Christmas: Controversy or Consensus
In recent years western nations have experienced an increased chorus of criticism of Christmas and for Christmas to be divested of its religious meaning. Bans have been imposed on playing Christmas carols in certain schools as well as in shopping centres where there are substantial numbers of Muslim customers. There have also been a number of cases where bans have been issued against displaying nativity scenes in public settings. This deepening controversy is explained more fully in this article, and in a recently published book entitled "The War on Christmas" by John Gibson. One can understand why secularists are advocating these changes but it is somewhat puzzling to see Muslims joining the chorus of criticism.
Perplexing Intolerance of Muslims
When you consider that the Qur’an affirms many aspects of the story of Jesus’ birth one wonders why many Muslims are feeling offended at commemorating his birth. After all, Muslims believe in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Indeed his miraculous birth is portrayed in the Muslim and Christian scriptures as having worldwide significance. The Qur’an describes the Messiah’s birth as a miraculous "sign for all peoples." (Surah 21.91, compare worldwide implications in Luke 2:28-32)
Another important detail mentioned in the Bible and the Qur’an is the fact that the baby was given a special name – Jesus Christ (Al Masihu Isa in Arabic) For some special reason God decided to choose the name and reveal it through an angel. The meaning of the name, ‘Jesus’ has generated some discussion but moderate Muslims are inclined to make allowances which give the impression they are agreeable. One case in point is Mufti Muhammad Imraan Ashraf Usmani who acknowledged that ‘Jesus’ corresponds to Yeshua in Hebrew and it means "God is salvation" (page 77, Islamic Names, revised edition).
Possible Steps Toward Consensus
Thoughtful readers will be able to detect several clues that show Usmani’s definition rings true. Notice that the Qur’an says, "We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light". (Surah 5.49)
Similarly the Bible says Jesus brought the light. Speaking of the Messiah, Isaiah prophesied, "You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me. I will make you a light to the Gentiles and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6)
Two details are worth noting. Notice the worldwide scope of Messiah’s mission which we already glimpsed in Surah 21.91. Notice also how light is coupled with salvation. In fact it is not uncommon to see how scripture describes salvation metaphorically as light. (Psalm 27:1; Psalm 97:10,11)
Isaiah’s prophecy about Messiah bringing light and salvation is repeated 700 years later, this time by an aging man of God named Simeon. It so happened that Simeon was in the Temple at the time when baby Jesus was about to be circumcised. We read in the Injil (Gospel) that Simeon took Jesus in his arms and prayed, "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." (Luke 2:29-32)
As Christ grew to manhood, he spoke about light and salvation on several occasions. He spoke on these themes with an unusual sense of familiarity, like someone dressed in a well fitted suit. Jesus said, "I have come as a light to shine in this dark world so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the darkness. If anyone hears me and doesn’t obey me, I am not his judge - for I have come to save the world and not to judge it. But all who reject me and my message will be judged at the day of judgement by the truth I have spoken." (John 12:46-48, compare John 8:12)
We read elsewhere how Jesus defined his mission in life, saying, "I, the Son of man have come to seek and save those … who are lost". (Luke 19:10) It is statements like these that make the name Jesus seem natural and fitting. It seems obvious that Mufti Usmani would accept Isaiah’s prophecy that Jesus Christ was commissioned by God to bring light and salvation to the world. Yusuf Ali’s popular translation of the Qur’an agrees with this prophecy when it says in a footnote to surah 19.21 "The mission of Jesus is … to turn an ungodly world back to God; and … to bring solace and salvation to the repentant." Therefore, it seems appropriate to ask the same question we began with, "What is it about Christmas that offends Muslims?"
In order to understand why some Muslims, especially radicals, are offended by Christmas one needs to examine salvation more closely and also look at the life of Christ with a wide angle lens.
A Closer Look Reveals Hidden Hurdles
One does not need to be a Christian to discern the fact that, according to the Bible, Christ’s death on the cross is crucial to salvation. However, the Qur’an emphatically contradicts this. In fact, the ahadith state that "Jesus will burn crosses" when he returns to earth in the end times. Herein is the point of contention and offence.
