By Nabil S. Sharaf, ’03, Lina A. Abdallah, ’03, and Chad F. Emmett, ’82

Though they seem worlds apart, Muslims and Latter-day Saints at BYU discover familiar faith and common ground. Three essayists share their experiences of living in each others’ cultures.


As my wife and I carefully picked our way up the least icy parts of the steps to the Aspen Grove dining hall, the peculiarity of the moment struck me. There we were, two Latter-day Saints, trudging through the snow on a November evening for a taste of Islamic culture at a Ramadan dinner sponsored by the BYU Arabic Club. In my mind Ramadan was associated with arid climes, foreign accents, and distant customs. But this setting was so familiar, so close to home.

Entering the crowded hall, we were greeted by a distinctive blend of voices, a happy cacophony of Arabic and English. Dressed in Western and Middle Eastern clothes, the crowd chattered heartily as they loaded their plates with food and sat around tables for their fast-ending meal. Knowing little of Islamic customs, I hadn’t been prepared for this boisterous and joyful celebration.

During the dinner, Hani Al-Madhoun, ’05, a student from the Gaza Strip and the Arabic Club president, joked and called on people to stand at the microphone and share their feelings about Ramadan and being at BYU. Muslim students told of the fasting, charity, and family traditions that define their memories of Ramadan. Latter-day Saint professors recalled lessons learned while living in Muslim countries during the holy month of Ramadan. As the speakers called out, “Happy Ramadan!” and reminisced, I was reminded of the mixture of joy and homesickness that permeated the Christmas seasons I spent in a distant land as a missionary.

Each speaker expressed appreciation for the convergence of Mormon and Muslim cultures at BYU and elsewhere—for lessons learned from people of different faith but similar devotion. Despite the vast geographic distance separating the strongholds of Islam and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they had each discovered surprising overlap and understanding in their interactions with one another in this university setting.

As the evening passed on, a new sense of kinship grew within me—a realization that the external differences that separate Latter-day Saints and Muslims are less important than the reliance upon faith and the humanity that bind us together in God’s family.

For this article BYU Magazine has asked two Muslim students and a Latter-day Saint professor, in effect, to stand at the microphone and tell what they have learned from this convergence of cultures. Nabil S. Sharaf, ’03, and Lina A. Abdallah, ’03, two recent BYU graduates from the West Bank, discuss encountering Mormonism at BYU. Chad F. Emmett, ’82, a BYU geography professor and advisor to the BYU Arabic Club, shares insights gained from living among Muslims. Additional essays can be found at

A Line as Thin as a Hair

Some 1,400 years ago Muslims escaping persecution fled to Africa. Upon arrival, they were brought before a Christian African king. The king asked the Muslims why he should allow people from another faith to seek refuge in his land. The Muslims told the king about Islam, which prompted him to say, “You may stay, for the difference between Christianity and your religion is no thicker than this line,” and he drew a line that was as thin as a single hair.

During my BYU experience, I developed a great deal of respect for Mormon culture. Every day, the differences between the Latter-day Saint and the Muslim faiths grew thinner in my mind.

I was born and raised a Palestinian Muslim. I was taught to live a chaste life and abstain from alcohol and harmful substances. I was raised in a conservative culture that stressed these Islamic values, even though the culture also comprised Christians. Men and women were expected to be modest at all times. While kids in my high school were in style, they were always modest.

Things like bars and beer commercials were not acceptable in the Palestinian part of Jerusalem. There were only two liquor stores in town, and patrons had to use the back doors of these stores because the front doors and front blinds were always closed. The advertisement or public display of alcohol is also culturally inappropriate there. I had to come to the United States to see my first beer commercial.

Having this background, I was attracted to BYU’s environment. My parents were extremely encouraged by what they had heard about BYU. My parents had quite a few Latter-day Saint friends who were on the faculty or staff of the BYU Jerusalem Center. People in Jerusalem called the Latter-day Saint students living at the center “the well-dressed Americans” because they had found the students to be dressed more modestly than other Americans and foreigners they had seen.

When I first came to Provo, I was impressed by how committed most of the students were to living BYU standards. I didn’t have to worry about my roommates drinking or taking drugs; I never had to worry about them when girls came to visit; and I always felt like I could trust my roommates around my possessions. Just like any other freshman, I had too many academic and social concerns to worry about my roommates’ behavior. It was great to come home and feel that I was living in a clean and peaceful environment.

Every day I would learn more about BYU culture and the Church of Jesus Christ that would cause me to have more respect for them. Every time I sat down and chatted with roommates or friends, I would feel that we had many things in common. Many of our beliefs about issues like marriage and family, honesty, and tithing were very similar if not the same.

