A Peculiar Lifestyle
After three years of living in an isolated mountain village in Yemen, I felt like I was finally becoming part of that community. One day as I was sitting in one of the small shops talking to the shopkeeper who was a good friend, a stranger stopped by on his way to a neighboring village. Seeing me sitting there in the shop and noting I was obviously not Yemeni, he asked the shopkeeper who I was and why I was there. In Yemeni culture, it is out of respect for a woman that a stranger would not address her directly, but talk to another man present if he had a question concerning her. My friend informed him that I was “one of them nevertheless” meaning that I was living among them and considered a member of their family & community. The man then inquired if I were a Muslim. My friend immediately answered, “no, but she has the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith as a prophet, doesn’t drink coffee or tea, believes in Allah and will get to heaven faster in her faith than you ever will as a Muslim.” He then proceeded to give the man a fifteen minute lecture on my beliefs and how I had lived my life among them for the past few years. Needless to say, I was shocked at how much my friend knew since we had had very few direct discussions about my beliefs, nor had he ever asked me any specific questions over the whole three years that would have given him the information he was now telling this stranger.
As I returned home later that afternoon, I mused over how he could have known about my beliefs so thoroughly without us ever having discussed it. Then I remembered my first few months in the village. I had been invited to people’s houses to meet them and share a meal with them. They would inevitably offer me coffee or tea after we ate and I would politely refuse, saying that it was against my religious beliefs as mentioned in the health law we uphold. I then thought of how, within a short time thereafter when I went visiting, everyone started offering me the fruit drink Vimto or some cold water instead. Even people in whose houses I was visiting for the first time knew by then that I didn’t drink coffee or tea.
I also thought of the many Friday mornings when people would come by to visit and I would answer the door with my scriptures in hand. Friday is the Sabbath in the Middle East and I would be in the midst of my own church study time when they called. I gladly let them interrupt me with only a brief explanation of what I was doing. Shortly thereafter, no one came in the mornings on Fridays but waited until later in the day to visit me. Again, everyone in the village seemed to know that Debra was busy with “church” on Friday mornings without me having to really say anything specific to them about it.
Our LDS lifestyle makes us a peculiar people in today’s world to say the least. Once we let people know that we will not join in something because of our religious beliefs, they will then watch us more intently to see what other areas of our life and behavior our beliefs have influenced. Our lifestyle truly reflects not only our faith and values but also the intensity to which we follow them. We are marked in society as different because of our abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, drugs, strong language, immodest clothes, sex before marriage, inappropriate music, films or other improper activities. As our thirteenth Article of Faith states, “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men… If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”
In each of the six Islamic countries where I have lived, the majority of people I have encountered are extremely surprised to find that an American would have such a conservative lifestyle. From what they have seen on TV, in the movies or from other foreigners they have met, they find it quite unbelievable that any American would actually choose to live with such restrictions. They have never heard of Mormons and the usual response I get from them is that sure I may believe these things, but like everyone else, I don’t actually live them all the time. As they come to know me and see that it is really true, they delight in presenting me to their friends as something of a novelty.
I once had a rather humorous introduction by a Syrian friend to one of his work colleagues. He proudly pointed at me and said, “This is Debra. She doesn’t drink alcohol, coffee or tea, doesn’t smoke or have sex outside of marriage and she’s American. Can you believe that? Have you ever heard of an American who lives like that?” Although we all laughed, it led to a useful conversation between the three of us for the next hour on what untrue stereotypes people have about other cultures and nationalities overall and what kinds of values are important to have in this life regardless of specific religious beliefs. These are the kinds of discussions that help bridge the gap between cultural and religious barriers. We can learn to respect a great deal about another person’s beliefs when we take the time to talk about the common values we share. This is why we are commanded not to hide our examples as lights under bushels but set them conspicuously visible as cities on top of hills for all to see.
I also remember a Sudanese doctor who was at the lone clinic in our area in Yemen. Again, I was the first American or even Westerner he had lived around and also the first Mormon. Likewise, he knew that this was my first experience living among Muslims in the Middle East, so he felt that it was his duty to share Islam with me in hopes for my sake that I would accept the true faith of God. In the first few months of my living there, we spent quite a few hours discussing mutual beliefs as well as differing points of view. I was interested to know what Islam taught and what the people believed whom I was living among. At the end of every discussion, he would kindly invite me to change my faith and become Muslim.
