Christmas in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is a front line in the battle for the Holy Land. Like everything in this contested land, nothing is what it seems. There are Palestinians who say the birthplace is not in the celebrated Church of the Nativity but further down the road. Many academics claim this is the wrong Bethlehem, the real birthplace is under a highway.
What can’t be called into question is Muslim belief that Jesus is a prophet and a very important one at that. Perhaps this clear dividing line between Islamic prophethood and Christian divinity is the reason many non-Muslims don’t see Jesus and Islam as linked. Perhaps many Muslims don’t talk about their interpretation of the life and death of Jesus for fear of offending Christians.
This, however, is changing. Earlier this year, The Islamic Jesus by Mustafa Akyol was released. Now, Karl-Josef Kuschel has written Christmas and the Quran, in which he points to Islamic narratives around Jesus that are not in the gospels.
In one example, Jesus moulds clay birds and breathes life into them. A similar tale appears in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas, second-century Christian writings about Jesus’ childhood.
Akyol explores the commonality and extraordinary historical connections, particularly among early Christians and Muslims in his book. He urges Muslims to discover Jesus and to read the New Testament.
To discover or rediscover Jesus does bring up key questions. How do you navigate the big elephant in the room: Is he or is he not the son of God?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Jesus has such a significant presence in Islam, he is referred to in the Quran as “the Word of God” and as “One Drawn Near.” So perhaps it is enough just to say that both Muslims and Christians revere him and that he has a central space in the kingdom of God.
The Prophet Mohammad has no place in Christianity yet members of the Christian clergy navigate the finality of his Islamic Prophethood with elements of his message about which they agree.
The Roman Catholic Bishop of Salford John Arnold recently spoke at a parade in Manchester, England, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad. Arnold’s motives may have been more about building community cohesion by celebrating the festival of a local community but attend and celebrate he did.
With Christmas a few more shopping days away, there will be silly tabloid and far-right stories about Muslims who stole Christmas because they hate it so much. Recently, a British superstore got into a spot of bother with those groups for including a Muslim family in their Christmas celebratory TV ad campaign.
For many, however, celebrating Christmas is less about faith and more about being together as a family. Even so, it’s possible that superstore was on to something. Perhaps that Muslim family was celebrating Christmas because it marks the birthday of the prophet Jesus.
Either way, I will be one of the many Muslims around the world marking Christmas. The bishop of Salford has shown that celebrating what we have in common is better than division and misunderstanding. I’m sure Jesus would agree.
Aaqil Ahmed, the former head of Religion and Ethics for the BBC, is a professor of media at Bolton University and a consultant in digital media, broadcasting and leadership.
Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly