“Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews? Know ye not that there are more nations than one?” Thus saith the Lord God (2 Nephi 29:6–7). And why not? The Lord God talks to lots of people. God the Father had extensive conversations with Adam, Eve, Cain, Abraham and Moses, to say nothing of Jesus’s ministry on Earth. The Holy Spirit may not be quite so garrulous, but has nonetheless been known to whisper in the ear of many a saint and sinner. And although Mohammed learned God’s will mainly from Gabriel, Muslim theologians assure us that he scored an audience with the Big Man while en route to Heaven. Better late than never.
Second Nephi (cited above) was the second of two holy books authored by the prophet Nephi, son of Lehi of the tribe of Joseph. The father of the author of 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi was Lehi of the tribe of Joseph, an ancient Israelite who took to the seas. He and his family left the old Promised Land for a new Promised Land in what would become the Americas. It stands to reason that God would not have so forsaken the world as to have only shared his Word with the residents of Afro-Eurasia, and (according to the Book of Mormon) Lehi was His vehicle for bringing the Good News to the New World—some 600 years before He sent His only begotten Son to the Old. The timeline is a bit convoluted, but if you don’t think about it too much, it all makes sense.
Salvatore Babones appears in every Quadrant.
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Of course, Mormons—members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and related splinter denominations—consider themselves Christians, and are widely (though not universally) accepted as such. The extra book ruffles some feathers, but not too many. Anyway it’s near-impossible not to like Mormons; they’re just so gosh-darned nice. And so refreshingly non-violent. When their religion was satirised on Broadway (by the scatologically-obsessed creators of South Park, no less), the Mormons didn’t attack the actors or burn down the theatre. They didn’t even protest the cultural appropriation of their latter-day Bible as the title of the show. Instead, they bought advertising space in the playbill. Muslims, take note.
When the satirical play “Book of Mohammed” with lyrics like “I believe that God has a plan for all of us / I believe that plan involves me getting seventy-two virgins” gets a peaceful run in the West End, followed by global syndication and a tour of the Middle East, the Philistine will eat that quip. Until then, it seems fair to contrast these two remarkably parallel forms of Christian heterodoxy. And they are parallel. Mormons and Muslims both embrace the monotheism of Abraham, both accept the virgin birth of Jesus, and both have an extra book in their respective Bibles. Both religions (let’s not quibble over what to call them) arose in thinly populated desert areas on the margins of settled Christendom. Both were founded by illiterate prophets who embraced polygamy as a means for propagating the faith. The words Mormon and Muslim even sound alike, and both start with M.
If Mormons and Muslims have pursued different trajectories in their relationships with Christianity, it is because nineteenth-century Mormons desperately wanted “in” to the United States, while seventh-century Muslims desperately wanted “out” of the Byzantine empire. Well, it wasn’t so much the Muslims who wanted out, as those who became Muslim. For centuries before the Muslim conquests, the Orthodox emperors of Byzantium had been persecuting the various Gnostics, Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites and other non-conforming sects that flourished in the major population centres of North Africa and the Near East. When the Arab armies came along and offered them religious toleration in exchange for a nominal one-dinar jizya, many jumped at the chance. Better to pay a head tax than to pay with your head.
Most of these various Christian sects ultimately melted into Muslim society, learning Arabic and ultimately coming to think of themselves as Arabs. That shouldn’t shock anyone. Seventh-century Islam wasn’t really so different from seventh-century Christianity. Back then, prophets were coming fast and thick, and if Mohammed was somewhat less literate than Arius or Nestorius, he was no less eloquent. Strict Muslim monotheism and iconoclasm were readily accepted by people who opposed Nicene trinitarianism and the Byzantine veneration of icons. And of course many mosques were (and still are) modelled on the domed basilicas of Byzantine Christendom. Often Christian churches were simply whitewashed into mosques.
The result is that most “Arabs” today are not Arabian at all; they are in fact the descendants of the local Greek, Phoenician, Egyptian and (yes) Philistine peoples of what had once been the eastern Roman empire. That’s the true backstory of the “Islamic” philosophers who translated Aristotle into Arabic and preserved the Greek classics for posterity. These scholars weren’t enlightened Muslims open-mindedly labouring to understand an alien civilisation. They were Greeks saving what they could of their own cultural inheritance.
Today, Christians and Muslims tend to see themselves as belonging to very different religions, and almost as worshipping different Gods. But that is to embrace the narcissism of minor differences. To many Buddhists, Confucians and Hindus, we all look alike. Shrill, exclusionary, always complaining, always proselytising: Christians and Muslims are insufferable in their insistence that their God is the only God. When St Peter visited the Pantheon, the resident Roman priest kindly offered to find a nook for Jesus among the many gods on display. Peter petulantly refused—and was promptly ejected. The Romans may have crucified St Peter for sticking to his faith, but they crucified him upside down for being annoying about it.
Fifteen hundred years later, having converted all of the pagans in their immediate vicinity, Medieval Christians and Muslims took to the seas to find fresh fields for proselytisation. The Christian Conquistadores found a whole new heathen world in the Americas (Nephi and his flock having apparently died out in the intervening millennia), while the Muslim Mujahideen finally penetrated into the old heathen worlds of India and South-East Asia (where the church set up by Doubting Thomas himself had survived but not flourished). The Christian conquest was complete; the Muslim one, somewhat less thorough. As a result, the Americas are now the last bastion of Christianity, while South Asia remains a religious battleground between proselytising monotheism and complacent polytheism.
Yes, polytheism. Please, no complaint letters claiming that Parvati (the north Indian daughter of the Himalayas) and Hanuman (the monkey king of the Dravidian jungles) are simply manifestations of the one Supreme Being. If God wanted to appear on Earth as a monkey, He wouldn’t have made man in His image.
Or maybe He would have. For who has known the mind of the Lord? Certainly not the Philistines. You can read about them in 1 Samuel, but only if you accept that God really does talk to humans. He especially wanted to talk to Samuel, though he was little more than a typical teenage slacker at the time (Samuel, that is, not the Lord). God actually had to call the future prophet four times before the kid finally picked up. Younger readers may wonder at that, but this was before caller ID—and God doesn’t leave voicemail. When God finally did reach Samuel, it was to tell him that He would destroy the house of Eli (Samuel’s mentor). Bad luck, Eli. It seems that his sons had stolen some offerings from the temple. The Jewish God is nothing if not a jealous god.
That’s one thing that all the Abrahamic faiths share: a jealous God. Those few Hindus who insist on the Oneness of the Supreme Being know nothing of the jealousness of Yahweh. Jews, Christians, Muslims and Mormons, by contrast, all instinctively understand the injunction “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, even when they have ceased to worship any god at all. Their faith having lapsed, they nonetheless cling to the sentiment. That’s why the post-Christian proponents of the postmodern West’s new woke religion push their agenda with the full fiery force of Abrahamic religious fervour. No Iranian Ayatollah or Salafi Imam ever laid down the law with more self-righteousness than the Woollahra Municipal Council. God speaks directly to them, as surely as He speaks to Greta.
You can read all about it in the Book of Malcolm. It’s the ostentatiously inclusive book with the teal cover and the #RacismNotWelcome hashtag. It takes as its theme “for whosoever hath, to him shall be given”. No parable intended.