Christmas brings us tinsel and trees, stiff drinks and peppermint everything, all manner of good cheer. Unfortunately, in America it also brings a deluge of mind-numbing dialogue about our nation's purported "war on Christmas." Framed as a manifestation of dominant secularism's antipathy towards Christianity, this endless and suspect debate makes it seem like celebrating Christ is exclusively for Christians. But it's not.
Although only Christians hold Jesus up as their paramount figure of worship, other faiths venerate Christ—chief among them is Islam. Jesus is so important to Muslims that some argue that they ought to celebrate Christmas as an Islamic holiday with just slightly different modes of emphasis than Christians. Yet, while Jesus is important to all Muslims, the Messiah's especially important to one group that both Muslims and Christians would not like to see him associated with: the Islamic State. Their self-proclaimed "true understanding" of Christ ought to give anyone laying exclusive claim on Jesus and celebrations of his birth cause for pause and reflection.
Everyone knows that the central prophet of Islam is Muhammad. Yet unbeknownst to many, some Islamic authorities maintain that there were at least 124,000 prophets before him. Each of them brought some inspiration from God and thus deserves respect. Jesus is one of the few prophets mentioned by name. But more than that, explains Professor Zeki Saritoprak, the author of the 2014 book Islam's Jesus, he's one of the five most important prophets in Islam, on par in most respects with Abraham, Mohammed, Moses, and Noah. Muhammad called Jesus a brother and apocryphal stories claim he protected images of the Virgin Mary while cleansing the idols of Mecca. Jesus (or Isa as he's known in Arabic) shows up dozens of times in the Qu'ran and hundreds of times in the Hadith, the collected stories about and sayings of Muhammad and his companions that are often treated as a source of Islamic learning and authority. Jesus is seen as especially important as the last Israelite prophet and the man who presaged the coming of Muhammad, the final voice of god on Earth.
Despite their common reverence for him, there are some major differences in the Christian and Muslim tellings of Christ's history. Islam still holds that Jesus was born to a virgin Mary ( or Maryam, also an exalted figure dubbed one of the four perfect women in history by Muhammad) as a basically sinless child, that he brought the word of God to the world, and that he performed miracles. But they deny that he was the incarnation or son of God and that died on the cross to save us from our sins. Instead, he survived, they say, (the method is disputed) and was risen bodily to join god in heaven until the end of times. Also, for what it's worth, Muhammad apparently saw Jesus in a dream and described him as a long-haired, well-groomed, but brown-skinned man—differing from modern mainstream Christian depictions.
Some argue that this view of Christ is similar to the beliefs of early Christian sects. Muslim, Christian, and secular scholars alike claim that much of our current interpretation of the story of Christ (including the nature of his divinity and salvation of humanity) is embellishment added by theologians working in the Byzantine world 200 to 400 years after his death. But while Islam's Jesus may have been similar to the Jesus of early Christians, perhaps even Christian sects with whom Muhammad would have been contemporarily or historically familiar, the fact remains that there's a blasphemous (from both faiths' points of view) difference in narratives.
Even if he's not the world savior, Muslims venerate Jesus as a key exemplar of a number of different religious lifestyles. The only known unmarried and childless prophet in Islam, he's seen as a model of asceticism. He's also viewed as a pillar of Islamic mysticism because of the miracles he enacted. And he's a paragon of social justice because he championed reform and compassion.
He's also, as in Christianity, a key figure in Islamic eschatology. According to a number of generally accepted Hadith, when the end times approach, Jesus will descend from his place in heaven (as a mortal man who will eventually die a natural death) to gather the faithful and oppose the Islamic version of the antichrist. Although no one's supposed to know when the apocalypse will come, that hasn't stopped Muslims from speculating like crazy. Saritoprak found over 100 books written throughout history by Islamic scholars on the role of Jesus in the end days, debating the time of his coming and all the details of his arrival. As you might imagine, in times of great chaos and confrontation with Christians ( think the Crusades), claiming that their connection to Jesus—especially the eschatological Jesus who will help Muslims in their time of need—is more legitimate than that of Christians can become especially important.
