Throughout my adult life the religion with which I have had most interactions with, and studied most about, is that of Islam. Living in the United Kingdom, the second largest religious group according to the 2011 Census, Islam is a vibrant faith that has surrounded me for most of my adult life. Although I met Muslims while serving as a missionary in Glasgow I am ashamed to admit that I did not take time to learn anything about the faith of those people whom I taught; except in the fact that I began from the premise of a loving God in an effort to find common ground; I knew enough to realise that beginning with the divine sonship of Jesus Christ would not be an ideal starting point. My learning about Islam began with ‘book’ learning in a university class where I completed an in-depth study of the concept of God and Tawhid (Oneness) in Islam. It wasn’t until my first year as a teacher that I encountered Islam as a lived religion for the first time.
Ian, was my deputy headteacher and was a devout Muslim. For some reason he took an interest in me and especially helped me raise the profile and importance of Religious Education in the school where I taught. By this point I had a rudimentary understanding of Islam and its teachings- I was after all teaching 11-16 year olds the various principles of it. I taught an introduction to Islam in the form of beliefs about God, the life of Muhammad and the Five Pillars of Islam. It was my interactions and conversations with Ian that made me understand the impact that Islam had on his life and recognise its influence beyond what I was learning in books.
Ian, or Yusuf to give him his Islamic name, was a convert/revert to Islam and most people did not immediately know of his religion. It was interesting to me to sit in meetings with him, and for the first hour he would avoid the tea and biscuits, at a specific time- I think it was 4:28pm he would reach over to the plate of biscuits (cookies) and very quietly break his fast. He bore with my questions with the utmost patience- how did he perform wudu (the cleansing before prayer) in school? What prejudice had he faced? Through our conversations I learned far more about Islam than I had done through four years of University.
Although by this point I had been at Church for about ten years it was from Ian that I learned the importance of my personal fast. Up until this point I had recognised the importance of the fast for an immediate need. At the age of 16/17 I had been encouraged to fast about the truthfulness of The Book of Mormon, and I had extended this invitation to incorporate a question about whether I should serve a mission. My assumption and automatic acceptance of its truthfulness didn’t seem enough if I was to serve a mission. I fasted and prayed- and remember reading 3 Nephi 17 with tears in my eyes to confirm the testimony of my Saviour that I feel I had always had since the age of 8- the word of the Lord to Oliver Cowdery seemed to speak straight to me: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:22-23). My testimony was confirmed and there has not been a single doubt since then. To paraphrase and misquote Joseph Smith: “So it was with me. I had actually seen felt the Spirit, and it did in reality speak to me; and though I may be hated ant persecuted for saying that I had felt the Spirit, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually felt the Spirit; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I had actually felt? For I have felt the Spirit; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation”. Through this experience I understood the power of fasting to gain an answer to prayer.
I also understood the importance of fasting and prayer on behalf of someone else. While serving a mission I was teaching a lady called Sheila. She had a strong desire to be baptised but her husband was opposed. We explained that it wasn’t appropriate for us to baptise anyone in opposition to their spouse’s wishes. We agreed to fast and to pray that her husband’s heart was softened. Although I wouldn’t suggest it, Sheila fasted for three days (I only fasted for one day) and she was able to be baptised. Through these and other experiences I recognised the importance and power of fasting for something, whether on my own behalf or for someone else. With this testimony of fasting already secure, what could I learn from a Muslim? I didn’t go into our conversations to learn more about my faith, rather I went into them to try and understand his faith and beliefs better. This was the first time I was able to step outside of myself and recognise the reciprocal and transformative learning that was taking place.
Fasting or Sawm is the fourth Pillar of Sunni Islam and also one of the Obligatory Acts of Shi’a Islam. The Qur’an suggests that a Muslim should fast during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan:
O you who have faith! Prescribed for you is fasting as it was prescribed for those who were before you, so that you may be Godwary (Surah 2:183).
