There is perhaps no historical figure whose legacy is more energetically contested today than that of Muhammad, the messenger and prophet of Islam. Born in the Arabian city of Mecca in A.D. 570, as a young man in his twenties he began to proclaim a message of renewal and unity among his people. Gathered in the Qur’an, his revelations announce that God (Allah) is one, and that there is a true Way (din) for his people to worship him as a community (ummah). It is the way of submission or surrender (Islam) to God. Muhammad called the Jews, the Christians, and the polytheists of his day to unite in the simple faith of Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus—all of whom recognized and worshipped one Lord through prayer, through fasting, and by caring for those in need. The revelations of the Qur’an repeatedly enjoin these basic acts of devotion upon all humanity and warn of the spiritual perils of unbelief and of living in a state of resistance to God and His righteous command (‘amr). A day of resurrection and judgement is promised in which those who have done good will see that good returned to them, and those who have done evil will suffer the consequences.
Muhammad’s message of one God beside whom there was no other was violently resisted by the powerful, polytheistic majority of Meccan society. He and his small band of followers were attacked from the outset and were finally forced to flee Mecca to save their lives. But Muhammad found new supporters while in exile and over time drew greater numbers to his movement such that he was finally able to overcome the Meccan opposition. He returned to his hometown, cleansed the Kaaba of its idols, dedicated it to the worship of the one God, and united all of the Arabian tribes under a resounding affirmation: “There is no god but God!”
Since its emergence in the seventh century, Islam has grown to become one of the most widespread religious movements in the world with 1.6 billion adherents today and growth rates that will likely propel it to become the most populous faith on the planet. Today there is tremendous variety in the details of Islamic belief and practice. With no central religious authority, and with a kaleidoscopic history of jurisprudence, philosophy, mysticism, political theory, cultural change, migration, conflict, stasis, and dynamism, there is very little that can be said unequivocally about Islam or Muslims—certainly no more than can be said about Christians or Christianity. But at its heart, there is still the simple affirmation that God is One and that all creation owes fealty to Him, and that Muhammad was a messenger of God like others before him—including the great prophets and kings of the Bible.
Today, there is a great deal of anxiety about Islamic extremism. Such concerns are not misplaced insofar as they address actual ideological and physical threats posed by real parties who have become radicalized. But the roots of radicalization are no more exclusive to Islam than they are to any other religion. Extremism—Islamic or otherwise—is a venom of complex chemistry involving political history, economics, social dynamics, biology, patterns of interpersonal interaction, and much more. Religion is nearly always an important part of it, but never the full explanation. And just as there are Muslim terrorists, there are also Muslim environmentalists, Muslim scientists, Muslim doctors, Muslim philanthropists, Muslim peace activists, Muslim feminists, Muslim conservatives, Muslim poets, Muslim builders, Muslim mothers, and Muslim Fathers who draw inspiration from their faith in far greater numbers than Muslim terrorists. These are our brothers and sisters, and Muhammad is their human guide—the complete example to whom they look as a role model and teacher.
In 1978, the First Presidency declared that Muhammad was among “the great religious leaders of the world” who “received a portion of God’s light” and to whom moral truths were given “to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” So, as Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting begins, we honor Muhammad who brought good things to his people and leavened the world with the stirring and challenging revelations of the Qur’an. Not everything he taught comports with the tenets of Christianity—especially our devotion to Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God. But just as Muhammad taught that the “People of the Book”—Jews, Christians, and others with scripture that recognizes the sovereignty of God—were deserving of the privilege to worship in their way, so we may recognize in the founder of Islam a man of sincerity, profound insight, and inspiration worthy of our deepest admiration and respect.
Note: For further insight into Muhammad and for an informed Latter-day Saint perspective on Islam, I highly recommend this article by James Toronto, who in just a few days will begin service as the first president of the Central Eurasian Mission, with headquarters in Istanbul.
THE MORMON LECTIONARY PROJECT
We thank thee, our Father, for the life and ministry of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, who taught that obedience to the Divine Will was the path of peace in this life and the way to enduring happiness in the hereafter. May we, by the grace of Christ, recognize the true and the good in his teachings and in the faith of our Muslim brothers and sisters. And by the light of thy Holy Spirit, let us walk in the straight and narrow way as believers in Thee—One God, forever and ever, Amen.
Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the Lord.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.
Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written. For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written. For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it. And it shall come to pass that the Jews shall have the words of the Nephites, and the Nephites shall have the words of the Jews; and the Nephites and the Jews shall have the words of the lost tribes of Israel; and the lost tribes of Israel shall have the words of the Nephites and the Jews. And it shall come to pass that my people, which are of the house of Israel, shall be gathered home unto the lands of their possessions; and my word also shall be gathered in one. And I will show unto them that fight against my word and against my people, who are of the house of Israel, that I am God, and that I covenanted with Abraham that I would remember his seed forever.
Quran 55:1–13 (trans. Morgan Davis)
The Lord of Mercy—he taught the Qur’an. He created humans and taught them expression. The sun and the moon move with precision. The stars and trees bow down. The sky has he raised up, the balance he has set—don’t think of cheating it. Weigh with justice; let there be no shortfall in the balance. He has spread out the earth for humanity with fruits, palm trees, clusters of dates, grain in the blade, fragrant herbs. Which of your Lord’s graces would either of you deny?