The First Presidency of the Church welcomed the spiritual leader of Muslims in Azerbaijan this week. Haji Allahshükür Hummat Pashazade, sheikh ul-Islam and grand mufti of the Caucasus, spent the last three days meeting Church leaders and seeing how the Church functions.
“I wish the First Presidency and elders [of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles] longevity and blessings from the Almighty to let them serve people … as long as possible,” Sheikh ul-Islam said.
Elder Rasband had previously met with Sheikh ul-Islam at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Italy in September 2021.
“Hello, my old friend,” Elder Rasband said as the two met again after nearly 18 months.
“I am especially grateful to meet you wonderful brothers and sisters from Azerbaijan,” Elder Rasband said. “I want you to know, we will be your friends.”
Elder Jack N. Gerard, General Authority Seventy, also met with the Sheikh ul-Islam and the Azerbaijanis this week.
“He’s a very important religious leader but has become a good friend of the Church,” Elder Gerard said.
Sheikh ul-Islam has been in his role as religious leader in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus for 44 years.
He said he has been to New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., over the course of four decades. But after visiting Utah for the first time, he said, “My impressions and opinion about the U.S., and Utah in particular, have turned in a positive direction.”
The trip to Utah to visit with leaders of the Church was planned over the past three years. Sheikh ul-Islam said he wished he had come sooner.
Differences serve a purpose
While differences between Muslims and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be easy to see, Sheikh ul-Islam said he believes those differences serve a purpose for God.
He explained that religion, languages and other differences serve “only to make our relationships more interesting and to help us know each other better.”
“I feel that the Church of Jesus Christ has demonstrated its fraternal attitude towards us as Muslims. This is what the Almighty commanded all of us to all humankind, and we do the same,” he said.
Elder Gerard praised Azerbaijan for being an example of working through differences among its people and others around the world.
“Azerbaijan is a leader in the world and multiculturalism where they have great diversity of faith, great diversity of ethnicity, and they’ve learned to live in love and harmony and peace,” Elder Gerard said.
“That’s a model that we ought to model clear across the world, or particularly in the United States, where we move away from polar positions and we find ourselves seeing each other for who we truly are, our divine identity as brothers and sisters, as children of a loving God.”
Sheikh ul-Islam said this model isn’t unique to the Church of Jesus Christ or Islam.
“No Abrahamic religion, no holy book, no prophet regardless of if they are Jewish or Christian or Muslim ever calls on their followers to hatred. … We all are children of God,” he said.
Hope and music
One of the most memorable parts of this trip to Utah was Sheikh ul-Islam’s chance to hear the famed Conference Center organ being played on Temple Square.
“I love organ music, and I used to listen to organ music every chance I had,” he said. “Believe me, I had my soul raised high when I was listening to that music.”
That was one of many stops for Sheikh ul-Islam and his delegation from Azerbaijan. The group also visited Welfare Square and Brigham Young University.
BYU recently announced it will have a class teaching the Azerbaijani language. Ambassador Khazar Ibrahim met with BYU President Kevin J Worthen prior to that announcement in January. Ibrahim was here again this week with Sheikh ul-Islam.
Ibrahim said his country is excited at the prospect of having BYU students travel to Azerbaijan as part of their studies. He said he finds hope in the fact that BYU teaches culture and language together.
Sheikh ul-Islam said he also found hope in this visit. He spoke of meeting with someone during the trip who has 50 grandchildren.
“Imagine that,” he said. “He will do his best for the good, positive future of his grandchildren.”
All generations face challenges, but God expects each individual to maintain hope, Sheikh ul-Islam said.
“We have to not lose our hope because it is also the will of the Almighty. Until the last breath, we have to hope.”
That hope, however, is not just wishful thinking or based on short-term needs, he said. It has a much bigger purpose.
“I’m full of hope that the Almighty will help us to save the world.”
Building a relationship
Elder Stevenson and Elder Soares are members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The Church has provided humanitarian aid in Azerbaijan, but it does not have any wards or branches in the country of more than 10 million people. Islam is the predominant religion, but the country is working to ensure religious freedom for those who believe in other faiths.