I recently had the opportunity to visit the East London Mosque with a group of study abroad students. We were given a tour of the mosque and learned some of the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith tradition. At one point our tour guide made the following comment: “How do we know that the Qur’an is true? Because it was given by an angel to the Prophet Muhammad who was from a rural background with little education. How could someone with so little schooling have produced something as pure and true as the Holy Qur’an?” With this my Mormon ears immediately perked up as I’d heard a similar argument many times before in my life about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
So I decided to give it a try. I’d never read the Qur’an before and so I picked up a copy and read the text cover to cover over the course of about two months this summer. What follows are some of my general impressions of my experience with the Qur’an. For full disclosure: I am completely unqualified to speak authoritatively about Islam in any way. My intention is merely to offer my perspective as an “outsider” who knows only a little about Islam. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity would be able to offer better context and analysis than what I present below. Any errors in how Islam is presented are entirely my own.
SCATTERED IMPRESSIONS AND REACTIONS
The first thing that struck me was how “familiar” the narrative of the Qur’an felt, especially given how much Islam is unfortunately so often perceived as “The Other” in contemporary American religious culture. In fact, at times it felt much like I was reading the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). There are narratives of prophets and heroes. God commands regulations for prayer, diet, community interactions, family structures, charity, and social justice. There are multiple narratives of Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Pharaoh, and others from the Bible. There are also a fair number of narratives about Jesus and Mary. Some of these stories follow the Biblical narrative closely while others have some interesting variations. (The narrative of Joseph in Egypt is especially interesting in how it departs from the Biblical account, see Sura 12.) In fact, the Qur’an explicitly recognizes both Jews and Christians as “People of the Book” and acknowledges the Bible as an inspired revelation (3:1-4).
Mormons may find parallels with how the Qur’an discusses these various prophets. One of the chief narratives in the text is how God calls prophets throughout human history. These prophets reveal truth but the people invariably do not accept and go astray (see 2:253, 5:12-14, 15:1-15, e.g.). When this happens, God calls another prophet to try again. The pattern repeats itself until the calling of the prophet Mohammad who is understood to be the last prophet before the Last Days. Again, the parallels with Mormonism are striking.
Muhammad’s story itself has interesting parallels with Mormonism. As I understand it, Muslims believe that Muhammad was an uneducated rural visionary who received revelations from the mouth of an angel (Gabriel) and dictated these revelations which eventually became the Qur’an. Muhammad’s followers formed a religious community and were forced to flee from one community to another due to persecution. Despite these persecutions, the religion quickly became a fast-growing success. This should sound familiar to students of early Mormon history.
It was also interesting to note that Muhammad is frequently reassured by God of his divine calling in the Qur’an. God frequently draws contrasts between him and the “unbelievers” who accused him of teaching nothing but fables and legends (see, for example, 46:17-18). God sometimes tells Muhammad to challenge the unbelievers to produce a revelation that matches any of those found in the Qur’an (2:23-24, 10:37-39). This reminded me of D&C 67:5-8 where God gives a similar challenge to critics of Joseph Smith.
One narrative I found especially interesting was the origin of Satan. Sura 7:10-19 describes how God creates humans and asks the various angels to bow down and worship Adam. One angel named Iblis refuses to bow down to Adam, for “I am better than him: You created me from fire and him from clay” (7:12). For his disobedience he was cursed to become Satan. The parallels with Moses 4:1-4 are not exact, but intriguing nonetheless.
It was also interesting to note that Sura 56 prophesies that on the Day of Judgment everyone will be sorted into “three classes”: those in front of God (the most faithful believers), those on God’s right (other believers), and those on God’s left (the disbelievers). This struck me as roughly analogous to the Kingdoms of Glory described in D&C 76.
There were also parts that were personally somewhat off-putting to me. The god who speaks in the Qur’an is very black and white (35:7, e.g.) and has no patience for those who doubt or disbelieve (24:50, e.g.). The Qur’an also frequently describes the very harsh punishments that await disbelievers: “We shall send those who reject Our revelations to the Fire. When their skins have been burned away, We shall replace them with new ones so that they may continue to feel the pain” (4:56). Indeed, the specter of hell is vivid and harsh throughout the Qur’an (7:50-51, 10:4, 19:68-72, 22:25, e.g.). There are times where God seems even to brag about the communities that he destroyed for their faithlessness (21:6, e.g.). There are also passages where God insists on complete and unwavering obedience to The Prophet: “When God and His Messenger have decided on a matter that concerns them, it is not fitting for any believing man or woman to claim freedom of choice in that matter” (33:36). I will admit that these passages did not resonate spiritually with me and I was tempted to think that they may be evidence of an absence of divine inspiration in the text. I quickly realized, though, that the divinely-mandated violence and threat of hellfire in the Qur’an is on par with much of the Old Testament and even portions of the Book of Mormon. If I were to reject the Qur’an because of these passages, I’d have to toss out the Bible and Book of Mormon as well.
