meet alone with just our family. If they do form a branch, it will probably be in Russian.

    I'm not sure I'd agree with your comparison of Arabic and Mecca to Hebrew and Israel. Jews trace their religious and cultural roots back to Israel (there are relatively few "converts" to Judaism at any point in history), but the vast majority of Muslims trace their cultural roots to very different parts of the world. I do think that being Muslim does have an ethnic identity beyond being Muslim- there are clear ethnic distinctions among Muslims and it causes conflict, even violent conflict, in a way that it doesn't in Judaism. Judaism does have ethnic and religious divisions, but since the vast majority are Ashkenazi (the dominant tradition), there is less feeling of being different even though the Sephardic Jews are often marginalized.

    Almost every time we've met non-Arab Muslims, they have expressed surprise that my husband and I speak Arabic. We almost always know more Arabic than they do. There may be a feeling of reverence for Arabic, but I don't get the impression that it's as widely learned as a second language as Hebrew is.

    I do agree that for American Muslims the story is different and that the comparison is not valid. Naipaul was more specifically referring to Muslims from Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Iran.

  3. I just noticed your book links! I will check them out immediately after posting.

    I am totally awed by you guys and your intelligence and education (in a good way, really). So much of this is Greek to me.

    I envy you your experience in another country, but not the loss of the Charmin. That's a deal breaker for me. :)

  4. Didn't you say you'd ship out an 18-month supply of Charmin if you went on an overseas mission, annegb? You could go anywhere then. :)

  5. Russell had an interesting comparison regaring the BoM and the Q'uaran... he said somewhere there's a statement that says, essentially, that the translations of the BoM are not "scripture" the way the English version of the BoM is. In a sense, then, we have the same stance on our scripture that the Muslims have with the Q'uaran. I found that fascinating.

  6. BTW, I heard an interview on NPR this morning with Reza Aslan about his book, "No god But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam". Sounded interesting.

  7. It also depends on how you look at the Book of Mormon in English. Is it literally a translation, or is it more revelation? If it's more the first, then it's not necessarily on a much higher plane than any of the translations done since 1830. If it's direct revelation, then I think it is comparable to the Qur'an and its interpretations/translations.

    I'll have to look into the book you mentioned by Aslan.

    One thing that differentiates the two to me in either case is that the Church officially translates the Book of Momorn, unlike the Qur'an which has many translations/interpretations done by whomever wants to do one.

  8. I spent all last week volunteering at the small local library in our town. Boy, am I too old for this.

    But I passed the time blogging. You wouldn't believe all the blogs out there. I found several that actually focus on my favorite authors.

    Just an aside.

    Yeah, Amira, there is that, we could ship the Charmin. I'd take out a second on my house to do that.

    You just blow me away with your knowledge of this area.