“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will”

–Gospel of St. Luke 2:14

Christmas is round the corner. Christian communities world over are gearing up for celebrations. The more religious having prayed through the month of advent await the feast with religious fervour for spiritual cleansing and renewing the vows for the Messiah.

In Muslim countries like Jordon, Lebanon, war torn Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, decorated Christmas markets with price subsidies give a festive look. Bethlehem, the converging point of three Abrahamic religions is abuzz with celebrations.

That this mutual reverence amongst Christians and Muslims of Middle East surviving 14 centuries that witnessed wars, strife and violence is amazing. It testifies the deep bonds built over common grounds of faith and religious tradition. In this part of the Muslim world, festivities commemorating the arrival of Messiah are founded in common belief, edits and oral tradition between Christians and Muslims; something that has remained evasive for the Europeanised churches. Pakistani Muslims and Christians have a lot to learn from this harmony in Middle East.

This cooperation began much before Islam was proclaimed a religion because of a special union that existed between the Holy Prophet, his Christian relatives and Christian monks of Sinai. This religiously and historically important Christian monastery also has a mosque within its compound. Later this bond grew with Christians of Sinai, Persia, Najran, Assyria and Armenia. This is visible with mosques built next to old churches. Early Muslim conquests preserved and never destroyed churches and built exclusive extensions of churches to new mosques.

This cooperation is distinct with expansion of Islam and establishment of the state of Medina. Indigenous Christians of West Asia from the times of Holy Prophet forged a deep bond and were part of Muslim armies in the most outstanding battles that includes Yarmuk against Byzantines and Walajah against Persians. At Karbala, they fought against the Army of Yazid. For Christians in Iraq, Muharram is also a month of praying for the dead.

The reverence for Messiah amongst Christians and Muslims is mutual. The Christian message of Peace “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will” is repeated in Islam as, “Peace be upon him who follow the straight path”. This is one of the many meeting points between two faiths.

Orthodox Islamic belief upholds the tenet of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. For Islamic researchers it is unthinkable to question perpetual virginity of Mary. In Islam, Mary remained a virgin throughout her life and the Holy Quran asserts Mary’s purification “from the touch of men”.

Mary, the Virgin Mother of Jesus is explicitly identified as the most exalted woman in Islam and the only one named in the Holy Quran seventy times with an exclusive Surah e Maryam that says, “O Mary, God has chosen you, and purified you; He has chosen you above all the women of creation”. This exaltation is remarkably similar to “Hail Mary Full of Grace” to the Christian scriptures.

The virgin birth of Jesus as one of the most important miracles of God is supremely important in Muslim belief. According to Holy Quran, divine grace surrounded Mary since her birth. Some scholars argue this was from the time of her own conception, giving credit of Immaculate Conception to the Holy Prophet. When still unmarried, she received a message from God through the Archangel Gabriel that God had chosen her, purified her, and had preferred her above all “the women of the worlds.” When Mary asked Angel Gabriel how she will be able to conceive, when no man has touched her, Archangel Gabriel’s reply assured Mary that for God all things are easy and that Jesus’s virgin birth will be a sign for mankind. This was followed by the annunciation of a child who was to be miraculously conceived by her through the intervention of the divine spirit while she was still virgin, whose name would be Jesus and who would be the “anointed one,” the Promised Messiah. The birth is later referred in Surah e Tahrim, which states that “Mary remained pure, while God allowed a life to shape itself in Mary’s womb”. A third mention of the annunciation is in Surah e Imran where Mary is also given the good tidings that she has been chosen above all the women of creation.

The mutual veneration is historic. Finbarr Flood writes that while removing idols from Ka’bah during the conquest of Mecca, the Holy Prophet protected the image of ‘Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus surrounded by angels’ by his hand. The same image is displayed in the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai with the hand of God protecting. This is the same monastery, the Holy Prophet frequented before he declared prophet hood and with which he signed the historical treaty of St. Catherine that seals relations between Muslims and Christians till eternity.

For someone asserting common grounds, the accounts of Virgin Mary, visitation of Archangel Gabriel, the conversations therein, virgin birth of Jesus and arrival of Messiah are remarkably similar in the Gospels and Holy Quran. This provides the foundations for Christianity and Islam to reassert mutual harmony in faiths and peaceful coexistence. Christmas is as much a part of Muslim faith as it is heralding a Messiah for Christians. Christmas is where faiths meet.

This article should be of special significance for Pakistanis. The government and religious scholars should increase the frequency and purpose of mutual dialogues and dispel culturally rooted misconceptions on Christianity. Mutual agreeable themes forming part of public discourse and information will bring communities closer and discourage discrimination.

Note: The article is written in consultation with Dr. Khalid Zaheer.

 

The writer is a political economist and a television anchor person.