Christmas and the Quran: Building bridges between Christians and Muslims

Christmas and the Quran: Building bridges between Christians and Muslims
Book Club: Karl-Josel Kuschel's book Christmas and the Quran looks to build bridges between Christians and Muslims through the story of Jesus' birth.
5 min read
21 December, 2018
Christians and Muslims share a bond over the birth of Jesus [Getty]
Christmas has been described as the greatest story ever told. A child born in a stable following a miraculous conception, who is visited by kings and shepherds, while being hunted down by a cruel king, it is a tale that has inspired film-makers, artists and poets.

Yet many elements of the story have been open to debate with even the Christian gospels giving contrasting accounts of the birth.

Karl-Josel Kuschel's book, Christmas and the Quran, is a passionate endeavour to understand the different narratives given around the Christmas story (or stories) and put these in context. Kushcel, a Professor Emeritus of Catholic Theology at the University of Tubingen, puts forward an ecumenical message to help bridge differences between Christians and Muslims, both whom revere Jesus, or Issa in Arabic.

Kuschel's book is divided into six sections, to explore the narratives of Jesus' birth. The chapters are divided into the "Birth of Jesus in The New Testament", "The Birth of Muhammad", "The Birth of John the Baptist in the Quran", "Mary – God's Chosen One", "The Birth of Jesus in the Quran", and ends with "A Call for Dialogue".

Kuschel uses the gospels of Mathew and Luke and Surahs 3 and 19 in the Quran as a framework to show the Muslim and Christian understandings of Jesus' birth. Rather than highlight contradictions, Kuschel says that the stories illustrate the shared fundamental message in Islam and Christianity of God's power and mercy.

He begins by acknowledging that the nativity has echoes of other creation stories in history, but the humble beginnings of Jesus – among other elements – make the Christmas narrative unique. It is preceded by the birth of John the Baptist, who will play a role later in both the Bible and Quran.

Luke and Mathew's gospels give very different accounts of Jesus' birth, which might reflect the historical peculiarities of the time. Some have said that Mathew, who was a Jewish-Christian, wrote primarily for a Jewish audience in Palestine, while Luke, a gentile, was interested in putting forward a more universal message to appeal outside the Jewish faith.

Luke makes fewer references to the prophets of the Old Testament and focuses more on Jesus' descent from Adam. This brings about the idea that the birth of Jesus represents a new age for man, while Mathew's message appeals more to those awaiting a Davidic Messiah sent by God to liberate the Jewish people from tyranny and begin a new exodus.

Jesus' birth is told in The Quran and Bible [Gingko Library]

The chronology, characters, symbolism and narration couldn't be more different, but essentially the message of birth, renewal and God's omnipotence remains the same.

The history surrounding the Christmas Story is also important, as it reflects a period of intense rebellion by the Jewish Zealots in Palestine against the Roman occupiers. The birth of Jesus also overshadows the Roman emperor's quest to enforce an earthly Pax Romana in historic Palestine, which is essentially peace by conquest and subjugation.

Some Christians have combined the two stories, fusing different elements to create the Christmas narrative most of us are familiar with today. The evangelicals Luke and Mathew, both narrate dramatic and cinematic events that are rife with symbolism and the stories are still poignant today.

In Islam, the story does not pinpoint dates and places but gives a more general telling of Jesus' birth. It takes place in the "East", although it is not clear where, but the birth story features palm trees, dates and streams indicating that it takes place in an oasis, showing God's mercy and power. It also symbolises fertility and God's life-giving properties. Mary is given a special role, where she is more passive than in the gospels – she gives no fiat or Magnificat - but is portrayed as a model and devout believer. 

The differences in the two gospels (and others) have been used by some Muslim writers in history to argue that the contradictions in the bible are "proof" the scriptures have been corrupted. Any elements of the birth of Jesus that are not included in the Quran are false, they say, and literature based on this precept has been used by some Muslim preachers to target and attempt to convert Christians.

Kuschel writes that this is not in the spirit of dialogue and the historic obsession of some Christians and Muslims to reject one another's books, and define theirs as the true message, has contributed to the divisions between followers of the two faiths. He also adds that Christianity is not alone in embellishing parts of the Christmas Story. Many elements around the birth of the Prophet Muhammad that are familiar with Muslims today are not included in the Quran, such as the lights projecting the castles of Busra when Amina was pregnant with the Prophet.

Kuschel also mentions how the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday (known as Mawlid) probably began during the Fatimid's. Such feasts were opposed by scholars such as Ibn Taymiyya, arguing that they mirrored the Christians celebration of Christmas. It is a debate that still continues to this day.

A way of building bridges between Christians and Muslims is with the story itself, Kuschel said, beginning with the miraculous conception of John. He is barely mentioned after his birth in the Quran but is revered as a Prophet in Islam, and of course plays a special role in the Christian account of Jesus.

Kushchel gives the birth of Mary and Jesus' the same treatment, highlighting the similarities and differences in the gospels of Mathew and Luke, as well as in the Quran. Essentially, the accounts bear more in common than they do contradict offering a platform for discussion and understanding between the two faiths, he argues. He addresses the attempts from Christian and Muslim scholars to reconcile differences and fix divisions by looking inwards and also acknowledging the similarities in both faiths.

Essentially, it has been argued that Muslims and Christians are instructed in their scriptures to show respect to one another's beliefs and love them as neighbours. Both the Quran and Bible's accounts of Jesus' birth mirror these messages, and offer the chance to reflect, understand and begin a new dialogue.