Revision 4.25 “Contrasting Islam and Latter-day Saint Teaching” (Part 5, Conclusion)

Revision 4.25 “Contrasting Islam and Latter-day Saint Teaching” (Part 5, Conclusion) September 12, 2020

 

Sultan Hasan and al-Rifa‘i
In the background are, on the left, the fourteenth-century Madrasa and Mosque of Sultan Hasan and, on the right, the Mosque of al-Rifa‘i, which was completed in the early twentieth century. They are two of my favorite buildings in Cairo. The woman in blue is standing on Cairo’s Citadel, looking roughly westward toward the Nile.     (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

 

This focus upon submission to the inscrutable will of God as the characteristic mark of true religion points to Islam’s emphasis upon the omnipotence of God. It is an emphasis that is absolutely fundamental to the religion. It underlies Muslim rejection of the doc­trine of the atonement of Christ and flavors daily life and speech throughout the Islamic world. To elaborate, God forgives whomever He chooses to forgive, and denies forgiveness to anybody he wants, for any reason he chooses. God is an absolute sovereign. There is no law to which he is subject, nobody to whom he must give an account. All creatures, all planets, all people, all prophets (including Jesus of Nazareth), all natural laws and moral principles are, in the Islamic view, equally powerless before the Lord of the universe.[1]

Muslims would strenuously reject the view, often heard in Latter-day Saint circles, that the atoning sacrifice of Christ was necessary in order to satisfy the demands of cosmic law, and that it was only then that God could extend forgiveness without upsetting the uni­versal balance of things. (This view is prominent in the Book of Mormon. “What,” asked Alma the Younger of his son Corianton, “do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.”)[2] They would want to know who would depose God, why he would “cease to be God.” Actions are right, in the standard Muslim view, because God says they are; he does not say they are right because of some celestial standard, independent of him and, in a sense, prior to him, that tells him to do so. Thus, as a chemistry professor at the University of Cairo once told me, “God doesn’t need to sacrifice somebody in order to buy himself out of the need to punish us.”[3]

God’s all-powerful Lordship is an ever-present reality in the daily life of Muslims. The Qur’an directs its people to say “If God wills” whenever they announce their intention to do something. “Do not say, regarding anything, ‘I am going to do that tomorrow,’ but only, ‘If God wills.’”[4] It is not surprising, thus, that in sha’a Allah (“if God wills”) is one of the most commonly heard phrases in the Arabic language. But many Westerners tend to take it as a mere verbal formula, a cultural habit with little or no thought behind it. Sometimes they think of it as an excuse, offered in advance, for not fulfilling a promise. (The employee says, “I’ll do this right away, in sha’a Allah.” God, it will be explained, just hadn’t willed that the task be completed so soon.) The phrase can become quite an irri­tant for time-ridden Westerners trying to transact business in a cul­ture that is clearly less concerned about deadlines and rushing about. But it is taken very seriously by devout followers of Islam. I was once rebuked when I told a Muslim friend that I would meet him at a certain place at noon the next day. He waited silently, clearly expecting me to say something else. When I said nothing, he told me politely but firmly to say “If God wills.” “How do you know that you will meet me tomorrow?” he asked. “How do you even know that you’ll still be alive? You could have a heart attack. A car could run over you. Your apartment building could collapse on your head.” (Both of these last two possibilities are real concerns in a place like Cairo.) “It is sheer irreligious arrogance,” he told me, “to believe that you are in charge of your own soul and to leave God out of the picture. If God does not will it,” he said, “you will most definitely not meet me tomorrow at noon!” I must admit, I was chastened.

The Islamic emphasis on the supremacy of God’s will can cer­tainly lead to a kind of fatalism, to a resigned apathy that doesn’t try to improve conditions or to find solutions or to fight diseases or to take care of our health. Things as they are, this view suggests, are what God has ordained; it would be futile and even blasphe­mous to seek to change them! (Unsurprisingly, the doctrine has sometimes been employed by rulers in Islamic countries in order to warn their subjects against unrest and revolution.) I do think that many Muslims tend to overemphasize God’s power and their powerlessness in just that way. Still, there are clear biblical grounds for similar belief:

Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. But now ye rejoice in your boast­ings: all such rejoicing is evil.[5]

If Islamic culture perhaps overstresses God’s determination of all things, we in the modern West probably fail to recognize it enough. Overconfidently, we sometimes imagine that all of the problems that have confronted humankind through the centuries have now begun to yield before our technology, our money, and our rational planning. Yet we are not, in the final analysis, really the masters of our fates and the captains of our souls. Our most advanced medical machinery cannot prolong our lives indefinitely, a snowstorm can bring our biggest cities to a standstill, a slight rocking of the earth can level them to the ground. A little more humility before nature and nature’s God would not be amiss. In this respect, as in others, I think we can learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters.

 

[1] The situation is not unlike the equality of all peoples before the Abbasid caliph, to which I shall refer in the next chapter. I would argue that the resemblance between Islamic theology and the reality of the Islamic empire in which it developed is probably not mere coincidence.

[2] Alma 42:25.

[3] In these terms, Christian belief does seem a bit strange. Paul was right. The doc­trine of “Christ crucified” does appear “unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” (1 Corinthians 1:23.) We can hardly be surprised that a modern Muslim, heir to a Semitic religion mingled with Greek philosophical thought patterns, would find it difficult to accept.

[4] 68:17-33; 18:23-24.

[5] James 4:13-16.

 

 


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