I recently read a biography of Muhammad “Muhammad, A Prophet For Our Time” by Karen Armstrong. It was a fascinating read and I learned a great deal about this ancient prophet.
I must admit that most of my thoughts while reading the book revolved around the parallels to Joseph Smith and the early saints. Frankly, I find the similarities startling in one sense, and yet unsurprising in another. On the one hand, the similarities feel so extraordinary to me that I cannot understand how I could possibly believe in Joseph Smith’s story and reject Muhammad’s (or truthfully that I never even gave it a chance). On the other hand, this is the story of the mystics and visionaries of the world. Their methods, works, books, and revelations are very similar and the truths they bring forth have striking similarities.
Here is a list of similarities that I found while reading this biography.
- Muhammad, like Joseph Smith did not seem to necessarily ask for the role he eventually took on. Their journeys initiated with simple questions, desires, and events that seem ordinary, but resulted in the extraordinary. In both scenarios, these men seemed to be rather surprised by their visions and revelations.
- Both men brought forth inspired books given to them by an angel. Many claim that the Qur’an could be nothing if not divine based entirely on the language alone. This does not sound too unlike Joseph’s claim of The Book of Mormon being “the most correct book on earth.” One difference, however, is that Muhammad did seem to recognize more fully the importance of the Qur’an. In other words, the Qur’an was what defined Islam, as it was a compilation of the revelations Muhammad had received (not unlike the Doctrine and Covenants). Joseph, on the other hand, didn’t seem to put quite as much emphasis on The Book of Mormon, almost to the point where one has to wonder whether Joseph really understood what was in The Book of Mormon and the impact it would have. On the other hand, Joseph, like Muhammad, did seem to put a large emphasis on his revelations.
- Both Joseph and Muhammad seemed to slowly grow into their calling. In Mormonism, I find there are many people who ostensibly think that Joseph knew what he was doing from the get-go. In fact, revelations to both men came at spontaneous times and left the men wondering how to enact, or implement the revelation. They had to learn and grow in wisdom and understanding as pieces of their theology came to them. In short, both prophets learned and authored the concepts of “line upon line” within their culture.
- Both men tell a similar tale of receiving revelation. Note the similarities between Armstrong’s characterization of Muhammad and some of the descriptions of Joseph Smith receiving revelation. Here are Armstrong’s words:
Under the inspiration of Allah, Muhammad was feeling his way towards an entirely new solution, convinced that he was not speaking in his own name, but was simply repeating the revealed words of God. It was a painful, difficult process. He once said: ‘Never once did I receive a revelation without thinking that my soul had been torn away from me.’ Sometimes the message was clear. He could almost see and hear Gabriel distinctly. The words seemed to ‘come down’ to him, like a shower of life-giving rain. But often the divine voice was muffled and obscure: ‘Sometimes it comes unto me like the reverberations of a bell, and that is the hardest upon me; the reverberations abate when I am aware of their message.’ He had to listen to the undercurrent of events, trying to discover what was really going on. He would grow pale with the effort and cover himself with his cloak, as if to shield himself from the divine impact. He would perspire heavily, even on a cold day, as he turned inwards, searching his soul for a solution to a problem, in rather the same way as a poet has to open himself to the words that he must haul from the depths of himself to the conscious level of his mind. In the Qur’an, God instructed Muhammad to listen intently to each revelation as it emerged; he must be careful not to impose a meaning on a verse prematurely, before its full significance had become entirely clear.” – pp. 56 – 57
- Both Joseph and Muhammad became generals (basically). While Muhammad was certainly more violent in achieving his goals, both men resorted to militias and violence to retain their rights of freedom to worship. Additionally, I think that Muhammad’s increased use of violence was primarily a product of his time and culture. It was not uncommon to raid camps, caravans, and cities merely to prove a point and gain favor with a certain tribe. In all fairness, Joseph’s violence was most often in self-defense, whereas Muhammad was clearly on the offensive at times.
- Both men worked fervently against their culture to bring to pass their ideals. In other words, both men seemed to be ahead of their time socially, and culturally, and dreamed of a society that many resisted. In fact, these utopian societies had similarities. Both dreamed of a society in which divisions between classes were blurred, or removed, where universal human rights were respected. Both wanted all things to be equal, and for there to be peace and harmony amongst all people. In fact, the commonalities of their desired societies seem to exist among religious leaders of many times and places, including Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama.
- Both pushed against cultural norms for women and instituted polygamy as part of their respective theologies. Ironically, (depending on your point of view) both men also instituted polygamy which had a tremendous effect on the cultural norms for women. In the case of Muhammad, his treatment of his many wives set a new precedent of respect that men ought to have for their wives. And Muhammad’s primary reason for polygamy was to provide care for the numerous widows created during war. Furthermore, in the Qur’an women are revered and held up as important figures in society. Clearly Joseph instituted polygamy as well although his reasons are much less clear (depending on your point of view). Whether or not this had the same uplifting effect upon women is certainly debatable and a matter of opinion, but Joseph certainly attempted to influence the culture for women by his creation of the Relief Society with a number of powers and privileges.
- The followers of both men were fiercely loyal, perhaps to a fault in the eyes of many. On the other hand, that seems to be what is needed in order for such religions to grow and become large movements. Both religions seemed to divide families and create intense hatred among their opponents. It seems to be a direct product of the brilliance of their respective leaders in combatting that hatred that allowed their ideas to progress to later stages of development and continue to the present day.
- Both men led their followers away from their original location due to persecution (“No prophet is accepted in his own country.” Luke 4:24).
- Both men got involved in politics and were successful. For Muhammad the politics were mostly inter-tribal, and Muhammad initially used violence (although later he used peaceful methods) to coerce the politics in Mecca and Medina to his liking. Joseph was mayor of Nauvoo, and eventually even tried his hand at the presidential elections. I wonder if this similarity is caused by being the leader of a growing religious faction, or whether the two men were just so charismatic that the “shoe fit” as it were.
- Needless to say, both men had many many attempts on their lives, as they both a large number of enemies, both politically, and within their own group. One significant difference is that Joseph’s enemies eventually did succeed in their attempts. Muhammad, in contrast, lived until an old age and died in the arms of his favorite wife.
Although theologically Islam and Mormonism are very different, the characteristics of their founders, and nature of the initial followers have striking similarities.
So what think ye readers? Why do you lend your beliefs/souls/trust/etc. to Joseph Smith’s claims and reject Muhammad’s? Or do you? Or do you believe that Muhammad only had partial light and knowledge (despite the fact that Islam and Mormonism are radically different)?