I’ve always been fascinated by the conflict within Islam itself, largely represented by the two predominant factions of Sunni and Shi’i (often spelled Shia). Having spent nearly three years now living in a majority Sunni Muslim country, I’ve had the opportunity to observe at close range Islam’s majority “denomination” if you will.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001 by a dozen men who claimed allegiance to Sunni Islam, those of us in the West have been attempting a crash course in the religion. What is it all about? Who are the key players? Why do many of them hate us? And why do many of them hate each other?
Our near total lack of knowledge about the origin of Islam and what it means to a staggeringly huge segment of the globe is a peculiar oversight and a massive historical blindspot no matter what you think of the religion or the people who follow it. It also probably contributes to what has been widely regarded as disaster followed by unmitigated disaster in the West’s foreign policy with regard to the region we call the Middle East for the better part of the past century.
A word of warning
I don’t by any means pretend to be a scholar of Islam or Mormonism or even Christianity in a broader sense, but I have observed the first two in a relatively intimate manner. None of my words should be considered an endorsement or denouncement of either religion. I simply think comparing the two is thought-provoking and yes, a little weird.
I subscribe to the unfortunately cliche and oft-misrepresented notion that the more we know about each other and the more parallels we can draw between one another, the better we’ll all be able to get along. Cliche as it is, it makes sense, and from what I’ve seen, tends to work.
In that spirit, I’d like to draw some parallels between Mormonism (and Christianity as a whole) and Islam, and maybe explain why it’s so hard for peace-loving Muslims (yes, they do exist) today to see any relation between themselves and the blood-thirsty extremists who follow the exact same book and general religious precepts as they do.
Mormon/Muslim Shared Beginnings
Joseph Smith “organized” the Mormon church in the year 1830. I use the word “organize” because Smith and Mormons believe the church is a continuation of the original Christian church established on earth following the death of Jesus Christ. Like Mohammed to Islam, Smith introduced a new book to Christianity, the Book of Mormon. This book, like the Qur’an, was meant to be a purer, more accurate, more spiritually-attuned, and more relevant book than the collection of books that make up the Bible.
Muslims, like Christians, trace their lineage back to Abraham. The phrase used by Muslims to describe the religions which follow a Biblical tradition is “people of the book.” In fact, spending any time in a Muslim community you’ll notice some names we’d consider to be “Christian”. Danial (Daniel), Ibrahim (Abraham), Iskandar (Alexander), Ishaq (Isaac), etc.
It’s safe to say that Muslims and Mormons view the Bible with a degree of skepticism. Mormons accept the Bible as true scripture, but will point out that it has likely been mistranslated in some areas. Generally speaking, Muslims accept as scripture the Torah, along with the books of Moses, Psalms, and David. Muslims also accept the Gospel of Isa (Jesus), whom they believe was a prophet of God.
Muslims and Mormons also share a relatively strict lifestyle mandated by their respective books, the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon. A practicing Muslim or Mormon are both expected to do the following:
- Dress modestly
- Abstain from cigarettes and alcohol
- Abstain from pre-marital sexual relations
- Pray and study religious scripture daily
- Contribute a portion of income to the religion
When it comes to eating, dietary restrictions of Muslims and Mormons are not identical, but they’re definitely similar in detail and aim. Mormons adhering to the Word of Wisdom in the Book of Mormon would refrain from eating more meat than is absolutely necessary for survival. Similarly, Muslims abstain completely from eating a variety of animal meat including pork and anything amphibious.
Social Framework of Mormonism and Islam
Islam and Mormonism are more than just religions, they’re social movements. While there is no official name given to the Mormon version, Muslims consider all members of their faith to be part of the Umma. When a Muslim joins the Umma, it’s presumed that he/she gains a global family capable of providing assistance and protection in all matters. Mormons even go so far as to refer to one another as Brother and Sister Surname.
Other Christian denominations have this similar “one family” feel, but I would argue that in Islam and Mormonism, it’s more palpable and structured than other religions. More is expected from their religious “families”. To that end, Mormons and Muslims are generally required to give part of their income or wealth to their religion. Mormons call this contribution “Tithing” and Muslims call it the “Zakat”. In both cases, it’s taken very seriously and goes to charitable aims and the general financing of the religions.
Perhaps most interesting and pertinent to our current situation is the succession story of each religion’s founding prophets. My account of the Muslim succession crisis is considerably longer and more detailed, mostly because I am actually covering a much longer period of slow-moving division in the Muslim community. Nevertheless, I think understanding the two crises might help explain why, in a world constantly on edge with the threat of Islamic terrorism, so many Muslims see absolutely no connection to it or responsibility for it.
For Westerners, this can be incredibly frustrating. How can any Muslim possibly not see the connection between themselves and the people who strap bombs to their chests or by other means slaughter innocent civilians? After all, they dress the same way, pray the same way, follow the same book, adore the same prophet, and largely practice the same customs.