Fasting is important as it reflects a reliance on Allah, and also the ability to become ‘Godwary’ (taqwa). It helps a Muslim to put the usual distractions of the day into context, and develop their understanding of Allah. It further develops their spiritual nature and helps them focus on what is most important and will be accompanied by the performance of good acts, and the avoidance of the bad. For many Muslims its primary purpose is spiritual rather than any physical benefits that it may bring. It is this Godwariness that arose in my discussion with Ian and helped transform my practice. I don’t think he ever used the term ‘Godwary’ but when I asked him the purpose of his fast, he was slightly confused. The purpose was to develop his spirituality, show submission to Allah. I am fully aware that this is an aspect of Latter-day Saint fasting, but the development of my own spirituality through fasting seemed to have taken a back seat to the securing of specific answers to prayer, or blessings for myself and others. I realised that my fasting had become out of balance. Isaiah speaks of the blessings of the fast:
And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not (Isaiah 53:11).
Fasting accompanied by prayer is essential for me as a Latter-day Saint but its underlying purpose is to develop my relationship with God, and therefore my spirituality. This blessing is also taught in The Book of Mormon:
Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God (Helaman 3:35).
This conversation with Ian and the resultant study and reflection changed my whole attitude to fasting. I still fast with a specific purpose in mind, but I recognise that that identifiable purpose is secondary to the Spirit that can be brought into my life in the very act of fasting.
While I am on the subject of fasting, it was only recently when exploring Ahmadiyya Muslims teachings that I came across something that should have been common sense, it had been something that I judged myself negatively about. If a Muslim inadvertently eats or drinks, when they remember the fast they should stop and continue the fast. However, if they realise and then continue to eat, the fast is broken and needs to be made up on another day. I am not great at remembering to fast, or remembering that I am fasting when I have. If I inadvertently eat something I usually throw my hands up in the air and think, “That’s my fast ruined then, I might as well eat”. Reflecting on the Ahmadiyya view I realise that my Heavenly Father is more concerned with my intention, and he would rather that I continue the fast when I realised. This has echoes for me of King Benjamin’s discourse on giving to those who have not:
I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give. And now, if ye say this in your hearts ye remain guiltless, otherwise ye are condemned… (Mosiah 4:24-25).
I think it along the same lines, that I am keeping the fast in my heart, and that as soon as I realise I adjust my thinking and resume the fast. I realise this may be seeking excuses, but I think that the Lord would rather I complete a fast than abandon it because I thoughtlessly ate a chip.
I think it’s important to note that I began teaching in 1997, and while Ian encountered aspects of prejudice it was not widespread nor was it a noticeable issue in the community where I lived and taught.
What I taught in my lessons was the “chocolate box” view of Islam. What I mean by this, is the sanitised bare facts- the Five Pillars and the ideal of how a Muslim should live. I perhaps would have continued along this path had it not been for the events of September 2001. I walked into school on 12th September to be faced by a colleague who announced that he was no longer going to teach about Islam, and throughout that week a number of Islamophobic comments from students. After challenging these individually I was asked by the school to meet with each year group to discuss the events of the past few days. Some of the comments I made are below:
Due to recent tragic events, comments in the media, and even comments within school it is felt that it may be appropriate to say a few words about the religion of Islam.
You may have heard the terms ‘Muslim terrorist’ or ‘Islamic Jihad’ as you have listened to the news. It is possible that the terrorists who carried out these evil acts were Muslims, but their actions do not reflect the attitudes or beliefs of individual Muslims or the religion of Islam as a whole.
Islam is a religion that teaches peace and brotherhood. Unfortunately, some people have interpreted certain beliefs to mean that they can kill and terrorise people. This is far from the message of Islam that most people would accept.
Just as it would be wrong to blame a whole class for the actions of one person, so it is wrong to blame a whole religion for the actions of a few people. Last week, we saw in the news so called Christian people in Northern Ireland, shouting at or throwing things at schoolchildren- does this mean that all Christians support this act? – Of course not.
These acts of terrorism were evil, but we must make sure we do not add to the suffering by blaming innocent people. We must treat each other, irrespective of religion or colour, with respect and tolerance.
However, these events meant that a chocolate box view of Islam was no longer enough either for me or my students. There were real controversies that needed to be discussed or they would not be able to understand the basic message of Islam and what a positive force it could be. They would be left to the newspapers to find out what a negative force it can be. This was not acceptable to me. I had to change the way I taught about Islam. At the same time, my understanding of Islam needed to deepen my study and interactions needed to increase so that I was being honest in the classroom discussions I had, and that students could recognise that I wasn’t just teaching the sanitised view of religion.