The experience that made me feel the closest to this culture came during the month of Ramadan.
One of the five pillars of Islam is fasting. Muslims are expected to fast during the lunar month of Ramadan. For about 30 days, Muslims abstain from food, water, and intimate relations from sunrise to sunset. It is a great spiritual experience that teaches Muslims that, if they can abstain from the essentials of life, then they can abstain from the nonessentials, such as harmful substances and bad habits. During Ramadan, Muslims spend most of their time fasting and praying. Some people devote the whole month to worshipping God. Muslims believe that people are the closest they can be to God during that month.

A few years ago, on a Sunday during Ramadan, I was taking advantage of my spare time to pray and read my scriptures (the Qur’an) when I noticed that two of my roommates were doing the same. This wasn’t the regular Sunday, when my roommates took a nap after church and watched football for the rest of the night, but rather a more spiritual Sunday. I quickly realized that it was fast Sunday.
Later on that day, my roommates and I decided that it would be nice if we could all break our fast together. We spent that evening talking about the similarities between the Muslim and Latter-day Saint fasts. My roommates explained that they always spent their fast Sundays praying and reading scriptures and that these fast Sundays made them feel more spiritual and closer to God. It was the same feeling I had about fasting. I was also surprised to learn of the fast offering, which is very similar to the offerings Muslims make to the poor toward the end of Ramadan.

This was the closest a Muslim and Christian could be. It was such a great feeling to know that all three of us were doing the same act of worship, on the same day, in the same spirit, for the same God.

Going back to the story of the Muslims and the African king, I can say now that I have never felt stronger about the king’s statement than I feel today, having lived among my friends at BYU.

A Palestinian in Provo

My parents have always encouraged my siblings and me to pursue our dreams and obtain the highest educational degrees possible. However, being the conservative and protective parents they are, they have always been suspicious of the idea of us going abroad for our education. In the Arab world, most people do not hold great respect for the “Western Civilization” in the United States, which has always been distorted by television images and Hollywood movies, with intense portrayals of crime, gambling, adultery, alcohol consumption, and other social problems. When it came time for college, I went to Birzeit University in the West Bank for four years and lived with my family.

While I was studying business administration in college, Omar Kader, a former faculty member in the Marriott School of Management, told me about BYU. I had expressed my interest in a graduate degree in public administration to him, and he urged me to visit the Jerusalem Center to learn more about BYU.

Staff members at the Jerusalem Center told my parents and me about the similarities of lifestyle between Muslims and Latter-day Saints and about the safe and friendly environment at BYU. Even with all the wonderful things my mother learned about BYU, I remember how insecure she felt. I remember her eyes filling with tears as she asked staff members at the Jerusalem Center whether her daughter would be safe at BYU.

I was awarded a BYU Jerusalem Center scholarship and planned to move to Provo in fall 2001. Before leaving, I had many sleepless nights thinking about whether I would be able to make friends at BYU. Because I wear a head cover, I was also concerned about how people would look at my dress and interpret my religious behavior. I thought a lot about whether we would be able to overcome those differences.

Contrary to my concerns, I was able to develop many strong friendships at BYU. My first impression about the people here was how friendly and helpful they were. I enjoyed the cheerful faces and the common “hello” greeting from strangers. People took the initiative to approach me with their friendship and assistance.

That’s not to say there were never misunderstandings. I had a funny encounter when I had been at BYU for only two days. During the Marriott School of Management international-student orientation, a student approached me and asked, “Are you a member?”

Not knowing what that meant, I replied, “A member of what?”

He looked at his other friends and said, with a smile on his face, “She’s not!”

I was confused for a few minutes as to which club I should have been a member of, not knowing that they were actually asking if I were a member of the Church of Jesus Christ. I soon developed many friends who explained to me the things I did not understand about Mormon culture. Thanks to them, by the end of my time at BYU I was hardly ever confused by the religious terminology.

Even before I decided to come to BYU, most of the things I had learned about living among Latter-day Saints were positive. Being a church-sponsored university, BYU has distinguished itself among prominent U.S. educational institutions for its ethical code and its moral commitment to serving religion and society. Being a faithful person, I realized that this would be a good environment not only to get an academic experience but to stay in touch with my spiritual aspirations. I thought to myself about how honorable it would be to be an alumnus of a university that values moral character and integrity in its education as much as it values the academic achievement.

