[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News]
Every year, toward the end of December, warnings come from some of the conservative Islamic voices in Turkey. They advise their co-religionists to avoid indulging in New Year’s Eve celebrations, which they see as a “Christian tradition.” Some of them, especially the most orthodox, even go as far as saying that Muslims will be betraying their faith if they sympathize with Santa Claus or Christmas trees.
This year, it was “CÃ¼bbeli Ahmet” i.e., literally, Ahmet the robe-wearer, who was the most vocal bias-monger. This ultra-orthodox imam gave a shivering message to his small community of devout followers: had they died while celebrating the new year, they would have gone to the after-life as infidels.
Jesus of Nazareth
Of course, there is a lot ignorance, and confusion, here. First of all, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are separate things. While the former is specifically Christian, the latter is secular and somewhat universal — at least if you do not have an objection to the Gregorian calendar that most of us use. So, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, or anybody else can well skip Christmas and celebrate New Year’s Eve as the beginning of a new round of our lives.
But confusion is abundant and found on all sides. In Turkey, they exist among not only the ultra-orthodox, but also the ultra-secular as well. The latter happily use the imagery of Santa Claus and the Christmas tree by totally abandoning their religious meanings and attaching them rather to the secular, and often quite hedonistic, New Year’s Eve. Thus, in the last days of December, you can see Christmas trees in the houses of upper-class Turks. For them, it is simply the Western way to celebrate the new year. The secularists in the United States, who want to de-Christianize the “holiday” season, might perhaps take a hint from this Turkish way of de-Christianizing the symbols of Christ.
In fact, there is a good reason for secular Turks to dismiss the religious meaning of Christmas: for them, Jesus Christ does not mean much. But is this true for religious Turks, as well?
Well, if they get their religion right, it shouldn’t be. Because, although some of them are not fully aware, Jesus Christ is also a holy figure for Muslims. The “Son of Mary,” as he is sometimes called in the Koran, has a very special place in the Islamic faith. A very long chapter of Muslim Scripture, the “Sura of Mary,” is devoted to the praise of his mother and the virgin birth she gave. In this chapter and also others, the preaching and miracles of Jesus are told in detail. In the sura named “Saff,” Muslims are told to take his apostles as examples to follow. Jesus is even referred to in the Koran 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, or “Son of God,” and denounces the Doctrine of Trinity. What I have found always intriguing is that although this Koranic picture of Jesus contradicts mainstream Christianity, it looks very similar to that of the earliest Christians: the Jewish followers of Jesus who regarded him as the promised messiah, the Son of David, but not God. From a careful reading of the New Testament, we can understand that the leader of these Jewish Christians were James the Just, the brother of Jesus, whereas Paul started another line that would ultimately became gentile, and thus mainstream, Christianity.
While gentile Christianity was making inroads in Rome, to ultimately become its official faith, Jewish Christianity was struggling in the wilderness to perish in a few centuries. Early church history hints that the members of this line latter were called either “Nazarenes” or “Ebionites.” The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that the Nazarenes “exalted Jesus as a just man, and read the Gospel of Peter,” which only survives in fragments today. Wikipedia underlines that the Ebionites “regarded Jesus as a mortal human messianic prophet, but not as divine.” Had this earliest form of Christianity lived today, it would probably have a Christology that is much closer to the Islamic view.
Another Mevlid Kandili?
Whatever happened, happened. And Christianity took a Pauline form, whose logical end was the creation of the Doctrine of Trinity, which is unacceptable both to the Jewish and the Muslim understanding of monotheism.
Yet the fact remains that despite their different opinions on his nature today Christians and Muslims are the only groups on Earth which adore Jesus Christ. The Koran even describes Muslims as “those who have faith in God and His Messengers and do not differentiate between any of them,” (4: 152). So, their affection to Jesus, or any other prophet, should not be less than to Muhammad.
That is why Christmas does not need to be seen by Muslims as an alien idea. The birthday of Prophet Muhammad is widely celebrated in the Muslim world as “Milad an-Nabi.” In Turkey, it is called the “Mevlid Kandili.” Why not welcome the birthday of another prophet, a most revered one in the Koran?
Well, then, I guess all that’s left is for me is to extend to my not just Christian, but also Muslim readers, that joyful wish: Merry Christmas!