[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit Antakya, the southern Turkish city whose name derives from the ancient city of Antioch. The latter, as New Testament readers would know, was a chief center of early Christianity. Evangelized by both Peter and Paul, the two main founding fathers of the new faith, Antioch was actually the place where the very word “Christian” was born.
Yet I was not expecting to come face to face with this Christian heritage of the city when I walked into the historic mosque in the very heart of Antakya’s downtown. I was wrong. The first thing I realized was the unusual name of the mosque: “Habib-i Neccar,” which literally meant, “the lover of the carpenter.”
The lovers of the carpenter
Then I had a little chat with the imam of the mosque, and he confirmed my guess. The “carpenter” here was none other than the Jesus of Nazareth, and the “lover” in question was one of the earliest Christians of the city. The latter, like many other early followers of Christ, was executed by the pagan inhabitants of the town for “heresy.” The place of the mosque, the imam explained, was the very location that this “lover of the carpenter” was beheaded.
Then the old man surprised me even more. “Have you not seen our tomb?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “What tomb?”
“Oh, the tomb of John and Paul.”
Then he led me to a little building adjacent to the mosque. Here were two coffins decorated in the classical Islamic shrine style. Both had white turbans on top, and both were covered with dark green velvet with golden inscriptions from the Arabic Koran.
But the name tags on the coffins had Greek, not Arabic, names: “Yuhanna ve Pavlus,” which means, yes, “John and Paul.”
The imam went on to explain that these two apostles of Jesus were, too, martyred in Antioch and were buried right there. “Our mosque is built upon the foundations of the Christian temple that the Romans later destroyed,” he said. “We Muslims, you know, see those early Christians as our brothers in faith.”
I found it a bit hard to believe that the actual bodies of John and Paul were really lying there. Yet I also found it quite fascinating that this is what the Muslims of Antakya believe in, and that some even visit this shrine to honor the memories of the two main authors of the New Testament.
Jesus in the Koran
In fact, this Islamo-Christian connection is not too surprising. You just need to read the Koran to see why.
The Muslim scripture is full of praises to Jesus, who is defined as a prophet, and his mother, Mary. The “Chapter of Mary” speaks in detail about the virgin birth and other miracles of Jesus. In another chapter, Muslims are told to take his disciples as examples to follow. In one verse of the Koran, Jesus is even referred to as “the Word of God,” a term which has a curious resemblance to the introduction of the Fourth Gospel.
To be sure, the Koran rejects that Jesus is God, and denounces the doctrine of the Trinity. This is the deepest theological gap between Islam and mainstream Christianity.
Yet still, the fact remains that Muslims are the only faith community on Earth who, besides the Christians, revere Christ.
This theological connection is leading some Muslims to take fresh perspectives on the birthday of Christ as well. One such figure, the Sufi-minded Niyazi Öktem, a Turkish professor of law, has been arguing that Muslims can well celebrate Christmas in a spirit similar to the “mevlid kandili,” or, the celebration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad.
I agree. As a Muslim, I see no reason to dismiss the celebration of the birthday of another beloved prophet.
So, as a non-Christian but a “lover of the carpenter,” let me extend my Christian friends a heartfelt wish: