The Quran teaches Muslims to live by a set of values and principles that, if and when followed properly with sincerity and humility, lead to a harmonious and peaceful life. Hence the name of the faith - Islam, a word translated often, and quite misleadingly, as “submission”. A translation truer to the Arabic meaning would be “willful dedication to a peaceful life”.
One of the main Quranic principles is finding, defining and defending a common ground with people of all faiths, especially adherents of the Abrahamic religions. Unequivocally, the Quran states: “Say, People of the Book [the Quranic reference to followers of the Abrahamic religions], let us arrive at a statement that is common to us all.” 3:64
Proceeding from this Quranic principle, Muslims are encouraged to actively reach out to their neighbors and to work to build bridges of mutual respect, establish channels of communication and constructive interfaith dialogue that aims at reaching a common ground.
In the sacred history of Muslims, a story is told that after suffering a period of persecution in the early years of Islam, Prophet Muhammad instructed his followers to migrate to Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia), where they would be able to live safely among the Christian Abyssinians, protected by the “just Christian king that ruled over them”. Had it not been for this migration across the Red Sea, the generosity and hospitality of the Christian Abyssinian people and the justice of their King, Muslims would have undoubtedly suffered a genocide in their homeland.
There is more to the story. It is said that when a convoy from Arabia came after the Muslim migrants in Abyssinia to persuade the King to strip them of their right of asylum, or at least harass them, the King invited his bishops and senior clergy members to consult with them. The priestly council suggested what I like to think of as the first Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue, in which representatives of the Muslim migrants recited verses from the Quran in the presence of the King and his senior bishops and clergies. The verses recited had been revealed to Prophet Muhammad shortly before these events took place, from the new chapter entitled “Maryam” (the Arabic name for Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus).
The verses provide a strikingly detailed account of the miraculous birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The chapter is the only Quranic chapter to be named after a female character, and the Virgin Mary is the only woman to be mentioned by name in the Quran, not once but on numerus occasions of praise and admiration.
In one of these occasions, the Quran says: “and Mary, daughter of Imran...guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her from Our spirit. She accepted the truth of her Lord’s words and Scriptures: she was truly devout.” 66:12
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Regarding Jesus, the Quran says: “We shall make him a sign to all people, a blessing from Us.” 19:21
Upon listening to these verses, and in a powerfully humane move, the King of Abyssinia informed the Arabian convoy that the Muslim migrants would remain under his safeguard and asylum among their Christian brothers and sisters. He is said to have made a thin line in the ground beneath him and said to the Muslim representatives that the differences between Islam and Christianity were only as thin as that line. It is also said that he commented that the Quranic and Biblical narratives have both come from the same source and vessel of light.
As the countdown for Christmas has begun, and I see my neighbors and friends decorating their homes with joyfully cheerful Christmas lights, as I drive by and see brightly lit Christmas trees, I am reminded of the Christian hospitality, generosity and justice as taught by the words, acts and example Jesus of Nazareth, and I am reminded of the faith and trust of the Virgin Mary.
We cannot and should not deny our differences - theological, cultural and otherwise - for they are what make us all as unique as we are. But in a world as polarized and divided as ours, it’s our commonalities that we need to appreciate and amplify, not our differences.
Thus, I want to take the occasion to wish my Christian brothers and sisters a merry Christmas, and wish my Jewish brothers and sisters a Happy Hanukkah.
Hassan Selim is the imam of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids.