Professor of Arabic Gives Insightful Education Week Lecture on Cross-Religion Connections

At BYU’s 2019 Education Week conference, Dr. R. Kirk Belnap presented collected research of Middle Eastern religious texts that display themes tying various religions together.

PROVO, Utah (Aug. 23, 2019)—Dr. R. Kirk Belnap, a professor of Arabic, held a class at the BYU 2019 Education Week conference in which he spoke about finding Christ in the humanities. His lectures focused on showing the various ways Jewish and Muslim religious texts display Christian themes. His lecture topic comes from a line in the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 29:12, that states, “I shall also speak unto all nations and they shall write it.”

Belnap began drawing connections between Jewish, Muslim, and Christian religions with an example from Cairo. A student at Cambridge University, Belnap’s daughter is working on digitizing a collection of Jewish works called the Cairo Geniza. This geniza, located in a synagogue, was a room in which local Jewish people could place any item that “happened in the name of God.” Giving credit to his daughter’s work and other researchers involved, Belnap shared with the lecture attendees an interesting discovery: a 12th-century work of Arabic poetry was found, but it was written in Hebrew script. This poem was a copy of an Arabic poem that had been translated to Hebrew.

The implication of such a work, Belnap shared, is that the work seems to draw a connection between Jewish and Muslim cultures. The professor went on to describe how Sufis, or Islamic mystics, shared religious practices with Jewish mystics. In fact, much in the same way as in the aforementioned Arabic-Hebrew poem, Sufis derived their practice of monasticism from Jewish mystics. According to letters found in the Cairo Geniza, Sufis and Jewish mystics engaged in spiritual retreats to the desert together.

“We have had a long tradition of side by side,” Belnap explained. “At this time in Cairo, there were Jewish people who were in the highest positions of authority and power.”

This spiritual connection that can occur across religious lines can be seen in a variety of ways, including in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Belnap quoted the 1978 First Presidency statement which says that “moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals. We believe that God has given and will give to all people sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation.”

Regarding this point, Belnap expressed his beliefs that Islam and Judaism are much more closely linked to Latter-day Saint Christianity than most are aware.

Belnap cited a verse from the Quran which expresses a sentiment much like doctrines taught throughout the Book of Mormon and expressed by Latter-day Saint leadership. “Those differences [between peoples of different backgrounds and characteristics] are blessings that make us re-examine ourselves and our suppositions and our selfishness,” goes the meditation.

When in Jordan for the Damascus study abroad that Belnap leads through BYU, he recalled meeting a local. With this local, a Palestinian Muslim man, Belnap remembered having a “very interesting, a life-changing conversation.”

Through a conversation with this man, a practicing Muslim, the professor came to understand, that both Christians and Muslims look forward to the day that Jesus Christ will come to the Earth as a resurrected being. This “piece of truth” is only different in (arguably) arbitrary details: the man subscribed to the belief that Christ would usher in the judgment day at the Dome of the Rock, spurring the liberation of Palestine.

Through his analysis of religious texts and his first-hand experiences with those of other faiths, Belnap concluded that God loves all his people. Connections can be made between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity to bring members of these different faiths together. In alignment with teaching central to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ doctrines, pieces of truth can be found in religions all over the world. From a Christian perspective, by studying the Islamic and Jewish faiths one can come to deeper understandings and expand one’s own faith.

—Natalie Shorr (B.A. Sociology ‘22)