This “happy coincidence”, however, comes at a time of infelicitous relations between Muslims & Christians at the global level. Religious extremists from both sides spawn the current antipathy between Muslims and Christians.
The worst examples of this growing conflict during 2015 were the brutal beheadings of 30 Ethiopian Christians by ISIS in Libya during April, as well as the ongoing killings of Muslims by Christian militia in the Central African Republic. A United Nations report released in January 2015 described the attacks against Muslims by so-called anti-Balaka militia in the Central African Republic as ethnic cleansing campaign and a crime against humanity.
In this khutbah I would like to briefly reflect on some evidences from the most primary sources of Islamic guidance that could enable us to overcome the current unhealthy relations between Muslims and Christians. I will conclude with some words of advice on how each one of us can individually make a modest yet significant contribution to healing the growing antipathy and conflict between Muslims and Christians globally.
Although Muslims aand Christians have different theological perspectives on the status of Jesus, their common view of him as a pious and principled guide, and as a messenger of peace and justice, offers fertile ground on which to cultivate and nurture strong and loving interfaith relations.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) testified to the esteemed position of Jesus and to the proximity of his own mission and message to that of Prophet `Isa ibn Maryam. For example, in a prophetic tradition (hadith) narrated in the compendium of Imam Bukhari, the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have declared the following:
“I am the nearest of all people to Jesus the son of Mary, both in this world and in the hereafter. Prophets are brothers; their mothers may be different, but their religion is one.” [Sahih al Bukhari]
Moreover, Islam guides Muslims towards noble dealings and good conduct with all people, especially Christians, with whom we share a common spiritual legacy. In this regard, Allah, the Sublime proclaims in the Glorious Quran, in Surah al-Ma’idah, chapter 5 verse 82:
وَلَتَجِدَنَّ أَقْرَبَهُمْ مَوَدَّةً لِلَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا الَّذِينَ قَالُوا إِنَّا نَصَارَى ذَلِكَ بِأَنَّ مِنْهُمْ قِسِّيسِينَ وَرُهْبَانًا وَأَنَّهُمْ لَا يَسْتَكْبِرُونَ
“…You will find that those who are nearest in love to the believers are those who say, ‘We are Christians,’
because amongst these are priests devoted to learning and monks who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant.” (5:82)
This spirit of amity advocated by the Qur’an was exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). There are a number of authentic prophetic traditions (ahadith) that inform us about his acceptance of gifts from Christians, and that he reciprocated by sending them gifts.
Drawing on these sound and authentic Islamic evidences, the renowned contemporary scholar, Shaykh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi advises as follows:
“If a friend of yours from among the People of the Book tends to share your joyous occasions during your feasts and `Eids and never fails to share your grief at times of calamities, then there is nothing wrong in you showing him the same feelings in return, for God Almighty says in Surah Al-Nisa, Chapter 4, verse 86:
وَإِذَا حُيِّيتُمْ بِتَحِيَّةٍ فَحَيُّوا بِأَحْسَنَ مِنْهَا أَوْ رُدُّوهَا
إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ حَسِيبًا
“When a (courteous) greeting is offered you, meet it with a greeting still more courteous, or (at least) of equal courtesy. Allah takes careful account of all things.” (Q4:86)
Consonant with this advice, I urge each of you, if you have not already done so, to personally go and wish our Christian family members and neighbours Merry Christmas. This is one modest but significant way in which we as ordinary Muslims can help to mitigate against the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia and bigotry within the Muslim community.
We should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by the disingenuous views advocated by some obscurantist Salafi Wahhabi scholars who argue that if you wish your Christian neighbour a Merry Xmas, then you are compromising your own Islamic beliefs and unwittingly embracing Christian dogma.
As I have illustrated, wishing our Christian neighbours a Merry Christmas is sanctioned by the most primary source of Islamic guidance, the Glorious Qur’an in Surah al-Nisa Chapter 4 verse 86 and by the noble example of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Such a tolerant and humane disposition has historically has also been an entrenched part of Cape Muslim Culture (`urf and `adah). Many of us, for example, have fond childhood memories of our parents wishing our neighbours a Merry Christmas.
The Cape Muslim response to Christmas was not unique. Some elders in the Middle East have recalled how during their childhood, not only did they wish their Christian neighbours well, but some masajid in Syria, Jordan and Palestine, would be decorated for Christmas as a symbol of tolerance and a celebration of religious pluralism.
Yet another way in which Muslims can benefit from the Christmas holiday is to use this time to better acquaint ourselves with the life and teachings of Jesus from the perspective of Islam. There are many excellent books that have been written on his life. I would especially like to encourage parents to introduce their children to the Quranic stories of Prophet ‘Isa, or Jesus, during this holiday period.
To this end, I recommend the book The Great Miracle: The Story of Prophet ‘Isa by Iqbal Ahmad Azam (UK Islamic Academy, 2007), which tells a moving story of Jesus’ life. This way we are guiding our children to love and respect their friends and neighbours and we are nurturing good interfaith relations from a very young age. I advise all of us to use this Christmas Holiday fruitfully by spending quality time with our families thereby cementing and strengthening vital family bonds.
At this celebratory as well as challenging time in the history of the world we call to mind an inspirational story reaching us from Kenya.
Reliable news media such as BBC and Al-Jazeera inform us that last week a few days before Christmas a group of Kenyans were travelling in a bus when Al-Shabab gunmen ambushed them. The bus passengers were told to split themselves into two groups of Muslims and Christians. The Muslims refused to do so and told their abductors to kill them all together or leave them alone. Thankfully, their abductors were shocked by their stand and left them all to go on their way.
There are many such stories from all parts of the world that go unreported.
In our own country South Africa we have been blessed with good interreligious relations and with one of the most vibrant interfaith movements in the world. This is a great gift that we should cherish and celebrate.
At this blessed time of Mawlid al-Nabi and Christmas, we give thanks for the dedicated Christians and Muslims who endeavour and continually work to establish and maintain dialogue and reconciliation between our faith communities.
During this hallowed time, we pray that the Grace of God be with us, and that we are all inspired to redouble our prophetic witness to justice and dignity for all in our country and to strive for even greater convivial relations between Muslims, Christians, people of faith and of none.
We make du`a and pray that Allah, the Lord of Compassion and Mercy enables us to establish more just and peaceful relations between Muslims, Christians, people of all faiths and of none in the New Gregorian Year 2016.
May the coming year be one in which the sanctity and dignity of human life is upheld by all.
May it be a year of humble repentance before God and mutual forgiveness within and between communities.
May the peace and joy of this season be with you throughout the coming year.