The Faith Convictions of Muslims

Before the tragic attack on the World Trade Center, I had a grudging respect for the Muslim faithful. They seemed the most spiritual and religiously conservative group on the planet, untouched by the Western immorality and atheism. There was the accusation that was only because of the lack of educational opportunities, but even those who went to Western and U.S. schools went back home without losing religious convictions. There was something about Islam that a person who had their own strong faith convictions had to admire.

When the infamous 9-11 attack happened, there was hope that citizens of the United States could learn something about themselves out of the deadly chaos. Perhaps the Christian nation as a whole would re-evaluate the moral direction it had taken. They would take notice of Muslims and look within to question how they had lost their spiritual way. Certainly they could contrast the strength of conviction and moral cohesion of such a large group of people and come away determined to change. For one brief week it seemed possible.

That illusion was quickly shattered. It didn’t take very long for people to continue going about their business like always. Each generation seeming more intent than the next to rid themselves of religious and moral guidance. Meanwhile, the extremist Islamist leaders ended up sharing the anti-Christian, anti-Israel, and anti-United States stances of Western liberals. That wasn’t a surprise, but how they played off each other was. They ended up doing the your enemy is my enemy dance. The terrorists came off not as moral crusaders, but political despots eager for attention with the blood of the dead. Still, the question stands how Muslims remain faithful stalwarts in such large numbers while Christianity, and Mormonism included, continues to stumble.

Not knowing enough about either Islam or the Muslim culture, I can only speculate why the faith is so powerful to individuals. This means admitting some of the views are based on stereotypes. By examining this I hope to reflect on what might re-energize Christianity and particularly Mormonism. There is a realization that most of what makes Islam so strong is negative and should not be duplicated.

Violence seems to be the key to growth and strength. From the start Islam, despite the political correct media “religion of peace” label, has used the sword to take control. Arguably the battles of Medina and Mecca were defensive against hostile neighbors in a land drenched in tribal feuds. The concept of conversion by conquest caught on quickly and the history of Islam’s rise is one war after another. The first generations might have been reluctantly bowing for survival, but the others since never sought to break from the faith. Instead, they contributed.

Power both corrupts and unites. Christianity in an official capacity had its own grip on nations as theocratic powers, but that time is long gone. This is contrasted by Islam that with Egypt only has had a marginal democratic country. The rest of are theocratic Kingdoms based on the precepts of the religion first. There is no room for competing ideologies or beliefs. To teach other than Islam in Middle Eastern countries is illegal and dangerous. What is amazing is that even when uprising there is almost no anti-Islam component to the unrest. In fact, more than likely those who lead the rebellions are more fundamentalist than who they are fighting.

Lack of education doesn’t matter. The notion by atheists in Western countries is that those with the least education will be manipulated by the unscrupulous. The more education a person gets is directly related to the least religious the person becomes. Studies have shown this to be the case with Christianity, but not with Islam. The most surprising realization was that Muslim terrorists came to the United States to get college educations. Instead of turning against the religion they had grown up in, they became more determined and fanatical. There is no doubt educational standards for a large majority of Muslims is sub-par or non-existent, but going to a secular school doesn’t seem to have an effect on their beliefs.

The culture is strict and unforgiving. It would be impossible for a Western liberal to become Muslim. Religion invades every part of Muslim life from prayers five times a day to women having to wear some kind of burqa. There is no marriage outside the faith for women and men might, but quickly assert themselves. To leave the faith can lead to more than shunning or ridicule. For some it can be a death sentence. Privately there might be a large wave of hypocrisy, but publicly even living in Western countries there is no sign of deviance from the religious expectations.

They are a people truly apart. Mormons might like to consider themselves a peculiar people, but Muslims live by that stance. More than any other religion they live on the edges of the societies they don’t control. It is a self-isolation built around a self-importance that rivals any Jewish or Christian sense of specialness. In some ways it harkens back to the start of Islam. Communities gather together for strength and control, keeping outsiders at arms length. They expand from the center of influence without any missionary work. Growth might be commerce and family ties rather than violence, but the outcome is the same.

What to make of it all I still don’t know. Islam is a religion without the theological, moral, or societal conflicts present in Western societies. The question of a generation drifting into atheism or alternate spirituality isn’t even a concern. Liberalism and moral relativity hasn’t touched the highly conservative Muslim population. Moderate Islam with the same meaning as Christian moderates doesn’t exist outside of mythological media creations. How the faith and convictions of such a large religion continues to thrive while others fight to hang on is a mystery. If Mormons or other Christians can find and use the answers then perhaps it can be used for an advantage. The problem is what is found might not be desirable.