Because of their strongly held beliefs, Latter-day Saints tend to respect people of other faiths who live according to their own religion. The Church’s missionary program also supports an open, tolerant, and loving culture. Latter-day Saints—male and female—travel all over the world to spread the word about their religion. And those students bring back perspectives about living with people of numerous ethnic and religious backgrounds and different tongues. It was easy to discuss numerous religious and political issues at BYU. Even when people disagreed with me, they expressed great respect for my viewpoint.

BYU is probably one of the most tolerant campuses in the United States, regardless of what some people may think. I say this as a reflection of my experience after Sept. 11. I heard horrible stories about Arab and Muslim students being harassed on campuses almost everywhere in the United States. The stories about stereotypes and hate crimes in other places distressed me for a while. Of course, what made things worse for me was that I wear a head cover, which distinguishes me as a Muslim. I remember being afraid to go anywhere off campus for more than a month. However, unlike the experiences of many Arab and Muslim students elsewhere, I found only support and encouragement from the students and faculty members at BYU. I never felt that I had been looked at differently because of my beliefs or my dress. I felt respect and admiration from the students and professors in my program and from my Latter-day Saint friends because I believe strongly in my faith.

Living among Mormons was a wonderful experience. I always joke with my family that flying from Palestine to Provo, I did not have culture shock, but when I flew to other U.S. cities, I did.

Call to Prayer

I grew up in a large home with five siblings in Logan, Utah. My mom was committed to having family prayer each morning. She did not, however, like having to repeatedly trudge downstairs to the far corner of the house to wake four sleeping boys. In support of my mom’s faithfulness, my dad installed an intercom between the upstairs kitchen and the downstairs hallway to the bedrooms. I still remember the morning after the installation, when we were all awakened from slumber with Mom’s voice, amplified by the intercom, shouting, “Family prayer! Five minutes!” That morning call to prayer was a regular part of my teenage years.

My next experience with a call to prayer was halfway around the world in the middle of the largest Islamic country in the world. I arrived in the coastal town of Semarang, Indonesia—my first missionary city—at 3 a.m. on a night train from Jakarta in November 1975. From my top bunk in the missionary apartment/branch house, I finished saying my bedtime prayers at about 4 a.m. I had just lain down for a few hours of sleep when I heard, “Allahu Akbar!” (God is most great!) bellowing through the muggy predawn of the city. Startled, I sat up in bed wondering if I was having an angelic visitation. I had never heard such a thing (although Mom on the intercom was pretty close). Semarang’s main mosque was just 200 meters down the street, and, with the help of loudspeakers, the muezzin was calling the Muslim faithful to dawn prayer. My introduction to Islam was off to a surprising start.

Five times a day for nearly two years I heard the call to prayer. It became something familiar and comforting. I didn’t know many of the Arabic words, but that didn’t matter. All I needed to know was that Muslims were being reminded to pray to God, Allah. I also came to realize that it didn’t matter where they prayed. I have seen Indonesian Muslims prostrating themselves in prayer in the aisles of trains at dawn, on the forest floor of Borneo, in the vastness of Jakarta’s white-domed national mosque, and, at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, in large crowds under the expansive canopy of saman trees in city parks and on the playing field of a soccer stadium.

Twelve years later I lived in the Arab city of Nazareth in northern Israel for a year. From my hilltop apartment on the northern edge of town, I could look down into the central city and see three of the city’s seven mosques. I could hear even more. When it was time to pray, one mosque’s muezzin would start the call to prayer and then another and another—as if it were an echo bouncing off Nazareth’s hills or in some new form of quadraphonic sound. As one who prefers to rise and pray later than the first light of dawn, I have to admit that I was glad that the mosques were more distant and thus more muted than the mosque in Semarang. Nonetheless, I was glad to be hearing the call to prayer. It was still comforting after a long absence.

The call to prayer reminds me that I should, as the Qu’ran admonishes, “be steadfast in prayer” (Sura 2, verse 110). It also reminds me that prayer is something required of all God’s children, no matter what their language or religion. When Muslims around the world pray, they pray to Allah, the Arabic word for God and a Semitic word similar to Eloh, the Hebrew word for God (Elohim is the plural form). When members of the Church of Jesus Christ pray in Indonesian, they too pray to Allah: the sacrament prayer begins, “Ya Allah, Bapak yang kekal” (O God, the Eternal Father), and primary children prayerfully sing “Aku Anak Allah” (I Am a Child of God).

As my wife and I now gather our two young children for morning prayer, I am grateful to have lived in many different places and among many different peoples who have taught me the importance of regular prayer. I hope that I might pass on that call to prayer so that my children might also know that God, who is great, hears our calls, our cries, our prayers.

Additional essays: Just Like Us, by Ghaleb A. Husseini, '95, and Fostering Friendship, by John P. Livingstone, '86

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