Illustration: Theotokos, Virgin Mary, Albanian icon

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem. In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

. . .And make mention of Mary in the Scripture, when she had withdrawn from her people to a place in the East, and had chosen seclusion from them. Then We [God] sent unto her Our Spirit and it assumed for her the likeness of a perfect human being. She said: “Truly I seek refuge in the Merciful One from you, if you are God-fearing”. He said: “I am only a messenger of your Lord, to give to you a pure son”. She said: “How can I have a son when no man has touched me, neither have I been unchaste”? He said: “Even so. Your Lord says: ‘It is easy for Me. And that We may make of him a revelation for humanity and a mercy from Us, and it is a thing ordained’”. And she conceived him, and she withdrew pregnant with him to a distant place. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried out: “Oh! Would that I had died before this! Would that I had been a thing forgotten and unseen!” Then (a voice) called out to her from beneath her: “Do not grieve, for surely your Lord has made a stream to flow beneath you; And shake towards you the trunk of the palm tree, it will drop on you fresh ripe dates: So eat and drink and refresh yourself. Then if you see any person, say: ‘Surely I have vowed a fast to the Merciful One, so I shall not speak to any one today’”. Then she brought the child to her own people, carrying him. They said: “O Mary! You have come with an amazing thing. O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a wicked man nor was your mother an unchaste woman”. Then she pointed to the child. “But they said, ‘How shall we speak to one who is still in the cradle, a little child?’ Jesus said, ‘Behold, I am God’s servant; God has given me the book and made me a prophet. God has made me blessed, wherever I may be; and God has enjoined me to pray and to give alms so long as I live, and likewise to cherish my mother; God has not made me arrogant or unblessed. Peace be upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I am raised up alive’”. Qur’an, Chapter of Mary, (19:16—35)

Good evening, al-salaamu alaikum, peace be upon you all.

I am, as ever, honoured to be here with you on this blessed night at Trinity-St. Paul’s. It is a great joy to be back in this church, both in the primary meaning of that word as this gathering of people, and in the secondary meaning of this amazing physical space that we share. I was delighted when Karen and Hal asked me to reflect for a few minutes on the importance of Jesus in Islam. This summer, I was one of two speakers at an event in Los Angeles, where I live, in celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The other speaker was Dr. Karen Torgeson, the Dean of the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University, and an expert on the roles of women in the early church. She reflected on her invitation, as a Christian, to speak at a Muslim event about the Prophet Muhammad, and wondered out loud if a Muslim had ever been asked to speak at a Christmas event about Jesus. It will be great to see her again and tell her what I was able to do here tonight. Once again, Trinity-St. Paul’s leads the way in interfaith dialogue.

Many people are unaware that for Muslims, Jesus is a great prophet, born of the Virgin Mary. In the passage that I just read, as well as the verses immediately preceding it, you will hear echoes from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, and the parallel annunciations of the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth and Zechariah, and the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph. A bridge toward inclusivity is the regard that both Christians and Muslims have for Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, and Zechariah (the father of John), all of whom are mentioned in the Qur’an.
Jesus, in particular, is an important prophet for Muslims, and is mentioned in 15 chapters and 93 verses of the Qur’an. In addition, it may surprise Christians that Muslims have collected more than 300 sayings of Jesus over the centuries. Tarif Khalidi’s The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature, published in 2001, brings these sayings together. Many Muslims are familiar with several of these sayings. My own favourite, not surprising when you realize that I am a university professor, is this one: “Jesus was asked, ‘Spirit and Word of God [note his titles here, “spirit” and “word of God”. Spirit and Word of God], who is the most seditious of men?’ He replied, ‘The scholar who is in error. If a scholar errs, a host of people will fall into error because of him.’”
In the Qur’an, Jesus is described by many names. Most often, he is referred to by his proper name, Jesus. The title “Son of Mary” occurs 23 times in the Qur’an, but only once in the New Testament (Mark 6:3). Other designations are servant of God; prophet; messenger; word; spirit; sign; example; witness; a mercy; eminent; brought near to God; upright; and blessed. A number of miracles are also associated with Jesus. In addition to speaking from the cradle as an infant, he heals the blind and the lepers; raises the dead; feeds his followers from a heavenly table; and he creates birds from clay and they come to life and fly away (reminiscent of a story from the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas).

Eleven times, the Qur’an also refers to Jesus as “messiah” or “anointed one” – a direct parallel with the same term in Hebrew. The word messiah is translated into Greek as Christ, and for Christians assumes divine significance. But the differences between Christian and Muslim usages of term are significant. Unlike Christians, when Muslims think of Jesus as “messiah” or “Christ”, they do not think of Jesus as God, or God incarnate. But perhaps that is not absolutely crucial to what we are celebrating tonight. Tonight, whatever our different understandings of Jesus, we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, an event of deep significance for Muslims as well as for Christians.

As in the New Testament, the Qur’an also portrays Jesus as a prophet of social justice. This comes through in the passage that I just read to you from the Qur’an:

“Jesus said, ‘Behold, I am God’s servant; God has given me the book and made me a prophet. God has made me blessed, wherever I may be; and God has enjoined me to pray and to give alms so long as I live, and likewise to cherish my mother; God has not made me arrogant or unblessed. Peace be upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I am raised up alive’”.

Jesus thus reflects a call to action and social justice; one must pray and take care of the poor. In this way, Christians and Muslims can come together, as we do here tonight, to work for the common good for all of us. To echo the words of one of my favourite contemporary Christmas songs, Bruce Cockburn’s Cry of a Tiny Babe, which he wrote here in Toronto in 1990:

There are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums

On this night, may the miracle of the birth of Jesus, who is called Christ by both Christians and Muslims, remind us of God’s love for us all, and for our need to share that love with each other. Thank you, and Merry Christmas!

Talk by Amir Hussain at Trinity—St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto, Dec. 24, 2006

[Tabsir Redux is a reposting of earlier posts on the blog, since memories are fickle and some things deserve a second viewing. This post was originally made on December 25, 2006.]