Sunday, December 24, 2006

Another Christmas story

The Holy Family with St Anne, 1628, Rubens, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

David Seaton's News Links
Christmas is a time to be with family and friends, or to think of them and to remember them lovingly if they are very far away or no longer among the living. It is also a time when Christians are urged to wish for 'peace on earth, good will to men' and consequentially obliged to practice the Christian virtues of forgiving and loving their enemies. However, in order to truly love one's friends and to truly forgive and to begin to love one's enemies, it is obviously essential to first begin by being able to distinguish between one's friends and one's enemies. This is not always as easy as it would appear at first glance. Today the relations between Islam and Christianity need, more than ever, to be examined and revised. Westerners ignorance and lack of appreciation of Islam is doubly aggravated by their ignorance of Muslim's traditional knowledge and esteem of Christianity... An esteem born out by the number of Muslims named, "Miriam," (Mary) and "Isa", (Jesus). Tragically, little is known in the West of Islam's affection for the Virgin Mary (Umm Isa) to whom an entire chapter of the Koran is devoted. Karen Armstrong, a former nun and perhaps the English language's most interesting writer on comparative religions, published the article quoted below in The Guardian on Friday. It makes a perfect Christmas meditation in these times of hatred and intolerance. DS

The Muslim prophet born in Bethlehem - Karen Armstrong - Guardian
Abstract: In 632, after five years of fearful warfare, the city of Mecca in the Arabian Hijaz voluntarily opened its gates to the Muslim army. No blood was shed and nobody was forced to convert to Islam, but the Prophet Muhammad ordered the destruction of all idols and icons of the Divine. There were a number of frescoes painted on the inner walls of the Kabah, the ancient granite shrine in the centre of Mecca, and one of them, it is said, depicted Mary and the infant Jesus. Immediately Muhammad covered it reverently with his cloak, ordering all the other pictures to be destroyed except that one. This story may surprise people in the west, who have regarded Islam as the implacable enemy of Christianity ever since the crusades, but it is salutary to recall it during the Christmas season when we are surrounded by similar images of the Virgin and Child. It reminds us that the so-called clash of civilisations was by no means inevitable. For centuries Muslims cherished the figure of Jesus, who is honoured in the Qur'an as one of the greatest of the prophets and, in the formative years of Islam, became a constituent part of the emergent Muslim identity. There are important lessons here for both Christians and Muslims - especially, perhaps, at Christmas. The Qur'an does not believe that Jesus is divine but it devotes more space to the story of his virginal conception and birth than does the New Testament, presenting it as richly symbolic of the birth of the Spirit in all human beings (Qur'an 19:17-29; 21:91). Like the great prophets, Mary receives this Spirit and bears Jesus, who will, in his turn, become an ayah, a revelation of peace, gentleness and compassion to the world.(...) The Muslim devotion to Jesus is a remarkable example of the way in which one tradition can be enriched by another. It cannot be said that Christians returned the compliment. While the Muslims were amassing their Jesus-traditions, Christian scholars in Europe were denouncing Muhammad as a lecher and charlatan, viciously addicted to violence. But today both Muslims and Christians are guilty of this kind of bigotry and often seem eager to see only the worst in each other. The Muslim devotion to Jesus shows that this was not always the case. In the past, before the political dislocations of modernity, Muslims were always able to engage in fruitful and stringent self-criticism. This year, on the birthday of the Prophet Jesus, they might ask themselves how they can revive their long tradition of pluralism and appreciation of other religions. For their part, meditating on the affinity that Muslims once felt for their faith, Christians might look into their own past and consider what they might have done to forfeit this respect.

1 comment:

Clemens said...

I like the point of your post, though I do not share your assessment of Karen Armstrong. I simply don't find her very interesting or very deep.