Joseph Smith and Mohammed
In his book The World and the Prophets, Hugh Nibley observes that critics are not slow to point out superficial resemblances between our modern prophets and other men of their time. For example, Joseph Smith founded a church, and so did other men; he claimed revelation from heaven, and so did they; he was persecuted, and so were they; he read the Bible, and so did they; and because they were impostors, so accordingly was he. This last point, of course, is not supported by the superficial resemblances. What we must ask in the case of the modern prophet is what we must ask in the case of Jesus: where was he essentially different from all the rest"
Eduard Meyer was one of the most learned men of modern times. Ancient history was his field, and the origin of religions was his special interest. He wrote authoritative works on the origin of religions and singled out the Latter-day Saints as one of the great original religions. He finds the closest resemblance between the Mormon Church and the primitive Christians. They resemble each other in every detail, even to their defects. Meyer also finds resemblances between Joseph Smith and Mohammed, but Nibley points out that these are superficial and incidental compared with the essential points on which Meyer believes the two men, both claiming to be prophets, stand in complete antithesis to each other:
Mohammed was beset by long periods of self-mistrust and black despair and, according to some sources, even attempted suicide. He was greatly worried that he might be insane or that he had seen a devil rather than an angel. In contrast to this, "it is for Joseph Smith very significant," wrote Meyer, "that there is in his case absolutely no question of any such doubts and misgivings."1 Meyer congratulates Mohammed for having the normal human reaction and chides Smith for not having it.
Meyer holds up the exemplary caution, restraint, and shrewdness of Mohammed, showing how he gained confidence with practice and through the years carefully worked out his doctrine and his story, correcting, revising, and building it up. Unlike Joseph Smith, or the Old Testament prophets, Mohammed never actually sees anything in his revelations, but reads slowly and very painfully from a book. Smith finds himself in company with the ancient prophets of Israel. Mohammed does not.
The most important difference between the two purported prophets, according to Meyer, is that "Joseph Smith has a belief in the continuation of direct prophetic inspiration, speaking in tongues, etc., and along with that, of personal inspiration which every believer can receive. . . . Mohammed, on the other hand, knows only of one single book, that is the Bible, with which he has a vague acquaintance."
For Joseph Smith, the manifestations of the other world are real and matter-of-fact. "For Mohammed . . . there is only one miraclethe revelation of the words of the divine book and the appearance of angels. He denied any power to do miracles, and his followers have no special power of any kind."
Joseph Smith and Mohammed both claim to have given the world a revealed book. But precisely on this point Meyer finds the most complete (if not the most important) difference between them. After all, hundreds of men have claimed to have given inspired writings to the worldthere is nothing in the mere claim to justify or condemn a prophet. But Smith's book is like no other. Whereas "for Mohammed the book always remains in the hands of the angel," Smith not only read but also translated his book, which he carried around from place to place; he actually copied out characters of the book and circulated them around for all, including his worst enemies, to look at. "Any such thing," says Meyer, "would never have occurred to Mohammed."
Eduard Meyer's final conclusion is that "Mohammed's revelations stand higher than those of Joseph Smith, because in his case we feel . . . something of the power of a conviction wrung out by hard mental toil, and even at times we feel something of a poetic inspiration." Of this, not the minutest trace in Joseph Smith. Meyer can respect the mental effort of the founder of Islam wrestling with his human limitations, but Joseph Smith remains an enigma to him. Meyer has no patience with this upstart who never doubts in the face of the most appalling persecution, and amid all his terrible trials and struggles never struggles for inspiration. Nibley points out that Meyer" s impatience with Joseph Smith is actually a strong witness to his prophetic calling, for Meyer treats Ezekiel in exactly the same way.
Nibley concludes: "Here we have an interesting test. Meyer likes and understands Mohammed who, though a remarkable man to say the least, is after all just a man who reacts as one would expect any normal man to react if he were trying to work himself into a state of religious conviction. The vagueness, the mystery, the struggle, the doubtevery religious leader experiences them, and we all have some idea of what Mohammed went through. He is, so to speak, just another preacher, though a great one. But not so Joseph Smith! Meyer finds him, like Ezekiel, crass, literal, unpoetic, devoid of power of fantasy, unmoved by doubts, unennobled by despairing struggles. Here are men that cannot by any effort be fitted into Meyer's catalogue of religious thinkers. If the nature of his prophetic claims placed him completely apart from all the other religious men of his day, it also disqualified Joseph Smith for classification with any other type of prophet than that represented by Ezekiel, Christ, and the ancient apostles. However much he may have resembled other men in other things, when it came to his prophetic calling, Joseph Smith was not a Mohammed struggling to convince himself and find poetic expression; he was not a scholar of divinity seeking to unriddle the scriptures for his less-educated or less-inspired fellows; and certainly he was not just another preacher. He was a true Prophet of God." Adapted from Hugh Nibley, "Prophets and Preachers," in The World and the Prophets (1987).