23 December 2013

Christmas and the Light of Creation

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I highly recommend this blog about the Magi penned by a Protestant convert to Greek Orthodoxy, “We Three Kings from Orient Aren’t” I highly recommend this blog about the Magi penned by a Protestant convert to Greek Orthodoxy, “We Three Kings from Orient Aren’t” http://silouanthompson.net/2010/12/we-three-kings/


As Christmas nears, my thoughts turn to Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories, where I taught three years (1993-96) at the Bethlehem Bible College (BBC). The family of its founder, Bishara Awad, is a wonderful example of Palestinians who, having lost their father to a sniper in their West Jerusalem neighborhood in 1948, found the grace to forgive and engage in nonviolent peacebuilding.

Bishara’s son, Sami, founded the Holy Land Trust , that is making its mark in the wider Palestinian society and abroad. Dedicated to the spiritual principle of nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the center . . .


“aspires to strengthen and empower the peoples of the Holy Land to engage in spiritual, pragmatic and strategic paths that will end all forms of oppression. We create the space for the healing of the historic wounds in order to transform communities and build a future that makes the Holy Land a global model for understanding, respect, justice, equality and peace.”


This is particularly appropriate, since Jesus, whose birth all Palestinians proudly celebrate this week, Christians and Muslims, was foretold as “the Prince of Peace” (as well as “Mighty God,” Isaiah 9:6).

Another personal connection is that Sami Awad launched his initiative as part of a wider project set in motion by Robin Wainwright in his millennial celebration of Jesus’ birth through the Journey of the Magi (read about the details of this “pilgrimage for peacehere). Robin was a good friend of the BBC and that is how I heard about this reenactment of the ancient journey of the wise men.

So here I was with Robin and a dozen others from various countries holed up in a Baghdad hotel for a couple of weeks after the outbreak of the second Intifada, early October 2000. Still, despite a delay of a week, we started off with our camels and pilgrims' gear (reminiscent of the white Hajj garments) from the ancient ruins of Ctesiphon. I walked with them for the next week, passing through the Sunni Triangle, first Falluja, then Ramadi.

Partly because we were protesting the sanctions imposed against the Saddam regime, we were welcomed with great enthusiasm by Muslims and Christians along the way. But more to the point was that, though this journey two millennia ago is not found in the Qur’an or Sunna, it certainly is part and parcel of the region’s collective memory. Everyone knew exactly what we were trying to relive and how our own pilgrimage was intimately connected with that message of peace.


The Bright Star

Matthew 2 speaks of Magi coming to Jerusalem (“wise men,” or “royal astrologers”) from the east saying to King Herod, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him” (2:2). They are told that, according to the prophecy (Micah 5:2) the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. When they arrive by night in this little village (10 kms from Jerusalem), Matthew tells us that the star went ahead of them and . . .


. . . stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mat. 2:9-11).


If we turn to Luke’s gospel we have some close parallels with the Qur’an, as the birth of Jesus is announced by the miraculous birth of John to an elderly couple, the priest Zechariah and his wife (Q. 3:36-40; 6:85; 21:89-90; 19:1-15). At the end of Luke’s first chapter, we read Zechariah’s song, which ends this way:


And you, my little son,
will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
77 You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.”


The theme of “the morning light from heaven” echoes the earlier passage in Isaiah, which states that the coming of Messiah will shine God’s light into the darkness: “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light, for those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine” (Isaiah 9: 2).

The previous verse spells out who those people are: “Galilee of the Gentiles” – all those mixed peoples (as a result of forced immigration by the Assyrian overlords just before the time of Isaiah). Certainly from the perspective of the religious elites of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, the poor, mostly landless, Galileans who directly benefited from Jesus’ teaching and miracles, were “lost in darkness.” The irony, of course, is that many of "the lost" embraced the light of Jesus the Christ (Greek translation of the Hebrew “messiah”), while precious few among the religious leaders seriously pondered Jesus’ astounding statement:


“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (John 8:12).


The Light of Creation

Here we run into a vexing yet hopeful chapter of Muslim-Christian dialog. For all the reasons I mentioned in my Christmas blog two years ago, this celebration of Christ’s birth is the one feast with the most commonalities between Christians and Muslims. The Qur’an’s veneration of Jesus and Mary, particular his virgin birth, Mary’s strong piety and purity of heart, Zechariah and his son John's connection to the event – all this and more point to striking convergences.

