Thursday, May 20, 2010

World Religions Comprehensive Exam - Question #3

NOTE: This is the final of my three world religions comprehensive exam questions. Early next week I will post the third of my worldview & apologetics exam questions. As a reminder, these are unmodified versions of essay exam responses - I had 80 minutes for each question, with no resources at hand. This one was fun to work through - hope you enjoy it!

QUESTION C. A few scholars and any number of anti-cult activists see parallels between Islam and the LDS Church. Compare and contrast the rise and development of these two movements and then evaluate the potential of the LDS as a “new Islam”.

About a month ago, I talked to a friend in Edmonton who is now the youth pastor at a small Baptist church. Years ago he led a student mission trip to Utah, and has engaged in significant research into the history and doctrine of the LDS Church. I mentioned to him that I was researching the comparisons between Islam and Mormonism. His response was immediate: “Oh yeah, there are such close parallels; it’s so obvious!”

Two days ago, I had a conversation with a neighbor who is studying at the seminary, and mentioned that I was preparing to write on the parallels between Islam and the LDS Church. His response was just as immediate: “I don’t see it; what are you talking about?”

Is there a legitimate parallel? In this essay, I will argue that there are a number of historical and theological parallels between Islam and the LDS Church, both in their origins and development. However, I will conclude that the discontinuities are greater than the parallels, and that the LDS actually has the potential to be a stronger, more influential Islam.

I. Historical Context

Islam and Mormonism both arose in a context of significant religious turmoil. Mohammad’s Arabia had been dominated by polytheism for centuries; small communities of monotheistic Jews and Christians were present, but relatively unimportant on the Arabian peninsula. There was also, however, a smattering of emerging Arabic monotheists. The global Christian community during Mohammad’s day was fractured and divided – Nestorians, Monophysites, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholics viewed each other with considerable suspicion. The powerful Empires persecuted the Nestorian and Monophysite ‘heresies’. It also seems that the form of Christianity with which Mohammad was most familiar was some unknown perversion of the faith, which worshiped God the Father, Mary his sexual consort, and Jesus his biological offspring (a distinctly unorthodox trinity, to be sure).

Joseph Smith’s American context was similarly embroiled in religious upheaval. Christian monotheism was the unquestioned truth of the day, but Protestant America was divided and fragmented. The Restoration movements (Campbellites) were getting underway, and millenarianism (resulting eventually in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church) was strong as well. Yet there was considerable spiritual hunger in both historical contexts: monasticism and mysticism were powerful in 7th-century Arabia; spiritism and superstition in 19th-century America.

II. Founding Prophet & Revelation

The similarities between the founding prophet and revelation of Islam and the LDS are quite striking. Both men receive messages from angelic visitors – the angel Gabriel for Mohammad, the angel Moroni for Smith. On the other hand, Mohammad is a mature man of 40 at the time of his first revelation, while Smith is a youth of 14. Angelic visitations continue for both men, eventually leading to divine revelations.

Here the differences begin to emerge. Mohammad, who tradition holds was illiterate, receives divine revelation in distinctly oral form – the Qur’an is a command to ‘recite’, a recitation. God’s Word is dictated to and through Mohammad, and is later written down. Smith, on the other hand, is guided to uncover buried golden tablets, which contain the written Word of God preserved for him. Smith is then led to translate the divine revelation through the use of special glasses. God’s Word is already written down for Smith; he only needs to translate it.

Nonetheless, for both Mohammad and Smith, the angelic visitations and divine revelations are the beginning of something new, but simultaneously the recovery of something old and lost. Mohammad held that he was restoring Abrahamic monotheism, which had been revealed through the previous Scriptures, but was then corrupted and violated by later generations of Jews and Christians. Smith held that he was restoring primitive Christianity, which had been revealed through the New Testament, but was then compromised and corrupted by philosophical Greek Christians (Platonic Christianity).

Both Mohammad and Smith, then, viewed the former Scriptures as valuable but corrupted. Hence, the former Scriptures were now being supervened through God’s further revelations. The precise words of divine revelation were crucial in both cases – being particularly revealed through recitation to Mohammad and through inscribed translation to Smith.

