Reading the Koran on Christmas

By Philip Jenkins

This past Christmas, I was surprised to find my thoughts turning to the Qur'an.

That connection may sound strange -- Islam and Christmas? -- but it makes a lot more sense when we recall just how thoroughly soaked in Christian thought was the world in which early Islam emerged. Older memories survive vividly in the quite substantial accounts that the Qur'an gives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

The third Sura of that work, titled Imran, describes Mary's origins, giving her a miracle-laden back-story that sounds strange to modern Christian ears. Her mother prays for a child, and delivers a girl, who is promised to God. Mary is raised in the sanctuary of the Temple, under the guardianship of the priest Zechariah, who will later become father to John the Baptist. Mary receives her food miraculously, through the power of angels. We later hear of Jesus's childhood miracles, including giving life to toy birds that he has formed out of clay.

Not a word of this would have startled Christians at the time of Muhammad, around 620, as they would immediately have recognized these stories from apocryphal gospels that circulated very widely -- Mary's childhood is described at length in the Protevangelium, or Infancy Gospel of James. The clay birds stem from another apocryphal work, and the story was a favorite in medieval European church art.

Some modern scholars go much further in tracing Christian sources or parallels. European linguist Christoph Luxenberg suggests that many parts of the Qur'an are actually drawn from older Syriac Christian texts, a lectionary or collection of readings for the church calendar. Although loosely translated into Arabic, they are disguised so lightly that the originals can be reconstructed easily enough. Such readings would have been called qeryana, a close parallel to the word Qur'an.

One of Luxenberg's most sensational examples concerned the lovely white raisins that featured so prominently in Syriac Christian accounts of Heaven. The word for "raisins" is very close to the Qur'anic word that we translate virgins, suggesting that in the afterlife, faithful believers would actually receive their reward in the form of white raisins rather than young girls.

This whole theory is fiercely controversial, and raises real concerns about a backlash from Muslim fundamentalists, who denounce it as blasphemous mockery. "Luxenberg" is a pseudonym, and we still don't know the author's true identity. Apart from Muslim extremists though, many secular linguistic scholars also have real doubts about Luxenberg's whole theory.

But one example of potential influence does seem really convincing, and it does not depend on Luxenberg alone. The short Sura 97, al-Qadr, describes the miraculous Night of Power or Destiny. According to Muslim tradition, this was the great night on which the Qur'an itself was revealed from Heaven, a cherished event in the Islamic story, and one that is much celebrated today. Here is the whole text:

We have indeed revealed this Message in the Night of Power:
And what will make you understand what the Night of Power is?
The Night of Power is better than a thousand Months.
The angels and spirits descend in hosts that night, by the permission of their Lord, with all decrees [or on every errand?].
Peace!... until the rise of dawn!

In other words, this is the night when God's unique gift descends from heaven. It is a night of Peace, while angels watch. In Islamic tradition, the "spirit" is Gabriel, the angel who proclaimed the future births of both John the Baptist and Jesus. It is a silent night, a holy night.

Need I make the obvious point? Since the 1930s, Western scholars have pointed out how much this sounds like a Christmas reading, perhaps a hymn. Are we reading too much to see here a lightly adapted Christmas hymn, that was perhaps sung in a Syrian or Iraqi church around the year 600?

If it is not actually borrowed, than at least this example suggests how many old friends still await Christians who open the Qur'an for the first time.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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