The birth of Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) was momentous in world history; both Muslims and Christians have many valuable lessons to learn from his life and teachings. His tradition of peace, love, gentleness and compassion needs to be revived in a world fraught with fearful and intractable myths.
Although the colossal love and communal reverence for Jesus of Nazareth is axiomatic amongst the adherents of both faiths, in many ways, we have lost the true spirit of the teachings of Jesus; there is little or no focus on his exquisite characteristics.
The common theological heritage and the mutual reverence of Jesus and his mother by both Muslims and Christians has sadly, become sullied throughout history as Islam and Christianity are often portrayed as implacable enemies, embroiled in conflict.
The reality is, despite the troubled history. there have been epochs where Christians and Muslim have co-existed in peace. This legacy of peace can be traced as far back as the seventh century, since the beginning of the revelation of the Qur'an. Muslim tradition has authentically documented how Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) consulted a Christian scholar, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, following his initial encounter with the Angel Gabriel. It was this Christian scholar who assured Muhammad that the Angel was the same messenger that God had sent to Prophet Moses (peace be upon him).
In 616 AD; many Muslims were being tortured and persecuted by the elite of Mecca. Prophet Muhammad sent a group of Muslims to seek refuge in the land of Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia). This was ruled by the Negus, a Christian king, reputed to be fair and just to his people.
Following this migration, the Meccans sent emissaries to the King asking for the Muslims to be extradited back to Mecca. The Negus asked the Muslims to present the basic tenants of their faith and what they believed about Jesus. Jafar, a cousin of Prophet Muhammad recited the Qur'anic verses pertaining to the virginal conception of Jesus (19:16-21).
Oft-cited Muslim tradition recounts how this was an ineffable moment for the Negus, his bishops and advisors; they all wept profusely as they listened to the beauty and eloquence of the recitation of the Qur'an. Consequently, The Negus drew a line in the sand and said that the differences between them were no more than the thin line. Thus, the Muslims remained in Abyssinia and had the freedom to practice their religion.
If only these chronicles had resonance in today's modern world; for many in the West they may be surprising, because since the time of the Crusades, Christendom has maligned Prophet Muhammad. Before the Crusades, the West knew very little about Islam. It was after the conquest of Jerusalem that Christian scholars began to castigate Islam as an inherently intolerant and violent religion.
Although Islam affirms and denies some of the basic tenants of Christianity, both religions are descendants of a common ancestor.
Christianity is embedded in the belief that Jesus is the son of God; there was a Crucifixion, and a Resurrection. In Islam, Jesus, or Isa, as he is known in Arabic, is a Prophet and not the son of God. Islam is deeply rooted in monotheism; the divinity and trinity of Jesus are strenuously denied either by Jesus himself or by God directly, 'And when God will say, "O Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to the people: 'Take me and my mother as deities besides God?' He will say: 'Exalted are you, it was not for me to say that to which I have no right. (5:116)."'
The Qur'an unequivocally states that there was no Crucifixion or Resurrection; Jesus did not die nor was he crucified, he ascended to Heaven: '...And they did not kill him, neither crucify him, but another was made to resemble him to them.' 'Rather Allah raised him to Himself (4:157-158).'
Christians may question, 'In the absence of these fundamental attributes, what is left of his significance?'
Similar to Christians, Muslims also venerate both Jesus and his mother Mary, or Maryam as she is referred to in the Qur'an. Furthermore, there is a chapter in the Qur'an named Maryam. Numerous passages in the Qur'an refer to Jesus, portraying a vivid narrative of his life and teachings, some corroborating the Biblical accounts. The Bible and the Qur'an establish the miraculous conception of Jesus. He is honoured in Islam, as one of the five exalted Prophets and his mother, Mary is revered as one of the four most righteous women of this world. Christians and Muslims subscribe to the belief that prior to the ending of the world, Jesus will return to earth to defeat the Anti-Christ.
Muslims believe that Jesus was the recipient of the Bible, known as the Injeel in Arabic. His core message was to call people to the worship of one God. According to the Qur'an, Jesus was the precursor to Muhammad, the last Prophet of Islam and he predicted the coming of a messenger after him, whose name would be Ahmad - another name for Prophet Muhammad.
'And when Jesus, the son of Mary said, "O Children of Israel, indeed I am the Messenger of Allah confirming to you what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a Messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad (61:6)."'
In addition, the Qur'an confirms most of the miracles performed by Jesus as illustrated in the Bible, such as healing the leper and the blind and raising the dead. The Qur'an states another miracle not mentioned in the Bible; Jesus moulded birds out of clay and transformed them into living birds by blowing over them. The first miracle of Jesus mentioned in the Qur'an is how he spoke in the cradle as a newborn baby (19:29-30).
What is the way forward?
Firstly, there needs to be an awareness of Prophet Muhammad and the teachings of Islam. Secondly, yes, there are doctrinal differences between Islam and Christianity, but there are also similarities. The differences should not be a source of conflict and tension: the similarities should render a forum for interfaith dialogue and inculcate tolerance between the world's two largest faiths.