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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Christmas story through Islamic eyes


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.
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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