THE QUR’AN AND THE BOOK OF MORMON
As I was reading the Qur’an I tried to pay attention how I felt inside. Did I feel the Holy Spirit? Did I feel inspired and edified? Did it draw me closer to God? Sometimes the answer was definitely “yes.” Some passages are beautiful and inspiring (examples for me include 3:100-109 and 9:26). Other times I’ll admit I was bored as it seemed to be repeating the same basic ideas over and over again. Other times I was repelled by the “hell, fire, and brimstone” rhetoric. All in all I felt… more or less the same way I feel when I read Christian or Mormon scriptures. If I were to judge the veracity of a religion by how I feel when I read its sacred text (as Mormon missionaries ask thousands of people to do every day with the Book of Mormon), I don’t know that I could reject Islam as “true” any more than I could reject Christianity or Mormonism as “true.” My spiritual experiences while reading the sacred text were largely similar.
What do I make of the argument presented by our tour guide at the London mosque about the Qur’an and Muhammad’s inability to have authored the text on his own? I was certainly impressed with the sophistication of the theological ideas and the beauty of the prose. It seems that Islamic apologists make similar arguments about why Muhammad could not have authored the Qur’an as Mormon apologists make about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. What objective basis do I have for accepting one but rejecting the other?
One of the key take-aways from my experience reading the Qur’an was that the distance I perceived between myself and Muslims or between Mormonism/Christianity and Islam was reduced considerably. Instead of encountering something foreign and strange, I encountered something familiar. (This makes recent conversations about Islam and the American presidency seem all the more ridiculous.)
Ultimately, one of the key themes of the Qur’an is to “believe and do good deeds” (29:9). That is likely what I will remember most from my experience with the Qur’an. I appreciate and can endorse that charge.
FOR FURTHER READING:
- Ensign: “A Latter-day Perspective on Muhammad”
- 1978 First Presidency Statement on God’s Love for All Mankind
- Mormon Matters podcast on Joseph Smith and Muhammad
- Dialogue article: “Joseph Smith, an American Muhammad?”
- How might Islam fit within an orthodox Mormon theological framework? To what extent does a Mormon paradigm provide for a “Prophet Muhammad”?
- Let’s say a faithful Mormon were to read the Qur’an, apply Moroni’s promise (Moroni 10:3-5), and receive a spiritual manifestation that the book is “true” (a Qur’anic parallel of Moroni’s promise may be found in 5:83). Would that individual be obligated to convert to Islam on the same logical basis that we expect non-Mormons who receive a spiritual witness of the Book of Mormon to convert to Mormonism? Why or why not? What implications does that have for our understanding of the relationship between sacred texts, spiritual witness, prophetic callings, and the veracity of particular faith traditions?
- For those who have read the Qur’an, what are your thoughts or impressions?
You took the plunge that I believe many other Rational Faiths readers wish they could.
I was fascinated by the parallels that you found. That tour guide quote was awesome.
I appreciate the review and thoughts.
The next question would be where the radical Islamic aspect comes into play. Where did Sharia Law etc come from?
Fascinating experience, thanks!
This post is excellent. Thank you for the insights.
I get tired of hearing Islam being blasted by both extreme conservatives and extreme liberals. Regarding the former, they never use the same objectivity when looking at the violence of our Holy Scriptures as they do when examining the Qur’an. I just eye-roll now.
This I know. I have a friend who is a devout Muslim and he is a good man. So that is how I judge Islam.
Regarding your third question, I don’t know if a spiritual answer regarding the “truth” of the Book of Mormon is enough evidence to compel anyone to become LDS. For one, there are hundreds of variations of Mormonism now. For me “truth” = “goodness.” And a spiritual manifestation of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon means that it compels me to do good. I would say the same of the Qur’an.
That being said Christian scripture, unique Mormon scripture (think of the Lafferty brothers), and the Qur’an have compelled people to do horrible things.