After about two months of being extremely patient while yet politely declining his customary closing requests, I finally blurted out, “Did it ever occur to you that perhaps I might feel that my religion is just as true from God and have just as much faith in it as you feel about yours? I can respect your beliefs but I will not change mine simply because you ask me to. I could just as well ask you to convert to Mormonism for the same reasons. I believe with all my heart that I am already walking in the right way to return back to God and if you will get to know me better and watch how I live my life, you will see that this is true.” While we still had occasional religious discussions after that, he never did broach the subject again of me changing my faith. We worked in the village together for the next two years and as time passed we became good friends.
It was with some humor that I answered the door one day to find a Sudanese friend of his who had come by from another village to propose marriage to me. He had had a long discussion with the doctor about me and my beliefs and had concluded that I was living a virtuous enough life for him to marry me since he was a devout Muslim. I politely thanked him for his interest but told him that I had a few more requirements in a spouse than someone who was devout, though that was certainly an important consideration. Even our village Sheikh sent a friend of his by at one point who also proposed marriage to me as a second wife. While these experiences were humorous from an American cultural viewpoint, I was appreciative of the respectful honor that these men were affording me from their religious standpoint. From my time among them, they could see that I was abiding by righteous principles and that my reputation was spotless enough to be recommended for marriage to other honorable men in their circles.
When I did find my husband some years later, it was through a similar introduction from a Muslim friend in Kuwait who recommended me to one of his friends because he had known me long enough to see how I lived my life and what I truly believed. The concept of honor and reputation is extremely important in the Middle East and nothing can substitute for the good words spoken of you by others. This is why so much of the Islamic lifestyle upholds that which is virtuous and of good report in daily life. This is also why the social codes of conduct are taken from the Sharia (Islamic law based on the Quran) and the Hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammed). When people are serious about following their religion as a way of life rather than just a set of beliefs, it builds a strong sense of cultural and societal value as well.
Many people feel that Middle Eastern countries impose far too many constraints on their citizens in how much they prohibit. Westerners are apt to look at the censoring of movies, books, and internet, the custom of veiling for women, the lack of bars and discos, and the severe penalties for crime as far too restrictive and even oppressive overall. As a member of our Church however, I have found it much more comfortable to practice my faith in an Islamic country that enforces these codes than when I go back to American suburbia where such constraints are not allowed.
I appreciate the fact that in these countries, I can generally go outside my house alone at any time of the day or night without the fear of being molested in any way. I appreciate turning on the TV to see a program or going to movies that have been previously censored for offensive scenes and language. I appreciate driving during the late night without fear of being hit by a drunk driver going home from some bar. I appreciate the lack of drug, disco or acid rock music cultures that prevail elsewhere. I appreciate using the internet without having pornographic material pop up unsolicited in my browser space. And I appreciate seeing the people around me modestly dressed and acting with polite speech and actions in their dealings with each other. While not every person in the Middle East is a living example of what their religion teaches (as is true of every faith), I have still observed that general public behavior is much more courteous and respectful in these countries than what I experience at home. This again is due to the codes handed down from the Hadith literature based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad that was recorded nearly 1400 years ago. It was pertinent in their time and still is applicable in ours.
As regarding moral values and public behavior toward one another, the Prophet Muhammad said, “‘By Allah he does not believe! By Allah he does not believe! By Allah he does not believe!’ It was said, ‘Who is that O Allah’s Apostle?’ He said, ‘That person whose neighbor does not feel safe from his evil.’” Beyond the absence of evil acts, one should also avoid saying negative things about anyone else. Another Hadith states, “He who believes in Allah and the Last Day should talk what is good or keep quiet.” So important is the ability to hold one’s tongue that the Prophet equated it with keeping one’s chastity intact. “Allah’s apostle said, “Whoever can guarantee (the chastity of) what is between his two jaw bones and what is between his two legs (i.e. his tongue and his private parts), I guarantee Paradise for him.”
