Mormons & Muslims: Reactions to ‘My Name Used to be Muhammad’

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Tito Momen was imprisoned in Egypt for 15 years for converting from Islam to Christianity. Now his story is raising important questions about the need to foster religious freedom around the world and preserve the basic right of an individual to convert between faiths. (Photo courtesy of Karen Zelnick, Shadow Mountain Publishing.)
Tito Momen was imprisoned in Egypt for 15 years for converting from Islam to Christianity. Now his story is raising important questions about the need to foster religious freedom around the world and preserve the basic right of an individual to convert between faiths. (Photo courtesy of Karen Zelnick, Shadow Mountain Publishing.)

A book about one man’s conversion from Islam to Christianity is generating discussion on Muslim-Mormon relations and differing views on conversion within diverse cultural traditions.

“My Name Used to be Muhammad” describes one man’s choice to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cairo, leading to separation from his girlfriend, estrangement from his family, fifteen years’ imprisonment in Egypt and the suicide of his mother.

BYU professors and students from the Middle Eastern Studies department provided insights into what Muslims believe about conversion and emphasized how members of the Church should interact with other cultures and religions across the globe.

Tito Momen’s decision to embrace Christianity after studying to become an Islamic cleric came at a high price. Yet the book depicts how Momen’s suffering molded his character and ultimately resulted in blessings.

“It is about a person’s leaving one faith to embrace another, being persecuted for it and the suffering, travail and pain caused until he was able to find relief,” said James Toronto, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at BYU.

Toronto advised readers not to project Momen’s negative experiences as a reflection of Islam as a whole.

“I think most Muslims who read this are going to feel that it’s one person’s experience that doesn’t represent by itself the reality and complexity of conversion experiences around the Islamic world — especially in the U.S. and Europe,” Toronto said.

Aziz Atiya, founder of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah, was a Coptic Christian from Egypt who believed that all religions prosper in a competitive environment of religious freedom.

Atiya appreciated the presence of the LDS Church in his native land, said Daniel Peterson, a professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. Atiya believed that promoting a free religious marketplace ultimately strengthened all religions involved.

“When a religious faith is left on its own, it gets sloppy and lazy,” Peterson said. “When you have a little competition, it begins to make you think and actually will leave the other faith stronger.”

On an international scale, religious leaders in the Muslim and Latter-day Saint faiths have been building bridges of mutual respect and understanding for years. BYU spearheads an Islamic texts translation project and sponsors educational and cultural exchanges for students throughout the Middle East.
“The Church has a long history of cooperating with many religious groups, including quite a few Muslim organizations,” said Dr. Toronto.
Recent collaborations between the LDS Church and Islamic charities have mobilized thousands of dollars to aid flood victims in Indonesia and Syrian war refugees  in Jordan.
“That has developed strong trust and relationships between general authorities, lay members of the Church, and various Muslim leaders and governments,” Toronto said.

It is in strengthening these relationships that students make the greatest contribution to increase religious freedom.

“In some countries, we can’t proselytize because it’s against the law and we abide that law,” said Alyssa White, 23, from Wenatchee, Wash.

White, studying Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, believes students can support religious freedom around the world by living their beliefs and standing for principles.

“We do our best just to be good people and to show our beliefs in the way that we live,” White said.

It is here that Tito Momen’s story may have the greatest impact.

Since its release in November 2013, Deseret Book’s bestseller has been covered by media ranging from LDS Living to Al-Jazeera America. Momen’s example has inspired thousands and opened important questions into conversion and religious freedom in the Middle East.

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