22 thoughts on “The Faith Convictions of Muslims

  1. “Islam is a religion without the theological, moral, or societal conflicts present in Western societies.”

    Jettboy, this simply isn’t true. There is great diversity in Islam — Indonesia is the world’s biggest Islamic country, and its version of Islam is completely different than Saudi Arabia. There are HUGE conflicts between these two visions, and there are literally dozens of other visions. Sunnis and Shiites have very different visions and conflict arises all the time. Each vision has different moral rules. Much of Middle Eastern Islam is based on Arab tribal culture and reflects Arab sensibilities, which are completely different than the sensibilities of Indian Muslims. Your statement is just way too general to be accurate.

  2. Wouldn’t one lesson to be drawn from the 9/11 attacks and the role of Islam in those attack be that religious fundamentalism is very very bad? So any trends that we see in our society that lean in the direction of the Taliban or other Islamic extremists should be immediately corrected and tempered?

    Another straightforward lesson would be about the real strength and necessity of having a robust secular public sphere that both guarantees the separation of Church and State (which does not exist in fundamentalist Islamist societies and which fosters and contributes to fundamentalist extremism) and protects free exercise of religion or of no religion at all. Luckily, our Constitution does both: it promises the separation of Church and State through the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and it promotes and protects the free exercise of religion through the Free Exercise Clause. In this way, we have the foundations and conditions for the real religious and secular pluralism to develop and flourish that are essential for a truly republican government to thrive.

  3. john f., your missing my point. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a religion of faith. Democracy and freedom has nothing to do with the issue presented here. The point is that even when Muslims live in Democratic societies, such as England and the United States, the faith of its adherents remains strong and cohesive. There is no in-fighting about the need to secularize and de-mythologize its theology. The Christian problem of mass exodus and turning to atheism doesn’t seem to be noticeable with Islam. Why are these same theological, moral, or societal conflicts not present?

    And that leads me to respond to Geoff B. that yes I understand there are all kinds of Muslim conflicts. But they are different and not based on religious liberalization, watering down the faith to platitudes, or keeping members active. Again, what is Islam doing right (Muslims remain just as devout while living in free societies as they do in totalitarian Islamic countries) to keep so many dedicated adherents who don’t murmur and leave?

    “Wouldn’t one lesson to be drawn from the 9/11 attacks and the role of Islam in those attack be that religious fundamentalism is very very bad?”

    If one is to study this from the viewpoint that murder and killing is bad, and I’m not saying they are good. However, my question remains how Islam remains powerful enough that they can get their adherents to do such things with lots of support? There might be, as Geoff B. points out, lots of discussion and conflict associated with the religion, but concerns about membership dedication and lack of faith does not seem to be more than a hidden minor issue.

  4. “There is no in-fighting about the need to secularize and de-mythologize its theology.”

    Is this true? Are there varying degrees of secularism in Muslim communities? I’m thinking about educdation of women (yes or no), standards of dress (burkas, veils, or neither), and so on?

    I think you’ve drawn some false conclusions at the outset.

    If your question is, “How can Christian nations be more Christian?” that’s a good question and a fair one, but I’m not sure holding up Islam as the example makes sense.

  5. “It would be impossible for a Western liberal to become Muslim. Religion invades every part of Muslim life from prayers five times a day to women having to wear some kind of burqa.”

    This is also false. One of my professors is a western liberal (white guy raised in the US with a really WASPy name). He was raised Protestant and converted to Islam in his 20′s. He’s still just as liberal as ever, and he is very devoted to God. Praying 5 times a day doesn’t mean that you have to change your politics. A religion of 1.5 billion people isn’t monolithic. There are plenty of internal conversations among Muslims that are similar to what you would find in the Bloggernacle.

    As far as the burqa (a garment that covers from head to toe, including the face), that’s only in places like Afghanistan and is more cultural than religious. Many Muslim women wear a hijab (a scarf that covers the hair), but there are plenty who don’t. I live in an area (in the US) with a large Muslim population, and about half the practicing Muslim women wear a hijab and about half don’t. I’ve only seen one woman in a burqa in the 5 years I’ve lived here.