There are two elements of this shift in emphasis that have influenced my own faith. One of them is the meaning of the word ‘Islam’ and the second is the concept of Jihad- both of these ideas link together and are, perhaps, the aspects of Islam that I connect most with. In responding to issues in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and many times since I have used the idea that Islam is a religion of peace. As we look at the name of the religion it literally means ‘Peace’ with its root in the Arabic word “sal’m”; it is not incidental that when Muslims greet each other it is with the words “As-salāmu ʿalaykum” (Peace be upon you). The desire to find peace and live peaceably is paramount within Islam. Linked with this is an additional translation of Islam which is “submission’ and a Muslim is literally “one who submits”. This is the idea that for a Muslim life should be lived in submission to Allah. Every aspect of their life should be lived showing submission to him. In some elements of Islam this is most evident; for example, the sujud prayer position where a worshipper prostrates themselves to the ground with their forehead and hands touching the ground (in the case of Shi’a Muslims a clay tablet is placed under the forehead):
O you who have believed, bow and prostrate and worship your Lord and do good – that you may succeed (Surah 22:77).
This desire to live in submission to Allah is reflected in the inner struggle of a person known as the greater jihad,. In today’s media the meaning of Jihad has focussed its attention on the lesser jihad, or the physical struggle. Although it is an element of Isla, the circumstances that would permit such a battle would make it extremely unlikely,, and the actions of so-called Jihadis would be seen to be outside of Qur’anic acceptability. Indeed, one branch of Islam, Ahmadiyya suggest that the time of physical jihad is over. Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad has outlined the nature of jihad for Ahmadis that fits with their message of ‘Love for all, hatred for none’:
… our Jihad is not a Jihad of swords, guns or bombs. Our Jihad is not a Jihad of cruelty, brutality and injustice. Rather, our Jihad is of love, mercy and compassion. Our Jihad is of tolerance, justice and human sympathy. Our Jihad is to fulfil the rights of God Almighty and of His Creation.
The greater struggle within a person is between living in submission to Allah and not, which can be found in two elements of the human soul that have differing emphases in the various traditions of Islam but are generally seen in a discussion of ‘nafs’ and the ‘qalb’.
For some Muslims these are what can be termed the ‘downward nafs’ (though some Muslims would suggest that nafs are neutral and that they are made negative or positive by human action). Geaves suggests that nafs can refer to “impurities such as anger, greed, jealousy, hatred and lust.” (2007, p. 44). The purpose of life is to overcome the downward nafs, and develop those nafs that evidence a person’s standing before Allah. When this mastery is attained a person is prepared for paradise.
The qalb, or heart, can be seen to be the spiritual nature of humanity which is capable of learning both good and evil. The outward actions of a person reflect the purity of a person’s qalb. As a person gains wisdom and performs good deeds then the person is prepared to receive paradise. The purification of the qalb is made possible by worship of, and submission to, Allah.
For me, this has resonance with elements of the discussion surrounding the natural man:
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father (Mosiah 3:19).
In a Latter-day Saint context Robert L. Millet has explained that:
…natural men and women are unregenerated beings who remain in their fallen condition, living without God and godliness in the world. They are unredeemed creatures without comfort, beings who live by their own light. On the one hand, natural men and women may be people bent on lechery and lasciviousness; they may love Satan more than God, and therefore they are “carnal, sensual, and devilish” (Moses 5:13).
This is someone who has a predilection to the downward nafs, those aspects of ourselves and our personalities that draw us away from God. I like the idea of not necessarily being consciously downward or devil focussed, rather that we live by our own light. We may not be evil, or doing evil things, but we are living without God in our lives and recognising his influence. It is here that the Sermon on the Mount can help us understand how we should live this struggle:
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
As disciples of Christ, rather than the natural man, we should be enriching the world and allowing ourselves and others to recognise the influence of Christ in our lives. The natural man stops as “they may see your good works”; the purpose of everything that we do is to draw close to Christ and to “glorify your Father which is in heaven”. In so doing we will receive a closeness with Christ, and also joy and peace in this life and the world to come:
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:27).
