Learning about the Middle East

Over the last few years, several people have suggested that I write about my studies pertaining to Islam and the Middle East. While I think that now the time is ripe for more open discussion and sharing of defensible information on the subject, this probably should have started a while ago. All the same, I’m going to try and write regular posts addressing interesting historical accounts, religious matters, and political issues from the Middle East and the Islamic world at large. While I claim no perfect knowledge of such things, I feel a responsibility to share what I have learned so far.

Learning from an LDS Perspective

While there are many reasons why someone would want to learn about the Middle East or another part of the world, one of the largest reasons for me is a religious sense of duty to seek knowledge about these things (see D&C 90:15 and D&C 93:53). I think that this is an important part of the LDS church’s mission for various reasons, not least of which is to learn how best to serve and love the people of the world according to their own languages and cultures (see 1 Nephi 31:3). These are usually not foreign concepts for members of the church (no pun intended).

Learning with Holy Envy

Interestingly enough, a good place to start is with the words of a Jewish Rabbi who has some expertise in working with different faith groups and worldviews. Rabbi David Rosen has an impressive resume, but more importantly he has a large heart and an observant eye. The title of an article he wrote for the Religious Studies Center at BYU describes an important principle that we can put to use as we interact with people of different faiths and learn about their religions: Leaving Room for Holy Envy. I highly recommend reading the entire article, but his closing statement is worth sharing here:

The fact that I can see something beautiful in another’s religious tradition should not make me feel disloyal in any way to my own tradition. On the contrary, as I suggested above, it seems obvious to me that no one tradition can encapsulate the Divine totality. At the BYU Jerusalem Center, I saw some very special, beautiful things in LDS religious life that testify to God’s presence, which it has been a privilege and pleasure for me to witness.

What does “holy envy” mean? It means seeing the divine in the world around you, learning from it and changing because of it, while not losing the light that you have already embraced. Some might be afraid to actively learn about another religion or interact regularly with someone of another faith, but to me this should only be an issue for those whose religious convictions are already weak. When our faith and understanding of God have matured some, Rosen and others might say that we are attuned to seeing God wherever He is at work. It may be in a war zone among refugees, in cathedral pews, in a Sunday School classroom, or in the workaday habits of the faithful.

An example from the life of a friend and mentor, Dr. James Toronto, illustrates how a “faithful” or “active” Latter-day Saint learned from someone of a different faith:

My family and I were invited by a Muslim friend, Nabil, to participate in his family’s evening meal in which they broke their fast. As we entered their modest apartment in one of the most impoverished quarters of Cairo, I noticed that one of the rooms was occupied by numerous peasant women (distinguishable by their black clothing) and their children. They were all sitting on the floor with food spread out before them on a cloth, quietly waiting for the call to prayer that marks the end of fasting each day. When I asked if they were his relatives, he replied: “No, I don’t know any of them. It is our habit to invite strangers off the street who cannot afford good food to share our Ramadan meal. We do this because it was one of the customs of our prophet, Muhammad (A Latter-day Saint Perspective on Muhammad, The Ensign, August 2000).

Dr. Toronto currently serves (as of February 2017) as the Mission President of the Central Eurasian mission, served as a Stake President in Provo, and has shared a strong testimony of Jesus Christ and the Church’s mission (which I have personally heard), yet he did not feel above being instructed by his Muslim friend’s example:

I was deeply moved by my Muslim friend’s unselfishness and compassion for the poor, and humbled by his good example in practicing a principle that I had learned from the Bible years before but had rarely observed: “When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbors; … but when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: and thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee” (Luke 14:12–14).

This to me is a fine example of how we can approach learning about the religions and cultures of the Middle East. As I write more posts I will certainly offer some harsh critiques and express concerns, but I believe that seeing the good is a foundational principle for learning the truth. In my mind, both we and those we observe stand to benefit if we leave room for holy envy.

Learning with Patience

Finally, before I write further posts which dive into specific issues, I think it’s important to address the timeline in which someone might learn about the Middle East. I think that many Americans meet the complexity and strangeness of the Middle East with despair: “We just can’t understand them!” Again, I don’t know everything there is to know about Islam or the ME, but it might be encouraging to someone to know that I don’t feel confused anymore. Not only that, but I think it is possible for the average American to resolve their concerns or confusion if they exercise a little patience. It may take a few posts, a few months, or even a few years before it happens, but understanding (not necessarily agreement!) will come.

2 thoughts on “Learning about the Middle East

  • February 4, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    Thanks for taking time to do this Matthew! Look forward to learning more!

  • February 4, 2017 at 7:39 pm

    Thanks for taking time to do this Matthew! Look forward to it!


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