Controlling one’s anger is also a very important social skill that is taught in the Hadith. “Allah’s apostle said, ‘The strong is not the one who overcomes the people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger.” One interesting custom in Yemen that follows this Hadith is the procedure for settling verbal disputes. One of the few highly valued possessions of the Yemenis are their jambiyas (the silver ornamental daggers the men wear tucked into their belts that in many cases are family heirlooms.) In order to ensure that all language will be appropriate during any heated disputes, both parties are required to give their jambiyas to a third party who is known to be a virtuous person.
If at any time during discussion, one party accuses or slanders the other party through anger or any form of verbal words deemed inappropriate, they lose their jambiya to the other man. I have witnessed many such discussions and conflicts that were settled amicably and respectfully due to this custom being carried out. Additionally, in all of my three years in the village, I never heard one person speak badly of another nor witnessed any angry fights carried out in public. If there were angry words at the beginning, usually someone would step up to the person and lead them away to cool down with some kind of light humor.
All the people were honestly trying to live as peaceful a life as is humanly possible. They were trying to make themselves “a community that follow the righteous people who were before us, and (so that) the people after us may follow us.” “The best talk (speech) is Allah’s Book (Qur’an), and the best way is the way of Muhammad.” To live a life of charity one for another is what the Prophet’s life exemplified and what the resulting Hadith promotes. When Muhammad was asked about giving alms, he taught that it was compulsory for Muslims to make an offering. The people asked, what if a man has nothing to give? The Prophet answered that he should work with his hands to benefit himself and give to others. And if he cannot physically work? Then he should help the oppressed unhappy person by word or deed. If he cannot do this, then he should at least encourage that which is good and reasonable. And finally, if that is impossible, he should refrain from doing evil for that will be considered an act of charity from him just as great.
A person who cannot control his behavior and abide by this code of conduct does not do any good by obeying the other basic requirements of Islam. The Prophet said, “Whoever does not give up false statements (i.e. telling lies), and evil deeds, and speaking bad words to others, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink.” (as in fasting during Ramadthan). Additionally, if a person lives according to the pillars of Islam solely out of duty with no real intent, it will avail him nothing. Doing righteous deeds for the sake of being seen in public is also fruitless. “He who lets the people hear of his good deeds intentionally, to win their praise, Allah will let the people know his real intention (on the Day of Resurrection), and he who does good things in public to show off and win the praise of people, Allah will disclose his real intention (and humiliate him).” This also applies to deeds of generosity and kindness to one another.
One of the great cultural values that have resulted from the Hadith and that the Middle East is famous for is that of hospitality and the treatment of guests in Muslim lands. It is a religious obligation to offer protection to a dhimmi (non-Muslim, and more specifically a Christian) living in an Islamic state. The Prophet said, “Whoever hurts a dhimmi hurts me, and who hurts me annoys Allah.” Further, the famous Islamic jurist Ibn Hazm stated that if an enemy comes with forces to take a dhimmi away from the Islamic state where he is living, it is an obligation upon every Muslim to fight that enemy and even give their lives before breaking the covenant of protection that is guaranteed by Allah to the non-Muslim.
Hospitality is a sacred virtue to a Muslim and guests are entitled to rights in the Hadith. Among them are to be entertained generously with high quality of food for a day and night or with ordinary food for three days. The host should not eat until the guest eats and there should never be anger or impatience displayed before them. Over the years I have been very impressed with the generosity and hospitality offered to me on countless occasions in Islamic countries. Whether it is a simple meal such as an iftar dinner (breaking the fast during Ramadthan), a special occasion such as a wedding, or just staying with friends, my hosts have always prided themselves on how much they could offer with their only thought being their pleasure to serve me. This also extends to situations out in public whenever I have been in need of any kind of assistance. Strangers always have gone out of their way in both time and finances to help me if needed as a part of what they consider to be their least duty to a guest. This societal attitude of generosity and genuine helpfulness is extended to anyone out in public, whether stranger or friend, who is in obvious need.
