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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Christmas story through Islamic eyes

BY BILL TAMMEUS
Knight Ridder Newspapers

(KRT) - One reason the Christmas story engages so many hearts is that
it portrays a God of surprises.

God, for instance, assumes human form - and as a baby, no less. But not
a royal baby. No, it's a child born to poor, wandering parents. And not
in a cosmopolitan population center but in a small village of the Roman
Empire's hinterlands.
This unpredictability is why I like to reread the birth narratives in
the New Testament. But I also have found it enlightening to read the
story as it's told in the Quran, the holy book of Islam, which considers
Jesus a major prophet.
Because I'm Christian, I don't go to the Quran looking for confirmation
of what my own tradition teaches about Christ. Rather, I go to find
fresh wording and unfamiliar ways of understanding what theologians call
the "Christ event."
In a similar way, earlier this year I suggested in a column that even
though the man who introduced yoga to America had quite a different
theology than I do, his new, posthumously published book, ``The Second
Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You,'' contains
insights that can help Christians see their faith in fresh ways.
Islam, unlike Christianity, does not consider Jesus divine. In that way
it shares common ground with Judaism. But unlike much of Judaism, which
tends to see Jesus as an interesting if misguided man, Islam honors him
as a great prophet who called people to love - and submit to - the one
God.
So I know the Quran will not tell the orthodox Christian story. But I
find it worth reading, nonetheless.
Here, in prose form (the translation by A. Yusuf Ali is done in poetry
style), is part of what it says in Surah (or chapter) 3:
"Behold! The angels said: `O Mary! God hath chosen thee and purified
thee - chosen thee above the women of all nations.'''
Which is pretty much what the New Testament says. Of special interest
here is the idea that God is the initiator of the action. The theme that
God first chooses us is embedded in both Judaism and Christianity.
After the angels in the Quran story urge Mary to "worship the Lord
devoutly," they say, "O Mary! God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from
Him; his name will be Christ Jesus, held in honor in this world and the
Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to God."
Again, there is much resonance with New Testament, including the
opening passage of the Gospel of John, which describes Christ as the "Word"
of God.
But the Quran also gives fresh wording about how Christ will be honored
both in this world and the next. The New Testament story of his
suffering and crucifixion complicates the Quran's prophecy that he will be
held in honor in this world, at least during his time on Earth. But the
Quran nonetheless points to the high esteem in which Islam holds Jesus by
saying he'd be honored in heaven by those closest to God.
The Quran continues describing the baby to whom Mary will give birth:
"He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall
be (of the company) of the righteous." This passage brings to Christian
minds the story of 12-year-old Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem
conferring with - and impressing - religious teachers. But the phrase "in
childhood and in maturity" is new to Christian ears and carries many levels
of meaning.
In the Quran, as in the New Testament, Mary asks how she is to have a
son since she is not married and, as the Quran bluntly puts it, "no man
hath touched me." The Quranic angels assure her that God will arrange
things and then they describe the work Jesus will do for God.
Next comes a passage in which Islam separates itself decisively from
Christianity. It says that "the similitude of Jesus before God is as that
of Adam; he created him from dust, then said to him: `Be'; and he was."
The implication is clear. For Islam, Jesus, as Ali says in a footnote
on this verse, is not "God or the son of God or anything more than a
man."
Still, in that verse, we see a god who creates in precisely the same
way the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, says God creates: by
speaking.
The point is that we need not agree with the theology contained in the
sacred books of other faiths to learn from them and to have them shed
new light on our own. What a nice Christmas gift.
---
ABOUT THE WRITER
Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write
to him at: The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo.
64108-1413. Or e-mail him at tammeus@kcstar.com.

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