The date of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is unknown. The year was probably 4 B.C. December 25 was likely chosen to ‘baptise’ the pagan Yule or ‘Rebirth of the Sun’ festival. So what? The significance of the event, not its traditional date, is (to repeat an overworked phrase) the reason for the season.
As Muslim immigrants bring a different but still respectful estimate of Jesus to our multicultural mixture, it is interesting to note without prejudice what the Quran (7th Century A.D.) and the New Testament (1st Century) say about him. Thirty years ago I wrote the first course in Comparative Religions for the Dufferin County Board of Education. My pre-Christmas classes included a discussion of the following primary texts. Those from the Quran are from the translation of N.J. Dawood, a native Iraqi scholar. They appear here in the traditional order of the Arabic suras (chapters). Biblical texts follow. They invite comparison and contrast.
1. Sura 3. The angels said to Mary, “Allah bids you rejoice in a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus (‘Issa’).
John 1:1. The Word became flesh and lived among us. We saw his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
2. Sura 4. They did not kill [Jesus] nor did they crucify him. Allah lifted him up to his presence.
I Peter 3:18. Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to reconcile you to God.
3. Sura 6. Tell them who dread the Day of Judgment that they have no advocate or intercessor but Allah.
I John 2:1. If anyone sins we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sin.
4. Sura 18. Say that I [Mohammed] am a mortal like yourselves.
John 14:9. Jesus said, Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.
5. Sura 19. Those who say Allah has begotten a son preach a monstrous falsehood.
John 3:16. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
6. Sura 43. Jesus was no more than a mortal whom We [Allah] favoured and made an example to the Israelites.
Colossians 1:19. God was pleased to have all the fullness of his nature dwell in him, that through him all might be reconciled to God.
7. Sura 61. Jesus said to the Israelites, “I am sent from Allah to confirm the Torah [the Books of Moses] and to give news of an apostle that will come after me whose name will be Ahmed.
John 14:16. I will ask the Father and he will send you another Counsellor to be with you forever, the Holy Spirit.
8. Sura 67. My mission is only to warn you [Mohammed].
Mark 10:45. The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.
The Muslim understanding of Jesus, despite the above disparities, is more positive than the estimate of many Jewish scholars with whom Christians share the Hebrew prophecies. The popular Yiddish author, Sholem Asch (1880-1957), was much criticised in rabbinical circles for his historical novels The Nazarene, The Apostle and Mary and their positive estimate of Christian tradition.
Regretfully, hard-line Islamic opinion disregards the Quran’s statement in sura 2 that “Believers, Jews and Christians – whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does what is right – shall be rewarded by their Lord; they have nothing to fear or to regret”. The Prophet’s later experience of rejection by both Jews and Christians in Medina and elsewhere hardened his attitude despite what he had earlier been inspired to proclaim.
Muslims believe that Allah rescued Jesus from the disgrace and defeat of death by crucifixion. The Ahmadiyya sect teaches that ‘Issa’ survived to go to India where his tomb is reverenced. The speculation is similar to that of Hugh Schonfield, that the ‘resurrection’ was a carefully planned ‘Passover Plot’ to take an exhausted but living body from the cross and have it resuscitate in a nearby sepulchre before making farewell appearances. There is Dan Brown’s popular fiction based on mediaeval French legends and there are the animadversions of my onetime colleague Tom Harpur who, walking a tightrope between religious nostalgia and agnosticism, writes books for those who seek the latest reasons for abandoning beliefs they once entertained.
It cannot be denied that the symbolism and ceremonial of any religion may resemble that of another or of other human associations. And it may or may not be significant that the earliest New Testament writers, Paul and Mark, make no mention of the well-loved Nativity stories. But Catholic, mainstream, Christianity acknowledges a process of development in the understanding of Scripture and of the nature of the Church. “There are things I cannot tell you now but the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth”.
The Christian world tends to regard Muhammad as a fiery prophet who preached to nomadic desert tribes that had lived in idolatry and internecine warfare. Muslims claim that Jesus predicted the coming of one who would complete his own mission. Perhaps it is fair to say that the essential message of both religions still evades those who think that terrorism and military campaigns, jihad and crusades, patriarchal or political violence are substitutes for dialogue. Areligion can be countercultural without being anti-social but sectarian Islamists do seem to encourage conflict rather than harmony. Even though it lacks a central teaching authority one hopes that international Islam may soon prove its desire for peace on earth.
In October 138 Muslim scholars invited the world’s Christian leaders to join them in a dialogue. It would not ignore theological differences but would concentrate on the common belief that Allah/God’s mercy and compassion requires all believers to show the same regard for one another. Pope Benedict, first among Christian spokespersons, is expected to reply positively in the New Year and to emphasise the importance of religious freedom everywhere and the right either to convert or to disbelieve without persecution.