ISTANBUL — Billions of Christians around the world are excited to celebrate Christmas this weekend. Those in the world’s second-largest religious community, Muslims, don’t share quite the same excitement. In a few Muslim-majority countries, like Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Somalia, Christmas celebrations are banned. In Turkey, my country, they are not illegal, but some Islamist groups still organize annual protests against Christmas trees and Santa Claus costumes, which they consider Western impositions.
Meanwhile, many other Muslims around the world are rightly respectful to their Christian neighbors and even share on their holy day. They include the owners of a Turkish restaurant in London that decided to offer a free Christmas meal to the homeless and the elderly and a Muslim businessman in Baghdad who erected a Christmas tree in solidarity with Christians persecuted by the self-declared Islamic State.
These Christmas-friendly Muslims are right, but not simply because respect for other religions is a virtue. They are also right because Christmas is the celebration of the miraculous birth of Jesus, which is a powerful theme not just in the New Testament, but also in the Quran.
Two chapters of the Muslim holy book give detailed accounts of the birth of Jesus, which partly resemble the account in the Gospel of Luke.
Both chapters — one is named Maryam, or Mary — feature this admirable Jewish woman whom God has “purified” and “chosen above all other women.”
As the Quran narrates, an angel approached Mary one day and told her that God had decided to give her “a pure boy.” Mary objected: “How can I have a boy when no man has touched me?” The angel responded, “God creates whatever he wills.” Then God “breathes into Mary of our spirit,” and she conceives Isa or Jesus.
There are, of course, ways in which the Muslim story of Jesus diverges from the Christian version that is celebrated at Christmas. The New Testament says that Jesus’ birth took place in Bethlehem, in a manger or at an inn, when Mary was with her husband, Joseph. In the Quran, Mary gave birth in “a distant place,” all alone and under a palm tree. It’s worth noting that stories appearing in the eastern apocryphal gospels, as well as recent archaeological findings, correspond to the Quran’s version of events.
Crucially, the Quran differs with the Bible on Jesus’ divinity. The Muslim holy book insists that he was a human and a prophet. It repeatedly defines Jesus as “the Messiah,” but this seems to be a notion of Messiah as described in Judaism: an extraordinary servant of God, not God incarnate. The Quran’s Jesus is also sent to the children of Israel, comes “confirming the Torah” and affirms a strictly unitarian monotheism. The Islamic Jesus, one could say, is a more Jewish Jesus.
Nonetheless, Islam and Christianity share a lot in their adoration for Isa and Maryam, Jesus and Mary. Like Christians, Muslims have taken the virgin birth of Jesus as a literal truth. Medieval exegetes of the Quran debated details like how God’s spirit was “breathed” into Mary. Sayyid Qutb, the 20th-century Egyptian fundamentalist, described Maryam’s pregnancy as “the strangest event that humanity throughout its history has ever witnessed.”
In a 2002 book, they wrote to criticize Islam, Emir F. Caner and Ergun M. Caner, two Turkish converts to Christianity who became Southern Baptist ministers, argued that Muslims are more Christian on the issue of the virgin birth than the “liberal ‘Christians’ ” who seek metaphorical interpretations of the amazing miracle.
To add more to Jesus’ extraordinary nature, the Quran even calls him “Word of God.” Muslim scholars have been puzzled by this term, which the Quran uses for no one else. Christian theologians have been intrigued, too, for it evokes the Gospel of John, which defines Jesus as the Word of God who “became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Interpreting these parallels between the Quran and the earlier Christian sources depends partly on one’s faith. Christians can think Islam borrowed from their religion. Muslims, on the other hand, can think that much in Christianity foretold theirs. But we can all agree that these two great Abrahamic religions, despite the sometimes bitter conflicts between them, have much in common. This year, with tensions between many Muslims and Christians in Europe, the United States and elsewhere running high, that’s worth remembering.
The people in Saudi Arabia and Brunei who ban Christmas clearly have the wrong idea. Even if this is not a Muslim holiday, we don’t need to object to Christmas. The miraculous birth of Jesus — the prophet, the Messiah and the “Word” of God — should not offend any Muslim. Salaam alaikum, or “peace be upon you,” Muslims should be able to say to their Christian neighbors on Dec. 25, without hesitating to add, “Merry Christmas!”