The recognition that everything we do is designed to exemplify our relationship and submission to God refocussed the way I view the things that I do in my everyday life. At the end of a long week not long ago I sat down and evaluated my worship for the week. I concluded that while being incredibly busy, my week had failed to go beyond what I considered to be the bare minimum of worship. I had attended Church on the Sunday which had included taking the sacrament, I had studied and prayed both individually, and with my family, each day, but that was it.
As I looked at the activities my wife and I had been involved with we had spent a total of 50 hours in Church related service. It was only when I looked at that figure, then my forty hour work week that I began to explore what I could have done more. I then realised that in separating my acts of worship from my acts of Church service I was missing the point.
What was the point? My Church related service activities were acts of worship within themselves. How had I missed this? Maybe a brief list of some of these activities might help the explanation: I had attended a local inter-faith meeting, my wife had attended a Presidency meeting, I had spent two hours sending out invitations to an upcoming event, I had attended the Temple with two of children (okay- that does count as worship), taught with the missionaries, sat in interview with a number of ward members, and so on.
Most of these events I categorized as administration or organizational, even the teaching I saw as an act of teaching rather than an act of worship. What I had failed to appreciate, is that each of these activities were designed in some way to help others draw closer to Christ, and indeed, at the same time if I did them properly they could also help me draw closer to Him. I needed to refocus my attitude so they became worship rather than activities.
As I developed this train of thought further I had the opportunity to teach an undergraduate class on Islam. I taught about the word “Islam” meaning “submission”, and that a Muslim would strive to submit to Allah in every aspect of their lives. I realised that the re-evaluation of my Church related activities as worship was only the tip of the iceberg. If I applied what I learnt from Islam, I realised that every aspect of my life: Church, work and family were actually all acts of worship that could draw me closer to the Saviour?
How does this work? As a father, the way that I treat or speak with my children can exemplify my efforts to develop Christlike characteristics, or not as the case may be. The way that I exert my efforts in the workplace can similarly exemplify my promises to ““to stand as [a witness] of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that [I] may be in” (Mosiah 18: 9). I am reminded of a passage from The Shack: “It’s simple, Mack. It’s all about relationships and simply sharing life. What we are doing right now− just doing this− and being open and available to others around us. My church is all about people and life is all about relationships.” Sharing life, and engaging in relationships wherever they are found are the acts of worship I am striving to develop.
At the moment I do not know how this newly discovered attitude to worship will work in practice. What I am sure of, is that by striving to include all of my life as an act of worship then I can hopefully draw closer to Christ, and feel less guilt about the “acts of worship” I so dearly wished to do. It does not negate my responsibility to attend Church, the Temple and to study and pray, but if I view every action- whether visiting members of the Church, teaching a University class, or spending time with my family as an opportunity to develop my relationship with the Saviour, asI develop my relationship with others I may be on the right track.
I have so far reflected on ideas within Islam that I have used to develop my own faith practice, but there are elements of Islam that do not have a correlation with my beliefs. One of the greatest blessings of my life is the opportunity that I have to work with children and young people. Throughout my time in both schools that I taught in, and my time at University I have taught many Muslim students, and worked with some amazing Muslim colleagues. While working in my second school I had the opportunity to teach 11-18 year olds instead of stopping at the age of 16. I remember many of my Muslim A-Level students (16-18) particularly fondly; I’m not sure that they know but the way that they lived their religion in different ways helped me begin to understand the diversity of Islam. Two experiences with regard to my learning about Islam stand out. Amjed was a young man whom I loved teaching, he was funny and was convinced I was a “King Mormon” because any member of the Church he met knew who I was. One day he was two days overdue with an essay; he promised to hand it to me by Friday “Inshallah” (If God wills it). My immediate reaction was frustration and responded: “No, not if God wills it, but if I will it”- on reflection it wasn’t the best response but he took it humorously. This caused me to reflect on the influence that the belief in God as being intimately involved in every aspect of my life. Just in this throwaway conversation, I was learning about myself and others. I digress from the point that not everything in Islam coheres with my faith.
