By John P. Livingstone, '86
For me, perhaps the most exciting part of teaching at BYU has been Religion 100, Introduction to Mormonism. My job in Religion 100 is to prepare students who are not Latter-day Saints for their religion classes at BYU by giving them an overview of what Latter-day Saints believe and how they usually behave. Most class members take the course during their first semester at BYU, hardly realizing the nature of the community they have joined. Over time they become familiar with the culture of serious study, serious dating, and serious devotion at Brigham Young University.
As I taught my first Religion 100 class in the fall of 1998, it became clear that several of my students came from Islamic countries. Everyone was a little shy for the first few sessions, but soon students became more comfortable and asked questions about their new roommates and why they did what they did and thought how they thought.
"My roommate just became engaged to a girl he has known for only three months!" one exclaimed.
"And they get married so young," answered another. The smiles on their faces communicated considerable amusement with the Latter-day Saint students.
The first half of the course is focused on "the gospel" and the second half on "the Church." The beliefs that all inhabitants of the world are spirit children of Heavenly Parents and that we may become like Them is astonishing for most Muslim students. I discovered that the worst epithets in Arabic are reserved for those who believe that someone can become like God. Divine destiny is, for them, a spiritually mind-blowing principle.
As we discuss the dispensing of gospel truths and priesthood authority down through the ages, they hear such familiar names as Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Islamic students usually ask whether Latter-day Saints believe that the great Muslim prophet Mohammed was a prophet of God. The statement of the First Presidency on Feb. 15, 1978, is very helpful, stating, "The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God's light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals" (qtd. in Spencer J. Palmer, "World Religions (Non-Christian) and Mormonism," in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. [New York: Macmillan, 1992], p. 1589).
Humor has always been important to me as a teacher, and the way my Muslim students can see the funny side of issues and laugh so heartily and freely is delightful. Several students stand out in my memory as simply fun people who take religion seriously without taking seriousness religiously. One of these is Hani Al-Madhoun, '05, the 200203 president of the Arabic club. His humor and self-deprecating style made him fun to have in the class, and he was a regular contributor through questions and comments. He was a serious thinker, although his humor always softened his diligent inquiries. I was happy to see him register for my spring Doctrine and Covenants class, but I was surprised to see him later in my missionary preparation class, Sharing the Gospel. I told him we would try to make him an amazing Islamic missionary! He dove right in and participated with the students in their "district" meetings and even gave one of the scripture highlights at the beginning of class one day. He did a wonderful job, and the other students loved it. He volunteered one night at the MTC, fielding phone calls from around the continent from people calling in on the Church's "1-800" commercial offerings. His willingness to participate in class and tackle unusual activities without compromising his own beliefs and religious standards impressed everybody. In a way, Hani has become a wonderful missionary for Islam among his fellow students, building bridges of understanding. Latter-day Saint students feel free to talk to him and ask questions about the Muslim world that they would likely not take opportunity to ask otherwise.
After Sept. 11, 2001, many Muslim students were subdued and cautious. One student told me about an uncle being accosted and abused in New York City. I asked how he and the other Muslim students were faring here on the BYU campus. He mentioned that his parents had suggested he avoid being in public and that many Muslim students had stayed home from classes and out of public view for a few days. But he said he felt entirely safe here and that none of his friends had reported problems.
It seemed to me that these fears lasted only days, not weeks. Several Muslim students expressed their personal relief at not having to face angry Americans bent on taking revenge. It was as if the campus and surrounding cities became a cocoon of safety wherein they were not perceived as coconspirators with radical fundamentalists. One student commented that Friday noon prayers in a third-floor Wilkinson Student Center classroomwhich doubled as their mosquewere more earnest, resulting in an even closer bond among Islamic BYU students in the weeks following Sept. 11.
I am making wonderful friends from the Islamic world. So is BYU and the Church of Jesus Christ. In November 2002 I was asked to say a few words at the "break-fast" dinner one Friday night at the end of Ramadan, the annual fasting month for Muslims. The Arabic Club had reserved the main lodge at Aspen Grove for the event, and the dining area was full of Muslim students as well as local Muslim families and friends. I was touched by their open and friendly visiting and chatter. It was much more like a Latter-day Saint ward gathering than I would have imagined. My current and former students gave a happy cheer as I stood to speak, making me feel honored and welcomed. I felt that anyone looking in on that gathering would have seen Muslims as they should be seenfriendly, caring, and comfortably assembling together and sharing in their religious activities. Speakers from the club leaders reflected about what they missed being away from home at this special occasion. It reminded my wife and me of being on a mission at Christmas. Their comments about what their families did to help the poor during Ramadan also made us realize how many aspects of fasting are similar between our faiths.
My Islamic students often invite me to visit them when I travel again to the Middle East, and I suspect I will. Such friendship and familiarity dissolve stereotypes that divide and separate cultures and religions. The vast majority of these students leave BYU with fondness for Latter-day Saints and the Church in general. And their Latter-day Saint friends at BYU leave with a great love for these wonderful followers of Islam. No longer can they be misled in their thinking about Muslims by mainstream media bent on highlighting the sensational and the impersonal. They have lived and studied and sang and danced and laughed and cried with student representatives of a great culture and religion that is usually half a world away geographically and culturally. But now they have fostered friendships, andwith a common devotion, in spite of uncommon doctrinesthey will remember each other and their BYU experience forever.