  6. The Christian problem of mass exodus and turning to atheism doesn’t seem to be noticeable with Islam.

    Can you point to any studies or survey data on this point?

  7. “I think you’ve drawn some false conclusions at the outset.”

    Probably, but I have not seen any proof that they are false. If anything, Islam is still religiously cohesive even with its disagreements. For instance, where are the discussions about the Koran and its historical and textual problems? Where are the stories of members (men or women) leaving the faith for alternative spirituality without organized religion or simply dropping religious faith completely and becoming atheist? Where are the arguments over if woman should become Imams and religious leaders? Where are the intense debates, as you mention, if women should wear burkas, veils, or neither that leads to schisms, infighting, and non-attendance? Where are the conflicts of theology about if Mohammad saw an angel or was just having an inward psychological hallucination, or was even a “pious fraud” that did good things? I could continue with such lines of questions. No matter if there is proof that such things are widespread, it still begs the question why Islam is so strong and growing?

    “If your question is, ‘How can Christian nations be more Christian?’ that’s a good question . . .”

    That is the question really and I thank you for recognizing that. I could ask, more specifically, how can Mormonism become more Mormon? The problem is that that question has been asked and answered many times, and with no positive results. That is why I am turning to Islam for any other possibilities that haven’t been explored for Christianity and Mormonism since it seems so successful.

  8. “But they are different and not based on religious liberalization”

    As everybody else has pointed out, this is resoundingly false. The essays in this book will offer you a few dozen examples of Muslims arguing about issues of secularism, religious liberalism, and modernity, including debates about burkas, the nature of scripture and revelation, issues of pluralism and exclusive claims to truth and so on and so forth. And it’s barely scratching the surface. Just because you, an American Christian who’s clearly done virtually no research before making superficial and sweeping claims, don’t see these debates doesn’t mean they’re not there. This is exactly the sort of thing that leads journalists who know very little about Mormonism to conflate the FLDS and LDS church.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=IK3edQJ4QRcC&pg=PA338&dq=islam+and+secularism&hl=en&ei=5DVqTvP6CsrK0AGV7MHrBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCkQ6AEwADgK#v=onepage&q&f=false

  9. john f, when you say, “religious fundamentalism is very very bad” I’m not sure how I can square that with the kind of life focused and directed toward religious principles that would cause one to:

    1. be crucified and say next to nothing in their defense to prevent it
    2. leave all they’ve ever known and travel across an ocean and then a continent to endure all kinds of hardships along the way, and often endure even more hardships once you arrive
    3. give up two of their most productive years in life to go on a mission because you believe God wants you to
    4. be willing to give all of your time, and money and even life if necessary to God and his church

    Now I get there may be all kinds of strawmen in the fundamentalist concept that you are opposed to such as a strict, literalistic interpretation of the scriptures, but fundamentalist equally means strict adherence to religious principles.

    One might call someone who staunchly believes in Adam and Eve a fundamentalist, but the label would just as readily apply to someone who believes there ever was a talking donkey, or a building a boat and sailing to the Americas, or believe in life after death. I’m not arguing that if you accept one scripture as literal, you must accept them all as literal, but to me if anything could be described as fundamentalist, I think that 1-4 list above could. So are those very very bad? How could being willing to sell all you own and travel across the world because God wants you to, or give up several years of your life, or be willing to be put to death, or (being asked to) be willing to give all to God and his church **not** be rationalized and argued by some as appearing to lean in the direction the Taliban, etc.

    I’m not suggesting it is. But I think the answers are not clear, and in fact I think the only way is with the simple, but oft snickered at answer of being worth to receive, and then following the guidance of the spirit. If anyone wants a hard and fast rule about how to practice the right kind of religion, I don’t think there is a better one than that. Unfortunately, in the process of doing so (being worth to receive revelation and act on it) you could easily be labeled and rationalized as being fundamentalist.

  10. I think there are plenty of Muslims that “live in the world, but not of the world” in the US. I worked for an attorney about 10 years ago, who had many Muslim clients. Many of the women did not wear the hijab or burqas and were allowed to attend schools have non-Muslim friends and so on, their families were very conservative in the same way LDS families are — there were standards of behavior and morality that the parents expected from their kids. When I lived in Germany, I lived with a very secular Muslim family that only really observed “holy days” and not much else. Their daughter was about as “normal” of a German teenager as any other German teenager. I think what we see on the news is the extreme and sadly that’s our main perception of who and what Muslims are.

