As a rule, while Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet, they do not celebrate Christmas, mostly because they recognize it is a distinctly Christian festival espousing a particularly Christian belief (the Incarnation) that is blasphemy to Muslims. While some Muslims might put up lights and Christmas trees in response to the cultural celebration, even this is regarded as dangerous since it can lead to making a special occasion out of a non-Muslim holy day which might cause confusion, especially in the eyes of Muslim children.
Muslim apologists prefer to regard Christmas as an opportunity to show Christians how much there is in common between the two faiths, and how Muslims can respect the season without participating in it. “After all,” the Muslim might say to his Christian co-worker, “we worship the same God, and we both give honor to Jesus. Hey, we even believe in the Virgin Birth, just like you!” Of course, attitudes like this are capitalized on by secular society to the extent of using similar argumentation to promote some kind of “why can’t we all just get along” attitude.
In light of this, I thought it might be interesting to look at exactly how the Qur’an deals with Christ’s birth, and how this reflects Islamic belief with regard to Jesus’ mission. I would also like to examine how this contrasts with what the Bible teaches, and the significance of this difference. For the purpose of the blog, I will keep the study brief; however, there are plenty of online resources (including The Qur’an) for you to pursue more in-depth study.
The Gospel According to Muhammad
The account of Christ’s birth in the Qur’an is found in Sura 19. Each Sura of the Qur’an has been given a heading that reflects either the main point or character of the Sura, or identifies a distinctive element of the Sura as a memory aid. For example, the Sura titled “The Bee” is not about a bee, but a bee features in part of the Sura which makes this Sura distinctive. Sura 19 has been given the title “Maryam,” or “Mary” because Mary is a prominent figure in the Sura. The general message of the Sura seems to be Allah’s grace and mercy to those who are faithful to him, and warnings to those who are not. This is not unique to the Qur’an; a similar synopsis could be provided for other Suras. This one in particular, however, starts with the birth of John the Baptist, recalling the story of his father, Zacharias, and how he pleaded for a child to be given to his barren wife. In the Qur’an we are told that after Allah said He would answer Zacharias’ prayer, He struck Zacharias dumb in response to his request for a sign. Zacharias then, by means of sign language, commanded the people to praise Allah. Allah then, according to the Qur’an, gave John “wisdom, piety, purity,” and he was “devout, kind to his parents, and he was not overbearing or rebellious” (19:12-14).
The story of Mary starts with her turning from her family and going East. An angel appears to her and tells her that she is about to receive “the gift of a holy son” (19.19), even though she is a virgin. This “holy son” is appointed by Allah as “a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us” (19.21). Mary gives birth to the child under a palm tree, with much pain and agony. Allah provides water and fresh ripe dates for her to drink and eat, and makes her vow not to speak with any man she may see. When she brings the baby to her people, they are amazed, but Mary has vowed to say nothing, so she merely points at the child. The child then miraculously addresses the people telling them that He is indeed a servant of Allah, and has been made a prophet by Him. He also informs them that Allah has bestowed upon Him “Prayer and Charity” and made Him to be “kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable.”
At this point, the Qur’an asserts the veracity of this account against its detractors:
35. It is not befitting to (the majesty of) Allah that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, “Be”, and it is.
36. Verily Allah is my Lord and your Lord: Him therefore serve ye: this is a Way that is straight.
37. But the sects differ among themselves: and woe to the unbelievers because of the (coming) Judgment of a Momentous Day!
38. How plainly will they see and hear, the Day that they will appear before Us! but the unjust today are in error manifest!
39. But warn them of the Day of Distress, when the matter will be determined: for (behold,) they are negligent and they do not believe!
40. It is We Who will inherit the earth, and all beings thereon: to Us will they all be returned.
The Sura then goes on to relate Abraham’s turning from his father’s idolatry, and also mentions Moses, Aaron, Ishmael, and Idris, who were all also raised to prophetic status. The Sura concludes with condemnation against those who have been negligent in prayers and subsequently fallen prey to their own desires, as well as the “Unbelievers” who have ignored the “Clear Signs.”
The Gospel According to Matthew and Luke
Even if your only acquaintance with the Biblical account of Christ’s birth is Linus’ speech in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” you should notice some very stark differences between what the Qur’an says, and what the Bible says. First, the Qur’an neglects to mention that Zacharias was struck dumb as a punishment for his faithlessness, and only had his speech restored when he wrote the name of his son, calling him “John” as the angel instructed. About the only point of contact the Qur’anic account of Christ’s birth has with the Biblical narrative is where Mary points out to the angel that “no man has touched me,” and the angel assures her that her pregnancy will come about by divine agency. Significantly, the Qur’an skips over Zacharias’ prophecy, as recorded in Luke 1:67-79 where he speaks of how God has “visited us and accomplished redemption for His people.”
As for the description of Christ’s birth itself, the Qur’an says nothing of the angelic proclamation to the shepherds, the message given to Joseph (indeed, Joseph is not mentioned at all), there is no manger, there is no star, there are no magi; indeed, there is no sense of the humility of Christ’s birth so vividly portrayed in the Gospel narratives. In the Qur’an, the birth of Jesus is the birth of another prophet. In the Bible, the birth of Jesus is the birth of the Christ, the Son of God: Immanuel, God with us. Sure, the Qur’an surrounds the birth of Jesus with the supernatural as befitting a prophet, but there is certainly no sense of the singularly significant event that was Christ’s birth, no sense of this being a pivotal point in human history.