Disputed Successions in Islam and Mormonism
When Joseph Smith, the first Mormon Prophet, was murdered in 1844 in Carthage, Illinois, the Mormon church was faced with a succession crisis. Who was expected to assume the role of Prophet? Many suspected that Joseph chose his brother Hyrum (probably no one knew for sure), but Hyrum was murdered in the same shootout as the Prophet Joseph. Smith’s younger brother Samuel, another potential candidate, suddenly died just a month after Joseph and Hyrum.
Two (or more) competing views emerged. They were that either Sidney Rigdon, Joseph
Smith’s first counselor, should succeed Joseph. Or, that Joseph’s death dissolved the presidency of the church, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles should appoint the successor to the Prophet. The latter view more of less won out, and Brigham Young was eventually voted in as the next Prophet, but not without significant disagreement among some church members.
These events and others led to a fractured Mormon church with several offshoots all claiming to be the “true church.” Today, although the Young-led Mormon church represents an overwhelming majority of Mormons, while the second most well known denomination are known as the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) church. Ask a Mormon of the LDS (non-fundamentalist) church what he thinks of those Mormons in the FLDS church and he’ll say “Mormons? They aren’t Mormons, they’re apostates. Weirdos.” Even criminals, to some.
Succession Following the Death of Muslim Prophet Mohammed
In the year 632 AD, the Muslim Prophet Mohammed made one final pilgrimage from Medina to Mecca and gave his final sermon. When he returned to Medina, he became ill, developed a fever, and quickly said his goodbyes to wives and friends. With his head in the lap of his wife Ayesha, he died.
Incredibly, just like the Mormons and Joseph Smith, Muslims and the Umma had not discussed who Mohammed’s successor would be or even what he would be, as Mohammed made clear he would be God’s final Prophet. This differs from the succession story of the Mormon church in that the Mormons always expected to have and continue to this day to have a living prophet.
In what must’ve been a confusing and chaotic time of mourning, a meeting was convened to decide who would lead the Umma in Mohammed’s stead. Vigorous debate ensued. But thanks in large part to a moving endorsement from Omar, one of the Prophet’s closest allies, Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s uncle, was quickly named the first Kalifah. Not a prophet or king, but merely someone to hold together the Umma and direct it. The literal translation of the Arabic word Kalifah being “deputy.”
While this meeting took place though, another of Mohammed’s closest allies, Ali, was busy washing the prophet’s body. Curiously, no one thought to include Ali in the discussion about who should succeed Mohammed, and he was unaware a meeting was even taking place until after a decision was made. This despite Ali being a cousin and a little bit like a son to Mohammed, who had a part in raising him.
To add to his case to be leader of the Umma, Ali was in fact the first male Muslim and was widely considered to be Mohammed’s right hand man. When assassins came to murder Mohammed one night in Mecca, it was Ali who risked his life and helped foil the plot by wrapping himself in the Prophet’s blankets. In battle, Ali was considered to be the Muslim military’s fiercest and most devoted warrior.
Disputed claim of a named successor for the Prophet
Returning home from his final sermon before his death, Mohammed was heard telling people “Any of you who consider me your patron should consider Ali your patron.” Some (Shi’i Muslims and others) might understandably interpret that as Mohammed naming his successor. Mohammed had no sons, and his daughter Fatima was the only one to produce sons who lived past childhood. Ali was her husband. Thus, Ali’s descendants were the Prophet’s descendants.
While he must’ve felt even more devastated at being so carelessly overlooked, Ali was a humble man and accepted Abu Bakr as the first Kalifah. After all, Ali was just thirty years old at the time, whereas Abu Bakr was nearly sixty. Nevertheless, it’s easy to understand why many in the Muslim community might’ve felt as though the right person for the job was unjustly passed over.
The first Kalifah of Islam
Abu Bakr’s tenure began in crisis. Following the news of Mohammed’s passing, tribes across Arabia were seceding from the alliance and refusing to pay the Zakat (a charity tax on Muslims). Some tribal leaders went so far as to claim they too were now receiving divine revelation and began building their own separate religious communities.
Abu Bakr, in order to put down the rebellion and prevent future ones from springing up, established a new Islamic principle that is the source of so much strife within the Islamic community and beyond today. The new principle concerned those who left Islam. While the Prophet Mohammed had said “No compulsion in religion”, Abu Bakr added one powerful caveat: Leaving Islam would now be equivalent to treason. The Apostate Wars ended within one year, and Arabia was united again under one banner of Islam.
Omar the fierce
Just before Abu Bakr died of natural causes, he nominated Omar to be his successor. Amidst the debate about whether the considerably large and notoriously fierce Omar had the proper demeanor to be Kalifah, Ali selflessly stepped in to endorse him as the second Kalifah. Omar, like Abu Bakr before him, continued to set a standard for humility and charity. Like the Prophet Mohammed, Omar would frequently patch his own clothes and carry his own belongings rather than let his servants. One day while delivering a bag of grain to a family in need, someone offered to carry it for him. “You can carry my burden for me here on Earth, but who will carry it for me on the Day of Judgment?” Omar replied.