A significant difference exists, however. Smith’s Book of Mormon (the golden tablets translated with the glasses) was a one-time revelation, which Smith transcribed and translated and then kept. Mohammad’s Qur’an was revealed over the remainder of his life (610 – 632 A.D.), one Sura (chapter) at a time. Smith did receive further divine revelations during the remainder of his life as well – they were recorded in additional books, particularly the Doctrine & Covenants.

Significantly, however, Muslims hold firmly that divine revelation ceased with the death of Mohammad. The revelations he received from the angel Gabriel were divinely-inspired and sanctioned; but there is no continued revelation through other prophets. Smith, on the other hand, insisted that he was not alone within the Mormon community in receiving divine revelation. Indeed, he emphasized that other Mormon leaders would continue to receive divine revelation after his death. Revelation, in LDS theology, is an ongoing process; revelation, in Muslim doctrine, is complete. This difference cannot be overstated – it represents a chasm between Islam and the LDS Church which cannot be bridged. The parallels have their limits, at which point the discontinuities rise up and outstrip them.

Scholars and (particularly) anti-cult activists often focus on the place of polygamy as a central parallel between Islam and the LDS Church. Indeed, both religions, in their early years, permitted polygamy. But even here there are strong differences. In the first place, Islam did not command polygamy; it merely permitted it within certain restraints and guidelines. It was not considered the norm. Early Mormonism, however, actively promoted polygamy as the rightful natural family relationship. Furthermore, Islam was always open with regards to its permission of polygamy (although many now argue that the Qur’an implicitly tells Muslims that they ought not to engage in such practice). Smith, on the other hand, clandestinely instituted polygamy within the Mormon community, and even denied that it was practiced for a time. Polygamy was viewed in 19th-century America as a bane of devilish intent, and open admission of polygamous practice would have been the death knell for early Mormonism. Finally, the LDS adherence to the doctrine of continuing revelation allowed the Church to outlaw polygamy in the 1890s in order to avoid extinction at the hands of the United States army. Islam never had the resources or the need to eradicate polygamy from its scriptures. To sum up: Islamic polygamy was the exception to the rule, not normative, always open and never denied; Mormon polygamy was hidden and denied at the beginning, then promoted as normative and spiritually healthy, and finally banned by further divine revelation. If this were the sole (or even primary) parallel between Islam and the LDS Church, I would insist that the parallel is so weak as to be meaningless in the end.

A final discontinuity with regards to the founding prophet and revelation of Islam and the LDS Church is with regards to the issue of succession. Mohammad quite clearly did not designate a means of secure succession. He did, apparently, appoint his immediate successor; but beyond that it was entrusted to the wisdom of the umma as a whole to determine future leaders. Smith, on the other hand, developed an elaborate hierarchy of priests and leaders from which future leaders would emerge quite naturally. The consequences of this difference is evident down to the contemporary situation, where LDS leadership is strongly institutionalized and organized, while Islamic leadership is fairly diffuse and localized.

III. Rise and Development

Both Islam and the LDS Church spread and grew rapidly. The political growth of Islam is well-marked through their conquests of Persia, Byzantium, and North Africa. The numerical growth of the LDS Church has been similarly remarkable. From inauspicious beginnings, the LDS Church has emerged as a major religious force in the world – what Rodney Stark calls the most recent successful New Religious Movement. There are evident parallels between the growth and development of Islam and the LDS Church; but again there are also significant discontinuities that throw the significance of the parallels into question. I will look first at the historical development, then at the theological development, of Islam and Mormonism.