The Mission of Jesus in the Qur’an
As far as I can tell, the main reason for this lack lies not only in the denial of Christ’s divinity (based on a view of the Trinity that has more in common with the Arian heresy than with Biblical theology), but also in the perceived mission of Jesus as a prophet of God. Islam means “submission [to God],” and throughout the Qur’an, the purpose of Mohammad’s preaching, teaching, and campaigning was to bring the heathen Arabs and wayward Jews and Christians back to the doctrines and lifestyle Allah had originally intended for them (according to Mohammad). The Qur’an teaches a continuity throughout the prophets from Abraham, through Jesus, to Mohammad (Sura 3.84). The Jews and the Arabs both need to accept that Mohammad is the true and final prophet of God, and they need to submit to God by accepting the revelations given to Mohammad as being continuous with, and a final fulfillment of, their Scriptures. The Christians also need to do this, but they also need to turn away from the sin of ascribing deity to a man, teaching polytheism, and teaching that God can have offspring. Muslims see Jesus as a forerunner of Mohammad, and one who, as a prophet of God, exemplified the kind of thing Mohammad would proclaim. Hence, Jesus was a servant of Allah, He submitted to Allah, He attended to “Prayer and Charity” (two of the five pillars of Islam), and was respectful and obedient (See Suras 2.128-138, 3.55-73, and similar passages). In short, Jesus’ life and mission in the Qur’an has been tailored to fit the message of Mohammad, just like the other Biblical prophets whose stories have been adapted in the Qur’an. What is missing from the Qur’an is the reason for man’s waywardness from God. The Qur’an does not deal with sin other than call men to repent and submit to God. The Qur’an assumes that man is capable of turning from sin, because the Qur’an does not teach the doctrine of Original Sin (see Sura 2.35-37). According to the Qur’an, men are able to be persuaded to do good or evil (see, for example, Allah’s words to Iblis (the Devil) in Suras 15.42, 17.63-64), and despite the strong insistence upon God’s sovereignty (you have probably heard “if Allah wills” or the Arabic phrase “insha’ Allah” on the lips of Muslims many times), there is no sense in which God infallibly secures the salvation of His own. In Islamic theology, sin is not something from which God needs to save you; it is something you simply need to repent of and renounce. Hence, there is no need for a Saviour, and, therefore, the entire meaning and purpose of Christmas, of Christ’s coming to earth, is gutted.
The Problem of Christmas for the Muslim
The problem that Muslims have to come to terms with regarding what the Bible has to say about the coming of the Son of God, is the fact that the Qur’an affirms the divine inspiration of the New Testament:
He hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture with truth, confirming that which was (revealed) before it, even as He revealed the Torah and the Gospel. (3.3)
And We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow in their footsteps, confirming that which was (revealed) before him in the Torah, and We bestowed on him the Gospel wherein is guidance and a light, confirming that which was (revealed) before it in the Torah – a guidance and an admonition unto those who ward off (evil). (5.46)
If the Qur’an affirms that the New Testament is revealed by God, then the Muslim must reconcile this fact with the vast difference we see in the purpose of Christ, and the central message of the Gospel compared to the message of Islam. The message of Islam is repent and submit to God; obey His commands, follow the prescribed rituals, and you just might be acceptable to Him. The message of the inspired Gospel is that mankind is at enmity with God, and in Christ God has made provision for His justice and His mercy by giving His only Son so that sinful men might be made righteous before their Creator. Those whom God justifies, these He also sanctifies, and ultimately glorifies.
(I note in passing that Muslim scholars might respond to the assertion that the Qur’an teaches the inspiration of the New Testament by saying that the Qur’anic injil refers not to the Gospels, or the New Testament, but the original message taught by Jesus. This message, they believe, is contained in part in the canonical Gospels, but also in other writings. So, essentially, the Muslim must weed through the New Testament to find those aspects of Jesus’ teachings that conform to Islamic doctrine, since these comprise the true Gospel. The problems with this approach are manifold and beyond the scope of this study. Suffice it to say that many of the critiques of the Higher Critical approach apply to this assertion. Moreover, the Qur’an itself does not qualify what it means by injil any more than it does the term taurat for the Old Testament, which Muslims appear to accept as true revelation from God.)
The message of the Gospel is a compelling message of hope, one that the Qur’an simply cannot offer. While Muslims may claim they share common beliefs with Christians, the fact is that there is no hope, no consolation, and ultimately no salvation in Islam. In the Qur’an, a just and holy Allah looks down on his creation and demands obedience of them. Allah is gracious and merciful to those who believe, and those who keep to his ways; but Allah does not deal with the core problem of man’s sinful heart, so Muslims must constantly try to appease Allah in the hope that their obedience will earn them a place in Paradise. In the Bible, we are told that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God did not wait for His people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps; He knew they could not. So He provided for their salvation by making atonement for their sins, changing their hearts so that they might be God-lovers and not God-haters. In the true Gospel, those who believe are those whom God has saved, not those who have managed to save themselves. And those whom God saves are truly saved, and will by no means perish (John 10:28-29), because the work is all God’s.
At Christmas, Muslims are encouraged to use the season to reach out to Christians with the message of Islam. I encourage Christians out there to consider the contrast between the Qur’anic view of Christmas and the Biblical view of Christmas, and be prepared to share with your Muslim friends, neighbors, and co-workers the hope that you have.