Omar’s military conquests alone should probably rank him among the likes of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, or Charlemagne, yet he goes virtually unmentioned in Western history books. The Islamic empire he built surpassed even Rome at its height of power.
Omar was killed when an unstable Persian maid drove a knife into his belly. Before he died, though, he set up a six-man committee to determine his successor. This committee narrowed the list down to two men: Othman, an extremely wealthy and respected merchant, and Ali. The two candidates were each asked the same question:
- Will you be guided by the Quran, the Sunna, and the precedents set by Abu Bakr and Omar?
Ali’s response was a yes on the Quran and Sunna, but not on the decisions of his predecessors. He stated that he was of his own mind and would make his own decisions as Kalifah. Othman’s response was yes on all three points, “I am not an innovator”, he said. That sealed the deal for Othman, who became the third Kalifah. Ali was passed over again.
Othman’s tumultuous term
Othman’s twelve year term was a rocky one, and set the stage for opening up the fault lines that had been forming perhaps since Ali was first overlooked as the first Kalifah. Islam was now a governing political body with a vast territory to control. Taxes increased, the Islamic treasury became much more active, and complaints from heavily taxed but distant peoples in this vast empire were on the rise.
Othman’s primary accomplishment was the organization of one definitive version of the Qur’an. Scholars were put to work weeding out redundancies or resolving discrepancies. Perhaps his key failure was in appointing his cousin Mu’awiya governor of Damascus. Mu’awiya proved to be a power-hungry individual who slowly built his own miniature empire, including his own army, within Othman’s Kalifate.
Toward the end of his time as Kalifah, disgruntled citizens from Egypt and from the territory north of Mecca were converging on the capital to petition their leader about onerous taxes and other grievances. One day, a riot broke out, the palace doors were broken down and the mob beat their leader to death.
A final, bloody succession crisis
A new succession crisis was ignited, this time tainted by violence that had spread throughout the city. Finally, it was Ali’s turn to lead the Umma, as he was elected Kalifah by his fellow Muslims in the Mosque of the Prophet in the year 656 AD. The Umayyad clan, Othman’s relatives, were not receptive to Ali as the new Kalifah. They fled to Damascus to join Mu’awiya and his growing territory.
Ali began a campaign to root out corruption that had developed during Othman’s time, and fired all governors appointed by Othman. This didn’t go as planned. At the same time they refused to relinquish their posts, the Prophet Mohammed’s wife Ayesha was assembling an army and began calling for Othman’s murderers to be brought to justice—a difficult if not impossible task given the nature of the mob and something Ali refused to do.
While Ayesha and Ali once again became allies after briefly going toe-to-toe in battle, it was too late to save the Umma from being permanently divided. A military campaign to halt the Umayyad rebellion ended in a stalemate and Ali was forced to compromise with Mu’awiya, ceding control of Damascus and surrounding territory. But compromise with the Umayyad clan upset many Muslims, and one of them murdered Ali with the poison-coated blade of his sword at the Mosque of Kufa. The Ummayad Dynasty began, and there would be no universally agreed upon successor to Ali.
Ali’s partisans (the Arabic word for partisan being Shi’i) though, became more and more adamant that Ali was mistakenly passed over as Mohammed’s immediate successor. The increasingly materialistic and undiplomatic brand of Islam promoted by the Umayyads was too much to bear, and time cemented a rift that our world today is increasingly familiar with: the Sunni/Shi’i divide.
The Implications for Islam and Terrorism Today
Today, Muslims of the two predominant sects known as Sunni and Shi’i by and large do not view the other as Muslim. The two sides have developed different customs and different interpretations of the Qur’an and in some parts of the world like majority Shi’i Iraq , they still routinely shed each other’s blood with no regard for their shared beginnings. ISIS self identifies as Sunni Muslim and practices genocide against Shi’i and other perceived heretics. Even in Malaysia, widely considered to be a “moderate” Muslim country, Shi’i Muslims are viewed as heretics or traitors. Majority Shi’i Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon no doubt have equally negative feelings about their Sunni counterparts.
So what’s the big takeaway?
When a terrorist attack happens in the West amidst shouts of “Allahu-akbar” by self-professed “Muslims”, we understandably expect condemnation from the Muslim Umma as a whole. We expect them to “get their people in line” and cut it out with all the shedding of innocent blood.
We’re often disappointed.
For many a practicing and peace-loving Muslim, they simply cannot comprehend that someone from their religion would do such heinous things. Besides, either side can always attribute such acts to the barbarity of those “other” so-called Muslims who pray a little differently and interpret the Qur’an a little differently.
I don’t think there’s any magic cure for what we’re dealing with, but I think a good start might be for the West and the Islamic world to begin to study the history of the religion and try to interpret it through a reason-based human lens, rather than a Christian, Jewish, Shi’i, or Sunni one. Our collective ignorance of such an important historical subject is not helpful.
Editors Note: I borrow liberally from Tamin Ansary’s very good and very fair book, Destiny Disrupted.