Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Celebrate all that unites not divides

IN THE aftermath of the trouble on Sydney's beaches, there has been a lot of talk about riots, race and religion. And with Christmas coming up, I have a confession to make.

I will be joining readers in celebrating Christmas.

So what? You may ask. But in my case, the difference is that I come from a Muslim cultural and religious background. And some people tell me that my culture doesn't allow me to celebrate the birth of Christ.

As usual, I will spend Christmas day having lunch with my best mate. We both attended Sydney's only Anglican Cathedral School.

Some years ago, 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 Andrew's Cathedral.

At 14, I was given my first translation of the Koran in English. It was a very old translation first published in Lahore in 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 Koranic Jesus. The story can be found in a chapter of the Koran named Maryam (which is Arabic for Mary).

It begins with the usual supplication that commences all but one chapter of the Koran: In the name of God, Most Gracious and Most Merciful. This supplication is used not only when starting a reading of the Koran, 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 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 sayeth: 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 Koran 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 Koranic account. But a number of Jesus miracles are mentioned. These include healing lepers and restoring life to the dead. Christ's ascension is also mentioned. The sayings of Prophet Mohammed 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.

First published in the Daily Telegraph on 22 December 2005.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006