Sarah was an amazing young lady. She was an observant Muslim and tried to develop this identity in a way that didn’t come across as self-righteous or taking itself too seriously. I remember one lesson where she had just read/ been told some of my practices. She was thrilled that I didn’t drink, gamble, view/read pornography, and didn’t agree with sexual immorality. Her response was, “Sir, you would make such a good Muslim!” Then, after a short moment, she asked me: “Actually sir, why aren’t you a Muslim?” Another student answered for me, “Because he believes that Jesus is the Son of God”; her response was incredulous in the nicest possible way: “Do you really sir, do you really?”. This interchange caused me serious reflection then, and still does now as I think about it. With all of the tenets of Islam that I admire and agree with, and all of the Muslims I meet who are absolutely delightful why am I not a Muslim? My other student got it right: I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, of all the things that I believe that is the most important and the central aspect of my faith. In believing this and shaping my life around it I am saying at the same time that Islam is incomplete. That is not to say there is not good within it, but that my faith is complete because of my Saviour; and the teachings fo Islam while helpful do not ultimately bring me into a relationship with Him.
This is an important aspect of inter-faith dialogue: why do I believe this rather than that? Over the years I have read articles and books that seek to draw parallels between Islam and the Restored Gospel. While helpful, they all seem to overlook the point that it is the divergence as well as the convergence that define our relationships. This is not to deny the positive aspects of Islam, nor the degree of inspiration that was received by Muhammad. As mentioned in the introduction the First Presidency in 1978 suggested Muhammad and other non-biblical religious leaders and philosophers “received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations.” Parley P. Pratt once suggested that Muhammad was on “the side of truth” and “my rational faculties would compel me to admit that the Mahometan (sic) history and Mahometan (sic) doctrine was a standard raised against the most corrupt and abominable idolatry that ever perverted our earth.” George Q. Cannon had a similar view of Muhammad in the sense that the inspiration he received drew people closer to God:
I believe myself that Mahomet (sic) whom the Christians deride and call a false prophet and stigmatize with a great many epithets was a man raised up by the almighty and inspired to a certain extent by him to effect the reforms which he did in his land and in the nations surrounding he attacked idolatry and restored the great and crowning idea that there is but one god he taught that idea to his people and reclaimed them from polytheism and from the heathenish practices into which they had fallen.
Muhammad’s revelation of the Qur’an is a good example of elements of a religion being either a helpful mechanism or stumbling block in the development of knowledge along our path to salvation. It is a message that moved Arabia from a polytheistic and idolatrous community of tribes, to an organised religious people coalescing around the belief in one God. There are, however, aspects of Muhammad’s message that is antithetical to the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The greatest truth that I hold dear is that Jesus is the Christ, my Saviour and the Son of God. Through his identity as the Son of God I know that he died for my sins, and through his grace and atonement I can return and live with God. Within Islam, however, my greatest truth is the greatest sin, shirk. There are three types of shirk within Islam:
- Lordship: where a person ascribes a partner to Allah in his supremacy and might as Lord.
- In names and attributes: this is the idea that people and other created beings can be elevated to the status of Allah by being seen to independently possess his attributes. There is none other like him; people can only be said to have attributes of Allah by dependence on him.
- Worship: where other entities are worshipped besides/instead of Allah.
It is possible to place my belief in Christ into each of these categories. I could parse the language I use and suggest that my belief in Christ does not quite meet these criteria in the sense that:
- Christ is still subject to the Father
- Christ owes his existence to the Father, and He is the Son in relation to Him
- In reality, worship of the Son is ultimately that of the Father
This would be disingenuous, and I would suggest that each of these areas of shirk would perfectly describe my view of Christ. As the second person of the Godhead, Christ is worshipped and is, indeed, his Son. This is the meaning of the Gospels and the entirety of the plan of salvation. I think, for both myself and Muslims the incompatibility of these beliefs are evident and the best delineator between our faiths. But, returning to Sarah’s question, ‘Do I really believe that?’ and the associated question of ‘Why?’ Is it purely because of the way that I have grown up, it is easier to believe than not. I think that is the easy answer, but ultimately not enough. My experiences of the love of the Saviour in my life, and the impact of the atonement in times of sorrow and sin mean that as I abide in Him I recognise his sustaining influence every day of my life.