I compare this attitude with an experience I encountered as I came back to the States on a vacation visit some years ago. I arrived at the airport and was waiting for my luggage at the baggage carrousel. Next to me was an elderly lady who was easily 75 years old. Standing on either side of us were well-dressed younger men who were also impatiently waiting for their luggage. When the bags came around, the woman recognized her bag and made a vain attempt to reach it. As it went by her, she accidently hit the arm of the man to her right. Rather than help her, he gave her a look of disgust and stepped back out of her way. Happily another gentleman on the other side of him saw her distress after the fact and chased her bag down. I had a hard time restraining myself from lecturing the other man who was so disdainful of offering any help to this elderly woman. That situation was a poor commentary on just how far some of our social values have declined in the past few decades. I have noticed over the years an overall increase in selfishness and lack of concern about others within my home culture. Again, while I would certainly not lump all American people into an uncaring mass, I do feel that we could improve somewhat in our sense of societal responsibility by studying the examples and values as taught by the Hadith that are still very much a part of Islamic modern lifestyle.
Another religious value taught in the Hadith is that of family importance and respect for older family members, the mother being of prime importance. The Prophet Muhammad was asked “‘O Allah’s Apostle! Who is more entitled to be treated with the best companionship by me? The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ The man said, ‘Who is next?’ The prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ The man further said, ‘Who is next?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ The man asked for the fourth time, ‘Who is next?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your Father.’” Mothers hold an all-time high position of respect in the Islamic household. They are honored and listened to by their children and continue to live with them under the same roof until the time they pass away. My friends in various countries have been aghast to find out about the existence of retirement homes in the States and have a hard time understanding how we could be so cold, uncaring and non-respectful as to place our aged parents into one.
We feel that one of the strong points of our LDS faith is how we view our families, our commitments to love and serve each other and to remain close. In 1995, the First Presidency issued a statement known as “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”. In it, the Church affirms that marriage and family life are ordained of God and children are entitled to be raised in an environment founded on the “principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.”
While we believe in having our families sealed together with us for eternity in our temples, we should ask ourselves to what extent we are truly maintaining that kind of eternal closeness to them in our daily lives. In most Middle Eastern extended families, the bonds of family kinship are extremely strong. This not only applies to emotional links, but pertains to areas of physical support and maintenance as well. Part of it is due to the remnant of a cultural tribal tradition that binds them so tightly together, but for the most part, it is the attitudes of respect and honor engendered by Islam as a duty to fulfill in family life. All members of the family share their financial and physical resources between each other, even after marriage. There is never a question of who will support the aged when they become infirm. Nor are there many facilities for orphans, mental health patients or the poor. Families deal with these problems themselves to the best of their abilities without turning their members permanently over to a public facility. It just would not be considered socially or culturally acceptable let alone religiously upheld.
As mentioned, honor and respect for individuals or family names are at a premium in Islamic countries. Any member who is disgraced for any reason disgraces the family as well, so it is imperative to remain of good reputation and sound report. This attitude is in part what is responsible for women not being so forthright in public places. Again, a view that many Westerners see as oppressive due to religious fundamentalism. How a woman acts in public has a direct impact on her family. The more modest and discreet a woman is, the more virtuous her actions and speech, the more honor and respect is attributed to her and her family.
Nowadays, while all women will wear modest clothing in public, it is usually a cultural and family decision as to whether or not she will wear the abaya (black cloak with or without head covering attached) or cover her face with her veil. The Quranic teaching is that women should “cover their adornments (except such as are normally displayed); to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to reveal their finery except to their husbands.” (Surah 24:31) Adornments have been interpreted to mean the hair always and sometimes face and hands. Regarding the full veiling of the face however, there is no direct teaching in the Quran that requires this. And in fact, during prayer and hajj, a woman’s face must be uncovered.
Another noted Muslim jurist, Al-Qurtabi states, “It seems probable that, since the face and hands are customarily uncovered, and it is, moreover, required that they be uncovered during acts of worship such as salat and hajj, the exemption (referred to in the verses of Surah al-Nur) pertains to them. This conclusion is supported by what Abu Daoud has transmitted on the authority of Aishah (Hadith). She said that Asma, the daughter of Abu Bakr, once came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) wearing transparent clothes. The Prophet (peace be upon him) turned his face away from her and told her, ‘Asma, when a woman begins to menstruate, nothing should be seen of her except this and this,’ and he pointed to his face and hands.”