A. Historical Development

Islam and the LDS Church began with a common perspective on the nature of the faith. Both desired to integrate faith with a full economic, political, and social system. Mohammad viewed the Islamic umma as the integrated, unified people of God; Smith viewed the LDS Church as the purified church who would live corporately in obedience to His revealed commands. Mohammad and Smith shared a vision of a comprehensive, cohesive, this-worldly faith. Their faith provided all that was needed for the political, economic, and social leadership of a corporate body.
Both Mohammad and Smith pursued the implementation of that corporate vision. Both initially met with considerable opposition from the established powers that be – the polytheistic pagans of Mecca and the unsympathetic Protestants of America. Both then fled to perceived safer havens – the hijra to Medina and the Mormon establishment of Nauvoo. Muslims mark their calendars by the hijra (A.H. – after hijra), because that is when Islam was able to take full effect upon a corporate body. The Mormon flight was a little more elaborate. Nauvoo proved to be vulnerable to external opposition as well, and after Smith’s death the LDS community began a long trek to present-day Utah. The Mormon calendar is marked by that trek – July 24 being the day that the Great Salt Lake came into the view of the pilgrims. There is certainly a strong parallel between the LDS and Islam with regards to the founding corporate vision, and the commitment to move to a place where that vision could be pursued and actualized.

But the parallel ends with the Mormon trek to Utah. Mohammad’s Muslim community immediately engaged in aggressive warfare with the polytheistic powers of Mecca and the Arabian peninsula, and emerged victorious. After solidifying their hold on Arabia, Muslim armies swept out of Arabia and conquered the tired armies of Persia, Byzantium, and North Africa. The LDS Church has no parallel for the Muslim conquests. Instead, the geopolitical circumstances that the young LDS Church encountered was not that of a decadent, declining world empire; but rather that of a strong, vibrant American nation flush with manifest destiny. When gold was discovered in the west, Utah became of significant interest to the American government. The Mormons were not left alone to achieve their utopian religious vision; federal troops interfered. After the conclusion of the civil war, the federal government turned its full attention to Utah, and the LDS Church found itself under siege, particularly due to the now-open practice of polygamy. Under intense pressure, and the threat of financial and corporate extinction, president Woodruff (?name?) ‘received’ a further ‘revelation’ that the time for polygamy within the LDS Church was now past. Polygamy was renounced and ‘abandoned’, at least officially (unofficial polygamy persisted for some years).

Thus, while the budding Islamic empire established its pre-eminence in its homeland and burst forth from there to expand a unified political-religious empire; the fledgling LDS Church withdrew to Utah, where it was besieged and eventually had to capitulate to the dominant federal government. In other words, Islam achieved its vision of a unified church-state; Mormonism failed to do so.

B. Theological Development

(1) Theology: The Muslim and Mormon conceptions of God are not only discontinuous, they are contradictory. The only parallel they have is heterodoxy with regards to traditional Christianity. The Muslim God is absolutely unitary, and fundamentally transcendent. The Mormon God is definitely triune, and fundamentally immanent. Allah created man; the Mormon God began as a man, and progressed to divinity. Muslims cannot intimately know God (setting aside the Sufi quest for the time being); Mormons can not only know God, they can become God themselves.

(2) Revelation: The Muslim and Mormon conceptions of divine revelation differ in a similar fashion. To Muslims, God’s revelation is complete and final. There is no need of further revelation, since God’s revelation through the Qur’an is complete. What is needed now is obedience and right practice. To Mormons, however, God’s revelation is continuous. God continues to speak to the elders and prophets within the LDS Church, and the body of Scripture thus continues to grow – this is anathema to Muslims! Furthermore, Mormons (like Christians) believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to believers to provide immediate divine guidance throughout daily life. Again, to Muslims, this is blasphemous.

