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Book shows humanity of Muhammad

More than a few times, students of religion have called Joseph Smith "The American Muhammad."

And, indeed, some of the parallels are striking. Both were uneducated souls who had visions and produced books that changed the world.

The similarities shine brighter in Karen Armstrong's recent biography of the Muslim prophet, "Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Times."

Armstrong is one of the most popular and revered religious scholars today. Her book "A History of God" was a best-seller. She turns up often on National Public Radio and other media outlets as an authority to be reckoned with.

Armstrong's book on Muhammad is a sympathetic and respectful attempt to take the prophet from the shelf of saints and show him in the world, struggling with forces everyone must battle.

It was during Ramadan (which begins today) that Muhammad had his first encounter with deity. While sleeping in a cave he was awakened by the Angel Gabriel and told to "recite" from the book the angel was holding. Muhammad would later call that moment "The Night of Destiny." And the result was the Quran, the most sacred text of Islam.

In her book, Armstrong firmly puts Muhammad in the society of this time. He is buffeted about by work-a-day worries, economic concerns and family matters. As with Joseph Smith, there are moments when Muhammad feels abandoned. He struggles through dry seasons of the soul, only to find an outpouring of spirituality waiting for him at the end.

During one such dry time, Muhammad felt he may never hear from God again. Then, in a burst of revelation, he is given Sura 93 of the Quran.

The book, which might be called The Psalm of Muhammad, is one of the loveliest passages in scripture. For Mormons, it may also chime in the mind with Section 121 of the Doctrine & Covenants. It is a message of hope delivered during a time of despair:

By the morning hours

By the night when it is still

Your lord has not abandoned you

and does not hate you

What is after will be better

than what came before

To you, the lord will be giving

You will be content

Did he not find you orphaned

and give you shelter

Find you lost

and guide you

Find you in hunger

and provide for you

As for the orphan —

do not oppress him

And one who asks for help —

do not turn him away

And the grace of your lord

proclaim

Armstrong's comments in the last paragraph of her book sum up feelings worth remembering, especially at Ramadan:

"If we are to avoid catastrophe, the Muslim and Western worlds must learn not merely to tolerate but to appreciate one another. A good place to start is with the figure of Muhammad."

e-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com