There is, however, a reciprocity in my relationship with Islam. Sometimes my experience as a Latter-day Saint helps me understand aspects of Islam in a better way. It is interesting that as I moved into University teaching in some ways I have become a part of “the establishment.” For a Latter-day Saint in the UK, at least for me, this is an unusual experience; for the majority of my life I have been a minority and seeking for my voice to be heard. In discussing other religions I was part of a power dynamic that I had been unaware of except as a member of a faith. What do I mean by this? I was one the conduits through which religions were mediated, I had long argued that in certain situations the way that Christianity was defined and explored was exclusionary and reflective of a particular definition and approach, and that Christianity and its boundaries were a lot messier and more blurred than is often portrayed. In addition to my work in schools and in University, I am also responsible for the Religious Studies national examinations for thousands of 16 and 18 year olds every year, and one year I received a letter of complaint about the specification/syllabus that was being taught with regards to Islam. The complainant suggested that our course established Sunni Islam as the authentic Islam, while Shi’a was seen to be heterodox and schismatic. He argued, as a Shi’a Muslim, that he held the opposite view. This type of sensitivity looms very large on my radar within Christianity. I often have discussions about the Church’s place in Christianity and how language is incredibly important. In some of my reading I have seen phrases such as “Latter-day Saints identify themselves as Christian, but…”. I have no issues with the first part of the sentence, but the inclusion of the word ‘but’ suggests that whatever has come before is about to be negated by the next part of the sentence.
In addition to issues of language has been the power dynamic within Christianity. In discussion with a rather important leader in another Christian denomination I was told that there was no such thing as a non-Trinitarian Christian, it was impossible- the Trinity is the defining characteristic of Christianity. Maybe because of my educational standing it had been a long time since I had been told something similar, and I had long not worried about how other people viewed my Christianity. I think people are at liberty to tell me I am not a Christian according to their criteria, but they do not tell me this, they tell me I am not a Christian. People who know me have no doubt that I am a Christian in my belief, and am striving so to be in my behaviour. I seek to emulate my Saviour in all that I do. Jesus is my way, my truth and my life. I only become a non-Christian when I don’t meet someone’s artificially created standard.
These types of experience have helped me understand the nuances of Islam both in terms of the Sunni-Shi’a split, and also more latterly with my experience of Ahmadiyya Islam. Alan Brine (2015) has suggested:
Do we need to actively question the idea that there is such a thing as ‘true’ or ‘reaI’ Islam? There are just lots of different Islams. Some forms are pleasing to the eye; others are distasteful but they are all just versions of Islam. Some Muslims will claim some kind of authority for their version, and that is ‘interesting’, but it cannot be taken as a baseline for our teaching about the religion.
Sometimes within discussions it can be seen that Sunni is taught as the normative expression of Islam, and Shi’a split from Sunni. This is perhaps an inevitable result of a large percentage of Muslims in the UK, and around the world, being Sunni (estimates range from 85–90% with the remainder generally being found within Shi’a Islam). The typical Sunni view is summarised by Cyril Glasse:
Shi’ites are Muslims because their doctrines coincide for the most part with orthodox Islam; the Shi’ite belief in the mystic role of the Imams, while deplorable does not put them beyond the pale.
For Shia’s this summation would be offensive; in this understanding Sunni Islam is ‘orthodox’ and Shi’as beliefs are ‘deplorable’, also described as heterodox or heretical. Contrary to this, Muslims would describe their version of Islam as the authentic expression, taught by the Prophet Muhammad and continued by his successors, the Imams. This is important in trying to understand different expressions of Islam. As already noted, there is a tendency to describe Shi’as as the breakaway or schismatic sect of Islam. In understanding Shi’a Islam it is imperative that Shi’a claims are recognised on their own terms, and not through the lenses of Sunni history and belief. This is not to suggest that the differences cannot be examined; indeed, the provide a rich area of discussion but we should allow both Sunnis and Shi’a to be understood on their own terms, and not through how other describe them.
