By Samuel Gonzalez
It seems as if today, in the Western world, Muslims are oftentimes portrayed as being at war with the United States, Christianity, and Western culture. While Islam certainly has its valid critiques against some of the habits of capitalistic America and Western imperialism, the truth that gets lost in the mix is that Jesus (or Isa in Arabic) is a key figure in the religion of Islam. In the Noble Quran, the Christmas story (i.e. the birth of Jesus with all the bells and whistles – angels, a virgin birth, wise men, and miracles galore) is recounted with wonder and astonishment. So, according to Islam, how does the Christmas story go? Some readers may be surprised to find out that its similarities with the Christian New Testament are overwhelming!
Nativity: The Birth of Jesus
The primary account of the Nativity found in the Quran takes the form of an extended narrative in Surah Maryam. I will divide the narrative into three shorter portions and elaborate on them as need be.
And mentioned in the Book, Maryam, when she withdrew in seclusion from her family to place facing east. She placed a screen before them; then We sent to her Our Spirit, and he appeared before her in the form of a man in all respects. She said: “Verily, I seek refuge with the Most Gracious from you, if you do fear Allah. The angel said: “I am only a messenger from your Lord, to announce to you the gift of a righteous son. She said: “How can I have a son when no man has touched me, and I have not been unchaste? He said: “Thus says your Lord: ‘That is easy for Me Allah. And (We wish) to appoint him as a sign to mankind and a mercy from Us Allah, and it is a matter which has already been decreed.” [The Noble Quran 19:16-21]
Regarding the actual annunciation of the birth of Jesus, the Quran makes it very clear that the archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary in the form of a man. When Gabriel presented himself to Mary, she believed that he wanted to lie with her. Her reaction is a testament to her purity of character, for she sought refuge from him in Allah. The archangel comforted her in order to calm her down, since he took the form of an ordinary man. Thinking humanly, it was quite queer to bear a child without any sexual relations with a man, so Mary asks in astonishment: “How shall I have a son, when no man has touched me?” The angel explains that this is the result of a divine decree that has already been ordained to take place.
Then she conceived him and withdrew to a far off place. Then the birth pangs drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree and she said: “Oh, would that I had died before this and had been all forgotten”. Thereupon the angel below her cried out: “Grieve not, for your Lord has caused a stream of water to flow beneath you. Shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards yourself and fresh and ripe dates shall fall upon you. So eat and drink and cool your eyes; and if you see any person say to him: “Verily I have vowed a fast to the Most Compassionate Lord, and so I shall not speak to anyone today.” [The Noble Qur’an 19:22-26]
There are several lessons that can be gleaned from the birth of Jesus. Firstly, that Allah creates what Allah wants whenever Allah wants, without the phenomenon of cause-and-effect, for Allah is All-Powerful. Second, that the messenger Jesus was a man created just like Adam was – without a father. Both Adam and Eve were created beings endowed with the tremendous responsibility of disseminating the message of Allah. Similarly, Jesus is created miraculously but does not demand worship. Third, Allah provided for Mary, mother of Jesus, in her time of need.
It is interesting to note that there is a theme of sweet fruits in the narrative of Mary. In the aforementioned ayah, Allah provides Mary with sweet fruits to eat in order to refresh herself after childbirth. According to islamic tradition, Mary was devoted for the service of her temple, Bait al-Maqdis, and had her own special chamber there, built for her by the Prophet Zakariya. It is said that Allah bestowed upon her special favor and provided her with fresh fruits out of season.
Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said, “O Mary, you have certainly done a thing unprecedented. O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste”. So she pointed to him. They said, “How can we speak to one who is in the cradle as a child?” Jesus said, “Indeed, I am the servant of Allah . He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet.” [The Noble Qur’an 19:27-30]
Much to the dismay of Mary, her own people began to accuse her of infidelity and debauchery, as they saw that she was pregnant but had no consort. This news spread far and wide, and some wicked-natured people slandered her of being pregnant by Joseph (Yusuf an-Najjar) who also worshiped in the same temple. It is difficult for contemporary readers to comprehend the amount of suffering Mary went through during her time of pregnancy. She was suffering from the physical strains of pregnancy as well as the psychological trauma of being rejected by her own people, being slandered against, and being falsely accused of such an indecent scandal. This is not to mention that she was alone and most likely a young teenage girl. Now put yourself in her shoes and tell me that the immense stress would not have you desiring death?
However, both Christians and Muslims have always affirmed her purity, her chastity, and immaculateness. In fact, the Honorable Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said that the Virgin Mary was among the four most beloved women in Jannah (alongside Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, Fatima bint Muhammad, and Asiya, wife of Pharaoh). While her exterior appearance had people thinking she had committed acts of indecency, the condition of her heart was that of a pure young woman. In this is a lesson for humanity – do not attribute to malice, sinfulness, or negligence that which can be explained by an ignorant heart. In other words, a judgement is a premature conclusion often fuelled by ignorance.
Gospel: Does God Need a Son?
And they say: ‘Allah the Most Gracious has begotten a son.’ Indeed, you have made an abominable assertion. [The Noble Qur’an 19:88-89]
In this ayah, as well as in countless others throughout the Noble Quran, Allah refutes the claim of those who attribute such fallacies and heresies to His Divinity. The more one studies human history, the more one realizes that human societies have always ascribed sons and daughters to their gods and goddesses. The Greeks, the Romans, the Nordics, the Chinese and Japanese, and even the Arabs had extensive pantheons of their own, each one replete with the conflicting wills of irritable deities. The chaotic patterns of nature and the universe were often attributed to two gods battling it out somewhere in the skies. However, were this erroneous belief to be true, there would not be cohesion in the fabric of reality. If the standard mode for most human beings is to be in disagreement and conflict, imagine the bewildered world of a god that was too much like us! A god with children, a god with three personalities and tempted by thoughts!
