IfI Press Release on the Christmas Holiday

Institut für Islamfragen

Does Christmas Unite Christians and Muslims?

Bonn (December 21, 2009) In discussions about social integration and interreligious life together, the call for the harmonization of Christian and Islamic faith conceptions is not a rare occurrence. This call fails, in the view of Eberhard Troeger from the Institute of Islamic Studies, above all because of the divergent statements in the Bible and the Koran about Jesus’ identity and message. For this reason, so Troeger, a constructive social coexistence of people of Christian and Muslim faith also needs, along with an attentive eye for what is shared in common, the willingness and the courage to speak openly about essential differences in the images of God and human beings, and to tolerate these differences. For, tolerance in Troeger’s view does not mean considering everything said as correct, but rather respecting the other without sharing his conviction. While many Muslims emphasize their admiration for the Prophet Isa, as Jesus is called in the Koran, and Jesus in various streams of Sufism is revered as a great spiritual and moral model for humility and asceticism, the Koran rejects as blasphemous the Christian belief in the incarnation of God in Christ, thus the message of Christmas, as Troeger explained on the occasion of the approaching Christmas celebration.

Commonalities: Jesus in the Koran – Sinless Prophet Who Heals the Blind and Awakens the Dead

According to Troeger, the advocates of a harmonization refer above all to the positive descriptions of Jesus that come from Muhammad’s early period. Muhammad at that time was a persecuted preacher of a new religious community in Mecca. These descriptions apparently pick up accounts from the New Testament and various apocryphal texts. Sura 19:20 testifies to Jesus’ virgin birth. In Sura 3:45-49, it says that Jesus is created through the power of the word of God and is respected in this world and the next, and belongs among those who stand near to God. Angels announce to Mary that God will teach Jesus Scripture, Wisdom, the Torah, and the Gospel. His Gospel (injil) message is termed in Sura 5:46 as light and “guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah”. According to Sura 3:49, Jesus heals the blind and the lepers, and awakes the dead to new life. In Sura 5: 112-115 is described how Jesus provides his disciples with a wondrous meal from Heaven.

When both Jews as well as Christians, referring to this miracle by Jesus, demanded from Muhammad similar signs certifying the divine nature of his mission, Muhammad cited the uniqueness of the Koran as the greatest miracle. Only in later traditions are there numerous reports about Muhammad’s miracles, the credibility of which is disputed among Muslim scholars, however. In Troeger’s view, it also seems astonishing that, in comparison with Muhammad, Jesus is accused neither in the Koran nor in the tradition of committing any sin, while several Koran passages (Suras 40:55; 47:19; 48:2) describe how Muhammad had to pray for the forgiveness of his sins. Later, in obvious reaction to interreligious conflicts, the idea of Muhammad’s sinlessness and the sinlessness of all the other prophets prevailed among Muslim theologians, so Troeger.

The Big Difference: The Koran Rejects as Blasphemy the Belief in Jesus as God’s Son

While Jesus is described in various Koran passages as “Word from God”, Spirit from God, and Messiah (e.g., Sura 4:171), Muhammad turned more and more resolutely against the Christian belief in Jesus as God’s Son, especially in his later period as a powerful religious and political leader of the growing Muslim community in Medina. In Sura 5:72, the Christians are charged with joining other gods with God when they worship Jesus, and thus with committing the worst sin, namely polytheism (shirk). The Jesus of the Koran and Islamic theology thereby appears merely as an important prophetic precursor and trailblazer for Muhammad. Where the Bible goes beyond this role assigned to Jesus, it was for Muhammad a Christian falsification of the original divine message.

“Jesus, true (real) God from the true God has become a human being” (confession of faith from Nicea-Constantinople, in the year 381 after the first Christmas) – this claim was considered blasphemy already by Jewish theologians and leaders in Jesus’ time. For this reason, they had Jesus condemned to death and executed. The crucified Son of God – “for the Jews a stumbling-block (skandalon), for the others foolishness”. Paul, who as a Jewish theologian had persecuted Jewish Christians because of this “heresy”, wrote this to the Christians in Corinth (1. Corinthians 1:23) after his conversion to the Christian faith. Thus, explained Troeger, it is precisely the Christian message, that is, that God does not remain aloof, but rather becomes a human being in Jesus, that separates Christians and Muslims.

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