Within Christianity the inclusion of Latter-day Saints as Christian is debated; a similar debate exists within Islam about Ahmadiyya and their place within wider Islam. If one were to attend prayers in an Ahmadiyya mosque, or converse about the central tenets of Islam a person would struggle to observe a noticeable difference between Sunni and Ahmadiyya practice and teachings. However Ahmadiyya Muslims seem to be rejected as Muslim. One example of this is in the state of Pakistan. There are elements of the Pakistani constitution that outlines their placement outside of Islam. Firstly, in 1974 the Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan declared members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to be non-Muslims. In 1984 Ordinance XX was added to the constitution which effectively restricted the self-identification and religious practice of Ahmadiyya Muslims. Ordinance XX outlines specific prohibitions against the Ahmadiyya community. Each of these ‘offences’ are punishable by three years imprisonment and a fine.
There are numerous other examples of anti-Ahmadiyya sentiment and action. Although most prevalent in majority Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, there are examples in the UK. In March 2016 Ahmadi newsagent, Asad Shah, 40, was killed by a Sunni Muslim in what police termed an act of “religious prejudice”. In the same year leaflets calling for death to Ahmadis were found in mosques – the mosques themselves asserted that they were unaware of the leaflets and had not placed them there, they remain evidence of anti-Ahmadiyya feeling within aspects of Islam.
There is space for disagreement within Islam as is shown in Sunni-Shi’a relationships. What is it, therefore, that Ahmadis believe and teach that seems to create such animosity? The major point of dissension surrounds the person and role of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Ahmadis believe that he was the promised Messiah/Mahdi foretold in the Qur’an and by the Prophet. This is rejected by other Muslims, in concert with the Ahmadi belief that Ghulam Ahmad was sent to rejuvenate Muslims from their malaise. In some ways it could be argued that Ghulam Ahmad’s claims are a rejection of Islamic tenets as understood by Muslims worldwide. This could lead to feelings of animosity.
The area of most contention seems to surround an understanding of Muhammad as ‘seal of the prophets.’ For Sunni and Shi’a Muslims this tends to indicate that Muhammad is the final prophet, and that after him there will be no further prophets. A Hadith of the Prophet is used to suggest the completeness of the message that he delivered:
My similitude in comparison with the other prophets before me, is that of a man who has built a house nicely and beautifully, except for a place of one brick in a corner. The people go about it and wonder at its beauty, but say: ‘Would that this brick be put in its place!’ So I am that brick, and I am the last of the Prophets (Sahih al-Bukhari 3535).
Ahmadis would not disagree with this Hadith, but their interpretation of what is meant by no prophet after Muhammad differs from that held by Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. There is no disagreement about Muhammad’s position as the greatest of the prophets but, in distinction to Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis say that there are two types of prophets: law bearing and non-law bearing. Ahmad Chaudhry suggests:
His [Muhammad’s] title being ‘Khataman Nabiyyeen’, meaning ‘Father of the Prophets’, gives us the logical conclusion that there can be and will be such spiritual sons who will be prophets bearing the seal of his allegiance and obedience. Such a prophet can bring no new law and will bear the seal of his law.
Ghulam Ahmad is a follower of the Prophet Muhammad, indeed, is a reflection of all of the prophets and their messages. He does not seek to add to the message of Muhammad, rather he reminds Muslims of the teachings of Muhammad and glorifies his name. In this was he is not coming as a law-bearing prophet but as a prophet chosen by Allah to restore the message of Islam in the lives of Muslims:
But I am a Messenger and a Prophet without a new law in the sense that God reveals to me that which is hidden, and because of the inner grace that has been bestowed upon me on account of my obedience to the Holy Prophet, and because of having received his name.
Section 2 of Ordinance XX to the Pakistan Constitution makes it clear that this is the major issue which wider Islam has with the Ahmadiyya Community. It is my belief that as teachers we are not to draw lines of demarcation within religions and that the self-identification of adherents should be respected. In most other aspects of Islamic belief and practice there is little, if any, difference between the Ahmadiyya ideal and those found within the wider Islamic world. Even though the religiosity and observance may be different.
It is my experience as a Latter-day Saint that helped me see a big tent of Islam. Within the community there will always be lines that are drawn, or not drawn for one reason or another, but recognising the importance of listening to Muslims on their terms, whichever tradition they are from, enables me to expect similar treatment from dialogue partners.
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