So as it is Christmas Day — and for the first time in three years I’m actually celebrating Christmas (long story) — I wanted to share “other” Christmas stories. The New Testament has two Christmas stories (Matt. and Luke), both of which radically differ from each other but are often conflated in Christian traditions, and a more cosmogonic account in John’s gospel. But there are lots of Christmas legends, accounts, or stories that have arisen and been enjoyed over the centuries. Many of these so-called apocryphal Christmas stories (e.g, the Proto-Gospel of James) have had just as great an impact on popular images of the Christmas tale as the so-called canonical accounts.
Today, I’d like to share one Christmas story that most people are unaware of, perhaps because it’s not a Christian account (!); rather, this is the Muslim Christmas story! Yes, the Qur’an has the birth of Jesus (or in Arabic, Isa) (and John the Baptist), and even has an entire Surah named after Mary (the only one named after a woman!). Although there is more to the story than I’m copying here, specifically about Mary, John, John’s parents, etc., this is the basic Jesus story. There was even a beautiful film made of Mary’s life based on the Islamic tradition.
A few things to note (i.e., the differences from the NT accounts).
(1) There are strong parallels to apocryphal gospels, such as the Proto-Gospel of James (likely second century CE) and (with the mention of turning clay birds into real birds) the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The Qur’an is a strong witness to the importance of these Christian legends/texts within the Near Eastern world of the 7th century.
(2) The first miracle of Jesus is his words, first to Mary and then, most stunningly, to the villagers who believe Mary has shamed the community. This is an important Christological element, because Jesus, like other prophets, is a voice for revelation or recitation (of the word of God, i.e., the “Qur’an”). Thus, unlike John’s gospel, where Jesus’ first miracle points to his Passion through Eucharistic symbolism, the Qur’an presents Jesus as the messenger of God, a prophet for calling the people to “the straight path”.
(3) There is no Joseph. This character is totally absent from the Qur’an, which is stunning given that he plays a prominent role in the Proto-Gospel of James. But what this does is clearly stress the miraculous and virgin birth of Jesus. Removing Joseph clarifies that the scandal assumed by the villagers is undoubtedly misguided. Also, with the absence of Joseph, the Qur’anic account nicely characterizes Mary as completely alone. There is a strong pathos element to the Qur’anic account. The suffering and struggle that Mary faces is accentuated in the Muslim tradition, far beyond what we read in the New Testament accounts. For those looking for tales of strong female characters in religious traditions, the Islamic portrayal of Mary is certainly an exemplar to embrace. The entire narrative venerates Mary in ways that are rare in parallel Christian traditions.
(4) Note the corrective in the Qur’an as to the relationship of Jesus to God. Yes, Jesus is born miraculously. And the eschatology (“end time”) role of Jesus is very significant–and he is certainly one of the most important prophets in the Islamic tradition. But Jesus is not God for Muslims. Portrayals of Jesus in the Qur’an stress this point, pointing out the error of Christians while preserving a pure monotheism. This final point is perhaps the most divisive point between the Christian and the Muslim Christmas stories.
So Christmas is not only a Christian tradition. It is something that extends not only beyond the biblical accounts, but even the Christian tradition(s). Each account of the Christmas story, of course, is a unique presentation–though often intertextually related to other tales–and perhaps the best way to appreciate (and even enjoy!) each tale is to read it on its own terms, to recognize the creative dynamics that people have played with over the centuries on such formative stories of myth and wonder. So here is the Muslim Christmas story.
Have a Merry Muslim Christmas!
Qur’an 3.42-51 (Transl. A. J. Droge)
And (remember) when the angels said, “Mary! Surely God has chosen you and purified you, and He has chosen you over all other women. Mary! Be obedient to your Lord, and prostrate yourself and bow with the ones who bow.” – That is one of the stories of the unseen. We inspire you (with) it. You were not with them when they cast their pens as lots to see which of you would take charge of Mary. Nor were you with them when they were disputing. – When the angels said, “Mary! Surely God gives you good news of a word from Him; his name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, eminent in this world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought near. He will speak to the people (while he is still) in the cradle and in adulthood, and (he will be) one of the righteous.” She said, “My Lord, how shall I have a child, when no man has touched me?” He said, “So (it will be)! God creates whatever He pleases. When He decrees something, He imply says to it, “Be!” and it is.
And He will teach him the Book and the wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel. And (He will make him) a messenger to the Sons of Israel. “Surely I have brought you a sign from your Lord: I shall create for you the form of a bird from clay. Then I will breathe into it and it will become a bird by the permission of God. And I shall heal the blind and the leper, and give the dead life by the permission of God. And I shall inform you of what you may eat, and what you may store up in your houses. Surely in that is a sign indeed for you, if you are believers. And (I come) confirming what was before me of the Torah, and to make permitted to you some things which were forbidden to you (before). I have brought you a sign from your Lord, so guard (yourselves) against God, and obey me. Surely God is my Lord and your Lord, so serve Him! This is a straight path”
Qur’an 19.16-36 (Transl. A. J. Droge)
And remember in the Book Mary; When she withdrew from her family to an eastern place, and took a veil apart from them, We sent to her Our spirit, and it took for her the form of a human being exactly. She said, “Surely I take refuge with the Merciful from you, if you are one who guards (yourself).” He said, “I am only a messenger of your Lord (sent) to grant you a boy (who is) pure.” She said, “How can I have a boy, when no human being has touched me, nor am I a prostitute?” He said, “So (it will be)! Your Lord has said; “It is easy for Me. And (it is) to make him a sign to the people and a mercy from Us. It is a thing decreed.”
So she conceived him, and withdrew with him to a place far away. The pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a date palm. She said, “I wish I had died before (this) and was completely forgotten!” And then he called out to her from beneath her, “Do not sorrow! Your Lord has made a stream beneath you. Shake the trunk of the date palm toward you, and it will drop on you fresh ripe (dates). Eat and drink and be comforted. If you see any human being, say; ‘Surely I have vowed a fast to the Merciful, and so I shall not speak to any human today.’”
Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said, “Mary! Certainly you have brought something strange. Sister of Aaron! Your father was not a bad man, nor was your mother a prostitute.” But she referred (them) to him. They said, “How shall we speak to one who is in the cradle, a (mere) child?” He said, “Surely I am a servant of God. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. He has made me blessed whenever I am, and He has charged me with the prayer and the alms as long as I live, and (to be) respectful to my mother. He has not made me a tyrant (or) miserable. Peace (be) upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I am raised up alive.”
That was Jesus, son of Mary – a statement of truth about which they are in doubt. It is not for God to take any son. Glory to Him! When he decrees something, He simply says to it, “Be!” and it is. “Surely God is my Lord and your Lord, so serve Him! This is a straight path.”