At the same time, as we all know, this common ground veers quickly into our most striking divergence. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Muslim conviction about the “light of Muhammad” (nur muhammadi), which God created before anything else. It’s not just that Jesus in Islam is no more than a prophet, his miraculous birth notwithstanding. It’s that Muhammad, who in the Qur’an is certainly no more than a man, has acquired with time some of the attributes of Christ.

No, there is no trinity in Islam, no eternal preexistence of Muhammad at God’s side, no direct role for Muhammad in God’s creation – unlike Christ (“all things were made by him and for him,” Colossians 1:16). But according to a hadith, his soul was created 360,000 years before God began the creation of the world – a soul in the form of a primordial light:


One Day Sayedena Ali [as] Asked . O Muhammad [s], I pray you tell me what the Lord Almighty created before all other beings of creation. This was his blissful reply:

Verily, before your Lord made any other thing,

He created from His own Light

the light of your Prophet [s]


You can find this teaching in many sources, as this belief is near universal in Muslim circles of all stripes. But let me point my readers to a Sufi website belonging to one of the oldest and most widespread orders, the Naqshbandi order. Its name, appropriately, is "Nur Muhammadi." There you will find many other details, some of which no doubt will be peculiar to the Turkish source from which they are quoting.

Yet, lest you think this idea of Muhammad’s preexisting soul and light is only a Sufi one, let me quote briefly from a beloved poem written about the Prophet and read aloud by Muslims in many lands on his birthday feast (the Mawlud) for the last seven centuries. The Egyptian scholar al-Busiri (d. 1294) was said to be gravely ill with a high fever when Muhammad appeared to him, threw his cloak (burda) around him and healed him. In gratitude he wrote this famous poem, al-Burda. Here is a small excerpt, an eloquent illustration of some of the popular piety that has arisen around the person of the Prophet:


“Muhammad is the lord of the two worlds, the earth and the heavens and the animated beings, spirits and men of every sort, from the Arabs to the foreigners . . .

He is the confessor, the form and meaning which have been completed; finally the Omniscient placed him apart to be the beloved of the Generous . . . Leave off speaking, I forbid you, the word of praise of the Christians for the prophet Jesus . . .

. . .

Every miracle that came with every prophet could only come true because of the light of the prophet, that is why they too received the gift to perform miracles. He is like the sun because of his virtues, and they are like stars, this we know, in order for their light to shine, it is necessary that the sun has not yet come out, that there is darkness . . .”


Back to Christmas

I remember with fondness the time Prof. Chandra Muzaffar invited me to be one of two respondents to his keynote address at the 2008 international conference he had convened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on the theme, “Religion in the Quest for Global Justice and Peace.” It was indeed a great privilege. One thought I included in my ten-minute response is relevant to this blog.

Speakers during that conference came from many religious traditions, and in particular, Buddhism and Hinduism. Since Muzaffar was espousing a form of theological pluralism (see the last part of my blog on Eboo Patel for a discussion of this), I had decided to push back a bit:


“Yet, as believers of all faiths will testify, some truth claims will necessarily remain incompatible, although admittedly not verifiable today. They concern the nature of the divine or the hereafter. At some point beyond history as we know it now, for instance, Jesus Christ will come back to this earth, according to both Muslim and Christian belief. Will he marry, kill the pigs and burn the crosses (according to well-attested hadiths), or will every knee bow to him and confess him as Lord (Philippians 2:10)? We shall have to wait and see. Or none of this at all will happen, as Buddhists and Hindus believe. But in the meantime we certainly can lock arms and put to work our common ethic of love, compassion, courageous denunciation of all forms of evil and injustice and risk our very lives for peace. This we can agree on and that’s why we’re here!”


The same of course can be said of Christmas in a circle of Christian and Muslim friends. Just as I wholeheartedly congratulate my Muslim friends on the occasion of Id al-Fitr (end of Ramadan), for instance, so our Muslim neighbors and friends have always congratulated us on the occasion of Christmas.

Yes we share a good deal of respect and admiration for Jesus, son of Mary. But only we Christians bow down with the Magi come from ancient Persia and Babylon to worship the newborn child.

So … a very happy and blessed Christmas to all readers to whom this applies! And much love and good wishes to everyone for the year ahead!

Regarding 2014, my own prayer in the name of the Prince of Peace – and all of our prayers – should go especially to those suffering from the cruel ravages of war in Syria and to the couple of million refugees trying to keep warm in camps in nearby countries. May God have mercy and bring peace to Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and to all those places so much in need of it!