Not all Muslims take a literal view of the highly allegorical apocalyptic tales of Islam and Jesus's role in them. Saritoprak likes to see most details of the end of times as highly metaphorical, casting it in his own reading as allusions to an impending era of cooperation between monotheistic faiths ushered in by Christ's return to Earth. Others go even further and claim that most of the Hadith about the apocalypse is false and fabricated. But quite a few folks take these tales literally. And these stories become even more salient to people living in conflict zones, according to some reports.
"Once I asked a literalist, 'So you believe in a Jesus who comes from the sky and CNN and ABC will have interviews with him?' And he said, 'Yes, that's exactly what will happen'…" says Saritoprak. "Muslims aren't thinking of nothing but the descent of Jesus. But it is important [to many]… And I think that's why groups like ISIS use these eschatological terms."
The Islamic State presents itself publicly as a millenarian group, purporting to see and want to help quicken the approach of the imminent apocalypse. Their propaganda magazine is named after the town in Syria where Muhammad purportedly predicted the Islamic and Roman armies would face off in the end times. A recent New York Times report suggests that leaders of the movement have long portrayed American interventions in the region as a sign of the apocalypse, casting us in the role of the Rome's infidel armies and even trying to lure us into conflict on fields of apocalyptic significance. They killed the former US Army Ranger Peter Kassig in Dabiq, the site of a key end times battle in some apocalypse tales, while making copious references to the Day of Judgement and our nation's role in their vision.
Commentators disagree about how serious and widespread the Islamic State's apocalyptic beliefs are. Their own documents apparently claim that many of their rank-and-file aren't exactly great Muslims. Saritoprak believes that apocalyptic theology is just something the State manipulates to justify itself, inspire its followers, and poach impressionable, excitable minds. But there seems to be some evidence that at least major decision makers in the State deeply believe in their own apocalyptic rhetoric. That means that to these true believers, Jesus is a prophet of special and impending importance in the Islamic State. The Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium says that they've seen photos of billboards from Islamic State territory admonishing their subjects to mind the example of Christ, and heard his name mentioned in at least one State-produced video concerning their worldview. Their analysts see parallels between the actions of the Islamic State and the path to the return of Christ.
It's impossible to stress how drastically the Islamic State's veneration of Jesus differs from that of the vast majority of Muslims. As Saritoprak stresses, many Muslims respect Jesus most for his teachings on how to live a moral life of compassion and asceticism, and act in accordingly genteel ways. And of those who focus on Jesus's eschatological significance, literalists and interpretivists alike, the vast majority aren't out to usher in his return with bloodshed and mayhem. The moronic irony of honoring or associating a compassionate figure with chaos is as apparent to most Muslims as it is to most Christians. For many who believe in the apocalypse, but aren't so rash as to think that they can predict or trigger it, venerating and emulating Jesus as a figure of aid, justice, and unity in the end times is more salient.
It's also worth noting that some Christian groups are also trying to trigger the return of a very particular vision of Christ to bring about the end of days. Back in the 1990s, a Pentecostal preacher slash cattle breeder from Mississippi made it his business to supply a group of Orthodox Jews in Israel intent on rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem (the center of Jewish worship until its 70 AD destruction) with a red heifer suitable for a reconstruction sacrifice. He did so out of the genuine belief that it would speed up the grim, apocalyptic return of Jesus. Some actually argue that all or most Evangelical support for Israel serves the same purpose—since the restoration of the nation to the Jews is another precondition of Jesus's return.
It's probably tempting for the many who believe in a milder Christ to reject violent and fundamentalist interpretations of Jesus as illegitimate—un-Christian or un-Muslim. But denying that those who believe this stuff are acting out of deep religious impulses is counterproductive in tackling extremism. All of that's to say that no one has a lock on the interpretation or celebration of Jesus. Almost as many Muslims as Christians interpret and revere him in their own way. And within both faiths, nut jobs galore think that they are Jesus's true homeboys, awaiting, quoting, and even celebrating him with even more fervor than that of moderate believers.
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