  11. Alright, all you people who think my presentation of Islam is wrong, why do you think my perception is the predominant one in the United States? It is obvious from polls and the viewpoints expressed by many that these characterizations are held among a majority. Why isn’t the subjects in the book linked by matt b. found everywhere and discussed openly among non-Muslims? Most important to the point of my post, is the high retention rate and theological conservative devotion a mirage or not documented enough? Is Islam not as successful as it seems?

    If it really is as successful as it seems, why when Christianity is not?

  12. “Not knowing enough about either Islam or the Muslim culture…”

    Oops, time to write about something else!

  13. Dlews – that’s kind of useless snark. I don’t think this post is even coming remotely close to claiming to be authoritative or definitive. But an attempt by a religious observer who seems to be saying, “Islam seems to have a whole lot of bad guys, which malign the religion, but on the other hand it filled with even far great numbers of adherents…why?” and then proceeds to reason out a few answers.

    If you haven’t noticed, that pretty much how most of the world works! Nothing would ever get done if before we conjured up any theories we insisted on a study beforehand (which in all likelyhood doesn’t tell you much anyway and comes down to how you want to tease out an interpretation of the data) or if we had to spend several hours in deep research on a topic (the direction, methodology, etc. of said research being dependent on your own rationales and interpretations).

    My thought would “simply” be that the combination is centuries of cultural isolation takes a century or more to undo. I think the reason the Al Qaeda types are retaliating against Western-ism with such violence is they fear what will happen to their own interpretations of true religion if Western culture is allowed further hegemony.

    I don’t discount the various bits and pieces of the puzzle pointed out here from having any effect (even though I my disagree with some), but I simply think a thousand years of relative cultural isolation takes a long time to undo.

  14. And as far as cultural isolationism… I’m thinking if Islamic countries spent 300 years, by and large sending their people all over the world, and having people come to them and experiencing different types of sustained cultural interactions over several generations, we’d see similar changes.

    It makes sense that the more Christian-Europe went out into the world and encountered every conceivable type of religion/philosophy on a sustained level of relationships, etc. that the generations of Christian-Europe would change. Islamic (or Chinese) countries on the other hand haven’t been out exploring, colonizing, being reverse colonized, etc. for as long.

  15. To answer your question Jettboy, I think the preception that you’ve presented is what many people think because that’s what is on the nightly news. Rarely, unless it’s an issue that people care about, will a person search out a subject and go deeper. And I think it’s very fair to say as well, that most people outside of big metropolitan areas do not know a Muslim personally. Even when I was living in Phoenix, when I worked for the attorney, the few Muslims I knew were just that few, and had I not worked for that particular attorney I would have never known a Muslim. And when I lived in Germany, I lived in Berlin where there were large quarters of Muslims. I think had I lived in a small village or town, I would not have known any Muslims. I think the picuture you’ve presented is true in some places, but not all places. Sadly, the sqeeky wheel gets the attention. When you have radicals drowning out the voice of reason, the radical voice is what people think is mainstream.

  16. Jettboy, you say the following:

    “I could ask, more specifically, how can Mormonism become more Mormon? The problem is that that question has been asked and answered many times, and with no positive results. That is why I am turning to Islam for any other possibilities that haven’t been explored for Christianity and Mormonism since it seems so successful.”

    I don’t think Mormonism has anything to learn from Islam, except perhaps in the individual dedication some people may have toward God, and in this case we might learn a lot. But structurally, they are simply too different to be compared. Islam purposefully does not have a central authority like the President of our church or the Pope. Muhammed was, for them, the last prophet, and Islam deliberately wants to be decentralized. So, as I have noted, Islam in Indonesia is completely different than Islam in India, which is different from Saudi Arabia, which is different from Iran, and on and on. In contrast, you can go to our church in South Africa and it is amazingly similar to your ward. You have a wide variety of styles for adherents — in the U.S. and many other countries, Muslims have never read the Koran and are “cultural Muslims” just like Huntsman is a cultural Mormon. And even in countries where we imagine people are incredibly dedicated — like Iran, to name an example, young people love to rebel and find ways to avoid being religious, and a lot of people act like they are religious but really aren’t. I can tell you that Muslims are not supposed to drink, but as soon as the flight leaves Saudi Arabia they break out the booze and party it up.

    So, how do we make Mormons more Mormon? Appealing to the Spirit is the only way. Personally, we need to do our callings, go to the temple, read the scriptures and try our best to find ways to help other people and serve them. In my experience, these are the things that bring the Spirit.

    And of course arguing over politics. That definitely brings the Spirit.

  17. BTW, regarding the spirit by my #9 and Jeff’s #16 here’s some scriptures for you in Ezekiel 1.

    It describes 4 creatures, who were dramatically different, but shared some similar characteristics. I think this could and does mean several things, but one relevant interpretation is if we think about the diverse groups of people from the four quarters of the earth. We all have “the likeness of a man” but until we (culturally and individually) got to know one another, “we” were normal and the rest were just different, strange people with strange babbling language, funny appearance, funny customs, etc.

    And yet in this vision the 4 creatures are joined and united, in spite of their differences they were “joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.”

    “And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.”

    “Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go”

    “When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood;”

    There’s a lot of different symbolism you could pull out as it talks about wheels, faces, wings, etc. But I was just trying to pull the less “far out” pieces for this comment.

    As Geoff says, appealing to the spirit is the only way. And in the case of this example in Ezekiel, you have 1 “normal” person being united with 3 other totally far out crazy looking man/animal-like creatures. And they are perfectly united as they are joined together by the spirit. Where the spirit moves upon them, they move, where the spirit directs they go. In some ways, we are each that normal person, and to us everyone is is the odd creature. And the inverse is true… to everyone else they are normal, and everyone else is the odd creature in the likeness of man.

    It’s only the spirit that truly unites us.

    “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.”

    “And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land…”

    “When they stood, these stood; and when they were lifted up, these lifted up themselves also: for the spirit of the living creature was in them.”

  18. I found these competing viewpoints interesting:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/16/AR2007031601941.html

    http://freethoughtnation.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=192:the-secular-muslim&catid=36:islam

    One of them from the Washington Post claims Muslim religiosity is on the rise. The other doesn’t claim a growth or number, but that there are secularized Muslims that aren’t heard and yet could be a powerful force within the community.

  19. BHodges, I deleted your last comment and edited the one above. If you can’t disagree without throwing out insults, please don’t come on this blog. Disagreement is definitely encouraged. Insults are not. Thanks.

  20. Jettboy: “Alright, all you people who think my presentation of Islam is wrong….”

    I wasn’t so much bothered by your mis-perception of Islam as I was by something else. I don’t think it’s any crime to be uninformed or misinformed—and it’s certainly no crime to acknowledge that and then start asking questions on the subject (which is what you did, so kudos).

    And I don’t see any problem comparing and contrasting Islam with Christianity to see if the latter can learn anything from the former.

    No, what most disturbs me about this post and your follow-up comments is what you originally expressed as:

    Islam is a religion without the theological, moral, or societal conflicts present in Western societies…. Liberalism and moral relativity hasn’t touched the highly conservative Muslim population.

    I wondered if your real question wasn’t missed; e.g., Paul wrote, #4: “How can Christian nations be more Christian?” But even as you agreed to this revised question, I didn’t think that really portrayed your concerns—for one thing, you could have easily asked that question without bringing up Islam.

    So, what is it about Islam (or your perception of Islam) that grabbed your attention—specifically, as a possible solution to what ails Christianity?

    I think two further comments illustrate:

    there are all kinds of Muslim conflicts. But they are different and not based on religious liberalization, watering down the faith to platitudes, or keeping members active. Again, what is Islam doing right to keep so many dedicated adherents who don’t murmur and leave?

    Most important to the point of my post, is the high retention rate and theological conservative devotion a mirage or not documented enough? Is Islam not as successful as it seems?

    Your comments emphasize (though I added the boldtype) the lack of a liberal movement within Islam. Thus, it appears that your ponderings on the subject of Islam have less to do with “what might re-energize Christianity and particularly Mormonism” and more to do with how much better off Mormonism would be if it weren’t tainted by so many liberals within it.

  21. Brian J, yes that is correct. Since I feel religious conservatism that remains literal to its theology and high retention rates equal success, I wonder how Islam remains seemingly so strong in those two areas. There have been a few posters who have tried to show this isn’t always the case, but I’m still not convinced they are examples of more than outliers rather than significant movements.

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