Christmas is traditionally a time for family and friends getting together and for exchanging gifts. Among my extended family and close friends, Muslim and non Muslim both were and will be done. And both sides of the Tasman are involved.
An uncle of mine from Los Angeles visited Australia for the first time. His wife convinced me to take both of them to New Zealand. “Come on, Irfan. You should know New Zealand. What sort of Aussie are you that you don’t even know your own country?”
Our trip coincided with the Sydney beach riots, whose occurrence made my relatives particularly desperate to leave Sydney. I joked with them: “Hey, you guys must be used to that sort of thing, coming from LA”.
We were in New Zealand for 5 days, only enough time to drive a circle around North Island. Despite our requests, my mother and aunt refused to remove their headscarves. As if the rioters were crossing the Tasman to cause more trouble!
The closest we did come to cultural conflict was one morning walking down the main street of Napier in search of breakfast. I noticed the locals were staring in our general direction. Naturally, I presumed the ladies’ defiance over their headscarves was disturbing the locals.
Then one of the locals shouted the real cultural reason for the stares. “What are you wearing that damned Wallabies jersey in New Zealand!”
Before leaving for New Zealand, I decided to deliver my Christmas gifts early. One recipient of this clean-shaven Islamic Santa’s largesse was a Kiwi friend of mine who never met her Muslim dad. This year she will receive from me a package of three books, including a selection of Rumi poems and the latest Deepak Chopra offering.
Other friends of various genders and persuasions will also receive gifts. And this year’s Christmas card list for my legal practice already has over 300 names.
As usual, I will spend Christmas day having lunch with my best mate. We both attended Sydney’s only Anglican Cathedral School. Some years back, I introduced him to a Japanese friend of mine. They instantly clicked. I was best man at their wedding. It was a truly Australian event — an Anglican boy marrying a Buddhist girl with a Muslim best man, all taking place at St Andrews Cathedral!
At age 14, I was given my first translation of the Qur’an in English. It was a very old translation first published in Lahore during the 1930s. The translator was an Indian named Abdullah Yusuf Ali who rose to the highest posts in the Indian Civil Service that formed the administrative bedrock of the British Raj. His is perhaps the most popular and widely used translation.
It was at school that I discovered the story of the Qur’anic Jesus. The story can be found in a chapter of the Qur’an named ‘Maryam’ (which is Arabic for ‘Mary’). It begins with the usual supplication that commences all but one chapter of the Qur’an: ‘In the name of God, Most Gracious and Most Merciful’. This supplication is used not only when commencing a reading of the Qur’an, but precedes virtually all the daily actions of a Muslim, both mundane and devotional.
The chapter then goes into how John the Baptist appeared on the scene. John (named ’Yahiya’ in classical Arabic) was born to Zachariah, and both father and son are revered as prophets.
Once John has been mentioned, Mary is introduced. She is described as withdrawing from her family ‘to a place in the East’, locking herself away from the rest of society. A man mysteriously appears in her private chamber. The following dialogue ensues:
MARY: ‘I seek refuge from thee to God Most Gracious: come not near if thou dost fear God.’
MAN: ‘Nay, I am only a messenger from the Lord, to announce to thee the gift of a holy son.’
MARY: ‘How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?’
MAN: ‘So it will be: Thy Lord saith: “that is easy for Me: and We wish to appoint him as a sign unto men and as a Mercy from Us”. It is a matter so decreed.’
The man was an angel. Christ was conceived miraculously. Following birth, Mary took her son back to her family. Her father was a respected Rabbi and Mary was always known for her modesty and chastity. Further Mary had made a vow not to speak to any man for a fixed period of time. When she was first publicly accused of sexual impropriety, she pointed to the baby Jesus.
The Qur’an thus describes the first miracle of Christ — his speaking from the cradle in defence of his mother. His exact words were:
I am indeed a servant of God: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet. And he hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live. He hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable. So peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised up to life again!
I’m not sure if Joseph or the Three Wise Men appear in the Qur’anic account. But a number of Jesus’ miracles are mentioned. These include healing lepers and restoring life to the dead. Also mentioned is Christ’s ascension. The sayings of Prophet Muhammad mention Christ’s return to earth to establish the kingdom of God toward the end of time.
Given the status of Mary and Christ, it is not surprising that in the place where it all happened, the Palestinian town of Beit Lahm (Bethlehem), Muslims and Christians both celebrate Christmas. In many Muslim countries, Christmas is a public holiday. And when Christian leaders remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, our Muslim brethren should find nothing objectionable.
Christmas should remind us that, despite minor cultural and theological differences, the things that unite us are greater in number and more important than those which divide us.
(Versions of this article appeared in the New Zealand Herald and the Daily Telegraph on 22 December 2005 and in New Matilda on 21 December 2005.)
© Irfan Yusuf 2005