Certainly we must look at the bigger picture, but we mustn’t focus only on the end of Christ’s life. The intervening events in Christ’s life also have a bearing on Jesus’ name. If, for example, Mufti Usmani’s definition is correct, that is, that God commissioned Messiah to bring his salvation, we would expect to see this reflected in his overall personality and actions – not just in the way his earthly life ended. I trust that, if you have not already done so, you will read a short article which shows how Christ’s actions reflect God’s saving power. This article shows, from the Qur’anic and Biblical accounts, how Christ’s miracles of healing, saved lives and thus reflect his name. The article can be found here.
Let’s summarize what we’ve been saying. So far, we have established that there are considerable similarities between the Muslim and Christian accounts of Jesus birth. But it remains to be seen whether we can really reach a consensus about the meaning of salvation.
There is an incident in Christ’s life that illustrates Jesus power to save lives – though somewhat differently than when he healed people who were terminally ill. The story is told how Jesus was invited to eat a meal at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. During the meal a sinful woman came and showed her deep appreciation to Jesus. The story ends with Jesus saying to the woman, "Your sins are forgiven. The men at the table said among themselves, "Who does this man think he is, going around forgiving sins?" Jesus spoke these reassuring words to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." (Luke 7:48-50)
Under normal circumstances Muslims readily acknowledge that a holy prophet, by his teaching and aura, can have a powerful influence on a sinful person, as Jesus did in the case of this woman. It is clear from this story that she repented. But what is more difficult for Muslims to accept is the way Jesus claimed the prerogative of forgiving her sins. In fact, we read elsewhere how Jesus forgave someone of their sins and it evoked a strong objection, very similar to Simon’s, "This is blasphemy! Who but God can forgive sins!" (Mark 2:7)
The circumstances surrounding this story are exceptional. It is not surprising, therefore, if some Muslim readers will raise a similar objection, since the Qur’an says, "who can forgive sins, except God?" (Surah 3.135) How can Jesus Christ forgive people and save them from sin? It will be more fitting to rephrase this question in the context of the Christmas story where we read that the angel said to Joseph, "Mary will have a son and you are to name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21) Once again the same question begs an answer, "Who but God can save people from sins?" May I suggest that if these questions are turning over and over in your mind, that you carefully read through the life of Jesus in the Bible. As you read ponder whether the name God gave Jesus doesn’t match with his personality, his actions and his words.
Three thought provoking questions:
1) On one occasion I asked a Muslim attorney named Yusuf to read the story of Jesus encounter with Simon. He did not express any objection to Jesus forgiving the woman. Instead he queried, "Why didn’t Jesus explain that she must believe he was going to die on the cross?" Yusuf assumed that this story contradicted my Christian belief in the absolute necessity of the cross.
In response I pointed out to him that legal transactions can have retroactive effect. It is not uncommon when a wage increase is negotiated between a union and company management, for the new pay-rate to be retroactive. In a similar way, according to Old Testament Law Messiah’s death would have retroactive effect. This is clear from Hebrews chapters 9 and 10, especially 9:15 where we see that Christ "mediates the new covenant between God and people so that all who are invited can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins committed under that first covenant." It is clear, therefore, that the sins of this woman whom Jesus pardoned (or Zacchaeus or anyone else living under the Old Covenant) were cleansed by the sacrificial death of Christ. There was no requirement that someone had to mention each time that the Messiah was going to die.
2) Jesus rebuked Peter when he objected to Christ prophesying that he would die and rise three days later. (Matthew 16:21-23) If you are willing to correlate this to the foregoing discussion my suggestion is that you ponder this question. Why did Jesus identify Peter’s objection to the cross as being Satanic? What significance does this have in terms of the bitter controversy that has raged between the Qur’an and the Bible?
3) Let me conclude by asking a question based on Acts 4:12 and Isaiah 42:10,11 "There is salvation in no one else! There is no other name in all of heaven for people to call on to save them." "I alone am God. There is no other God; there never has been and never will be. I am the Lord and there is no other Saviour." If Saviour is an important name or attribute of God why have Muslim scholars consistently omitted mentioning it in any of their published books on the 99 names of God?
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