The choice therefore of whether to veil or not depends in a large part on the cultural norm and family expectation rather than Islamic law. Consequently, within the same country, you will see many women on both ends of the extreme. While living in Saudi Arabia, I was required to wear the abaya even as a foreigner. I also carried a scarf with me in public to wear in case I was requested by any mutawa (Islamic religious police which are particular to conservative Islamic countries only) to cover my head. Most of the time I did not have to, but there were occasions on which I was forced to comply.
The compulsory wearing of abaya and scarf by all women (even foreigners) is not upheld by the Quran but rather a requirement approved by various political entities in ultra conservative Islamic governments. While countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran have modern laws on the books regarding female public attire, it even varies inside those countries from city to city as to its enforcement. Foreign women living in Jeddah in Saudi did not have to veil their heads at all and rarely wore an abaya in public. Where I worked in a hospital in the heart of Riyadh, even some of my Saudi female co-workers did not wear a scarf. The majority of them chose not to come to work wearing face veils although there were a few who came fully covered, even to the point of wearing gloves. I had some long conversations with some of these women who were my friends and they were quick to vehemently assure me that it was by their own choice that they covered completely, not through force or constraint from their families or the government. Again, they referred to the respect and honor that their family was due by their actions and how it pleased them to be able to provide it through something as minimal as the clothes they wore in public.
At the University where I worked in the United Arab Emirates, although it was an all-female campus, the majority of the students wore an abaya to class and covered their heads. If they veiled their faces, they generally took it off during class time, but put it back on to move around the campus as there were some workmen and other male professors there. It was neither oppressive nor a hardship on these women who chose to wear it. To them, it was simply a lifestyle choice that showed they were proud of their heritage, devout and honored their family name.
Along with the code of conservative dress, there are expectations of conservative behavior between the sexes in public as well. It is considered in bad taste for men and women to show any outward signs of affection in public, even when married. It is much more common to see physical affection shown between friends of the same sex who greet one another by kissing on both cheeks and often hold hands while walking together. This is not in any way to be misconstrued as gay conduct, but again, a culturally accepted norm for public behavior in the Middle East.
Most businesses such as restaurants, banks, post offices and other commonly used facilities have separate entrances, areas or lines for men and women. If there is no special place designated for women, they are free to walk to the front of any line of men in order to be served. Generally, women are treated with higher respect and are dealt more courtesy than men in public. For me as a woman, I have always especially enjoyed the privileges that have come with my gender while living in these countries. It feels good to be granted greater deferential treatment than I would normally receive at home where everyone is considered the same in regards to public manners and behavior.
While segregation of the sexes in public is not due to a Quranic injunction, the main reason for this hesitancy to mix in a casual setting is to avoid any temptations in regards to sexual transgressions. There is a Hadith that states, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day must never be in privacy with a woman…for otherwise Satan will be the third person (with them)." Al-Qurtabi comments on this saying that “the avoidance of such situations is better for one’s purity of heart, strength of soul, and perfection of chastity.” It is also to curtail any possibility of gossip that would ensue that could directly affect a woman’s or family’s honor. So, it is simply best to not even have the opportunity to be alone rather than to risk any negative ramifications that may follow.
In my workplace in Riyadh, this particular Hadith was posted inside the elevators in the buildings. Consequently, if the elevator doors opened on any floor and women were inside, a man would let the doors close and wait patiently for the lift to come back again empty before he would use it. I personally found it rather amusing to contemplate just what kind of mischief two strangers could get into between floors in an elevator, but the point itself of the Hadith is well taken.
Of course, the heinous sins of adultery and fornication are haram (prohibited) in Islam. The punishment for adultery is death by stoning, but in order to be accused, there must be four reliable witnesses who can testify to seeing the act. Also, masturbation and homosexuality are considered haram as referenced in both the Quran and Hadith. Speaking of controlling passions and curbing desire, the Prophet said, “Young men, those of you who can support a wife should marry, for it keeps you from looking at women and preserves your chastity; but those who cannot should fast, for it is a means of cooling sexual passion.”