Allah alone is the Originator of the Heavens and the Earth. Allah alone is the Singular Trustee of the universe. Allah alone is the one who guides and sends messengers. The Quran warns that the most horrible sin is to attribute partners to Allah; furthermore, both the Noble Quran and the Jewish Tanakh urge believers to worship the one true God, for God is not a man that He should do wrong. He alone is worthy of praise and worship. Nonetheless, if Allah were to have a son or daughter worthy of worship, the Honorable Prophet Muhammad would have been the first to worship it:
If the Most Compassionate really had offspring, I would be the first worshipper. [The Noble Qur’an 43:81]
The Meaning of the Parable of the Ma’idah
In the Noble Quran, the reader will find a curious event regarding a miraculous table that descends from heaven in order to feed the Hebrew people. Christians reading the latter part of the fifth surah (Surah al-Ma’idah) may be surprised to discover that the prophet who conjures up this table through the power of Allah is none other than Jesus!
And remember when the disciples said, “O Jesus, Son of Mary, can your Lord send down to us a table spread with food from heaven?” Jesus said,” Fear Allah, if you should be believers.” They said, “We wish to eat from it and let our hearts be reassured and know that you have been truthful to us and be among its witnesses.” Said Jesus, the son of Mary, “O Allah , our Lord, send down to us a table [spread with food] from the heaven to be for us a festival for the first of us and the last of us and a sign from You. And provide for us, and You are the best of providers”. Allah said, “Indeed, I will sent it down to you, but whoever disbelieves afterwards from among you – then indeed will I punish him with a punishment by which I have not punished anyone among the worlds.” [The Noble Qur’an 112-115]
What wisdom does this episode in the life of Prophet Isa (Jesus) contain for contemporary readers? Essentially, Prophet Jesus commanded his disciples to fast for thirty days. At the end of the fasting period, they requested Jesus to bring a table spread with food from heaven so they may eat of it and know that their fast was accepted by Allah. Furthermore, they wanted that day to be a day of festivities and celebrations for all the Israelites, both poor and well-off. Jesus prayed for the blessing and it slowly came down, covered in fruits and vegetables of many colors, meats of diverse origins, and enough to drink for everyone. According to Muslim tradition, the number of satiated Hebrews that day was seven-thousand.
Prophet Jesus, may Allah send him peace and blessings, was a humble and righteous teacher who lived a life of simplicity, possessed no wealth or property, and nothing to save for tomorrow. Nevertheless, he and his disciples poured themselves out for the benefit of the community. Preaching about the monotheism of Allah, healing the sick, illuminating the misguided, and restoring the souls of men and women around him, he was more generous during the final three years of his life than most of us will be throughout our whole lifespan! In the parable of al-Ma’idah, there is a challenge to live generously.
While Muslims do not celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ, many Muslims living in Latin America, Europe, or the United States observe it as a cultural celebration, especially if they have Christian friends or family members. Exchanging gifts with non-Muslims is a huge part of fostering good social relationships with people of other faiths. Co-existing with Christians means accepting their celebrations as well, such as Christmas. Co-existing and participating in some of these celebrations does not mean that we accept or subscribe to their beliefs as part of ours. It’s also important to preface the gift-exchange or act of service with the intent of your actions as well as the purpose of joining in the festivities. Hence, in many cases, exchanging gifts and wishing non-Muslims well during their festivities is an act of co-existing peacefully, representing islam faithfully, and serving our Lord with excellence.
To conclude this section, the Honorable Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself preserved good ties with the Christian King Negus by exchanging letters and accepting gifts. This practice has also been reported in several hadiths:
“It was narrated from Ibn Buraidah, from his father, that an-Najashi sent a pair of pure black Khuff as a gift to the Prophet (pbuh), of which he wore.” [Sunan Ibn Majah]
The Prophet said: “Exchange gifts, as that will lead to increasing your love to one another.” [Al-Bukhari]
Aisha (R.A.), the wife of the Prophet (pbuh) said: “The Messenger of Allah used to accept gifts and reward people for giving them.” [Al-Bukhari]
Conclusion: The Example of the Messiah
He [Jesus] said, “Truly I am a servant of God. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. He has made me blessed wheresoever I may be and has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I live, and has made me dutiful towards my mother. And He has not made me domineering, wretched. Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I am raised alive!” [The Noble Qur’an 19:29-30]
To end, Jesus, the Virgin Mary daughter of Imran, and Gabriel (may peace and blessings be upon all of them) are all prominent figures in the Noble Quran. Like in Christianity, Jesus is born of a virgin after being visited by the archangel Jibreel; unlike the accounts found in the New Testament, Jesus is not portrayed as a divine figure – he is an exalted and honorable prophet, a messenger sent to guide humanity, but Jesus is not God. Just as we do with all of our other prophets, including Muhammed, devout Muslims pronounce peace and blessings after every time they refer to Jesus or Mary by name. Like Christians, Muslims believe that Jesus performed miracles: giving sight to the blind, healing lepers, and raising the dead. Unlike Christians, some of Jesus’ miracles found in the Noble Quran are not found in the Christian New Testament, such as his speaking in the cradle and breathing life into clay birds. Hence, although there are some key differences overall, our similarities overcome our differences, and although we may not celebrate the same holiday in the same way, I can still respect, from a distance, the veneration of this most wise prophet.
What do you think? Share your reflections below!
- Hafiz ibn Katheer, Stories of the Prophets, Darussalam Publications
- Sahih Al-Bukhari Book 51, Hadith 19, No. 2585
- Sunan ibn Majah 3620