I agree with your comments and perspective on Islam and have had similar experiences. I challenge you on two other things. First, wouldn’t a “spiritual manifestation of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon” also compel you to accept the other truths associated with this, beyond a commitment to do good? The first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism by immersion and laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. Are these not true principles that must be followed for salvation even beyond the requirement to do good? Who could you find that wouldn’t say that truth is goodness, or vice versa? Yet none are exempt from the first principles of salvation, are they? Doesn’t the reality – the truth – of the First Vision find place as well? Per Pres. Hinckley, this either occurred or it did not; if not then “this work is a fraud”. And if not, I would add, the Church is also not the sole custodian of valid baptisms on Planet Earth. Surely this kind of truth also makes a difference, doesn’t it? You find the Qur’an also compels one to do good and yet you are not a Muslim. Is the difference between the Church and Islam inconsequential, then, as both lead one to do good? The Church stands for a whole slew of truths that are tough to disentangle.
Second, “unique Mormon scripture” didn’t compel the Lafferty brothers to commit murder. Placing themselves under the sway of Satan did. Satan is real and his influence is real, but because he is invisible (as, indeed, are all beings behind the veil), his influence is rarely acknowledged in any discussion of evil. Satan counts for something in human affairs and is active in them, and yet it is, I would agree, a frustrating dilemma that this is very difficult to talk about in any kind of objective, scholarly way. I would reiterate that Satan is really there and can’t be just wished out of a discussion on evil, for a Mormon at any rate. A real dilemma. Which, right there, shows us the limits of attempting “objectivity”. From God’s perspective, seeing all, everything is perfectly objective, isn’t it? Until we can see things from God’s perspective, our faith is that in the meantime his commandments and revelations are based on what He knows to be objectively true.
I’ll reply to your first challenge only. When people read the Book of Mormon, it is never out of context. So when an investigator is reading the Book of Mormon for the first time, it is usually within the context of LDS missionaries teaching said person about the LDS Church.
That being said, our LDS tradition (as you know) is not the only Mormon tradition that uses the Book of Mormon as scripture. So, if one is reading the Book of Mormon within the context of studying with the Community of Christ, they might convert to that brand of Mormonism. Context matters is all I’m saying here.
I admire Islam quite a bit. I wish we had their beautiful recitations of scriptures, unashamed defense of our founder, and their commitment to physically-involved daily communal prayer.
One reason I don’t find the “explain the Quran” test as hard as the “explain the Book of Mormon” test is how rapidly they were produced.
Muhammad was 40 years old when he started receiving the revelations that we now have as the Quran, and it took twenty years to receive the entire Quran. He had a careers worth of experience and contacts doing trade between the Indian ocean and the Mediterranean sea before he started. Very little in the Quran is believed to come from the first couple years. For some of the twenty years he was the ruler of large parts of western Arabia. The version we have now wasn’t compiled/canonized for another twenty years after his death. Once it was canonized alternative versions and older written parts were destroyed. The oldest manuscripts we have are from shortly after canonization.
So it’s easier for me to imagine how a book like the Quran could have been produced by the rulers of an empire that at the time of its canonization (652 AD) ruled Arabia, Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria, Egypt, Armenia, and North Africa. They had considerable resources to produce such a book.
In contrast Joseph Smith was 23-24 years old, and produced the entire Book of Mormon in less than a year, with the vast majority of it being produced in two months. It is more than three times as long as the Quran. His primary scribe was 22 years old. It was printed over the next few months. Roughly 30% of the original manuscript survives even today and it differs only in relatively minor ways from the printed version (despite a large number of minor changes, one reading The Earliest Text will recognize it as essentially the same book as the 1830 edition). To me that is much more remarkable and harder to explain away.
As for the quality of the texts, my judgment is very biased by my not knowing Arabic and my growing up Mormon. Audio versions of both texts are helpful though in falling asleep at night.
I actually read the Qur’an on my mission. I was intrigued when I heard Iesu (Jesus) had a whole chapter dedicated to him. I already had been using a Hebrew dictionary to study the Torah, so I began studying Arabic to get the true meaning. It totally blew my mind how similar Islam is to Mormonism. There were a ton of Muslims in my mission, and I learned how to relate to them really well. Ishmael is the seed of Abraham, and he was promised to be blessed and have 12 princes in his lineage. Mohammed was to the seed of Ishmael as Joseph Smith was to the seed of Israel.