When love comes down
As 2017 draws to a close, it was good to discover a book that, as the author puts it in his prologue, ″calls for a fuller dialogue between Christians and Muslims.″ In ″Christmas and the Qu′ran″, Karl-Josef Kuschel makes it his declared aim to re-energise the meaning of this holiest of days for Christians and Muslims alike.
And indeed, this has nothing to do with the commercialised, midwinter feast of self-indulgent consumerism Christmas has become. With a token nod to the Nativity for those with children of primary school age, we find ourselves caught up in a whirlwind of social engagements and hounded by to-do lists. Somehow, in the pre-festival rush, life seems to switch into fast forward.
Kuschel′s insightful analysis of the Christmas story provides a welcome respite, giving the reader the chance to reconnect with the message of hope conveyed by Jesus′ birth. Examining the primary sources closely, the author presents a highly cogent comparative exegesis of the material included in the Christmas Gospels – Matthew and Luke – and Suras 3 and 19 of the Koran. The approach is both even-handed and enlightening, drawing wholeheartedly on the extant beliefs of both religious communities.
As Kuschel proceeds with his analysis of the Christmas story, it becomes very clear that the Koranic take on Jesus′ birth is to emphasise the creative power of the one true God. It is not to present the Son of God.
By contrast, as many who have grown up with an understanding of Christianity will be aware, Jesus is presented in the Bible as Emmanuel – literally "God with us" – born for one purpose only, that of redeeming humanity. And this is where the two religions diverge.
Word of God made book
In the New Testament, the birth of Jesus is very much bound into the narrative of the Jews and their suffering under the Roman occupation. Luke and Matthew both give their accounts historical context by mentioning political rulers such as Caesar Augustus, Quirinius (Luke) and Herod (Matthew). Yet, as Kuschel points out, the Koran deliberately avoids contextualisation.
Nowhere do we read of Bethlehem or Nazareth – the two towns central to the biblical Nativity – or of those in power at the time. Instead the focus is entirely on God′s interaction with individual characters: Zachariah, Mary and Jesus.
Unlike the Bible, the Koran does not view Christmas as the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy, marking the birth of the long-awaited Messiah and the sealing of a new covenant between God and his people Israel.
Though Jesus occupies a unique position in the Koran – ″a Spirit from Him″ (Sura 4: 171) and ″a sign to all men″ (Sura 19:21), he is still presented as one prophet among many. Moreover, while Christians believe that Jesus is God′s ultimate revelation of himself to humanity, the Son of God as foretold by the prophets, Muslims instead revere the Koran as ″the Word of God made book″ (Kuschel).
Finding the common denominators
Yet Hans-Josef Kuschel also discovers several areas of common ground. The Christological focus on the infant Jesus is laid to one side in an honest attempt to foster dialogue based on those terms of reference shared by Islam and Christianity. Charting a decidedly theocentric course, Kuschel identifies five aspects of the Christmas story upon which the two religions agree:
Both the Koran and the Bible concur that nothing is impossible for God: this establishes the foundation for a shared belief in the immaculate conception, which is central to the person of Jesus in both faiths.
Human doubt and disbelief are further disarmed by the creation of Jesus out of nothing. In the Koran, we read ″When He has ordained something, He only says ″Be″, and it is″ (Sura 3:47). This mirrors Luke 1:37, ″For with God nothing will be impossible″.
Moreover, unlike Muhammad and all the other prophets named in the Koran, Jesus is clearly of the spirit – he has no earthly father. Sura 4: 171 calls Jesus ″a Spirit from Him″, which lends Jesus the unique status of having been ″brought to life entirely by God′s will and God′s actions″ (Kuschel). This is reinforced by the names given to Jesus in passages throughout the Koran – ″Servant of God″, ″Prophet of God″ and ″Word of God″.
This latter revelation, common to both Christianity and Islam, is interpreted in different ways by the two religions. Christians see the nature of Jesus as confirming his unique status as the Son of God, while Muslims believe that Jesus′ divine origins are quite simply renewed proof of the greatness of the Almighty.
Fourthly, as expressed in Sura 19:32 – ″He [God] did not make me domineering and graceless″ – Jesus, God′s messenger, is presented in contrast to the mighty, the rich and the tyrannical. Not only the champion of the poor and needy, he is also therefore the embodiment of God′s peace on earth.
Finally, as Jesus is authenticated by God in the New Testament by ″miracles, wonders and signs″ (Acts 2:22), he becomes ″a sign to all men″ in the Koran (Sura 19:21), demonstrating the way of God through his annunciation and his miraculous acts – healing the blind and the leprous, raising the dead.
Silent night, holy night
Concluding his exegesis, Hans-Josef Kuschel argues that if Christians and Muslims are to progress along the path of mutual understanding then adherents of both faiths need to commit to peace.
Referencing the Muslims′ own holy night, Al-Qadr, when God revealed the Koran to Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel, Kuschel reminds the reader of the Islamic imperative: to love God and your fellow man. It is the heartfelt sentiment that prompted 138 Muslim clerics to sign a letter sent to Pope Benedict XVI and other leaders of the Christian church in October 2007, appealing for dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
Some may say that the world has moved on since 2007. And yet this message of peace, which has stood for more than two millennia and outlasted every conflict, still holds true. As we approach Christmas, Hans-Josef Kuschel gently exhorts us to see ″the Koran′s Christmas story not [as] the end of dialogue, but [as] the basis for dialogue. It can teach us to read what unites us in the light of what divides us, and what divides us in the light of what unites us.″
© Qantara.de 2017
Karl-Josef Kuschel is Professor Emeritus of Catholic Theology at the University of Tubingen, Germany. From 1995 - 2013 he was Academic Director of Theology of Culture and Interreligious Dialogue at the Tubingen Faculty of Catholic Theology and Deputy Director of the Institute of Ecumenical and Interreligious Studies. In 2013 he was awarded the German Dialogue Prize in the category of interreligious dialogue.