(3) Founding Figures: Speaking ill of Mohammad is a capital offense in many Muslim countries. The prophet is held in high reverence. Indeed, the shahadah (declaration of faith) is not solely “There is one God, Allah,” but also, “and Mohammad is his messenger.” A Muslim will not smile upon reviling the name of Allah; but a Muslim will not tolerate reviling the name of Mohammad. Through the development of the hadith and sunna (the traditions of the further teachings and practices of Mohammad), the example of the prophet is held up as the perfect Islamic ideal. Mohammad never claimed to be sinless, but later Muslims make that claim for him. The situation is considerably different within the LDS Church. When apologists like Stephen Robinson try to emphasize the similarities of Mormonism and evangelicalism, they tend to avoid speaking of Joseph Smith at any length. Smith is not rejected or renounced; he is merely ignored and downplayed. He certainly does not hold the pre-eminent place in contemporary Mormonism that Mohammad continues to hold in contemporary Islam. (Indeed, I hear that the status of Joseph Smith has been removed from the main floor of the temple in Salt Lake City, and placed in hidden recesses of the basement.) Furthermore, Mormons emphasize that Smith admitted his own sinfulness and imperfection, a contrast to Islamic idealization of the prophet Mohammad.

(4) Priesthood: A final discontinuity in theological development has already been alluded to. Mohammad never established a priesthood, or a body of learned followers which would perpetuate the leadership of the Islamic umma. Smith, on the other hand, established orders of priesthood that would continue after his own death. Mormon hierarchy reaches its apex in the Order of the Twelve Apostles, who must have obtained to the highest level of priesthood (Melchizadek?) – it is from the Twelve Apostles that the future president of the LDS Church must arise. Succession in the LDS Church is organized and established; not so in Islam – hence the early split between Sunni and Shi’a over succession to Ali (the 4th caliph). Along the same lines, the LDS Church is a highly-structured, highly-institutionalized faith – a radical difference from the diffuse nature of worldwide Islam.

IV. The LDS Church as a New Islam?

Christian apologists and anti-cult activists are often strongly influenced by the relationship of Islam and the LDS Church to evangelical Christianity. From an orthodox Christian viewpoint, there are undeniable parallels between Islam and the LDS Church.

(1) Both arise in contexts where we can bemoan the failure of the Church to be the Church of Christ. The fragmentation, disunity, and disputation within Christianity in 7th-century Byzantium and 19th-century America is a blight upon the reputation of Christ’s Church, and fed the rise of new religious movements in Islam and Mormonism.

(2) Both faiths begin with male prophets who receive angelic visitations leading to new divine scriptures.

(3) Both faiths repudiate the corruptions within and deviations of contemporary Christianity.

(4) Both faiths contain misunderstandings of, or misrepresentations of, orthodox Christian belief.

(5) Both faiths represent ‘Christian heresies’.

(6) Both faiths grew with incredible rapidity, becoming worldwide faiths within 100-150 years.

(7) Fundamentally, both faiths are rejections of biblical Christianity, and are thus part of the ‘broad road’ of Matthew 7.

It is this last parallel which often dominates the mindset of Christian apologists – both Islam and the LDS Church draw people away from saving faith in Jesus Christ and into the false hope of a false religion.

If we get past those similarities and parallels, however, we discover (as I hope I have shown) that the discontinuities (and even contradictions) are far greater than the parallels.

What is the potential of the LDS Church as a ‘new Islam’? I think it is evident that there is no hope for the LDS Church to become a new Islam. Islam was, from the very beginning to the current day, a drive for a unified expression of religion, politics, and society. Islam is a way of life which governs an entire society. Islam expanded its reach through military conquest. Mormonism has not done any of that, nor is there any hope or expectation of its doing so in the future. The LDS Church has grown in the 20th century and beyond through evangelistic means. The dream of a utopian Mormon society has been replaced by the drive for a sanctified Mormon community within society.

From that perspective, however, the potential of the LDS Church in the contemporary world is perhaps even greater than that of Islam (aside from the incredible inferiority of numbers). The LDS Church is well-suited to accommodate itself to the reigning political philosophy of the society in which it exists. The emerging patriotism and political activism of Mormons in America is astounding, especially in comparison to the anti-American rhetoric of Mormonism in its first 50 years. The LDS Church can exist contentedly as a distinct minority in whatever context, seeking to grow through persuasion and evangelism, and not expecting to take political control or power. It remains to be seen whether Islam can do the same.

Is Mormonism a new Islam? No. There are undeniable parallels; but the discontinuities far outweigh them.

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