Bridling one’s physical appetites does not only apply to passion, but to the other literal bodily hungers of eating and drinking as well. Islam also has a health code similar to the LDS “Word of Wisdom” (health law) that prohibits the intake of alcohol or any other intoxicants, pork or carrion flesh (dead animals). Old Testament parallels here are justified when looking at the requirements in Islam for slaughtering animals and what is considered clean and unclean meat. Regarding drug use, most Islamic countries have severe penalties for the import or possession of illegal substances up to and including the death penalty. Consequently, all the things that go with the drug culture are not very prevalent in these countries.
Whether talking of the self-control of an individual or governmental control of a society-at-large, the goal of Islam is to teach submission to God in body, mind and heart. The world is a place full of enticements and temptations that will lead us in the opposite direction if we make no effort to control our actions or minds. The Prophet Muhammad likened the wealth of the world to green and sweet fruit, that when partaken of too freely by an animal, will kill it. This Hadith concludes by saying, “if a person earns it (the wealth of the world) in a legal way and spends it properly, then it is an excellent helper, and whoever earns it in an illegal way, he will be like the one who eats but is never satisfied.”
In order to use the opportunities of this world properly and not let them lead us in the wrong direction or distract us from our view of eternity, we should keep in remembrance the broader view of how this life fits in with the next. “The world is going backwards and the Hereafter is coming forwards, and each of the two has its own children; so you should be the children of the Hereafter, and do not be the children of this world, for today there is action (good or bad deeds) but no accounts, and tomorrow there will be accounts, but no deeds to be done.”
It is hard to always keep the true reality in focus when we deal with the trivial things of our daily lives. That is why it is so vital that we surround ourselves with things that will remind us of what is really important. When I lived in the United Arab Emirates, I frequently drove the two hours from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi on Fridays to attend church. I liked the fact that the highway was posted with signs about every two miles that offered reminders of God. The short Arabic phrases gave the traveler the sense that no matter where you go, your beliefs accompany you and you are still surrounded by faith and God’s presence if you will remember Him. It exemplifies the Book of Mormon plea for us to have our hearts continually drawn out to God in prayer at all times. This way we can be in the world but not of it.
This eternally focused attitude is what makes all of the righteous so peculiar to others around us who are immersed in what they view to be the dim reality of their existence. We must, as Muhammad taught, “Be in this world as if you were a stranger.” We do this both as Muslims and Mormons through living our beliefs, not just thinking about them. By our commitment to live God’s laws openly within our lifestyle choices, we are proving daily that we are striving to “do the greatest good unto thy fellow beings, and wilt promote the glory of him who is your Lord.” (D&C 81:4)
 Articles of Faith, no. 13
 KJV Matthew 5:14-16
 In Islam, it is permitted for Muslims to marry Christian women as long as they are believing and chaste. See Surah 6:5
 Hadith in Khan, Bukhari, vol 8, p. 28
 Ibid, p.320
 Ibid, p.320
 Ibid, p.87
 Ibid, vol 9, p.282
 Ibid, p.238
 Ibid., vol 8, p.31
 Ibid, p.53
 Ibid, p.334
 Al-Qaradawi, Yusuf. The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, American Trust Publications, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1960, p. 338
 Ibid, p.339
 Hadith in Khan Bukhari, op. cit., vol 8, pp. 30, 102, 103
 Ibid, p.2
 Ibid, The Family: A Proclamation to the World, 1995, First Presidency Statement
 Al-Qaradawi, p. 157
 Ibid, p.150
 Ibid, p.150
 Surah 26:165,166; 23:5-7
 Ibid, p.171
 The Word of Wisdom is given in D&C 93. Mormons are forbidden alcohol, coffee, tea, tobacco, and intoxicants.
 Surah 2:173; 5:90
 Hadith in Khan Bukhari, vol. 8, p. 291
 Ibid, p.285
 Ibid, p.285